(Conversation lightly edited for clarity and readability)
Russ Roberts: Today is August 5th, 2016 and my guest is Eric Wakin, the deputy director of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the Robert H. Malott Director of the Institution’s library and archives.
There’s a temptation to believe that archivists really don’t have that exciting a reputation. It’s nothing personal: Eric is a fine person. But I think, when we think of archives, we think of a lot of papers and folders, dusty, dry stuff. But it turns out here at the Hoover Institution we have some pretty incredible stuff. So I wanted to start with three of the more interesting things that we have here at Hoover, three things that aren’t boring about the Hoover Archive. What have you got that isn’t boring for me?
Listen to the conversation:
Eric Wakin: I’d be happy to answer that question. Being an archivist is one of the most exciting jobs in the world, believe it or not.
Russ Roberts: You may not be typical, Eric. I think we can say that with certainty. Go ahead.
Eric Wakin: So I’d say three of the most interesting things we have in our collections are the following — ones that I’ve come across. One is the operations order for the atomic bomb strike on Hiroshima, which was taken from Tinian Island. One is an x-ray of Adolph Hitler’s skull taken after the attempted assassination on him in 1944. And then one is something I came across but we weren’t able to acquire, that is the wreck of the Lusitania.
Russ Roberts: So, let’s talk about each of those. You’ve got a copy here — unfortunately I’m a little disappointed: you didn’t bring me the real thing — but you’ve got a copy of that order of the Enola Gay and I know a little bit about that. I know that Paul Tibbets was the pilot. The Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the bomb. I recognize his name on the order. So, what else is interesting about that piece of paper?
Eric Wakin: I think for me the actual piece of paper represents the power of an actual physical object to take you to a place: the knowledge that this piece of paper was put up on a bulletin board or a sign on Tinian Island and lists the names of the people in the weather plane and the combat strike plane; and for me it’s powerful seeing the object, but also if you look at the piece of paper itself, the most important thing for me is where it says ‘Bombs’ and the only word after that is the word ‘Special.’
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That gives me goose bumps. It’s very, very powerful. And this is the piece of paper that on most days said, ‘Here’s your bombing mission’ — none of the bombing missions ever are routine. I guess in war at some point it becomes something of a routine, but it can’t ever really be much of a routine. But here, this was very out of the ordinary.
Eric Wakin: Yeah. It’s an ordinary object, an ordinary concept of a mission description that was out of the ordinary because of the particular mission.
Russ Roberts: And how did we come to have this piece of paper?
Eric Wakin: There was a fellow attached to the bomb group named Harold Agnew who was on the island and believed that this piece of paper should be saved for posterity. Not only did he do that, though, but he was the person who convinced the plane following the Enola Gay to put a camera on it and to film the actual explosion. We have that film, and that is one of our most request items to be duplicated — the actual film from the following plane of the bomb going off.
Russ Roberts: So, we’re going to talk about preservation. But that film is fragile, right? You don’t make copies of that every day or bring it out every day, right?
Eric Wakin: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: How do you protect it?
Eric Wakin: We don’t show people the original film any more. What we’ve done is make a digital copy of it and preserved the original under conditions where it will deteriorate very little. And what we do is we show people the digital copy. And it’s been used in documentaries and so on.
Russ Roberts: It’s fascinating. There seems to be something important about preserving the original. But let’s pretend that we never take it out again. I guess in theory something could happen to the digital copies; but they are now spread around the world in all kind of formats. We can pull that out of documentaries. It’s in the world’s archives, right? And we’re going to continue to preserve that actual piece of celluloid. Why?
Eric Wakin: That’s a great question. It raises existential issues about what is meaning and how do we establish meaningful objects. If there are simulacrums of that object around the world, what’s the value of the original? I still think human nature has a powerful association with original, one-of-a-kind objects. But you are right: it is preserved; no one will see the original again until we need to do another round of preservation — when there’s some new technology 50 years hence then we’ll say we’ve got to get that out and copy it again.
Russ Roberts: (5:16) It’s really amazing. Let’s talk about the x-ray of Hitler’s brain. So, how did we come to find that? How did it come to the Hoover Institution archives?
Eric Wakin: Because of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives’ reputation — we’ve been around almost a hundred years and we collect on war, revolution, and peace: that’s actually our name, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace — people often come to us with historical material. They want us to preserve it for posterity. And in this case, Colonel William Russell Philip [sp?] was a military officer who had collected material from Germany during and after the war. And this was in his collection.
Russ Roberts: As an army officer, not as collector.
Eric Wakin: As an army officer, not as a collector. That was part of his duties. And that stuff came back with him and he wanted to put it somewhere that people could see it; and he called Hoover, literally, and said, ‘Would you like this material?’
Russ Roberts: And is there any value to that piece of — whatever it is?
Eric Wakin: X-ray film. There is value, sort of market value to it. We would never sell it but I assume there would be market value. But there’s value in people looking at Hitler’s dental work.
Russ Roberts: I did a little research before this conversation because I knew we were going to talk about this x-ray. There are five copies of it, supposedly, maybe; there might be a 6th or 7th or 8th sitting in someone’s basement or attic somewhere in Germany. But there are five that we know of. How do we know this is one of the five? How do we know it’s real? In general, when people come to us with stuff, how do you verify that it’s real? I mean, art museums have this all the time, particularly when stuff is being sold. When somebody gives you something, it’s less likely to be fraudulent. But how do you verify the reality?
Eric Wakin: Yeah, that’s one filter. One filter is, since they are giving it to us, we are not paying them for it, there’s a lower threshold for it being fraud. We generally look at the association of the provenance of the material: Is the person giving it to us, did he or she have a relationship to the material in some way? In this case, this person did. Was it likely acquired legally, and so on, and the person signs a document saying that’s true? And then we make somewhat of a leap of faith and we say, ‘Yeah, we believe this is true and actual.’ We do get calls periodically asking us to authenticate certain things. Every few weeks someone will call up and say, ‘I have a letter by General William Stillwell. Will you authenticate its signature?’ And we never do that. We say, ‘You are welcome to come in and look at the materials and do it yourself; but we don’t provide that service.’
Russ Roberts: We’ve been talking about the two cases, gifts and sales. I know this is not a meaningful number, but I wanted to ask you what proportion of stuff is given to us? It’s hard to know how to measure that. But is most of the stuff we get a gift, or is most of it a sale?
Eric Wakin: The vast majority of material we get are gifts.
Russ Roberts: And while we’re on the subject — we’ve got one more thing I want to talk about but I don’t want to forget this — how much stuff is in the Hoover Archives?
Eric Wakin: Archives measure their collections by linear feet.
Russ Roberts: For sure. Of course. I mean, I would have done it by items. Not items? Why not items? How many things do we have?
Eric Wakin: We don’t know exactly in each box how many individual items there are. So we have, depending on your count, well over 100,000 linear feet of materials, making us one of the top five, if not the top two archives in America by linear feet.
