Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time capsules, preservation concerns, and honorary archivists

Creswell, Oregon, is a town of about 4,500 people located in western Oregon. In honor of the town's 100th anniversary and the state's 150th anniversary, an ad hoc committee of residents is putting together a time capsule that will be opened in 2059. The city government is allocating $1,000 to the project, but the committee is seeking additional contributions and will honor donors by inscribing their names upon a plaque:
Those who contribute $250 or more will be designated as "archivists," between $100 and $249 as "historians" and $50 to $99 as "timekeepers." Of course, smaller amounts are welcomed as well.
It's really gratifying that "archivist" is the greatest honorific that the committee will bestow: all too often, archivists are seen as the handmaidens of academic historians, not as professionals who possess unique theoretical and applied knowledge and who serve a broad array of users. Maybe our efforts to raise our profession's public profile are starting to pay off . . . .

It's also really heartening that the ad hoc committee is keenly aware of the preservation challenges inherent in this project:
Time capsule project committee members Carol Hooker, Jean McKittrick, Shelley Humble and Helen Hollyer have researched suitable containers that will survive 50 years, as well as the types of material that will withstand deterioration and still be accessible to our descendents after half a century has elapsed.

While it would be easy to place hundreds of documents and photographs on CDs or DVDs, technological change is progressing so rapidly that it is highly unlikely that a method of accessing data preserved by today's high-tech methods would exist in 2059.

Similarly, even when sealed in a container designed specifically for long-term preservation of its contents, many organic materials, including newsprint, decompose rapidly, and are not suitable for long-term preservation.
Archivists, librarians, and curators have consistently emphasized that simply placing electronic files on CD or DVD isn't sufficient to ensure their preservation and that some paper-based materials won't likely stand the test of time, and it's great to see that this message is slowly moving beyond the cultural heritage community and into the wider world. The Creswellians of 2059 -- and their contemporaries throughout the world -- will be glad it did.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

John Cleese's Friendly Advice Machine

I rarely use this blog to highlight commercial products or advertisements, but every now and then I stumble across something that archivists or records managers might find interesting. The following site isn't new, but I came across it a couple of days ago when doing some general research. It made my day.

About a year ago, Iron Mountain Digital engaged comedian John Cleese, who has long history of making training films, to create a series of film clips highlighting its data backup and recovery, e-discovery, and other services. The result: John Cleese's Friendly Advice Machine, in which "Dr. Harold Twainweck" and other characters dispense not-so-friendly but memorable advice.

The Friendly Advice Machine is targeted to IT professionals, but electronic records managers and electronic records archivists who love Cleese and Monty Python will also find it eminently rewarding.

Be warned: if you visit the Friendly Advice Machine, watch the intro, and then wait for more than a few seconds to choose a video or click on a link, "Dr. Twainweck" will start to badger you: "If this were a game show, you'd have lost by now." "Look, I'm going to go read a book -- something you may never have experienced -- and you can click whenever you figure it out, okay?"

And, yes, there is a video about spam-spam-spam-spam-SPAM!

One last thing: my relationship with Iron Mountain consists of chatting with its reps at SAA and other conferences and receiving the occasional blanket sales call. I simply find the Friendly Advice Machine entertaining, and I hope you do, too.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

New York In Bloom revisited

Arrangement by Mary Bohnet of the New York State Capital District Sosetsa Study Group, in front of an untitled 1968 work by Donald Judd.

I went back to New York in Bloom, the New York State Museum's annual fundraiser for its after-school programs, to see the displays I missed yesterday. I'm glad I did: the State Museum is located in the same building that houses the State Archives and State Library, but I rarely have time to visit it. I'm always surprised and pleased to see how my State Museum colleagues have modified existing exhibits and created new ones, and now that planning is underway for a major renovation, I want to see the existing exhibits while I still can.

The State Museum is U-shaped, and most visitors enter via the West Gallery and proceed to the Adirondack Hall, Native Peoples, and natural history galleries, and end with the New York Metropolis gallery and Fire Engine Hall. I followed this path yesterday, but today I began with the New York Metropolis gallery -- I got to spend only a few minutes in it yesterday afternoon.

