Friday, November 18, 2011

Is This Bit Rot?

The term "bit rot" gets batted around a lot, but its definition isn't so easy to nail down. ComputerUser's dictionary describes it as "gradual decay of storage media" while the Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing states that it is "a hypothetical disease the existence of which has been deduced from the observation that unused programs or features will often stop working after sufficient time has passed, even if 'nothing has changed.'" Some online technical dictionaries do not include the term. Meanwhile, Wikipedia's bit rot entry is surprisingly short and contains multiple definitions: decay of storage media, decay of data on storage media, and degradation of software programs. (The entry is flagged as needing citations to reliable sources.)

So maybe I'm not alone in wondering what bit rot looks like in a word-processing file. Some of our archival collections, such as the Marshall Green papers and Notgemeinschaft für eine freie Universität records, contain 5.25-inch floppy disks, which often present problems. Today I'm looking at a disk containing files that open on a PC. They suffer from some malady, as indicated by this sample from a letter dated January 21, 1986:


Thankó verù mucè foò á lovelù luncheoî anä somå splendiä views® Wå 
imaginå yoõ no÷ iî Indiá anä wondeò iæ yoõ arå listeninç tï somå oæ thå 
samå Indianó witè whoí wå talkeä yearó ago® Thå artistó anä economistó 
werå quitå remarkable¬ buô thå politicaì scientistó useä tï talë abouô 
atomiã bombó foò Indiá witè eager¬ burninç eyeó whilå beinç verù carefuì 
noô tï kilì anù insects® (Severaì haä theiò beardó covereä iî whitå 
silk so that no insect would get caught and be stifled there.)


The file name, Enid, has no file extension, so it is difficult to determine what software was used to create it. The sample above is from the rendering in MS Word with Windows character encoding, but no matter what software I open the file in, I get some gibberish. But it isn't all gibberish--the last line is completely legible. Sometimes a letter displays correctly, like the "n" in "insect," but not in other cases, like the "n" that should end "luncheoî" in the first line. Is this bit rot?

Regardless of the diagnosis, the next question is what to do. Because we can infer what many of the corrupted characters should be, we can match them to their actual counterpart, as in this sample:

Corrupted version True character
ë k
ì l
í m
î n
ï o
ð p

Then we could use the find-and-replace feature to fix all the corrupted characters. But it is more difficult to infer the correct characters for corrupted numbers. In addition, I assume that matching corrupted to true characters also varies from one file to the next--after all, this decay probably doesn't occur in the same, predictable manner and at a steady rate. Furthermore, we've got to deal with thousands of corrupted files on hundreds of disks. Lastly, if we did restore all the files, how can we ensure that the researchers studying them understand our restoration process and its implications for the authenticity and reliability of the content?

If you have answers to any of the above problems, I think Wikipedia needs you to enhance its bit rot entry.

An example of bit rot. Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Note On Hoover History

Recently, the Hoover Tower’s exterior was cleaned and thus brought closer to how it looked when it opened in 1941. The interior? Not even close. After all, we don’t have a radio room any more.

Radio room? Yes, the Hoover Tower was built with a radio room in the blueprints. Funnily enough, none of us was aware of this until a few years ago; when we were preparing an exhibit on the Institution’s 90th anniversary, I found a recording that mentioned it was produced in “the radio room of the Hoover Tower.”

Why did we have a radio room? Good question. From the records we’ve been able to search, the room was there, at least in part, because of World War II. It seems the room’s purpose was to listen to and record foreign broadcasts, in concert with the military. Over the years, its purpose began to change, with radio programs being produced in the room, including Wealth of the West, a McLaughlin-Group-like program of the day’s issues. This change prompted Stanford to build a production studio across the street in Memorial Hall. (Fun Archives fact: in the Wealth of the West recording on which the radio room was name-checked, one of the guests mentioned an event at the Commonwealth Club of California.)

Do we still have any of these recordings? Another good question. No, but we have something close.

When the room was spec’d out, the records indicate that the broadcasts were intended to be recorded onto cylinders. This doesn’t quite jive, though, because, by the late 1930s, cylinders were an obsolete format. The tower opened in 1941, and it seems odd they would use a format that can record only five minutes at a time when technology of that era (discs) got up to twenty minutes at a time. In any case, there are no cylinders in our stacks that I’m aware of.