Russ Roberts: We have 6000 collections. How do you define a collection?
Eric Wakin: A collection is a body of material from one particular source. It might be, if it’s an individual, a group of her letters, photographs, films, diaries, and so on. From an institution it might be reports, objects, and things like that.
Russ Roberts: We have Milton Friedman’s collected papers. That includes drafts of papers he wrote, final versions of papers he wrote, family —
Eric Wakin: Incoming correspondence from other people. Other great economist collections — we also have a collection of Friedrich Hayek.
Russ Roberts: Of course. And as listeners know, I’ve held in my hands — but in a plastic sleeve, I just want to mention that: don’t worry; I’m pretty sure it was in a plastic sleeve — postcards from Hayek and Keynes over an article that he had submitted to a journal. I think Keynes was the editor. But those are protected in various forms and ways from handling, right?
Eric Wakin: Absolutely. They are stored in acid-free boxes under temperature and humidity controls with fire protection around them, and they are stored in various extra sleeves that protect them from people touching them.
Russ Roberts: So that 100,000 linear feet — are we running out of space? What if we got a lot of stuff that was lengthy?
Eric Wakin: We are almost out of space now. We are doing a process of consolidating, seeing what we have in duplicate — if it’s a publication — and looking for new space. That’s one of my less interesting but most important things: Where do I find the space for our materials?
Russ Roberts: Do you ever throw anything out? ‘Let’s get rid of this, clean out this section?’
Eric Wakin: We try not to, but we find some collections—we open them up and the person has saved paper copies of a newspaper for many years, like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. We might get rid of those.
Russ Roberts: But how often do you cull through collections to find those things?
Eric Wakin: Rarely, but when a collection comes in, we have processing, we look through. We do what’s called ‘weeding,’ actually.
Russ Roberts: (10:32) Let’s talk about that third — you were going to mention three things. What was the third item?
Eric Wakin: It was the wreck of the ship Lusitania.
Russ Roberts: So the Lusitania was a British cruise liner — I looked this up beforehand, listeners, I’m cheating — but it was a cruise liner that was sunk off the coast of —
Eric Wakin: Ireland —
Russ Roberts: in 1915, I think, in the middle of WWI by a German submarine.
Eric Wakin: Correct.
Russ Roberts: I’m surprised there were submarines in 1915. I was a little bit embarrassed that I was surprised by that. But it was sunk; and I was depressed to read that it went down in 18 minutes. There was an explosion after the submarine struck — unexplained, there was an explosion; maybe we’ll talk about that in a minute. But it went down in 18 minutes. And 1198 crew and passengers died. I assume there were some survivors? I don’t know.
Eric Wakin: There were some survivors.
Russ Roberts: Okay. That’s a lot of death, obviously. How do you put the Lusitania in the Archives? Where is it?
Eric Wakin: So, funny, you just asked about storage. This is the perfect acquisition because there’s no storage cost. It’s 300 feet under water off the coast of Ireland. The interesting story is that a fellow named Gregg Bemis, who was a Stanford graduate, bought the wreck, or bought into the wreck, which was sold at auction by the insurers, about 50 years ago. And he ended up owning the whole thing over time. And it’s his personal property. It’s off the coast of Ireland, so it was in international waters, until international waters were extended from — was it three miles? — to 12.
Russ Roberts: In which, all of a sudden it now belonged, at least was claimed to belong to —
Eric Wakin: The government of Ireland claims it as an archeological wreck. And [now] Mr. Bemis needs permission to dive and see his own property. So, he would like to give it to Hoover and Stanford so that we can facilitate research on the ship.
Russ Roberts: And besides the historical interest of a 1915 cruise ship, there was a historical issue which was the possibility it was carrying ammunition.
Eric Wakin: Absolutely. And it certainly was carrying 3 million rounds of rifle ammunition, so, which, depending on your perspective might have made it a legitimate target. The bigger question was: was it carrying explosives? Which after the torpedo hit caused the ship to explode faster than it would have. And the historical debate is: what caused the so-called second explosion? So, one thing Mr. Bemis would like to do is to have an expedition go down and look for evidence of that.
Russ Roberts: And because 1198 people died, it was a huge propaganda vehicle that some say helped the United States get into WWI. Right? That’s another reason for historical interest. So why don’t we have it? I mean, I’d love to be able, when I’m in Ireland, go diving — you show your Stanford ID and they’d let you go swimming.
Eric Wakin: This is where vision meets the reality of lawyers and risk. The vision is that we would have this ship underwater; students would be able to explore it; and the future value is incalculable. We don’t know what would happen if you want to just keep it now for Stanford. On the perspective of the University and the Institution, there are risks of people diving down there and getting hurt; and then someone suing us. And so the risks perhaps outweigh the future value.
Russ Roberts: So we don’t have it. Does Mr. Bemis still have it?
Eric Wakin: Mr. Bemis still has it, and he’s looking for a suitable home. I was hoping it would be here but it’s not clear it will be.
Russ Roberts: Amazing. You mentioned value a couple of times. One of the stranger parts of your job is that most of the stuff doesn’t have a traditional market value, but you often have to put a number on it. When does valuation come into play in your business? And how does that work out?
Eric Wakin: A couple of ways. One is where a donation is made and someone wants the tax benefit of the donation. In that case, that person gets an independent appraiser and does the work — we don’t have a part of that — gives the material to Hoover and takes the appraised value. But in other ways, suppose someone doesn’t want to give material to us but wants to sell it to us, we have to establish what is a fair market value for this one-of-a-kind object.
Russ Roberts: Good luck.
Eric Wakin: Often there are no market comparables. Most people believe that their item is worth lots of money. And as an institution our job is to collect for history, not for financial reasons. To give you an example, someone recently came to me with a wonderful example of signed photographs and letters from many, many famous people and politicians to someone. And that has a big market value for sale, but for research, not so high. So there’s a gap there.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So we did not buy it.
Eric Wakin: We did not buy that.
Russ Roberts: And if we’d been asked — if they’d have offered it as a donation, would we have taken it?
Eric Wakin: Probably taken it — if it’s historical figures in the 20th century and they have occasional nice things to say in the letters that is interesting, or the photographs.
Russ Roberts: (15:14) How many people come here to use the archive?
Eric Wakin: We’ve got about 3000 people a year actually come to the reading rooms, actually physically look at materials; and that’s not counting the tens of thousands who look at the material we have on line.
Russ Roberts: Who can use it?
Eric Wakin: The Hoover Library and Archives are open to everyone, completely without any permissions.
Russ Roberts: So when this airs, get ready for a big spike. Because a lot of our listeners I’m sure will be interested in this.
Eric Wakin: Yeah, there’ll be a line out the reading room.
Russ Roberts: For sure. So how does that work? Suppose hypothetically I’m an anti-Keynesian — just hypothetically — and I get into the reading room and — I put a request in. You can’t browse. There’s no browsing.