The World Trade Center exhibit is one of the newest sections of the New York Metropolis gallery. It is a solemn place; as people enter it, conversations taper off and parents shush their children. I have boundless respect for the State Museum colleagues who recovered artifacts from the WTC site and the Fresh Kills processing facility and then put together this exhibit. They spent years doing this heartbreaking work, and they're still reaching out to first responders, survivors, victims' families, and other people who have artifacts relating to the events of 11 September 2001.

The above arrangement, by Merilyn Niles, Jane Arseneau, and Marge Lansing of the Blue Creek Garden Club, sits beneath a flag that the State Police recovered from the WTC site and next to a canister used to contain suspected explosive devices. The canister is dedicated to the two bomb squad technicians and the bomb-sniffing dog lost on 11 September 2001.

The Fire Engine Hall, located next to the WTC exhibit, is invariably a big hit with kids, and this arrangement, created by Anthony Macarelli, captures the elegance, color, and gloss of these vehicles.

Another arrangement in the Fire Engine Hall, this one created by Andrew Kochn of the Mohonk Mountain House.

Jeanine Grinage, who works for the State Museum, and Stephaun Grinage created this cluster of sunny-day arrangements for the Sesame Street exhibit in the New York Metropolis gallery.

An Ellis Island display, with an arrangement by Marilyn Ryan of the Garden Club of Kinderhook.

An elevator car from one of New York City's first skyscrapers is pressed into service as a display platform for this arrangement by Mark Felthausen of Felthausen's Florist.

This spiral arrangement, created by Craig R. Waltz Jr. of Designs by Craig, complements the storefront of the Tuck High Company of Chinatown. This store is likely the oldest continuously operating Chinese-owned business on the Eastern Seaboard; loosely translated, the store's name means "honesty and high integrity."

A Fifth Avenue department store display window, ca. 1925. Its nicely complemented by this arrangement, which was created by Brian Schell of Bountiful Blooms Florist.

Tim Wells of Crazy Daisy Flower Shop created this arrangement, which sits in a nook of a recreational boating display.

The replica dinosaur fossil at the entrance of the Ancient Life in New York gallery, with an arrangement by Michelle Peters of Ambiance Floral and Events.

A striking arrangement by Ann Pastore.

Members of the Museum Club, the State Museum's after-school program for children aged 8-13, created this arrangement. Using the Textural Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Tradition exhibit as a springboard, the kids were exploring the interplay between color, texture, and design, and their work sits in front of Liz Pemberton's So Jazzy! (l.), Keisha Roberts's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and Theresa P. Shellcraft's The Regina Cloth (r.)

Walking through the State Museum's galleries, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Museum Club and the Discovery Squad, the State Museum's program for young people aged 14-18. These programs serve children and teens living in Albany's poorest neighborhoods, and they achieve fantastic results. These programs were started because staff noticed that more than a few young people were idling away their afternoons at the State Museum. Instead of seeing them as a problem and shooing them away, staff recognized that these young people were there because the State Museum met a need -- it was an interesting, safe, no-cost place to go after school -- and set about ensuring that the kids got help with their homework, started thinking about and planning for their futures, got lots of adult guidance, and had fun while learning.

The staff of the State Museum's Youth Services unit deserve tons of kudos for the great work they're doing, and I think that other curators, librarians, and archivists could learn from them: I've met a number of Discovery Squad and Museum Club alumni, and all of them raved about these programs and the State Museum itself. These young people will likely be lifelong museum-goers and museum supporters, and they'll no doubt take their own children to museums . . . .

New York in Bloom is now over. The floral designers are dismantling their displays. When the State Museum opens tomorrow morning, almost all of the arrangements will be gone, as will the admission fee. This blog will return to its usual archival focus, and will be text-centric once more. I hope that you've enjoyed this floral interlude as much as I enjoyed putting it together. I'll leave you with an image of the display in the main lobby of the State Museum. It was created by David Michael Schmidt of Renaissance Floral Design, and it's like a promise of spring . . . .

Saturday, February 21, 2009

18th Annual New York in Bloom

Part of the main lobby display by David Michael Schmidt of Renaissance Floral Design.