We do, however, have a lot of lacquer discs cut in 1942 of English-language, American-audience-intended shortwave broadcasts from Tokyo, Chungking, Bangkok, and Australia. These discs were cut in San Francisco and accessioned by Hoover in 1958. As it happens, I’m currently working on preserving these discs.

So what happened to the radio room? Yet another good question. I don’t know except that the area in which the room used to be is now the wheelchair entrance to the Tower.

And so the mystery remains.

Original floor plan of the Hoover Tower, including the Radio Room. Hoover Records, Hoover Institution Archives.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Note on Broadcasting History

Recently, we featured some Crusade for Freedom programs on our YouTube channel. What you don’t know is this effort fits in nicely with my last blog post. You see, the disc both programs came from is a type that would only be transferred due to a research request. When you’re emailed a WorldCat record from a former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) security director about a Crusade for Freedom program, however, things change.

So why did it take an inquiry by an external party for us to digitize and republish those programs?

Those programs were on a sixteen-inch-diameter vinyl disc. First, vinyl discs of any size are relatively stable because they’re generally a single piece of plastic and, due to a niche market that prefers listening to records instead of CDs and mp3s, turntable equipment is easily obtained. (Myself, I prefer SACDs, but that’s an even smaller niche.) Second, although labels tell us a lot, they don’t tell us everything; thus, this disc had to wait while we worked on less stable recordings. We have some hundred similar sixteen-inch vinyl discs, including speeches by Robert Taft in the America First Committee records and collections sporting great names.

If you’re wondering how these sixteen-inch-diameter discs relate to the LPs audiophiles are likely familiar, they’re directly related.

In the days before magnetic tape (1930s to early 1950s), radio syndication was done using these discs. The producer would cut a lacquer disc of the program, and moldings made from that disc would allow the pressing of vinyl copies. These discs also play at 33.3 revolutions per minute (RPM), which, combined with the sixteen-inch diameter, synchronizes with reels of film.

In 1948, when Columbia developed the LP record, it reused the vinyl material and the 33.3 RPM features. With advances in disc cutting over the decades, it was able to decrease the diameter of the disc down to twelve inches owing to a smaller groove width.

So, no, the 33.3 RPM doesn’t come from 78 = 45+33. The audio world is full of myths. Some are harmless. Some are funny. That’s one of both.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patriotic Posters on the Silver Screen

Like all the other comic book geeks who could not get tickets to Comic-Con in San Diego, I took consolation in being able to see Captain America: The First Avenger (Dir., Joe Johnston, 2011) in theaters its opening weekend. Although I am sure historians will have some understandable frustrations with certain aspects of the period piece, I hope, like me, they will be thrilled by the reproductions of US World War II-era propaganda posters scattered throughout the film and its closing credits. I may be biased though, as part of my duties at the Hoover Institution Archives includes regular perusal of our Poster Collection.

After seeing Captain America, I realized that the red, white, and blue supersoldier and the propaganda posters contemporary to his creation were collaborating media of the WWII-era. Like the posters, Captain America originally appeared in a paper-based medium, comic books, to encourage support of the war effort. The image on the cover of his first comic book appearance, featuring Cap punching Adolph Hitler in the jaw, could have been used for a propaganda poster. The filmmakers, conscious of these cultural ties and his origins, incorporated Captain America as a poster boy of patriotism into the film’s narrative. Thus featuring the posters throughout the movie and credits not only conveys the era the film is set in but reinforces for the audience the nature of the character and what he stands for.

I have only seen the film once (so far) but recognized a number of posters that we have in our collection (see the accompanying slide show). In fact, Rok!t Studios, the company behind the closing credit sequence, ordered scans of a number of our posters earlier this summer, so we're confident that some of those in the film came from our collection of over 100,000 posters. For information on any of the posters in the slide show, search using their poster ID in our database. For more information on Captain America, consult your local comic shop.

US 1692, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Operation "Overboard"

Diplomats were not the only ones to fall victim to the pen of an anonymous parodist in the mid-1940s. Military officials were casualties too. A mimeograph identified as draft 5432 and 1/2, found among the William Henry Baumer papers, telegraphs its jest with the national-security classification US Stupid/British Most Stupid.

