Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What's in a Label?

In an earlier post I alluded to some issues in describing sound recordings. When you've got one hundred thousand recordings, as the Hoover Archives does, this is a big issue. The obvious answer is to use the label information, but that assumes that each recording is labeled, that the label is accurate and complete, and that we can interpret it. The photos here, taken from audio items in our holdings, show how difficult this can be. What do we do when we cannot read the language (or the handwriting), don't know which number to use, don't have a key to the meaning of the numbers, or have detailed recording notes without a title to give context to the notes?

We're approaching the description challenge from various directions. Sometimes the labels do provide useful information, which we're adding to our collection guides. For instance, Milton Friedman's Economics Cassette series, distributed by subscription and totaling 215 tapes, has labels indicating topics and date; we recently added all the label data to the guide to the Friedman papers.

For the thousands of sound recordings in the Commonwealth Club records, we are working from printed summaries to populate an extensive database of recordings with program titles, speaker names, Library of Congress subject headings, and descriptive summaries. Metadata cataloging interns from a local library school continue to contribute to this massive effort.

In our audio preservation lab, we digitize recordings one by one, which involves playing each at its listening speed ("real time"). When the recordings are in English, the audio engineer writes notes about their content, which is then added to the collection guide, such as we did with the lacquer discs in the Christopher T. Emmett Jr. papers (Emmett was an officer and organizer of anti-Nazi and anticommunist organizations in the United States). We publicized the completion of this project, and many similar digitization and description projects, on the Hoover Library and Archives web page.

We also ask visiting researchers to help. When one had listened to a number of tapes from box 1330 of the records of the American Council on Education, we asked her to make notes about speaker names and program titles, which we then added to the collection guide. (We're always looking for new ways to overcome labeling deficiencies and provide more descriptions of our sound recordings.)

A few labels from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast records and the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service miscellaneous records, Hoover Institution Archives.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Culture Shock

In organizing and describing materials in archives such as ours, with collections from all over the globe, the exotic can sometimes seem routine. One gets used to working with documents in any number of languages and photographs that depict unusual scenes in distant places. Sometimes, however, one experiences what might be called the shock of the familiar: something one recognizes but in a radically different context.

I had such a sensation recently while working on the Wayne Holder papers, which largely deal with Estonia, especially during the period when Estonians were struggling for renewed independence (from the late 1980s until it was achieved
in 1991). Knowing the history of the Baltic states, I found the photographs of the Estonian independence movement in the Holder collection extremely interesting but not startling. I already had a frame of reference with which to interpret them; they resembled other photographs depicting similar events occurring in Latvia and Lithuania at the same time, as all three Baltic countries sought to escape the Soviet Union and to become sovereign nations again.

What did astonish me were the photographs below of young people in Tallinn, Estonia, in the late 1980s. Members of a subculture defining itself through punk music, they looked as though they had stepped off the streets of London or San
Francisco in the late 1970s. But the unusual clothes and hairstyles were a good deal more than a fashion statement; even in the late Soviet period, those who dressed this way in Estonia were taking rather more risks than their Western counterparts. In the 1960s, hippies in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe had been subject to persecution by the state, and one can imagine that punks would have also encountered hostility from the authorities.

The role of Western countercultural trends in undermining the orthodoxy of Soviet society was significant. I have talked to people in Latvia who spoke rapturously of the first time they heard the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and how such music had played a role in the emergence of a youth culture in Eastern Europe seeking to be free of the party line imposed by the communist state. I wondered if the punk movement, admittedly a much smaller phenomenon than the ’60s counterculture, had played a part in the changing attitudes in Estonia in the 1980s.

In the album where I discovered these photographs, the young woman with the cap is identified as Merle (“Merca”) Jääger, about whom there were other materials in the Holder papers. In the 1980s, as a poet associated with the punk scene in Estonia, she had been invited to perform her poetry before Estonian émigré audiences in Toronto and New York. Wayne Holder had published some of her poems in English in a short-lived literary journal (Cake) in San Francisco in 1988. Additional material established a connection between the Estonian punk movement and protests against the Soviet system, themes present in Jääger’s poetry.

Jääger was one of a number of Estonian literary figures that Holder met and corresponded with in Estonia. Many were far more conventional than she was, but all were in some way involved in the cultural and political awakening in Estonia in
the 1980s. My experience with the photographs has given me a greater appreciation for Holder himself and for the extent of his contacts in a place he visited as an outsider during a time of great change.