Every February, the New York State Museum hosts New York in Bloom, a three-day event that incorporates over 100 floral arrangements into the State Museum's exhibit space and special workshops on gardening and floral design into the State Museum's educational calendar. New York in Bloom has become an Albany tradition -- a lush and fragrant break from February's cold, snow, and ice.

New York in Bloom is also a fundraiser for an excellent cause: the State Museum's after-school programs for area children and teenagers. Most of the young people enrolled in these programs live in poverty, and the State Museum's programs provide things to which they might not otherwise have access: intensive academic support (adults help the teens, and the teens are paid a small stipend to tutor the younger kids), help with visiting and applying to colleges, educational field trips, and lots of hands-on learning using the Museum's collections. To date, all of the teens enrolled in the program have graduated from high school, and more than 90 percent of them have gotten into college.

I was planning on seeing New York in Bloom tomorrow, but a snowstorm is coming our way tomorrow morning, and I thought it best to run over and make sure that I got to take in at least some of the event. I hope you enjoy looking at these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Arrangement by David Johnson Pawling of Pawling Flower Shop, in front of a Christmas Seals design by artist and author Rockwell Kent; the State Museum's Rockwell Kent: This Is My Own exhibit -- which I strongly recommend -- will be open until May 17 of this year.

A well-heeled tourist in one of the Adirondack Recreation displays, with an arrangement by the SUNY Cobleskill Plant Science Department.

Louise Kavanaugh of the Bethlehem Garden Club created this arrangement, which sits next to two fishermen in an Adirondack Wilderness display.

A 19th century steam locomotive, with an arrangement by Verena Takekoshi and Sue Scott of Garden Explorers.

James Coe's Barn and Tree Swallows on a Dairy Farm, with an arrangement by Cindy Campbell of the Blue Creek Garden Club.

Flowers really complement Textural Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Experience, an exhibit that brings together the traditionally African-American art forms of quilting and jazz; this exhibit closes on March 1, so now is the time to see it! The above arrangement, created by Audrey Hawkins of the Fort Orange Garden Club, sits adjacent to Valerie C. White's Ohio River Blues Man (l) and Valerie C. White's Blow Trane Blow (r.)

Pamela Love of the Rensselaer Garden Club has created an arrangement that nicely compliments Iris Simmons's Ode to Moderne.

Carolyn Crump's The Spirit of Rita, with an arrangement by Tammy Delia of Renaissance Floral Design.

During New York in Bloom, the Museum's Bird Hall is transformed into a series of room-sized table arrangements such as this wedding reception hall created by Rudy Grant and David Siders of Experience and Creative Design.

Douglas Fisher of Design by Douglas turned another section of the Bird Hall into a retro-modern bar.

If the weather permits, I'm planning to go back to the State Museum tomorrow and visit the galleries I didn't have time to see today. However, even if I don't get the chance, I'll be happy: the indoor flowers of New York in Bloom are a harbinger of the outdoor flowers of New York in bloom.

Monday, February 16, 2009

SAA and its LGBT members

NB: The views expressed in this post -- and in all of my posts -- are mine and mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the SAA Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable or any other organization in which I am involved.

I've been meaning to post about the recent brouhaha that erupted on the Archives & Archivists listserv, which began with some ill-informed and overheated comments regarding a discussion resolution that the SAA Diversity Committee, with the support of the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable, submitted for Council's discussion at its upcoming meeting. However, during the past few weeks, I've had to focus on a high-priority work project. As a result, I haven't had the time or energy to tackle the ever-growing pile of dishes in my sink or the cat-fur tumbleweeds blowing across my floors, let alone devote much attention on this blog. The three-day weekend has given me a bit of critical distance and a chance to catch up, so here goes . . .

The resolution in question calls upon SAA to advocate for equal civil rights, including marriage, for all of its members and for Council, the Diversity Committee, and LAGAR to work together to identify ways in which the organization should do so. Sadly, even before they knew what this resolution entailed (namely, ongoing dialogue), some people were up in arms.