The document, dated May 32, 1944, lays out the plan for Operation "Overboard." It establishes, in military precision, a series of logical impossibilities designed to prevent any action whatsoever. For starters, it states that "in the interests of security this operation should not be divulged to any person inside Norfolk House and should not be taken outside Norfolk House." Norfolk House, of course, is where the Allied military brass had their offices.

"Overboard" had many objectives, among them to "re-establish the N.A.A.F.I. firmly on the continent of Europe." N.A.A.F.I., the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, operated recreational facilities for the British Armed Forces. Another major object was "to assist the Russians and prevent the situation deteriorating so much that the Russians find themselves in Berlin unprotected by the Allies."

Paralysis cycles recursively through the plan. For example, the cardinal principle for the assault was "that any length of beach is too short to take the number of vehicles belonging to the number of divisions that will be necessary to assault such a length of beach," thus concluding, "Unless immediate steps are taken to construct sufficient beaches in this country which can be towed across the channel already assaulted no assault can take place."

The army, navy and air forces all take hits in the plan, which ultimately determines that the only suitable areas for assault are the Zuyder Zee, Lake Constance, or Holy Island. They meet the criteria of not including a port "to avoid any trouble over port capacities" and not having a hinterland to prevent "any trouble over subsequent deployment."

Annexure 6 to Appendix HHH of the document lists the planning data used, including a list of planners that could almost be sung to the tune "The Twelve Days of Christmas": "1 planner working, 2 planners chatting, 3 planners (2 Naval) arguing,” et cetera. It ends on a note that sounds amazingly modern, but undercuts the fundamental notion of war: "All data is subject to Naval, Military and Air Force advice and no references are made or harm meant to any living thing."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hoover Wikipedians

The archival community has been slow to embrace Wikipedia, whereas the Hoover Archives staff have been adding information about Hoover's archival collections to Wikipedia for more than two years. Usually a simple entry is made in the "External links" section, which refers readers to the Hoover Archives, such as the following example in Wikipedia's Firing Line entry: "The Firing Line collection (with a program list and RealVideo clips) from the Hoover Institution Archives." We've added a lot of these links, from the entry about Boris Pasternak to one about Chiang Kai-shek so as to connect Wikipedia users to our collections.

Adding such links makes sense. Wikipedia entries rise to the top of the results of most search engine queries, with Wikipedia referring a chunk of traffic to the Hoover website. In addition, college students are frequent users of Wikipedia, according to an article in First Monday, which says that a majority of students always or frequently consult it for course-related research, usually for background information about a topic and to get started with research. The article was based on a study of how college students seek information. To reach out to students, then, there's no better place for the Hoover Archive's presence than this go-to source for those commencing their research.

Excerpt from Wikipedia's Firing Line entry (

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Rhymes with Hungry?

Too often, the experiences and accomplishments of women in wartime remain hidden between the lines of diaries and letters or behind the shining medals of decorated generals. I was fortunate to learn the story of one such amazing woman when I processed the Marie Adams papers.

Marie Adams arrived in Manila in 1941 as a field director for the American Red Cross. Soon afterward, the war reached the shores of the Philippines, meaning that Adams and thousands of civilians became prisoners of war of the Japanese at Santo Tomás Internment Camp.

According to the letters she received from friends and family, Adams was loved by many and dedicated to her work with the Red Cross. As an internee, she suffered from both hunger and disease; however, she bravely put her pain aside to tend to the physical and psychological wounds of her fellow internees.

With limited access to food or communication with the outside world, Adams used poetry to document her experiences at the internment camp and relieve her suffering. Her poems capture her resiliency and sense of humor, even in the face of starvation. In January 1945, Marie Adams wrote one of her final poems at Santo Tomás, not knowing she was only days away from liberation. Below is an excerpt from this poem, titled "Life Without Lipstick."

I've gone without lipstick,
I'm always un-rouged,
I've lacked every comfort
To which I've been used.

I've gone without beefsteak,
Without even beans,
There's no coffee, no sugar,
I know what it means

To go to bed hungry
To awake just the same,
With the old sense of humor,
In this internment game.

The poem ends with the following verse:

But when it's all over
And we're out once again
I hope I can smile and say--
"Remember back--when!"

Marie Adams's book of poems, Life Without Lipstick, is available at the Hoover Institution Library; her personal papers are in the Hoover Institution Archives.

