The dust grows thicker as you dig deeper into the past, as the dates on the thick blue volumes tread slowly back from the start of the 21st century and into the decades of the century preceding it. Two dank flourescent bulbs shed just enough light on the pages to see the small text on the stiff pages. The volumes vary in height, width and color, but the most notable variation between these texts is their age. The text on 8-year-old volumes shows up just as clearly as on the 80-year-old ones, but the binding on the oldest versions are considerably more frayed and loose.
That’s probably why my editor told me to wash my hands before going inside the archives of our newspaper to look up old Cal Olympians. You’ve got to be careful when handling over a century’s worth of history.
And boy, does it take a long time to sift through all that history.
There’s nothing special about the archives except the content it contains. The archives embedded in Eshleman Hall are a dream for a historian, a nightmare for anyone who’s grown up in the age of Google. More than once, I pulled out my iPhone for some nugget of information, and more often than not, technology triumphed. With volumes of yellowed pages on my lap as I sifted through records of old Cal Olympians, I annotated those old newspapers with my phone, in search of contextualizing the information presented in droves before me.
Delving through this antique era before search engines makes me appreciate librarians a whole lot more.
In fact, I have no idea how librarians resist the temptation to stay inside, open up every book on the shelf, and read everything they find, cover to cover. With so much information at your disposal, how could you dispose of it?
There’s a mystique to seeing the world stacked on metal shelves in front of you in a way it never is when it’s so accessible at your fingertips. It’s the same reason watching a baseball game in person is so much better than reading the box score online. It’s easier to be mesmerized by the mass of information in the archives than the same information, accessible in my pocket.
I learned a lot through my foray into the fine print. Take the Summer Olympics. Calympians roared through the Roaring Twenties, taking eight or ten medals at all three Games that decade. In contrast, the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were relatively quiet; No more than three Cal athletes made the Olympics each year from the 1952 Games in Helsinki to the 1976 Games in Montreal.
But we don’t just live in an increasingly digital world. We also live in an unprecedented era of Calympic success. Since 1992, the number of Cal athletes representing their countries has shot up each Olympiad, culminating in 17 medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No one has a monopoly on Cal’s medals. Only Natalie Coughlin won more than a single medal that year.
I spent hours in that room on Saturday. The sun was high in the sky when I entered the cramped, windowless room. By the time I left, I was surprised to see the sun had long since given way to the dark night sky.
And my research still felt wholly inadequate.
Research is the only mask for my young age, the only cover for the fact I haven’t spent more than a year on the Cal campus. If experience is my enemy, Google is my friend. But there’s a limit to how far you can look back in time. Until you open up the primary sources that were written long ago (or talk to them in person), it’s impossible to grasp the transition of the present into the past.
The athletes we immortalize every day are the ones who go down in history, the ones whose names we read eons later, long after anyone remembers them. The work Cal’s athletes do now is the work that will be remembered forever.
Go make history, Calympians.
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