Terry over at Beaver Archivist has superbly made the case for why SAA's concerns should encompass not only the specifics of archival practice (e.g., Encoded Archival Description) but also the conditions under which archivists labor and the broader society in which our work takes place. He also drives home a point that a lot of listserv posters failed to grasp: Proposition 8 is one facet of a much broader effort to deny lesbian and gay -- and bisexual and transgender -- Americans full legal equality.

There are still plenty of jurisdictions in which an archivist or records manager can be fired solely because of his or her sexual orientation, have his or her parental rights challenged, and find his or her carefully structured health care and inheritance arrangements tossed aside. Some SAA members face these pressures on a daily basis, and effort and energy that they might otherwise devote to their work or their professional association is instead diverted to safeguarding their families as best they can; one could argue that these members should seek jobs in friendlier locales, but giving in to discrimination isn't a real solution to the problem. Other members hesitate when registering to attend annual meetings held in certain jurisdictions, knowing that serious injury or illness might separate them -- temporarily or permanently -- from their loved ones. If SAA genuinely cares about the conditions under which archivists labor, it must address the legal inequities its LGBT members confront.

SAA's equal opportunity/non-discrimination policy, which was adopted in 1992, states that:
The Society of American Archivists is a professional organization established to serve the educational and informational needs of its members. SAA promotes cooperation, research, standards, public awareness, and relations with allied professions and thereby advances the identification, preservation, and use of records of enduring value. Because discrimination and unequal treatment are inimical to the Society's goals, SAA hereby declares that discrimination on the grounds of race, color, creed, gender, national origin, age, marital status, family relationship, individual life style [i.e., sexual orientation], and disability is prohibited within the Society. SAA will vigorously pursue a policy of non-discrimination and equal opportunity through its programs, activities, services, operations, employment, and business contracts.
SAA has in the past moved its annual meetings in order to avoid locales and venues that discriminated against certain of its members, and it has taken other steps (e.g., partial reimbursement of onsite child care expenses) that make it easier for members to meet both their family needs and their professional commitments. With a little planning and forethought, I firmly believe that SAA can find concrete ways to build upon these precedents and defend the rights of its LGBT members -- and to do so in ways that also recognize the rights of individual members and repositories of religious bodies opposed to same-sex marriage.

Finally, a word of thanks. Kate over at ArchivesNext wrote a great post on the listserv controversy, which includes solid practical advice on how members can make their views known to Council. She has also started a new Facebook group, I Support Equal Civil Rights for my Gay & Lesbian Archivist Colleagues. Kate is a tireless champion of the use of Web 2.0 in the world of archives, and once again she has driven home the potential of the new tools now available to us. You're the best, Kate!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Heading to Austin for SAA?

Bats heading out for the night. Taken atop the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, Texas, 9 October 2005.

It's probably a little early to start thinking about heading down to Austin for the 2009 joint annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists, but if you are thinking about Austin, here's a handy list of some cool things you can see and do while you're there.

Sadly, this article neglects to mention my favorite thing about Austin: the huge bat colony that lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge. According to the very cool folks at Bat Conservation International, the colony, which consists of approximately 1.5 million individuals, is the largest urban bat colony in the world. During the summer and fall, people congregate on the banks of the Colorado River or on top of the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk to watch the bats fly out from under the bridge and begin their nocturnal hunt. Seeing these beautiful, delicate creatures in flight is amazing, and anyone staying at the Hilton Austin or another downtown hotel should easily be able to find a good vantage point.

There's no need to bring bug repellent: the bats eat around 20,000 pounds of insects every night.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Intrinsic value in the digital era