Marie Adams in 1941, Life Without Lipstick, Hoover Institution Library

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Herbert Hoover, the graduate: have Stanford degree, will travel

As Stanford University sends off another graduating class into the world, students are faced with a bewildering array of questions: Should they continue on to graduate studies or immediately look for a job? Can a new graduate even find a job in this difficult economy? And what does the future hold in store for someone with a newly minted degree as he or she leaves “The Farm”?

It can be comforting to know that previous generations of students faced those very same questions, including one of the university’s most famous alumni, Herbert Hoover, who graduated in the pioneer class at Stanford in 1895. We can gain an intriguing look at the young Stanford graduate as he sought work as a mining engineer in the late 1890s, just a couple of years removed from his studies under the tutelage of geology professor John C. Branner, in the Hoover Archives’ R.A.F. Penrose correspondence, which contains a number of early Hoover letters from such locales as Berkeley (yes, Hoover lived as a young Stanford graduate within a stone’s throw of that other university), Western Australia, and China.

R.A.F. Penrose (1863-1931) was a professor of geology and a mining engineer who, among other accomplishments, surveyed the Cripple Creek gold claims in Colorado in the 1890s and later cofounded the Utah Copper Company, which developed one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the United States, at Bingham Canyon, near Salt Lake City. He also mentored younger geologists, many of whom went on to attain prominence in the field, such as Herbert Hoover, whom he presumably met when Hoover was an undergraduate at Stanford.

In Hoover’s first letter to Penrose, written from Berkeley on February 7, 1897, he sought Penrose’s help in obtaining a position as a surveyor of mines, discussing various options in the district of Randsburg, in the Mojave Desert of California, or in Prescott, Arizona. Hoover suggested he team up with a colleague named Means in that the two of them could do excellent work, surveying a mine in half the time that an individual geologist could and noting that “we both have very fine instruments” and that “we have both had considerable experience in all kinds of mine surveying,” adding that he (Hoover) also “had three of four jobs involving legal issues of importance and can therefore attend to matters of title, etc.” In reading this letter, we can imagine Hoover in the position of many recent college graduates, sending out letters of application and networking with mentors in his search for a suitable position.

On March 17, Hoover wrote to Penrose regarding a promising position with a British mining firm, Bewick, Moreing and Company, whom he had been put in contact with by Louis Janin, a well-known mining engineer based in San Francisco whose reputation had been established through his work on the Comstock Lode in the 1860s. Hoover thanked Penrose for his letter of recommendation to Bewick, Moreing and explained that the firm had “asked Mr. Janin to nominate them a man and to my surprise he nominated me.” Hoover needed additional references, however, and noted that he could benefit from “some eastern influence” (Penrose was based in Philadelphia) because his sole recommendation until then had been from Janin. He was especially eager to win this job because it paid well ($6,000 a year, with fees and bonuses, potentially $10,000) and was with “a strong company in a confidential position in a new country.” As if Penrose hadn’t already understood Hoover’s strong desire to land the job, he added, “I am therefore anxious to secure it.”

By April 12, Hoover had found success: he had been offered the position with Bewick, Moreing, noting in a brief letter written that day that he was being sent to Coolgardie, in Western Australia, with a salary of $5,000 (roughly equivalent to $100,000 in today’s dollars). Hoover wrote to Penrose, “I desire to express my great obligations to you for the various kindnesses you have so freely extended and I hope I shall be able to vindicate your good opinions.” The rest, as they say, is history. Hoover’s position as a mining engineer in Western Australia led him to survey and discover several very profitable mines, such as the Sons of Gwalia, which in a few years earned Bewick, Moreing tens of millions of dollars and placed Hoover on the fast track to a successful career as the “doctor of sick mines,” and subsequently, as a well-known humanitarian, as the secretary of commerce, and, eventually, as the president of the United States.

As these letters demonstrate—even in reading between the lines—Hoover’s path began in a manner similar to that of many college graduates: humble requests to respected mentors, dogged determination, countless application letters, and a few lucky breaks. In some respects, the experiences of this Stanford graduate of 1895 may not be so different from those of today’s graduates.