Eric Wakin: No browsing. Closed stacks.
Russ Roberts: So I put in a request for Hayek Box Number 7, and it comes out on a little cart; it’s very old-fashioned, and I feel like I’m in the 1950s when I do this. ‘When I do this’ — I made it sound like I’m doing Hayek research all the time. I’ve done it a couple of times. It’s a lot of fun. Anyway, the box comes out, and I start looking through it. And it’s exciting because I don’t know what’s in the box. It’s sort of a fun part to that. And all of a sudden I come across a postcard from John Maynard Keynes. And I think, ‘Oh!’ And I have a temptation, let’s say, hypothetically to either slip it into my pocket, or in an act of vigilante justice, tear it up, or whatever. What prevents me from doing that?
Eric Wakin: Human nature is always problematic. I always say that. On the way in, we take your name and information. We know who is here and why they are here, for future reference and to make sure, if anything is stolen. You sit at a table under surveillance of cameras and of staff. And we do let you look at some materials. The most valuable materials we will ensure you look at only in copy of, because you are there just to look at the information in it. But if there’s a need to see a really important piece you can be looking at it in the original in the archives, and I guess in theory there would be nothing to stop you from tearing up a terrible postcard from Keynes. Luckily, we haven’t had that problem yet.
Russ Roberts: Okay. I was just asking. You never had any vigilante — ?
Eric Wakin: We’ve never had any vigilante activity here, but other collections have been pilfered at other places which have been associated. One challenge is you don’t know every individual piece of paper you have. So you do your best job to keep a close eye on what people are doing.
Russ Roberts: One of my favorite things is, it does say, on the web page, that you cannot wear a jacket with pockets. Is that correct?
Eric Wakin: That is correct.
Russ Roberts: And you’re advised to wear a sweater because it might be chilly — I just love that. I assume that’s a quality control issue? Or is it just a thermostat issue here at Stanford, which many people often complain about…
Eric Wakin: So, one of the theft techniques has been jackets with fake pockets in it, so we keep that out. And it does get a little cold in the air conditioning.
Russ Roberts: Well, some people cram documents in their socks. But you are allowed to wear socks.
Eric Wakin: This is like the real world: the more surveillance you have, the more you can control.
Russ Roberts: But it is under cameras?
Eric Wakin: Cameras and human staff.
Russ Roberts: I know you are a big believer in access. We are talking about the openness of the archive, which is a very cool thing. Why is that important?
Eric Wakin: I like to say that you can have the most important, the most interesting, the most fascinating material in the world, and if no one sees it then it doesn’t matter. So, our job as archivists is certainly to protect material, describe it; to collect it. But ultimately the job is to connect our material to the users. People need to find our material. In the archives, in the exhibits, online. And that’s our goal, so people can tell the stories from the material.
Russ Roberts: I remember the first time I saw you speak about some of these issues, and I remember just thinking, ‘Why don’t we just digitize everything?’ We’ve talked a little bit about the specialness of physical objects. But let’s put it all online and then people can do all the research which they’re used to doing now. As I said, it’s very old-fashioned to handle the material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to put it all online?
Eric Wakin: Sure. There’s two things going on there. One is access to resources. Hoover is privately funded, and many of our donors have said that to me, ‘Why can’t we just be like Google? And I say, ‘You give me $5 billion, I’ll be — ‘
Russ Roberts: Why is it so expensive?
Eric Wakin: It’s very expensive because an archive is full of materials like books which go in a book cradle. There are all sorts of different sizes, number one.
Russ Roberts: A book cradle is something that you use to copy a book.
Eric Wakin: You sit a book on it, you scan, and the machine will turn the pages, and it scans. But in this case, you’ve got individual items. Take the strike order we mentioned. Not only do you have to scan it and store it, which are two costs, but you have to describe it. Someone has to type in what that means. [We’re more likely] to digitize material that’s in need of preservation, that is outside of copyright (that we can put online for lots of people to see) and there’s research interest for.
Russ Roberts: So what proportion of our stuff is accessible online? Again, square footage or linear feet might not be the best measure but do you have some idea? Is it 5%?
Eric Wakin: We’re less than 5%.
Russ Roberts: Can we talk about a book cradle for a minute?
Eric Wakin: Sure.
Russ Roberts: Who makes those? Why would anybody manufacture that? How many could they sell?
Eric Wakin: I don’t know. Probably not very many. It’s like buggy whips. If I could throw out some numbers —
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Eric Wakin: I’d say we have over 80 terabytes of digital data.
Russ Roberts: Already.
Eric Wakin: Already. Some of which we can only show in our reading room because of copyright or other sorts of restrictions. One of our biggest collections is a collection from the Ba’ath Party in Iraq after the government of Saddam Hussein fell, and we have almost 50 terabytes of that data: secret police archives; 11 million pages, digitized.
Russ Roberts: How did we get that? I’m afraid to ask.
Eric Wakin: After the invasion, various parties came in and collected and took pieces of the state police records, and in one case an anti-Saddam Hussein group took it and got it to Hoover.
Russ Roberts: Those were private individuals?
Eric Wakin: And there was intervention by the U.S. government to copy pieces of it: that’s how we have our copy. They copied it first and then we got it via that method.
Russ Roberts: We have a copy or the original?
Eric Wakin: We have both the originals and a copy, digitized.
Russ Roberts: (21:32) I know we have a big poster collection. And these are not movie posters. They are typically war-related propaganda, army recruitment. How many posters do we have?
Eric Wakin: We have over 130,000 posters from countries all around the world.
Russ Roberts: That’s a lot of linear feet. Do we have the best poster collection in the world?
Eric Wakin: I would say we have one of the best poster collections in the world.
Russ Roberts: Who else is in the running?
Eric Wakin: Library of Congress, British Library, British Museum. Big institutions have collections and there’s a couple of private dealers with nice collections.
Russ Roberts: They don’t have 100,000.
Eric Wakin: Probably not. We’re talking to one now. The challenge about posters is they’re beautiful single-piece—lovely colors—and they tell a story about some moment in time — some revolutionary movement, political movement, or otherwise. Cataloguing them is a big challenge. We have 130,000; about 25% are catalogued and digitized so you can see them. So that means 75% are in drawers, not described.
Russ Roberts: And how did we come to have so many? Garage sales?Somebody was getting rid of their collection?
Eric Wakin: Over time people have given them to us; we’ve bought them. I’ll tell you a story about valuation. A dealer called me the other day and said do I want 10,000 Greek posters?
Russ Roberts: From what time period? If they were from 2000 or 3000 years ago —
Eric Wakin: 1960s through today. And I said, ‘Well, I really haven’t been able to catalog the other ones.’ And he said, very cleverly, ‘Well, you have 70,000, 80,000 uncatalogued; why not have 90,000 uncatalogued?’