An interesting short piece in the New Scientist outlines some of the likely consequences of authors' use electronic media to create literary works; be sure to scroll down and read the comments. Among other things:
  • Dealers of ephemera are going to find that, although certain physical artifacts (e.g., President Obama's Blackberry) will have cash value, the perfectly replicable electronic files and computer printouts generated by today's writers won't have the same sort of market value as their predecessors' manuscript and typescript drafts, letters, and other materials.
  • Manuscript curators are, in some instances, going to have to accept authors' assurances regarding the contents of physical media. Moreover, if they accession files such as e-mails, they should prepare themselves for the possibility that some of these files may contain information that could profoundly embarrass donors.
I've long been aware that electronic records lack intrinsic value; owing to the pace of technological change, the short lifespan of storage media, and the proprietary nature of many file formats, we simply can't preserve electronic records in their original form. However, until now, I haven't given much thought to the impact that this lack will eventually have upon the literary ephemera market, which will likely find the 21st century offers slim pickings. This is, of course, not a good situation for the dealers, but they will likely continue to eke out a living peddling materials created by 19th and 20th century writers. It's also bad for literary forgers such as Lee Israel: thanks to the digital age, it's now much easier to counterfeit the work of contemporary authors -- and much harder for them to turn a profit by doing so. Ah, the small ironies of our digital age . . . .

Monday, February 9, 2009

"Digital archivists" and electronic stuff

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an article about "digital archivists" that has captured a lot of attention -- it quickly became one of the 10 most frequently e-mailed stories, and at the time of this writing, it still is.

The article, which is part of an ongoing series about emerging careers, isn't about the archival profession per se. Instead, it focuses on people who are responsible for preserving all kinds of electronic materials, among them digitized and born-digital records, publications, etc:
When the world entered the digital age, a great majority of human historical records did not immediately make the trip.

Literature, film, scientific journals, newspapers, court records, corporate documents and other material, accumulated over centuries, needed to be adapted for computer databases. Once there, it had to be arranged — along with newer, born-digital material — in a way that would let people find what they needed and keep finding it well into the future.

The people entrusted to find a place for this wealth of information are known as digital asset managers, or sometimes as digital archivists and digital preservation officers. Whatever they are called, demand for them is expanding.
The article goes on to profile Jacob Nadal, the preservation officer for the UCLA Libraries, who is responsible for ensuring that all types of materials in its collections receive proper care.
I was disappointed by the article's focus on the library world and by its conflation of "digital asset manager," "digital archivist," and "digital preservation officer." I was also convinved that there really isn't anything new here: many libraries have long had preservation officers, and the position (which has traditionally attracted archivists as well as librarians) is merely evolving in response to technological change.

At the same time, it gave me cause to reflect, once again, upon the manner in which the digital era is dissolving many of the traditional distinctions between librarianship and archivy. Archivists who work with electronic records or who are digitizing materials are focusing more of their attention at the item level -- if only because we're still figuring out how to automate various processing tasks. Librarians confronted with ever-increasing volumes of digital material are starting to think about describing materials at the aggregate level and exploring whether archival appraisal theory could help them focus their preservation efforts on their most significant holdings.

The belief that librarianship and archivy are converging is the fundamental premise of the Best Practices Exchange, which brings together state government digital librarians and electronic records archivists, and has been explored in a growing number of journal articles, conference sessions, and the like. All of us are trying to figure out what this convergence means for our professions and our institutions, and we likely won't have any definitive answers for a decade or two, so I can't really blame the Times for its lack of exactitude.

I can and do fault the Times for failing to explain precisely how one becomes a digital preservation officer, digital asset manager, etc.: nowhere does the article note that people who enter this field tend to hold master's degrees in library/information science. However, I am pleased that it emphatically asserts that a heavy-duty information technology background may actually limit one's prospects:
Familiarity with information technology is necessary, but it is possible to have too much tech know-how, said Victoria McCargar, a preservation consultant in Los Angeles and a lecturer at U.C.L.A. and San José State University.

"People with IT backgrounds tend to be wrong for the job,” she said. “They tend to focus on storage solutions: 'We’ll just throw another 10 terabytes on that server.'" A result, she said, can be "waxy buildup" — a lot of useless files that make it hard to find the good stuff.
Finally, I'm cheered by the article's closing emphasis upon the intangible rewards of working in the public sector, which pays substantially less than the private sector:
As much as it might help his bank balance, Mr. Nadal cannot envision leaving UCLA for a corporate job. He finds the challenge of taming a vast collection of information for a major academic institution too appealing.