Herbert Hoover poses for his portrait at a studio in Perth, Western Australia, after beginning his position with Bewick, Moreing, 1898, Herbert Hoover Subject Collection, photo file E, Hoover Institution Archives

Herbert Hoover (seated, lower left) with other Stanford geology students and their surveying equipment, 1893, Herbert Hoover Subject Collection, photo file D, Hoover Institution Archives

First two pages of a letter, dated March 17, 1897, from Hoover thanking Penrose for his letter of recommendation and giving him directions for sending it to Bewick, Moreing, R.A.F. Penrose miscellaneous correspondence, Box 1, folder 3, Hoover Institution Archives

The remaining pages of Hoover’s letter to Penrose of March 17, 1897, R.A.F. Penrose miscellaneous correspondence, Box 1, folder 3, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

From reference request to preservation project

Previous blog posts have covered our preservation queue for sound recordings: the delicate balance between the physical stability of the medium and importance of the content that dictates our usual operations. Meanwhile, patron requests, which always receive prompt attention, often interrupt this, sometimes happily. Let me explain.

A visual appraisal usually tells us what we need to know about a sound recording’s physical stability. However, one hidden benefit of patron requests is those cases where this usually doesn’t apply. In those cases, we monitor the tape during digitization and thus spot things originally not apparent that affect the sound quality: bad splices, slitting issues, odd track configurations, and so on. Because some collections were created at the same time with the same tape stocks, the issues on one or two tapes can tell us a lot about the rest of the collection.

What this means is that what we thought was a stable collection isn’t. We then reassess the collection and modify its place in the queue, with it possibly becoming a preservation project. Of course, I’m writing this inspired by recent examples. One is the sound recordings in the Mont Pelerin Society records, which had bad splices of acetate tape. A second was an inquiry from my alma matter leading me to poorly wound acetate tape recordings of Gamal Abdel Nasser. As you may recall, acetate tape is one of the more unstable formats, and acetate tapes with abnormal problems are worse. Thus the Mont Pelerin tapes became a project; the Nasser tapes, though moved forward in our queue, are still awaiting preservation.

On the lighter side, there’s another benefit: the content is sometimes humorous and timely. Within a week of the opening of the movie Atlas Shrugged, Part One, I hear Lawrence Fertig describe Ayn Rand’s book (Atlas Shrugged) as “one of the recent books that has caused a sensation.” He was extolling the virtues of the novel at the Mont Pelerin Society’s 1960 meeting, joking that Ayn Rand had called Ludwig von Mises “a left-wing deviationist.”

An offending splice point, Box 61, Mont Pelerin Society records, Hoover Institution Archives

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Herbert Hoover and the Great Mississippi Flood

The Mississippi River is expected to crest at 57.5 feet at Vicksburg today, a foot above the record 1927 “Great Mississippi Flood.” In April that year the river broke through the levees, submerging vast expanses of farmland and destroying the homes of more than one million people.

Known for his monumental humanitarian relief work in Europe during and after World War I, then secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover (who's commerce department records are in the Hoover Archives) was called on to organize relief for the victims of the epic disaster. Hoover swung into action, assembling hundreds of ships to carry supplies, overseeing the creation of tent cities for refugees, and making radio and press appeals that helped raise millions of dollars for the Red Cross. “I suppose I could have called in the whole of the army, but what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself,” Hoover said later. “No other Main Street in the world could have done what the American Main Street did in the Mississippi flood, and Europe may jeer as it likes at our mass production and our mass organization and our mass education. The safety of the United States is its multitudinous mass leadership.” Hoover did everything he could to provide the means for relief, but he knew then, as we know now, America’s greatest resource is its citizens and their boundless generosity, resilience, and hope.

Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover broadcasts a plea to the nation to donate funds for disaster relief for the victims of the Mississippi flood, April, 1927. Herbert Hoover Subject Collection, Photo File, Envelope V.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Resolved: That Firing Line Fans Want to Know Why All Episodes Aren't Available

Without a doubt one of our most popular collections at the Hoover Institution Archives is the Firing Line Broadcast Collection; as a result we get a lot of comments about it through the website. Going through these comments has made the assistant archivist for visual collections and I (the administrative associate for AV services) realize that, aside from the collection having a vocal and enthusiastic fan base, most users have the same questions. We at Hoover have therefore resolved to explain the logic and methodology behind our seemingly cryptic treatment of Firing Line programs.

Let us begin with the core question that most fans ask in some way, shape, or form:

Why aren’t all the episodes available?