Russ Roberts: That would depend on the price, I’m sure would be the answer to that.
Eric Wakin: Exactly.
Russ Roberts: When I think of the Hoover archives, one of the things I think of is those [poster] collections. Many of those posters — I assume they are copies, maybe they are not — are hanging around the building where our offices are, so they’re artwork that are adorning the halls. So I know we have a lot of them. But how did it get started? Did somebody donate 2000 to start with and we suddenly became known as a place [that collects posters]?
Eric Wakin: That’s a great question. First of all, they are copies hanging in our offices, none of the originals.
Russ Roberts: I’m relieved. So relieved. [humor]
Eric Wakin: I don’t know how it got started but I’ve got to tell you, as soon as people started collecting ephemera — one of a kind objects — posters would have been on the menu. So I bet they started early.
Russ Roberts: (23:58) Now, we have some traditional archived things — I would just call these pieces of paper. Like the strike order; like letters Milton Friedman wrote to colleagues. General Stillwell — “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell’s diaries.By the way, I noticed that those [diaries] were available online; I picked a day in 1941; it wasn’t that interesting, I have to confess, but I’m sure there are more interesting days. But historians are very interested in that, obviously. We also have Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries — temporarily. Correct?
Eric Wakin: An interesting story. The grand-daughter-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek said, ‘Would you hold these materials for me?’ In other words, she deposited them with us for 50 years; said we should make them available — with some redactions she wanted —
Russ Roberts: Those redactions are personal, family insults or moments of emotion —
Eric Wakin: Yes. Tiny amount. And we’ve made [the diary] available. They are our number one item of interest to researchers because no one knew he kept a diary for so long and no one had ever seen it till 2007, 2008 here. Unfortunately there are other descendants of Chiang Kai-shek who say those diaries belong to them. And we said, ‘That’s fine; we’d like to give them back to the proper person.’ But you can imagine a family trying to decide, together there are 14, who is the proper owner.
Russ Roberts: But when it was donated to us for a 50-year period, there was the understanding that after 50 years they would go where?
Eric Wakin: It wasn’t stipulated.
Russ Roberts: Okay. But they gave them with the understanding that they would be returned.
Eric Wakin: Absolutely. And we have no interest in holding onto them.
Russ Roberts: Well, we wouldn’t mind holding onto them.
Eric Wakin: That’s a great question. The research interest is in the copies. We only show the copies. But again, the power of the object is very powerful. When we get visitors here from the mainland, where Chiang Kai-shek was vilified for decades, they want to see the real object, sometimes and we take it out for them. That visceral connection to the object.
Russ Roberts: Sometimes you go to a library, you’d take out a book, in the old days you would, anyway — and you could see that somebody had stamped, in the old days, when it was last taken out. And you’d realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this book is not that popular.’ Sometimes it could be a book you wrote — which would be really depressing. But, putting that to the side, there are things in the archives, thousands of things, that have never been examined.
Eric Wakin: I’d say that’s probably true.
Russ Roberts: Besides the Chiang Kai-shek Diaries, what else is popular research-wise?
Eric Wakin: Yes. So, two things. One is, as an archive, the amount of times something is used is less important to us than we feel we are preserving the most important material for the few users who want to see it. It’s a challenge, because in libraries it’s important that if books aren’t circulated all the time, they can check; and they can say, ‘Let’s move these offsite.’ That’s okay, in my opinion. But in archives, the amount of use is a little bit less often.
Russ Roberts: I mean, something could be unused and then 50 years from now be transformed in how we think about something.
Eric Wakin: Right. That would be wonderful. A good example is Fred Golder [sp?], one of our earliest collectors, went to the Soviet Union in 1922, just after the Bolshevik Revolution, as they were selling off their treasures to build tractors and bought some books from Russia. They had repossessed them from nobles and churches and so on. And we put them in our archives; and we are just cataloguing some of them now.
So you asked what collections get a lot of use: you are right; it does go through phases. The Ba’ath Party archives, a lot of books have come out — meaning five books have come out in the last few years —
Russ Roberts: That’s a lot.
Eric Wakin: That’s quite popular.
Russ Roberts: Does anybody ever want something back? We just talked about a case where someone gave us a gift — it’s a loan, with the expectation it will be returned. It could be an interesting question if you don’t know who to return it to. That will be an interesting legal question, I guess. I can’t imagine leaving it on a street corner and hoping someone picks it up.
Eric Wakin: We did recently get a letter from the governor of a province in Russia asking for the return of patrimony of someone who is from their province, and said, ‘I understand this material is at Hoover’ —
Russ Roberts: Return of what?
Eric Wakin: A collection of materials by someone who was from the province — saying, ‘This material is from a son of our province and this material belongs here. He was an important figure to us.’ And Robert Conquest, curator for Russia, came to me and showed me the letter. And he also did some research. There was actually a letter attached to the deed of gift from the fellow saying ‘I never want this material to go back to Russia.’ So we sent that instead of the material.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I guess that’s pretty powerful. Although, this is a common problem: Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back — at the British Museum — for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some probably not so legitimate. Some Bootlegger and Baptist issues, some higher-minded arguments for it; some not so high-minded arguments. But it’s hard to give stuff back.
Eric Wakin: There’s always an answer for this — for cultural property, and institutions like ours that preserve things that might have been destroyed in other environments, like in revolutions, do a service to history by doing that. So there’s always an answer for it.
Russ Roberts: (29:29) I went off track, but I started asking you about pieces of paper. So we have a lot of pieces of paper. We have a lot of non-pieces of paper, too, which surprised me — I recently discovered. What are some of the things we have — we don’t have the Lusitania, that would be a non-piece of paper, obviously. What are some of the things that are “in the archive” that are not traditionally associated with what people would think of?
Eric Wakin: A couple of things I would mention. We have most of the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty — the radio stations that were broadcast into Communist countries — in multiple languages, multiple different kinds of tape formats. Those are stored in boxes, and we are selectively digitizing them to make them available online. So it’s a gigantic collection. We don’t have enough people speaking the language to even describe them. We are working with partners around the world to help us. That’s really unusual, and a lot of work; and deteriorating fast. So those have become challenges. You asked about storage: in offsite storage, they limit the amount of non-paper materials due to fire codes. So you’ve got these tapes which we don’t want to use again once they are digitized, but we can’t move them out of our storage here. We have some interesting art collections — 3-dimensional objects. Swords.
Russ Roberts: How many swords do we have?
Eric Wakin: I haven’t counted them all.
Russ Roberts: Do we have 10, or is it 1000?
Eric Wakin: It’s between 20 and 50 swords. There are swords, paintings.
Russ Roberts: The paintings presumably have market value, unlike correspondence. Correspondence can, I guess, too. But a lot of things we are talking about are essentially — they are not going to ever be sold on the open market.
Eric Wakin: No.
Russ Roberts: And there’s nothing “like it” on the open market. But artwork is very much that way. But we just keep it.
