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).