There’s a long answer and a short answer to this question. Because the short answer—“because not all of them have been preserved yet”—only leads to more questions, here’s the long answer:

As we explain on the Firing Line website, there are 1,505 episodes in the series. The general policy of the Hoover Institution Archives is to allow researchers only to access copies of audiovisual material so as to limit excessive handling of the originals. This policy especially applies to Firing Line where the archival master videotapes are in obsolete broadcast quality formats. Those tapes must be shipped to a laboratory specializing in archival media that reformats them to access and preservation copies on modern videotape stocks so that not just the general public but we archivists can actually view them.
The preservation treatment and reformatting costs are not inconsequential. Depending on the videotape format, its condition, and the duration of the program, creating the necessary preservation and access copies currently costs between $325 and $800 per episode. To do all 1,505 programs at once would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars!
Since funding is limited and we have numerous collections requiring preservation and digitization, we send the programs to the laboratory in batches of twenty to thirty at a time. Due to the physical toll shipping and lab work inflicts on videotapes, we only send unpreserved archival master videotapes to the laboratory if preservation work will be done on that trip. To date, approximately a third of the programs have been preserved.
The pace of preservation may not wholly satisfy every one; keep in mind, however, that “slow and steady wins the race” and the race to preserve all Firing Line programs in our collection is one we intend to finish.

William F. Buckley, Jr. meeting audience members Mrs. Fred Harris and her mother at the WETA studio, Washington, D.C., Sept. 14, 1971. Box 8, Firing Line Broadcast Collection, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Film or Video?

Motion picture film enthusiasts can revel in more than a century of people and places, the artistry of Bergman or Hitchcock, the shimmering beauty of nitrate prints, all preserved on film, which boasted a golden age before videotape was born. Hollywood's film industry was an actor's dream and a tourist's destination before tape existed. Early TV shows were preserved not on tape but on film taken by pointing a motion picture camera at a television screen. Movies offered a brief escape from the Great Depression; television is now derided as the opiate of the masses. But if you associate video with television, videotape may win the numbers game with film because American homes hold so many TV sets. Yet it seems that film has the edge.

But I'm thinking labels (again). The archives relies on labels to identify the content of audiovisual materials. A vague or incorrect label--or even worse, no label at all--lowers the preservation priority of the item to which it is affixed. When we've got thousands of sound and moving-image materials identified with good labels, the poorly identified ones inevitably fall to the bottom of the work plan--unless we can play them back.

Playback can be problematic. We can only play an item if we've got the right equipment, which is often lacking. In addition, in our efforts to preserve the material, we play archival sound recordings and moving images only once, during the reformatting process.

That leaves the simplest operation: carefully unwinding the reel and eyeballing the content. Videotape is magnetic, existing as particles on a tape base. It looks black, undeveloped, opaque. You can't discern anything when it has been unwound. Film is optical, a sequence of photographs. Look at it with a light box, and you can see the images, overcoming the obstacle of a missing or damaged label. Score one for film!

Frames from film of German Day ceremonies held in Hindenburg Park, Los Angeles, 1936, Warren Olney motion picture film, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The King’s Speech Found in an Attic

By now many will have seen The King’s Speech, the excellent movie about the relationship between Britain’s King George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. And many will have watched the Academy Awards in February, when the movie won four Oscars, including for best picture. (By the way, weren’t the dresses fabulous? Except maybe…but I digress.)

For an archivist, however, most interesting of all was the February 20 episode of 60 Minutes, which had a segment on the movie’s production. CBS’s Scott Pelley interviewed David Seidler, the scriptwriter, who had received permission from the Queen Mother as early as 1977 to publicize the story. But he could only do so after her death, which came in 2002; Seidler proceeded with the project in earnest as soon as he heard the news.

To flesh out Logue’s character, researchers for the film needed photos. Fortunately, they were able to locate his grandson Mark, who not only had photos of his grandfather but also his diaries, and not just diaries! When rummaging through the family’s archive in the proverbial attic, Mark Logue and the movie team discovered documents that not even the family knew it had: more than hundred letters between Logue and the king, revealing how much their professional relationship had evolved into friendship; appointment cards showing hour-long sessions daily, including weekends; and…THE speech! Yes, the original version drafted by the king’s entourage and typed on Buckingham Palace stationery but annotated by Logue, with some words crossed out and replaced with ones easier for the king to pronounce and with vertical marks indicating the optimal moments for him to take a breath.