Eric Wakin: I endeavor not to collect non-paper materials. Because we’re not a museum, right? We’re not here to store fine oil paintings.
Russ Roberts: Because they don’t have research and historical value, presumably.
Eric Wakin: Well, no, they have research and historical value —
Russ Roberts: Of a different nature —
Eric Wakin: They’re a little bit far from our mission, a little askance from our mission. And they should be stored under real, superb museum conditions.
Russ Roberts: We do have an exhibit space here. Do those paintings ever get shown? They’re just sitting here. It’s kind of sad.
Eric Wakin: We do show the paintings sometimes. Our exhibit space does a rotating exhibit, twice a year, on topics like William F. Buckley’s ‘Firing Line,’ we own the recordings and the copyright to that show. The Okhrana, the Russian police files from the Tsar’s era in Paris in 1905.
Russ Roberts: Why 1905? Why Paris?
Eric Wakin: The Tsar had his secret police surveilling revolutionaries. And a lot of the revolutionaries were based in Paris — Trotsky and so on. So they have mug shots of revolutionaries, surveillance documents on them. This is an interesting collection because it came to Hoover and it was closed till 1956; and the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) used that collection to see how early, how the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti — the Soviet secret police) might have operated — in other words, what did the KGB learn from its predecessors?
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I wonder how many of those people are the same people. They just switched their badge. Do you know how that came to us?
Eric Wakin: A member of the Russian embassy after the Revolution took it with him and eventually got it to Hoover.
Russ Roberts: Was it a gift or a sale?
Eric Wakin: I’m sure it was a gift.
Russ Roberts: (33:12) What are some of the preservation challenges? There are some obvious things like pieces of paper are put in slip covers. Film deteriorates over time. So you want to digitize that sooner rather than later. But what are some of the other issues? I would keep my swords oiled…
But other than those, where there are some other special things? And how do you keep up to date? One of the things that’s interesting about this conversation for me — I see Eric in the hall every once in a while when I’m out here in the summer and we chitchat. And he’s a buddy; I like him. But I don’t really appreciate the scope of what your job must be like day to day. So we’ve got building acquisition. We’ve got negotiation, we’ve got historical mission; we’ve got a lot of public face of the Institution, the Archives. And now here’s this other one — it’s like being a handyman. So, what are you doing there?
Eric Wakin: Our mission has got to be to preserve things for the next hundred years. That means putting them in boxes; it means digitizing them. It means figuring out how to allocate resources to the collections most endangered: we can’t also spend a lot of money on all of the collections. So we have this mission to preserve, and we have a duty to conserve the materials: it means we have a laboratory here —
Russ Roberts: We have a laboratory? What does that mean?
Eric Wakin: I call it a lab. It’s got book and paper conservation techniques: we rebind books, we preserve 3-dimensional objects; we clean icons. And there are specialists in there and they are trained in preservation methods.
Russ Roberts: How many people do we have in that, if I may ask, in the lab?
Eric Wakin: Four in that lab; we have three in a video and photography preservation lab; we have two in an audio lab. We still have some people doing microfilming and we also have a staff doing digitization. So a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff is about making this accessible to future researchers.
Russ Roberts: I just want to say for the record that I took two folks up to the Hoover Tower yesterday to go to the observation deck, and when I came down I tried to take a photograph, and they said I couldn’t. And I said, ‘Why not?’ And they said, ‘We just don’t allow it.’ Do you know anything about that? Eric, I hate to put you on the spot here.
Eric Wakin: No. I’ve seen that sign there. I can’t quite figure it out, either. There’s nothing in there that you should not take a picture of. There’s only: ‘We’ve always had that law, so we’re going to keep that law.’
Russ Roberts: No, and the person who stopped me was very pleased about that, stopping me. I think that’s an additional pleasure, I’m sorry to report. I will not identify that person. She was just doing her job. That’s okay. Anything else about preservation you want to say? Obviously like you say you have to stay on the cutting edge. Do you lose sleep at night that there’s stuff wasting away somewhere that you don’t know about that’s maybe important?
Eric Wakin: Yes. Especially nitrate film, which both deteriorates and can explode. We keep it in freezers.
Russ Roberts: You keep it in freezers?
Eric Wakin: Special freezers to keep the nitrate, whatever the chemical term is, so it doesn’t deteriorate and turn into an explosive substance. All of our recordings that are on old tapes that break. Paper can last for a while. One of the shocking things that I’ve learned is that microfilm, this outdated technology —
Russ Roberts: Primitive.
Eric Wakin: lasts a long time. A good microfilm can last 50, 100 years. Which, digitization, we don’t know about the problems with that over 50, 100 years.
Russ Roberts: Do we have a lot of microfilm?
Eric Wakin: We have an enormous microfilm collection.
Russ Roberts: Of what? What are the kind of things that are on it?
Eric Wakin: It used to be the practice, for many collections in the early days, we would just microfilm the entire collection and put it on reels; and then people could look at those instead of the actual papers.
Russ Roberts: Do people still use those? Because I remember, in my youth — I’ve done microfilm research. It’s not pleasant. It’s hard on the eyes, the readers are awkward, you’re scanning through — you are rolling the pages of the newspaper. You might as well just look at the newspaper —
Eric Wakin: I’m with you. My dissertation, I’ve got a lot of old dissertations on microfilm to help me out. To be honest, we do get a lot of useful microfilm. Newer microfilm readers are quite good and allow you to make copies from material. And you can scan through stuff. But, you know what’s the best part of microfilm, I’ve found? Digitizing from microfilm is faster and easier, and much cheaper than digitizing from paper. So if the microfilm was done right, that’s a great process. Can I talk about one thing we’re doing which I think is really interesting?
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Eric Wakin: We have a project to digitize millions of pages of Japanese newspapers published in America in different communities — in Hawaii and the West Coast and so on — from 1900 to WWII. And what we are doing as part of our access project is to digitize all this with a grant from a donor and make it available for free online. Those kind of projects I find are really satisfying.
Russ Roberts: (37:46) Who is Joan Quigley, and why is she relevant for the Hoover Institution Archives?
Eric Wakin: In the 1980s, Mrs. Nancy Reagan had a private astrologer named Joan Quigley, and she called Joan her private astrologer.
Russ Roberts: What does the word ‘private’ mean in that sense?
Eric Wakin: A personal astrologer.
Russ Roberts: Okay. She wasn’t a government astrologer.
Eric Wakin: And she asked Joan to do charts for her and for Mr. Reagan. And Joan did the charts for Mr. Reagan, and one of the rumors has been that President Reagan arranged his schedule based on Joan Quigley’s charts — what were the auspicious days for doing things.
Russ Roberts: Nancy Reagan was known for, or at least suspected of being an important figure in the Reagan White House in the day-to-day workings of it.
Eric Wakin: Yes.