Wayne Holder papers, Box 8, Hoover Institution Archives.
This work is protected by privacy and copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you object to Hoover's use of this image, please contact archives@hoover.stanford.edu.

Wayne Holder papers, Box 8, Hoover Institution Archives.
This work is protected by privacy and copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you object to Hoover's use of this image, please contact archives@hoover.stanford.edu.

Wayne Holder papers, Box 8, Hoover Institution Archives.
This work is protected by privacy and copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you object to Hoover's use of this image, please contact archives@hoover.stanford.edu.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Does a Pie Thrown in the Face Sound?

Is it a thwack or more of a splat? You can decide for yourself if you come to the Hoover Archives and listen to the sound recording of Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling speaking at the Commonwealth Club on June 21, 2001, or listen to it on the club's website. The sound of a protester throwing a pie at Skilling, and the mild chaos that followed, is audible in the first few minutes of the recording.

I think about why sound recordings--and other audiovisual (AV) materials--are important for historical research; this recording gets at part of the answer. The club's transcript of the event does not mention the pie. Even if it did, does reading about it carry the same impact as hearing it happen? I don't think so. There's a visceral, emotional charge connected to sound and video that adds complex dimensions missing from the written word.

This is why, Martin and Annelise Anderson, the authors of Reagan, in His Own Hand, which focuses on Ronald Reagan's writings, also produced Reagan, in His Own Voice, an audiobook of his radio addresses. Listening to Reagan reveals aspects missed when simply reading his words on the page. Recordings bring personalities alive, adding nuanced layers to political messages and persuasive art.

The Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory in the Psychology Department at San Francisco State University specializes in analyzing the emotional content of videos. One of its projects involves analyzing videos of speeches given by leaders of nation- states or ideologically motivated groups that are at odds with other nations or groups that eventually engage in either acts of aggression or nonviolent resistance. Leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama are on its list.

Many researchers, however, are reluctant to use AV materials, thinking it takes too much time to listen to or watch a recording. They also find it difficult to determine whether a recording will be useful, whereas they can quickly survey textual documents to evaluate their content. Nor were they trained to use AV materials in their graduate programs. When I ask professors about this, they usually acknowledge their own avoidance of AV materials. They do, however, see their successors coming up the ranks; this new cohort, they tell me, is media- savvy and comfortable analyzing AV materials as historical evidence. For them, we've got a good hundred thousand sound recordings and thousands of videos.

Reagan In His Own Voice, available through Amazon.com and in the Hoover Archives.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fun with Damaged Tapes

Damaged materials are fun. Looks weird, right? But it’s true. We in the audio staff naturally focus on the conservation and preservation of naturally decaying and obsolete materials. Every so often, however, we come across a very badly damaged item, at which time it can be fun to concentrate on such a freak and fix it.

A recent anomaly was a damaged microcassette. Its shell sides had begun to come apart where they were originally molded together, and somehow the tape got stuck in this space. Although the content is always important, this particular tape included an interview with a recently deceased personage. For any one to hear him again, I had to take drastic measures.

The tape would not budge from the crack. More important, no microcassette machine had been designed to baby the tape, and it would be irresponsible to play it on a regular machine, even if I were able to wind it back inside the shell. Instead, the plan was to transfer the tape to a cassette shell and digitize the interview using our cassette machine, which has far superior tape-handling and output electronics than the standard microcassette machine.

The first step was to house the tape in a new shell. Breaking apart the original shell revealed severely crinkled and very thin tape. With the tape free, I could wind it off the microcassette hubs (the wheels) and onto a standard cassette hub, as illustrated below by manually coaxing the tape off the original hub and onto the new one. It’s not the most glamorous task, but needed to be done.

Preparing for winding. The beginning of the original tape was attached to a new cassette-size hub and leader on a cassette splicing block. The old microcassette hub is on the left.

End of winding: attaching the new cassette-size tail leader and hub. Note the broken, original shell at left.

Ready for transfer.

This, however, is only the first, though hardest, step. The next part is digitizing and manipulating the audio. Because I just created Frankenstein’s tape monster, things didn’t run exactly as one might expect. First, the microcassette format moved the tape in the opposite direction from that of the cassette format, so the interview played in reverse.

Second, the microcassette format plays at roughly 15/16 inches of tape per second, whereas the normal cassette runs at twice that speed; thus the interview played back twice as fast as it should, making it sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks in reverse. I then employed some digital trickery to return the interview to its proper pitch and direction, making it ready for the researcher.