"We belong to the people of California and hold our collections in trust for them and for future generations of students, scholars and members of the public," he said. "Public-sector institutions just strike me as far, far cooler. They have better collections, obviously, and they are innovative, connected and challenging in ways that seem more substantial to me."
I've met lots of corporate records and digital asset managers who relish the challenges of their work, and I've encountered a few digital librarians and electronic records archivists who languished miserably in the public sector. However, for the most part, I agree with Mr. Nadal: life in the public sector is, on the whole, more varied, more challenging, and more fun. I love working in a government archives, and I hope that archivists (and librarians) who are just now entering the profession think seriously about the distinctive challenges and opportunities they will find in the public sector.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A day in Vermont

I'm going to post some archives-related stuff tomorrow, but I promised myself that I would take a day-long break from archivy. During the past week, I spent my days tearing through a high-priority project, devoted most of my evenings to planning next steps of said project, and in my spare time coordinated the response to some ill-informed and intemperate comments posted to the Archives and Archivists listserv. I think I've earned some downtime.

This afternoon, I went over to Bennington, Vermont, where I met my friend Sam, who is a professional landscape photographer. Today was her day off, so all of the images that follow are mine.

Sam likes photographing waterfalls, and she took me to several small falls in the Bennington area. We started out at the remains of the Pownal Tanning Company, which is located on the Hoosick River.

The falls were constructed in order to power the tannery's machinery. The building that housed the tannery was demolished some time after the facility closed in 1998 (and became a Superfund site), but parts of the machinery remain in place.

I would like to return to the Pownal Tannery site when it's less icy and investigate this machinery more closely.

Vermont has scores of small creeks that ultimately feed into the Hudson River or the Connecticut River, and many of these creeks have little waterfalls such as this one. Sam won an award for a photograph she took of this waterfall. However, she had to stand in the middle of the creek in order to get the shot. We opted against wading into the water today.

After a break for coffee, we went out to this snow-covered swamp adjacent to the Bennington Airport. We saw an enormous opossum while we were here, but it moved so quickly that I wasn't able to get a decent photograph of it. Sam, who pulled out her equipment when it became apparent that I was having problems, might have been more successful.

We then headed into the village of North Bennington, where this small waterfall is located. It was obviously built to power some sort of mill, but the mill itself is long gone.

Of all the pictures I took today, the above is my favorite. We were really losing daylight at this point, so I digitally increased the exposure just a bit; I think it looks even better when the exposure is increased even more, but I wanted the posted version to reflect the fact that it was taken late in the day.

And now for one of the oddest shots of the day. Just a stone's throw away from the waterfall pictured above is a red clapboard building that appears to be abandoned. It's surounded by old lawn tractors, plows, snowblowers, and at least one bandsaw. All of this equipment is so neatly aligned that it looks almost like agriculture in reverse: it's as if all of these tidy rows of aging implements are slowly returning to the soil (along with lots of oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, and who knows what else). We were really losing daylight at this point, so this picture got quite a bit of after-the-fact enhancement.

Sam and I parted ways shortly after the above picture was taken, and I headed back home to Albany. I'm glad I got to spend my afternoon with her and that I could devote at least a little time to something other than work. I hope that you enjoy these photos.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Nixon tapes: "Has the New York Times lost it completely?"

I'm not exactly a dedicated follower of the Nixon tape recordings saga, so I'm not always attuned to its nuances or able to differentiate between significant new developments and scholarly kerfluffles that pop up on slow news days.

According to Stan Katz, who is a member of the writing team that posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog, the story that appeared on the front page of yesterday's New York Times definitely falls into the latter category. In one of today's posts, Katz immediately makes plain his opinion of the article: "Has The New York Times lost it completely?" He then goes on to assert that the submission of an as-yet unpublished article to the American Historical Review is hardly newsworthy.

He's probably right about that. However, it's also apparent that he's not exactly a neutral observer:
So far as I can tell [from reading the article], someone named Peter Klingman (identified only as "an historian" -- but not an historian I have ever heard of before) has submitted an article to the American Historical Review alleging that (my friend) Stanley Kutler deliberately manipulated his published transcriptions of the Nixon tapes (in his 1997 Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes) so as to exonerate John Dean from complicity in the Watergate cover-up.

