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Rod Serling dictating a script, 1959. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Rod Serling was a prolific writer for TV, film, and theater and is best known as the host and writer of the sci-fi television series "The Twilight Zone." During the early 2000’s, UCLA Library Special
Collections acquired a collection of Serling’s scripts, business papers, and correspondence(opens in a new tab).

Serling wrote predominantly through dictation and included in the collection are 308 of his personal dictabelts. Dictabelts are cylinders of cellulose acetate plastic about 12 inches in diameter that were used in conjunction with a Dictaphone as a voice recording mechanism.

This medium was used predominantly for business dictation between the late 1940’s and 1960’s. Because dictaphones and dictabelts became obsolete by the 1970’s, the Serling dictabelts have not been listened to for over 40 years. Luckily, through a collaboration between the UCLA Library Preservation Department and Nick Bergh of Endpoint Audio Labs in 2019, the dictabelt collection was digitally transferred using advanced preservation equipment.

"Effortless Dictation - National Geographic (Sep, 1958).” Modern Mechanix Blog, Accessed April 20, 2020.

My work with the collection began as a fieldwork project through UCLA’s MLIS program in January 2020. The purpose of my project was to listen to and conduct quality control for all digitized recordings and collect preliminary data regarding content. This data will be used to support the description of the materials in the collection’s finding aid and to inform potential programming focused on Serling and his work. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Library Preservation Department, in collaboration with the Film and Television Archive (FTVA), had been in early discussions about creating programming to convey the value of the collection materials, as well as, the value of the preservation work integral to providing access to them. Furthermore, the presentation would act as cross-promotion for both FTVA, Library Preservation, and Library Special Collections.

Over the course of ten weeks, I listened to all 308 of the dictabelt recordings and developed a controlled vocabulary to make analysis easier. The controlled vocabulary identifies types of content, subjects of the recordings, and specific productions Serling worked on (including whether or not they were produced) to make it easy to quickly identify when and what Serling was working on. The data I collected also helps explore the potential sequential order of the recordings. Prior to digitization, the dictabelts were stored in archival document boxes with no structural support. Many belts were nested inside each other suggesting a sequence, but due to lack of labeling, listening to the recordings and using contextual clues was the only sure way to put them in order.

Some of the dictabelts as originally housed in the collection. This is a good example of how some of the belts were nested inside each other.

The content of the recordings consists of correspondence, screenplays and theater scripts. I discovered a total of eight productions for television, film, and theater written in their entirety, several of which were never produced. Remarkably, all eight were written in 1968; Serling worked fast! While I appreciated getting a deeper look into Serling’s script and screenplay writing process, I most enjoyed listening to his correspondences. Serling had an excellent sense of humor, and was witty to a fault. I love the way he talked to people. Even in mundane, or operational correspondences, his talent for words shined. He was fond of ending his letters to friends with “...I hope we can break bread or at least the stem of a good cocktail glass." Additionally, many of the recordings feature personal notes to his long-time assistant, Marge Langsford. You can tell by his tone and the nicknames he uses, that Serling felt a deep comradery with Marge. On several occasions he directly expressed his tender feelings of friendship and affection for her, though he admits he could never do so in person!

Grease pencil markings on some belts informed metadata creation.

The Rod Serling dictabelt collection provides an excellent example of how preservation, description, and access are inextricably linked. Being able to access the content of the dictabelts might help researchers deepen their understanding of Serling’s work and offer opportunities for more dynamic research. Finally, this project serves as a reminder for how collaboration between colleagues and institutions is imperative to providing sustained access to obsolete materials for years to come.

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