To conclude, this is a good example of the importance of digitizing our audio materials before researchers can use the recordings. Both microcassettes and normal cassettes are often problematic; this includes the far more common split or broken tape. With open-reel tape, we see even worse problems: sticking, shedding, stretching, squealing, etc. (No, not all problems start with the letter “s.”) Discs are worse yet. It would be a shame to have a problem with the original occur during research and permanently damage a recording. This is why access copies are digital.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tackling the Challenges of Audio Archives

Because archival materials are collected to be used (in this case, heard), we'd like to introduce you to the vast array of sound recordings housed at the Hoover Archives. We've got about 80,000 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recordings of broadcasts to the nations behind the iron curtain and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and several thousand recordings of speeches on public policy issues at the Commonwealth Club of California beginning in 1944. Recordings in many other collections include the prepresidential radio addresses of Ronald Reagan and speeches and lectures by Milton Friedman, and that's only the beginning. Add them all up, and you get a good hundred thousand audio recordings.

A 2004 report by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) discusses the issues involved in making sound recordings available, including having the requisite staff and equipment to access recordings in obsolete formats and
describing the recordings so that people can find them.

Hoover, having contributed that CLIR report, has since been working to overcome the problems. Most notably, we hired a recorded sound archivist and an audio engineer to begin preserving our audio collection. The audio engineer digitizes
decades-old audiotapes to preservation-quality specifications using Studer open-reel tape players and a sophisticated Quadriga digital audio workstation (a quadriga is a chariot drawn by four horses abreast, which is driven by our engineer).

Describing our sound recordings is important because that is how you find out what we have. How can we describe all of our recordings short of actually listening to them, which would take years of our time and require people fluent in dozens of
different languages? Where can we post the descriptions so that people who want recordings can find them? What can we do to encourage people to incorporate audio material in their research? More on these questions later.

Label on a 16-inch transcription disc, Commonwealth Club of California records, Box 1142, Hoover Institution Archives.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jazz at Liberty

Recently I asked a colleague, “How many times have you gone looking for John Kennedy’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate and wound up listening to Phil Woods blowing sax?” I recently posed this odd question to one of my colleagues.

While trying to find Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty coverage of Kennedy’s June 1963 speech for a researcher, I came across a Radio Liberty tape from June 30 and July 1, 1963. All the accompanying notes, however, were in Russian, leaving this English-only speaker ignorant of the contents. Hoping for the best, I put the tape up on our machine and listened. There was no “Ich bin ein Berliner” but, instead, jazz, lively jazz. With a concurrent, but unrelated, program of poetry on the same tape, it appeared that Radio Liberty was down with some avant-garde material in 1963, until I realized that they were two unrelated programs.

It was a pleasant surprise finding that the jazz program was an interview with—and performance by—the famous jazz saxophonist Phil Woods conducted after a trip to the Soviet Union, when jazz was frowned upon by the Soviet government. In the interview, Woods mentioned a session in New York during which he played numbers from Soviet composers (later issued by Radio Liberty as the Jazz at Liberty LP) and gave his thoughts about the state of jazz in that country. What’s particularly cool about this tape is that it contains the first-ever broadcast of three numbers from the session, “Madrigal #1,” “Madrigal New York,” and “Nyet.” Moreover, in the interview, Woods gave a solo performance of one tune’s theme. Combined with the performances of the New York session, this must have been a treat for listeners behind the Iron Curtain.

Definitely a fascinating tape to stumble upon! Here's a clip of the interview:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Broadcast Records, Russian Service Sound Recordings, Box 4, Hoover Institution Archives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hero Land

Working with Hoover's poster collection, I came across a poster with a striking image of a bazaar and "Hero Land" in a huge typeface reminiscent of a movie poster, illustrated by J. Carl Mueller. As I noticed similar posters, I began to wonder, what was Hero Land?

Assuming from the poster that it was a movie, I conducted a Google search. Finding Hero Land in a New York Times index from 1918, I went to the New York Times historical full-text database (most public and academic libraries have this newspaper database available from ProQuest).

I discovered that Hero Land was a World War I Allied war relief benefit bazaar held in New York at the Grand Central Palace from November 24 to December 12, 1917. And what a benefit it was!

As an advertisement in the November 24, 1917, New York Times noted: "Hero Land is a 16-Day Military Pageant, Theatrical Entertainment, Oriental Wonderland and Charity Mart; Devised, Created, Managed, and Financed by One Hundred Approved National War Relief Organization for the Benefit of American and Allied Relief."