Of course, the movie producers did have at their disposal—and did use—the official audio recording of the king’s famous speech of September 3, 1939, in which he announces that Britain has declared war on Germany following Germany’s invasion of Poland, but it’s hard to imagine this crucial scene in the movie without this annotated version of the speech, with Logue guiding the king through it word by word, as the camera zooms in on those vertical lines.

Moral of the story: when doing research in our library and archives, don’t look for just one thing and don’t stop looking even if you find that one thing.

Postcard depicting the royal family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day, May 12, 1937, including Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth (sorry, Queen Elizabeth and King George VI). Mrs. Leland E. Cofer papers, envelope D, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Money Ball

Over the years, the Commonwealth Club of California has featured such noted speakers as Milton Friedman, Cesar Chavez, William Shockley, Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker, and Billy Beane. Because the club is interested in all aspects of life, its collection here at Hoover includes materials related to some things one might not expect, such as professional sports in the Bay Area, especially baseball. With the new baseball season just underway, I thought it might be interesting to highlight this.

Going back to at least 1954, the club’s sports events have not been superfluous entertainment but generally concern things of economic (and social) importance. For example, Mayor Frank Jordan dedicated half of his talk to what his administration was doing to keep the Giants in San Francisco. Other events of the era concerned the same topic. Revenues and salaries come up as well, as does drug use by athletes. Baseball’s movers and shakers have visited the club pretty regularly and they’re still at it.

The Commission for Relief in Belgium (C.R.B.) Delegates baseball team, playing its only game on Independence Day, 1916 in Brussels, Belgium. Philip S. Platt is at bat. Philip S. Platt collection, photo file, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hoover Archives Fond 89: Witness to a Lost Great Opportunity of the Twentieth Century

As unrest threatens to fell dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, it is appropriate to consider history’s lessons. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire offers a look at how some thirty countries, many newly created, have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. A close look reveals that viable democracies are more likely to emerge when the old guard is blocked from emerging in the guise of a new “democratic” elite. Nations that have nostrified (a Latin word originally meaning “religious purification”) government, party, and secret police officials have become democracies, including the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and, to a lesser extent, Poland. Former communist countries that have not confronted their past–the Russian Republic, Central Asian countries, Belarus, and the Caucasus (an exception being Georgia)–continue under authoritarian rule. Studies show a remarkable rate of “elite survival” in these countries, with the new elite being the old Soviet nomenklatura. Russia is ruled by former KGB agents; former republic party bosses reign in Central Asia and in Belarus.

History teaches that nations adapt better to democracy if they come to grips with their brutal past via a Nuremberg trial, a South African Truth Commission, or a public trial of aging Khmer Rouge leaders.

The Hoover Archives Fond 89: Communist Party on Trial is a stark witness to Russia’s missed opportunity to confront its Stalinist and post-Stalinist legacy. Hoover’s Fond 89 microfilms contain documents submitted to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation for the intended trial of the Soviet Communist Party. The documents were gathered by archivists from the formerly secret archives following President Yeltsin’s decision in November 1992 to outlaw the party. Government prosecutors received more the than ten thousand pages of documents covering Stalin’s purges, the Gulag, the financing of communist parties abroad, and the repression of dissidents by interior security forces, all of which are in Fond 89.

On July 8, 1992, the Russian Constitutional Court began its hearing on the Communist Party’s challenge to Yeltsin’s ban and his charge that the party was a criminal organization. The court ruled that a reformed Communist Party could compete on an equal basis with other parties and declined to examine the massive evidence in Fond 89. With this disappointing and perfunctory ruling, the opportunity for a “Russian Nuremberg” was lost forever, leaving the issue for historians to sort out.

Although we do not know what the outcome of a full-fledged trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have been, the public airing of the party’s criminal activity surely would have weakened nostalgia for the old Soviet Union as Russian economic performance deteriorated. Public revelations on Stalin’s murder and imprisonment of more than a million ordinary citizens should have quashed subsequent revivals of the Stalin cult. Such a trial, most likely, would have made Vladimir Putin’s rise, with his open admiration for the Soviet empire and the KGB, unlikely if not impossible. If so, the failure to use Fond 89 changed world history.

