Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fragility of Youth

Today is UNESCO World Day for Audio Visual Heritage 2010 and its theme is: "Save and Savour your Audiovisual Heritage - Now!" Though Hoover's audio collections pose unique problems, our specialists are rising to that challenge.

For some, audio preservation is a black art, and I am not going to help that. From a certain point of view, I’m more concerned with preserving a tape from 2003 of Kid606 than I am a recording from 1971 of Milton Friedman calling the Mont Pelerin Society. Am I being facetious? No. Am I being provocative? Absolutely. Another blog entry has already acknowledged the shock of the familiar in photographs, and in audio recordings there is the fragility of youth.

We’ve got more than 100,000 unique sound recordings in our stacks. How do we decide which recordings to migrate and preserve? As was mentioned in an earlier blog, there are two dominant factors: the stability of the medium and the importance of the recording. With stability, it’s not always intuitive.

The list from relatively stable (there are no stable audio recordings) to at-risk (yesterday): vinyl discs, cassettes, mini- and microcassettes, polyester open-reel tapes, acetate open-reel tapes, MiniDiscs (MDs), digital audio tapes (DATs), and lacquer discs.

I’m willing to bet a lot of readers may be scratching their heads right now. Many would consider vinyl discs more obsolete than microcassettes, and the word digital in DAT most likely set off a few flags as well. Because audiophiles and hip-hop DJs are keeping alive an interest in the turntable, great turntables are still in production and vinyl discs are remarkably stable. (What’s old is new again, right?) Meanwhile, digital audio tape is incredibly unstable. No company is making new DAT machines, and once those 1’s and 0’s rust particles have fallen off that thin strip of plastic, the recording is caput. MDs are also digital/magnetic devices and are similarly at risk.

Thus on any given day, one might find me digitizing Crusade for Freedom lacquer discs from 1950 and migrating DAT tapes and MDs from this century. Yes, it’s odd.

P.S. For the record, the content of a recording absolutely influences our priorities. That Friedman phone call was digitized years ago. We also make special efforts to digitize things such as Radio Free Europe’s coverage of the Romanian revolution and, on the advice of our curators, a lot of audio on cassettes in collections.

Commonwealth Club of California Records, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What's in a Label?

The label said "General Stilwell's talk to Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Feb. 13 1946," but could it be trusted? I've written about the problems with labels before. This one was attached to a compact sound cassette, which is at least one generation removed from the laquer disc on which a speech given in 1946 would have been recorded. So the person who originally recorded the speech--the most reliable source of information--probably did not write this label.

Any speech given at the Commonwealth Club would be documented in the club's records, which are at the Hoover Archives. (Even Herbert Hoover's nine off-the-record talks at the club show up in various ways in the club's publications and internal files, though the cursory information available lives up to their billing.) Searching this collection for a Stilwell speech yielded only one, by Joe Stilwell Jr. in 1966.

Thinking the speech itself might have clues, I cued a digital copy of the recording on my computer. It begins with applause, and then a man addresses the mayor and friends of San Francisco. He mentions that the war with Japan ended seven months ago, and in closing he refers to the Sixth Army at the Presidio, all of which places the talk in San Francisco in March 1946. This meshes with Stilwell's assignment as commander of the Sixth Army, which was reactivated effective March 1, 1946, at the Presidio of San Francisco (he died there that October). But we still didn’t have a venue.

A speech by a big war hero like Stilwell was sure to get press attention, especially given Stilwell's frank and colorful style. A search for Stilwell in newspaper indexes for 1946 yielded a likely hit, on March 29, 1946. The San Francisco Chronicle's front page barked, "Gen. Stilwell Talks Back: 'Army Caste System Sounds Nasty, but Discipline Is Vital.'" The article reports that Stilwell "covered the caste system, Army brass hats, the atomic bomb, and charges of undemocratic procedures in the Army," which closely parallels the arc of the recorded speech. Stilwell's quotes in the newspaper synched with the phrases I heard, which is about as definitive an identification as we're ever likely to have for this sound recording. And the venue? San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce luncheon on March 28, 1946. So much for labels.

Joseph Stilwell in Burma. Oversize folder m*SSSS,
Joseph Warren Stilwell papers,
Hoover Institution Archives