Sounding more like a world's fair than a relief benefit, "the object … is to bring home in vivid pictures to the American people some of the actualities of warfare as carried on by the Germans."

The Grand Central Palace itself was transformed. The first floor included a grand ballroom modeled after Versailles and the third floor was given over to a re-creation of the streets of Baghdad. There were reproductions of forts, trench lines, bomb shelters, and battlefields, including a British tank and a German submarine. There was also entertainment: five moving picture theaters, an ice skating rink, restaurants, bands, dancing, and shopping, as well as special events every evening.

More than 250,000 people attended Hero Land, creating a net profit of $571,438 (about $10.3 million today) to be dispersed among one hundred war relief charities, including the Commission for Relief in Belgium, whose records are also at Hoover. Hero Land was surely an amazing sight to behold, as was my discovery of its beautiful publicity posters among Hoover's trove of more than 100,000 posters.

Hoover Institution Archives Poster Collection.
US 4164

Hoover Institution Archives Poster Collection.
US 4177

Hoover Institution Archives Poster Collection.
US 3387

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An Impressive Mission

Who’d think there’d be a connection between Julia Child and Herbert Hoover? Indeed, after seeing the summer hit Julie & Julia (loved it, saw it twice), I plunged into Child’s memoirs, My Life in France, in which she recalled that Hoover had “impressed everyone on a recent swing through Europe.”

The “swing” referred to was the so-called food mission around the world that President Truman had asked Hoover to undertake in 1946 and 1947. The goal was to assess which, among the forty or so countries visited on four continents, suffered most from hunger and which could most contribute to alleviating it. Having saved millions of lives during and after World War I through his humanitarian relief organizations (whose records are housed at the Hoover Archives), Hoover was the perfect choice.

His closest associate on the tour was Hugh Gibson, a U.S. diplomat who had served in many posts during the 1920s and 1930s. His papers are also housed here, including his daily diary of that mission—a fascinating account of conditions on the ground, heads of state they met, geostrategic discussions, and so forth. Despite the tragic subject of war devastation and ensuing hunger, Gibson infuses his comments about the trip with humor and wit, so it is not only very informative but funny as well. We’re in the process of scanning the diary and will post it on our website, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can see Gibson’s diary in the archives reading room, as well, of course, as Herbert Hoover’s own papers on the subject.

Hugh Gibson and Herbert Hoover disembark from the "Faithful Cow" during their international food mission, undertaken at the request of President Truman. Photo courtesy of Michael Gibson.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Unexpected Letter

A recent reference inquiry about the Jacques Benoist-Méchin papers reminded me that the completion of a finding aid for a collection is not the end of the story when it comes to the process of archival arrangement and description. There is an additional element that comes from the input of researchers using the finding aid and scrutinizing the materials in the collection. This often gives us a fuller or corrected picture of both the documents and the person that they pertain to.

In working on the papers of Jacques Benoist-Méchin, a French intellectual and Nazi sympathizer who served in the Vichy administration in France during World War II, my main focus was on his wartime experience, which is what he was primarily known for. And for the most part, the initial researchers using the papers focused on those aspects of his career.

The most recent inquiry, however, was quite different, in that it had nothing to do with Vichy or the Nazis. A Canadian professor, the editor of a large volume of the letters of Aldous Huxley, wrote to ask about the reference to Huxley in the correspondence series of the Benoist-Méchin papers. There was only one letter, written by Huxley to Benoist-Méchin in 1932, but the Huxley expert was intrigued enough to request a copy of it.

The subject of the letter turned out to be author D.H. Lawrence, whose work Benoist-Méchin had translated into French. In his letter, Huxley comments favorably on Benoist-Méchin’s introduction to his translation, but he also points out an error Benoist-Méchin had made concerning Lawrence’s grandfather. Wanting to learn more, the Huxley expert decided to track down Benoist-Méchin’s original piece on Lawrence.

Before his fateful involvement in politics, Benoist-Méchin had made a reputation for himself in France as a literary scholar and translator. This reference inquiry made me more aware of this dimension of Benoist-Méchin’s complicated personality. It also showed that there are facets to collections, and different ways that they may prove useful to researchers, besides the ones that may seem obvious.