Russ Roberts: So, this would be the claim here — that she, through her astrologer, was working on his schedule.
Eric Wakin: Right. So, we thought our mission is to study war, revolution, peace, and American political movements. And Joan Quigley’s sister Ruth called us and asked: would we like to have the charts done on President Reagan? And I said, ‘Sure.’ And it turns out that Joan Quigley was doing charts on many people at the time, one of whom was Reagan. Now, Mrs. Reagan asked for those charts; in some cases Joan Quigley was just doing charts on important historical events to see what happened — how the stars aligned for them. So we’ve just gotten them in; we haven’t had a chance to look at them yet. They’ve just arrived.
Russ Roberts: It’s hard for me to respond to that. I’m just going to leave that alone. Is that the quirkiest thing? I’ll just call it that — quirky. Is that the quirkiest thing we have in the archive?
Eric Wakin: That’s pretty quirky, I think. Yeah. We also have a jar of Mr. Reagan’s, President Reagan’s jelly beans.
Russ Roberts: You scared me there. When you said ‘jar,’ I’m thinking ‘Abby Normal and Igor in Young Frankenstein.’ I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the Hitler discussion earlier, and the brain. Sorry about that. So we have a jar of his jellybeans. What does that mean?
Eric Wakin: Somehow in one collection of a group of people associated with Mr. Reagan, we acquired that at some point. I don’t actually know the provenance of the jellybeans.
Russ Roberts: Could you find them if I asked you?
Eric Wakin: I can find them. They have been seen.
Russ Roberts: By the way, that’s got to be an interesting challenge, right? How do you — when you have 100,000 linear feet—
Eric Wakin: Every collection is catalogued and we know where it is on the shelves. And generally the contents of the boxes are described.
Russ Roberts: I assume there are conferences where archivists get together and talk about these kind of things. Is that correct?
Eric Wakin: There’s one going on right now — the Society of American Archivists meets every year and talks about these issues. It’s a great conference.
Russ Roberts: Why aren’t you there?
Eric Wakin: Unfortunately, I have some important things to do here.
Russ Roberts: It could be this EconTalk interview; I’m sure you wouldn’t dream of postponing or canceling it.
Eric Wakin: You know what you haven’t asked me — besides jellybeans — the thing that archivists like to share thoughts on is strange things they found in boxes that they didn’t expect at the time. So, among the ones we’ve heard of that were found here have been old cheese — dried cheese, a big hunk of cheese. Gun powder in a little satchel. And in a recent collection we got a brown recluse spider nest.
Russ Roberts: That’s pretty creepy. I’m not sure I’ve told this story on EconTalk before, and I apologize if I have. I spoke about my Adam Smith book before a talk at the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) in London.
I was put in the green room — the room you hang out in before your talk. And there was a chair there that it turned out had existed when Adam Smith was alive. And it turns out Adam Smith was a member of the RSA. The Royal Society of Arts. It’s full title is the Royal Society for the Engagement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. And when I went there — and the person guiding me around, meeting me, was new — I was talking about Adam Smith; she was all excited. She said Adam Smith had been a member. So I get to this room. There’s a chair in the corner. And the chair was as old as Adam Smith. [The chair was actually dated to 1759 the very year Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments.]
It had existed when he was a member of the society. And it dawned on me that he may have sat in the chair.
Eric Wakin: Did you get to sit in it?
Russ Roberts: Well, I wanted to sit in it. And I — if you’ve read my book on Adam Smith — listeners will remember there that there’s an interesting part of the Theory of Moral Sentiments about celebrity and our desire to be with celebrities. So I wanted to sit in the chair. But there was a sign that said: Do Not Sit in the Chair. But there was no one in the room.
So did I sit in the chair? And the answer is I didn’t. Because even though there was no one in the room, I was in the room and I would feel bad sitting in the chair and degrading it. It’s of some historical interest because of the person who designed it. [William Chambers, who also designed Somerset House among other things]. But of course I would say that anyway, because Adam Smith fans know that I have a desire to be lovely, I want to be thought of as lovely — but I actually have a desire to be lovely, as Smith would have said. So I did not sit in the chair. Although there’s no proof of that. Unless there was video surveillance.
But I have to say when you mention the Ronald Reagan jelly beans that there’s got to be a temptation to take just one. Let’s say there’s a hundred beans in the jar — and what would really be the harm? We’d still have a jar of Ronald Reagan jelly beans. No one’s going to know. You could do that any time. Could be a scandal of immense proportions. Is the shelf under surveillance?
Eric Wakin: I’m going to go back into the stacks after our interview and go eat some jelly beans.
Russ Roberts: In the movie you would turn off the surveillance video cameras.
Eric Wakin: I’d turn the alarms off.
Russ Roberts: There’d be a little flickering and there would be a shadowy figure there that couldn’t be identified having a jelly bean.
Eric Wakin: As I recall, the jar is tied shut with a ribbon. But I could be wrong.
Russ Roberts: You’ll re-tie it. That’s no problem. What do you like most about your job?
Eric Wakin: I love the fact that new things happen every day, and the variety of experiences I get to have and my colleagues get to have. So, in one day, you might be talking to a donor about an interesting collection, working with a vendor on a preservation or digitization project, talking to colleagues about how to collaborate on something, connecting the materials we have to historian’s work, speaking at a conference where researchers are coming in to use the archives. So it’s a whole host of different activities that will lead to this idea that information is important and material goods are important to society and the world.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don’t know how many listeners have a dream of being an archivist. Probably not that many. But —
Eric Wakin: It’s good, because there probably aren’t that many jobs.
Russ Roberts: Good point. I think one’s perception of being an archivist is that it’s very dull. Turns out it’s not a dull job. The Hoover Archive has an immense amount of stuff, a lot of it related to Communism; a lot of it related to wars; a lot of it related to the Cold War, political movements, of revolutions, etc. And they all happened already. So, your main job is just to keep the place from burning down. ‘I mean, really, what’s new? This is history.’ Right? So the idea that there’s new stuff coming along every day — and not just stuff like Firing Line or, you know, recent, Radio Free Europe stuff — the fact that there’s new historical stuff that surfaces must be exhilarating.
Eric Wakin: Yeah. It’s fascinating that new historical stuff from the past surfaces and we can collect it. But also thinking about: What will people be interested in 50 years from now? So, we’ve collected a whole group of publications by jihadi sources in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, going up to the 2000s. Those will be interesting.
Russ Roberts: How did you get those? What are they?
Eric Wakin: It’s very much a print-culture society; The various political parties and groups in Afghanistan published their own magazines and newspapers on their political party. The Taliban had them, the shah, the King had them — and so a man collected them from the markets for many, many years and had a private library in Kabul, and asked us if we could help him get them out. And pay him for them. And we’re digitizing them and putting them online.
Russ Roberts: How did we — can you talk about how we got them out. And how much — was it a truckload?
