Archivist Offers a Look at a Day in the Life of the Hoover Archives

Monday, November 29, 2004

"A Day in the Life of the Hoover Archives," a presentation by Hoover research fellow and project archivist Anatol Shmelev, November 4 and 5, offered a rarely seen look into the internal workings of the Hoover Library and Archives.

"The archives does more than collect," Shmelev said. "We must organize, preserve, and then disseminate materials to the public." Shmelev, who has been with the Hoover Institution since 1997, is the project archivist for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) collection.

Using that collection Shmelev walked the audience through the process the archives uses in making documents available.

The first decision of any archives, he said, is arriving at what to collect. With the Hoover Library and Archives, major collections relating to war, revolution, and peace in the 20th and now 21st century are a primary focus. The importance of the RFE/RL collection in this scheme is that it provides a historical record of the cold war, with special attention to every major event, movement, and personality in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe throughout the second half of the twentieth century into the first years of transition from communism to democracy.

The documents, recordings, and other items in the RFE/RL collection arrived in boxes that filled 14 cargo containers. The broadcast archives consists of some 81,000 reels of broadcast tapes, 7.5 million pages of broadcast transcripts, and thousands of additional documents generated by the various broadcast services of RFE and RL. The corporate records include the administrative files of the offices of the president, executive vice president, RFE director, RL director, New York Program Center, Public Affairs Office, and other operating units.

Many researchers will access the materials, Shmelev said, some from a distance. Before the materials can be used, however, they must go through the preservation process, in which the condition that materials arrive in can pose problems.

Such problems include book bindings that separate to audio recordings that disintegrate to negatives with emulsion peeling and flaking off, making them unusable. Mold on paper is a danger and must be dealt with quickly so it does not spread to other documents. "One of the better ways to preserve brittle and fragile paper," Shmelev said, "is to use microfilm." Although it sounds old- fashioned, he said, microfilm hasn't lost its value in preservation.

Although archivists are leery of digitization because of the dangers of file corruption and quick obsolescence, in certain cases, it is one of the few available options: reels of audiotape have already become difficult to use due to chemical deterioration and the lack of tape players. "Things we once took for granted, such as floppy disks and audio cassettes, are rapidly disappearing," Shmelev pointed out.

In addition to making the collections available to scholars and other interested parties, the archives provides outreach through publications, conferences, exhibitions, and a Web site. International researchers and former government officials met in mid-October at the Hoover Institution to address the impact of Western broadcasting - especially Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) - during the cold war. The conference was held in conjunction with the current exhibit, Voices of Hope: The Story of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which is being held in the Hoover Exhibition Pavilion.

The final challenge facing the archives is space, Shmelev said. The goal is to keep documents on site to facilitate researchers. The archives, which uses compact shelving, is making every effort to meet this goal.