A letter written by Aldous Huxley to Jacques Benoist-Méchin, June 25, 1932. Jacques Benoist-Méchin Papers, Box 4, Folder 27, Hoover Institution Archives.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Archival Film, A Reel Dilemma

They say nitrate won't wait, but neither will acetate. Although acetate motion picture film isn't flammable, it will deteriorate and eventually become unplayable. To retard the inevitable chemical reactions that cause decay, you must store that film in cold, dry conditions. But what if you've got 5,000 reels of film, like we do at Hoover, and don't have the luxury of a room-sized refrigerated vault?

The ultimate preservation solution is reformatting all the film, transferring the content to a new medium, such as a digital file or videotape. But even assuming that all our 5,000 reels are in good condition (which they are not), we estimate that reformatting would cost millions. Although that might make a walk-in freezer look affordable, cold storage still isn't realistic.

We're left with a modern Solomon's choice. Which handful of reels do we devote our reformatting budget to when we have so many historically valuable ones? As I ponder this, it becomes clear that appraising a collection's historical value does not end once our curators have chosen to add it to our holdings. We archivists have to make an even tougher judgment, from all the films acquired because of their significance, when we choose the few reels to be reformatted.

There's plenty of archival literature about what things to consider in the selection process, including the film's age, uniqueness, condition, and historical importance. But the actual decisions remain the toughest things archivists have to do. Those "life and death" decisions are perhaps what shape us as professionals.

This is nitrate film decay. Acetate film decay isn't as striking, but it too is a killer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Another World War II Anniversary, Documents and Memories

The year 2009 marks many milestones: ninety years since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, ninety years since the founding of the Hoover War Library (now the Hoover Institution); and seventy years since the outbreak of World War II. On September 1, 1939, as the Nazi Blitzkrieg thundered into Poland, who could have guessed at the earth-shattering devastation that would ensue for the next six years or how the modern world would look seventy years later.

Of the six thousand archival collections in the Hoover Institution Archives, more than 20 percent relate to World War II, including a multitude of important documents from Poland’s London-based government in exile; release certificates of
deportees to the Soviet Union; diaries of frontline soldiers, statesmen, and generals; and even a film from inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.

The parts of history that seem most interesting are most often the personal stories, especially those that we can relate to. In September, 1939, my grandfather, Konrad Siekierski, a lieutenant in the Polish Army, was assigned to defend the Poniatowski Bridge leading into Warsaw. At one point during the Luftwaffe's aerial assault on the city, a Stuka dive bomber dropped one of its bombs near his post. By some miracle it did not explode, but merely crashed through the pavement a few feet away, showering him with cobblestones. This was truly an amazing twist of fate.

While preparing a recent archival exhibit at Hoover, I discovered the photograph below, from the perspective of a German pilot over Warsaw. It made me wonder what it was like for my grandfather to look up into the skies above Warsaw during those dark days in September.

Smoke drifts upward from Warsaw in a photograph taken during the September Campaign by a Luftwaffe pilot, from his photo album. On September 27, 1939, after heavy ground and aerial attacks, Warsaw’s defenders surrendered to the Nazi invaders. Album Box fEC, World War II Pictorial collection, Hoover Institution Archives.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Welcome to Hoover Archivists' Musings

Archivists, curators, and librarians from the Hoover Institution Library and Archives have been searching the highways and byways all over the world for interesting material and ephemera for some ninety years. Throughout this period (in which we witnessed two world wars, the ascendancy and decline of communism, and the emergence of international organizations such as the UN, NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the EU), many stories have been told, documents have been uncovered in the Hoover Archives, and—just maybe—some mysteries solved.

As they go about their work, the archivists sometimes uncover the remarkable and the unexpected—whether it be conflicting eyewitness accounts of the same historic event, marginal comments on memos, notes written in invisible ink that are only seen decades after first written, or jazz recordings found in otherwise unremarkable files.

Hundreds of researchers visit the Hoover Institution every year to conduct hands-on research, and thousands more send reference inquiries via e-mail. The results of the research and the answers to questions are often surprising and fascinating.

In the Hoover Institution Library and Archives blog, Hoover Archivists Musings, archivists and librarians from the Hoover Archives will share what makes their work interesting, provide surprising answers to questions from patrons, and fill the readers in on the mysteries of, curiosities in, and treasures from the Hoover Archives.

We welcome your comments and questions about the Hoover Institution Library and Archives. We also invite you to explore our website (www.hoover.org/hila) and our collections in which history is recorded, either in person or online (www.oac.cdlib.org/institutions/Hoover+Institution).