Eric Wakin: Many pallets. So the first case, there’s an interesting story. I saw a piece of them actually from a dealer. And I thought, this is really interesting: they’re graphically interesting; they tell a story about politics. So I bought them. A small piece. And as we were going through preservation for them, we saw a stamp from a private library in Afghanistan, in English, on it. So right away I was worried I’d bought stolen material. And so I checked with the dealer. And he said it wasn’t stolen. And then we reached out to the library, just to make sure: ‘We have your stuff; we’d like to return it.’
Russ Roberts: Yeah, my dad sends me library books all the time, and I say, ‘Dad, uhhh?’ ‘No, I’ve bought it.’ They get rid of some of their collections sometimes.
Eric Wakin: So he said, ‘No, I’m glad you bought it. I sold my excess; and would you like to help me get the rest out? My library is under a bit of a threat.’ And so we — I actually wanted to go to Kabul to visit him. But Stanford said, and my wife said, ‘No.’ And someone went for us, and talked to him; and they got it out from the airport on pallets. And we paid him for them, and we are digitizing them. And I think it’s a good thing.
Russ Roberts: Do you ever talk about how much we pay for something like that?
Eric Wakin: Uh, no.
Russ Roberts: Because there are collectors who would buy them. [But a large collection like that] has a unique value to us, because it’s not just going to be treasured by the owner: it’ll be shared. And I assume that person who sold them to us obviously wanted that.
Eric Wakin: Absolutely. It was his idea. We loved to do it. It would be safer, because it wouldn’t be under threat; it wouldn’t be destroyed or burned, whatever; and made available.
You mentioned new things being created. Think about the world now. People aren’t doing as much on paper as they used to. In the new world it’s email and digital documents. That whole collecting area is a new realm for us.
Russ Roberts: How are we dealing with that?
Eric Wakin: Not as well as we’ve been doing in the paper age. There’s such a volume of information created, in so many different formats, we have to figure out, now when we get collections: How do you archive someone’s emails? Why do you take the personal emails out of there? What kind of search are you going to do? It’s actually harder to collect the digital stuff.
Russ Roberts: Has anybody turned over their personal emails to us, historical figures?
Eric Wakin: We’ve gotten them in forms of hard drives, floppy disks, and things like that; and we’re figuring out a process to sort of quarantine them and do forensics to pull them off certain places. But the key is a lot of people’s emails are stored on some server somewhere. So, when we get a collection we try to figure out how to get that off there.
Russ Roberts: There are some people evidently who know how to do that without the person’s permission. But we’ll leave that alone. How about collections that got away? That you regret, wish we’d gotten. Lusitania — I don’t know how you personally feel about that. I understand that —
Eric Wakin: I missed that one.
Russ Roberts: What’s the fish that got away?
Eric Wakin: One that got away in my career was a collection of Nina Simone, the singer. One of her ex-husbands had a collection of hers. This was at another institution…[he] reached out to us and said would we like to buy it? This gets to a valuation issue. I’m always open to conversation, no matter what it is, it’s always great to talk to people. So he said, ‘Come on over to my house.’ I visited him. He had some 8mm performance films that he wanted $1.5 million each for.
Russ Roberts: $1.5 million? This is not Hoover — this is a different institution.
Eric Wakin: Columbia. And then the most interesting thing was a diary she had kept for a while. A diary is often a really great window into people’s souls. And he’d shown that to some researchers; and he wanted us to buy it; and we just didn’t have the money. It was out of our range. And I thought the valuation was too high.
But after a while, he called me up later and said, ‘You know what? I’d like scholars to see the diary. It would be good to have. So I’m going to give you the diary.’ Which I thought was the most valuable part of the collection. So I said, ‘Great.’ I came; he signed the deed of gift. We got the diary. And we’re about to start preserving it and showing it to readers when we got a call from his lawyer saying we had misled him and we needed to give it back. And in spite of having a deed of gift, the lawyers — the University — said, ‘You’ve got to give that back.’ So we gave it back. So now that diary is back with him and no one has seen it.
Russ Roberts: Wow. Presumably the lawyers, either he had second thoughts or the lawyers felt he could get more for it or tried to talk him out of it. Or you took advantage of him —
Eric Wakin: No, no. To be frank, what I said to him was, ‘I’m a market guy. You know what? Your going to get the best value you could get if you have someone in from one of the big auction houses, have them evaluate it, and auction it off.
Russ Roberts: Columbia University’s library has an immense range of stuff, as does Stanford’s. Is there ever stuff here that you turn down that Stanford takes? Or vice versa? Do you guys ever fight?
Eric Wakin: At the Hoover Institution we often will turn down things that are very Stanford-related, and they go to the Stanford Archives — it’s called the University Archives for Stanford. Collections about people who are affiliated with Stanford but really aren’t global war, revolution, peace people. And we share things together: that library and ours work together on projects.
Russ Roberts: But in general, you are going to stick with stuff that you feel is consistent with our mission.
Eric Wakin: Yes.
Russ Roberts: Do you ever get tempted or regret again things that you’ve turned down that you thought — just to say it in an unattractive way — it’s fun to have visitors; it’s fun to get attention. Surely there must be some stuff that comes in over the transom that you think, ‘Well, it’s not exactly our mission, but wouldn’t it be nice to have it? It would be fun. It would be — whatever?’ Does that ever happen?
Eric Wakin: Sure. There are literary collections that I come across. There was a wonderful George Orwell collection that I really wanted. His publisher’s archive in England went on the block — Gollancz. And it was a collection of correspondence with many of the authors, including Orwell. I’m a big Orwell fan, so the collection was really interesting to me; it was very expensive and a little outside of our mission.
Russ Roberts: Well, the expense of it. If it had been free, maybe you would have —
Eric Wakin: I might have —
Russ Roberts: taken a shot at it. It’s not exactly outside of our mission, though, right? Orwell’ —
Eric Wakin: He’s definitely in there.
Russ Roberts: But I guess there’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be in that.
Eric Wakin: The other thing was as an historian — I’m trained as an archivist — it’s really important that collections stay together. So when you take a publisher’s collection and there is correspondence with 20 figures, you sell them off one at a time, you are destroying the cohesiveness of that collection, that correspondence with that one publisher. In that sense it’s wrong in some way.
Russ Roberts: So that’s a code; that’s an unwritten rule or a norm that an archive might have. What are some of the other things that would fall into that for you? When you go to a conference and you talk to people, there must be some shared — when you are doing something that’s — in a way you are doing something that’s incredibly primitive and basic, which is collecting. Human beings like to save stuff, to hoard. It’s a very basic human drive. But you also have at the same time this mission of preservation and access. And I’m just thinking that there must be some shared culture among folks who are doing that for a living.