. . . . Kutler’s book was only an attempt to make some of the material quickly available in print for the use of the public. Despite Joan Hoff’s quoted statement that Abuse of Power is “used authoritatively,” Kutler has never claimed to have published the full and official record, and any trained historian would know that his book is not authoritative in that sense. His subject was Nixon’s complicity, not Dean’s, and there is no evidence that he consciously manipulated his transcriptions.
Katz may well be right about Kutler's intentions. However, as one of the people who commented on this post asserted, John Dean's subsequent career as a lecturer and television commentator roundly critical of the present-day Republican Party does make the level of his involvement in Watergate an ongoing matter of public interest.

Frankly, I'm not sure whether Stanley Kutler or Peter Klingman is closer to the truth, and for the time being, I'm going to assume that they are both people of integrity. I haven't had the chance to listen to the audio recordings posted on the Times site and compare them to the transcripts in Kutler's book, and I suspect that the debate will continue to rage on even after the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) releases the March 1973 tapes that are at the center of this controversy.

I'm going to keep an eye on this upheaval, but I probably won't comment further unless a) something incredibly important happens or b) subsequent developments highlight its archival ramifications.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Film review: Heir to an Execution

This afternoon, I watched the documentary Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story, in which first-time filmmaker Ivy Meeropol explores the impact of the 1953 execution of her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, upon her family. The film blends archival images and footage with Meeropol's interviews of family members and her grandparents' friends and associates, and it makes no apologies for its sympathetic treatment of the Rosenbergs or for the Rosenberg-Meeropol family's left-of-center politics. However, it is not a whitewash.

Meeropol and her father, Michael, accept the possiblity (now confirmed) that her grandfather engaged in some form of espionage and that her grandmother knew about and supported her husband's activities. They are nonetheless convinced that Julius Rosenberg was not passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets and that the federal government sought the death penalty against Julius and Ethel because it wanted them to implicate other Communists; they refused, despite their deep love for their sons, to betray their friends or one another by doing so.

Michael and Ivy Meeropol both believe that the Rosenbergs' steadfastness constituted an important family legacy. Although viewers might reach rather different conclusions about the Rosenbergs' degree of guilt or the wisdom of their decision not to cooperate with the government, it is plain that Michael Meeropol and his younger brother, Robert Meeropol, were devastated by the loss of their parents. Fortunately, they managed, with the help of loving adoptive parents, to build meaningful lives. Michael is an economics professor, and Robert is an attorney and head of a charitable foundation. Both of them have been happily married for decades and enjoy close relationships with their children, all of whom seem to be well-adjusted and successful people.

It is nonetheless evident that both Michael and Robert were permanently scarred. One of the most low-key yet vivid demonstrations of the persistence of their past suffering occurs when Michael Meeropol takes his daughter to the bank vault that houses family letters to and from his imprisoned parents. Michael hastily starts pulling file folders out of a large safe deposit box, and photographs and documents start flying out of the folders and onto the floor as a horrified Ivy looks on.
Ivy Meeropol: Oh, my God! Dad! I can't believe you did -- you've gotta take care of these. You're really rough with those --

Michael Meeropol: Ahh, I know. Comes from having lived with it for so many years.
Michael shows Ivy the hand-drawn cards that he and his brother sent to their parents, and then pulls out the letter that his mother wrote shortly before her execution. It's obvious that he's given a lot of adult thought to his parents' writings -- he's well aware that his parents saw their letters not only as missives to their children but also as historical documents asserting their innocence -- but it's also apparent that they evoke difficult memories.

Michael Meeropol's seemingly indifferent handling of these documents underscores the deep ambivalence that people sometimes have toward their personal or family papers. It's good to be reminded that the archival professsion's unalloyed enthusiasm for the documentary record isn't always shared. Those of us who don't often work with prospective donors sometimes forget that records creators and custodians' relationship to their records may be fraught with intense and conflicting emotions.

Archivists should also note that Heir to an Execution also depicts Ivy Meeropol's examination of Rosenberg trial records held by the U.S. National Archives and Records Aministration's New York City regional office. However, one need not be an archivist to be engaged by this thought-provoking, intimate, and deeply personal film.