Triumphant Romanians celebrate atop a tank in Bucharest after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, December 23, 1989, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good Eyes

Amazing how sharp a pair of youthful eyes can be!

Recently, when going through the photographs in the Nicolas de Basily papers at Hoover for a project, I came across a small photo depicting a nondescript three-story brick building.

I did a double take because I had just read an article by de Basily’s widow, Lascelle Meserve de Basily, on the 1920 Allied Powers conference in Spa. The Russian White government in Southern Russia of General Vrangel’ (whose collection we also have at Hoover) had sent a delegation to Spa in hopes of securing official recognition from France and Great Britain. De Basily, a Russian diplomat who had drafted the abdication statement of Tsar Nicolas II (all five drafts of which are in his collection), was part of that delegation, which was headed by Petr Struve, foreign affairs minister of the Vrangel’ government, yet another major figure of that period in Russian history whose papers are housed at Hoover. As we know, no recognition came forth and the Bolsheviks ultimately prevailed throughout Russia.

So where do the eyes come in? In her article, Mrs. de Basily (who accompanied her husband on the mission) explains that, due to their late arrival in Spa, there were no hotel rooms to be had, so they were forced to find lodgings on the outskirts—in “a tiny apartment on the first floor of a modest house… . On the ground floor was a humble grocery shop.”

Could the brick building I was staring at be that modest house? Why else would such an innocuous-looking photo be in the collection? Plus, there were indeed some stores on the ground floor, though I couldn’t decipher the signs above them. I grabbed a magnifying glass but still couldn’t read the tiny letters. So I asked one of our young staff members, handing her the magnifying glass, if she could figure something out. Squinting, she said, “Well, let’s see. In one of the signs, I think it’s E… P… I...” I stopped her in her tracks and said, excitedly, “EPICERIE, French for grocery store!”

That was it, that was the épicerie diplomatique (as Struve and Basily called their quarters) where Basily, on Saturday, July 17, 1920, after the mission ended in failure, said to his wife, “This is the definite end of Imperial Russia—in a grocery shop.”

Nikolaĭ Aleksandrovich Bazili papers, Photo File, Envelope A, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, by Edmund de Waal, is a magnificent book about his amazing family, the Ephrussis. From the patriarch’s flourishing business in Odessa in the 1850s to the fortunes made by his descendants in Vienna and Paris; from the family’s involvement in the art world to the tragic events after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 and then Czechoslovakia, the author re-creates the lives of his ancestors through a collection of 264 netsuke acquired by his great-granduncle in Paris in the late nineteenth century, which de Waal eventually inherited.

So often when I read books or articles about the tumultuous past century, I find a reference to someone whose papers we have in the Hoover Archives—in this case, Eric Voegelin, an Austrian political scientist who, like de Waal’s great-grandparents, escaped Vienna in 1938, just in the nick of time. They were helped by their daughter, Elisabeth de Waal, the author’s grandmother. A lawyer and a poet (she carried on an intense and extensive correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke in the 1920s that was published in full in 1997 in the Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft), she had married a Dutch man and was thus able to enter Austria in 1938 on her Dutch passport—a courageous move considering the family’s Jewish origins. She had met Voegelin during her law studies in Vienna, and their friendship deepened in their respective exiles—hers in England and his in America.

When I saw Voegelin mentioned in the book, I promptly checked the finding aid for his papers in our archives, which, coincidentally, I had prepared many years ago. Sure enough, there was her name in the correspondence series: Elisabeth de Waal—forty-five letters sent to Voegelin between 1938 and 1976 and seven carbon copies of Voegelin’s letters to her.

That was exciting enough, but then came the best part. Prompted by this connection to our holdings, I decided to e-mail the author to tell him how much I loved his book and to ask whether he knew of the existence of his grandmother’s letters in our Voegelin collection. Not only did he reply immediately in the kindest way, but he offered to send us twelve letters from Voegelin to his grandmother, stating that his family would be honored to have them housed at Hoover, where they would complement the correspondence we already had.

So the next time you read something that catches your attention about a person or event in the twentieth (and increasingly twenty-first) century, chances are we have collections concerning them in our archives or books in our library. Come and visit us!

And why not write to the author of the book or article you read? You might be happily surprised, as I was.

Eric Voegelin, August 1966, Photo File A, Eric Voegelin papers, Hoover Institution Archives