Eric Wakin: That’s a great question. People involved in this profession, whatever they’re doing — preserving, archiving, collecting — all have a belief it’s important to preserve things for history. So, doing the right thing to preserve materials and making sure they get to the right people is important to them. So this code of not breaking up collections is one thing you mentioned. One of the things people will do with book collections is razor out maps or pictures and sell them. So, not buying things that are clearly razored out of books, at auction.
Russ Roberts: That’s horrifying.
Eric Wakin: Of course it’s horrifying. There’s more of a market value for the individual —
Russ Roberts: So, what do they do?
Eric Wakin: Some dealers, unscrupulous dealers, will razor out pictures and frame them, from books. So it will destroy the book; disaggregate the pieces that are worth more separately. I generally try not to buy them.
Russ Roberts: Because you don’t want to encourage or be a part of that.
Eric Wakin: Right. And making sure that material we get is actually owned by the seller or donor is important.
Russ Roberts: There’s also privacy and copyright issues that arise. So, someone could “own” it or they think they own it, so they sign over a deed of gift where they claim that it’s legitimate. Does that ever come back to bite us?
Eric Wakin: Not yet, but you’ve got to remember this: You own an archive; you have all this material from people who may be living or dead or who have written about other people and anyone can come in and read them. It’s like the Dead Kennedy song, “Stealing People’s Mail”.
You are looking through people’s mail, so there could be a privacy issue in many, many things in an archive. And yet it’s available. So that’s always a little bit of a concern to me.
Russ Roberts: That’s part of the concern, I guess, with digitization. It feels different, anyway, that somebody would come in and read a personal letter: It’s different somehow than somebody posting a blog post on the internet and spreading it around.
Eric Wakin: What was the latest thing? “I saw Russ Roberts rip up a Keynes postcard!”
Russ Roberts: Exactly. That’s a piece of digital footage from your video. No, I have a lot of respect for Mr. Keynes, and Mr. Hayek — and I’ve thought about writing a musical based on somebody doing archival research in the Hoover Archive…
Eric Waken: Hamilton worked.
Russ Roberts: That idea of razoring out something is so anathema to me; and I have a correspondent I will not identify who occasionally instead of copying something he wants me to see will literally tear it out of the book —
Eric Wakin: Aaawh.
Russ Roberts: Yeah — I have an emotional reaction. It’s not a rare book; it doesn’t matter. There’s a violation there. It strikes me as — aeeh. Anyway, I just had a flash of that. Maybe into my 50s I never wrote in a book. Most of the books I own, that I’ve read, you can’t tell that I’ve read them. I never open them widely; I never bent pages back. A lot of people read books, they put them open upside down on the counter to show where their page is — I’m horrified. I look at it, ‘The spine! The spine! What are you thinking?’ I’ve gotten a little more loose but still the idea of razoring out is just awful.
Let’s close with an issue you referred to a minute ago and it was very relevant for a recent guest, Abby Smith Rumsey, talking about collected memory and some of the challenges of establishing archival material in the digital age.
And there is something very primal and powerful about original artifacts, whether it’s an x-ray or a piece of paper or an incredibly important moment in history. Those things are going to disappear — it’s not that they are going to disappear: they are not going to exist in the same way.
Emails are — it’s ironic, right? We have everything saved. If you go to my gmail account — please don’t — but if you went into my gmail account, I have 49,000 gmails. I’ve got ’em all; and I can go back and look any time at my gmails from 2007 or 2009. And of course they’re there because I just think maybe I will someday, which is worse than absurd. I just don’t bother; and I don’t bother cleaning them up. So they are all there.
And yet their accessibility, which is the key issue that you raised earlier, not that mine are of historical interest, but important historical figures, we won’t have their correspondence. You mentioned Hamilton — I think about the Founders, Jefferson and Adams, to quote the musical Hamilton, in the musical it says, ‘History has its eyes on you.’
They knew that; and they corresponded with each other I think very strategically to some extent. They were friends eventually. But I think they knew that their correspondence would be read down the ages. And I assume that changed what they wrote. And they, maybe occasionally as we do, just like we’ll have a face-to-face conversation rather than something on email that we think is personal, that might not be best shared — so they did, I’m sure, the same thing.
I’m sure they occasionally spoke face to face about things and reminisced in ways they wouldn’t in their correspondence. But we have their correspondence. And of course — I just love this — they both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day of the Declaration of Independence. And I believe deeply that that wasn’t a coincidence: that they both wanted to live to see that day and they tried hard to stay alive, and it helped. That effort mattered. I suspect that had something to do with why they survived. So, we live in an age where that’s gone, to some extent. We are not going to be able to see some of those originals. What do you think about that?
Eric Wakin: It’s the great paradox of this wonderful, digital, open, everyone-can-find-it culture, is that you really can’t. All the beautiful correspondence — you are absolutely right. We live in this age where we think everything is wonderful and open and there’s great access. But in fact all of that correspondence — the beginning of the digital era — is not going to be found. So actually historians and everyone else’s job about access to the past is going to be incredibly difficult until they figure out a way to do it. It’s sad, and irretrievable, I would say.
Russ Roberts: But, going forward, one of the costs of that openness is that we, I think, commit less and less to the public record. We say things that are quiet and face to face. I actually believe — after I read Kevin Kelly’s book The Inevitable and interviewed him — I have a feeling that our culture’s attitude toward privacy is going to change. That’s not a very controversial statement: I think it’s changed dramatically in the last 10 years, the way we feel about intrusion, the willingness of people to share aspects of their lives publicly is really dramatically different, and I think that’s going to affect maybe what we do put in email, and for people who grew up with it rather than people who didn’t grow up with it, that it’s going to be different. So I think it will change. But that makes your job very different.
Eric Wakin: Yeah, very hard to figure out, target the areas which we cancollect in which people want to share their correspondence with us while always acknowledging that — people are always thinking before they write. So there’s always the notion of, even in the written, paper age: How were they thinking about how they wrote their letters, and what did they want people to remember about them?
Russ Roberts: And that just — we’re talking about correspondence, but of course it’s more than correspondence. So things like Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries, things like — I’m not sure what else would fall into this category. With Abby Smith Rumsey we talked about the Declaration of Independence — we have drafts of it. People can look at them and how that affects them when they see that things were crossed out is jarring.
Eric Wakin: And drafts — people don’t save their email and their drafts of their work, digitally, necessarily.
Russ Roberts: Right. You just get the final. We have T. S. Eliot’s poetry with Ezra Pound’s handwritten marginalia. I think it’s ‘The Waste Land,’ is dedicated to Ezra Pound, ‘il miglior fabbro’: The better craftsman.
Which is probably the ultimate compliment a poet can give another, and it — to do it in Italian just adds to the snobbish appeal of that, of course. But all that’s going to be gone. Right?
Eric Wakin: Salman Rushdie, who donated his old PC (Personal Computer) to Emory University; and it had drafts of several things over time. And they were able to preserve it in that way. So if you are writing and your hard drive and your cloud space preserves your old draft, one could in theory donate those. But yes, it makes it hard.