Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In my job as the main media digitization person here at the Cummings Center, I have the opportunity to hear and see things that sometimes have not been seen or heard in decades or longer. This is one of my favorite aspects of the job – outside of being able to actively do a service for the study of history – and sometimes we find things that we did not know we had, or even existed.
My most recent project involved digitizing audio recordings from wire spools. On these spools,  Dr. David Pablo Boder recorded fascinating things, from interviews with people displaced by the 1951 Kansas City Flood to speeches and radio programs.
IMG_1120.JPGThe three boxes of spools in the AHAP collection
Boder’s most famous work was done in 1946 when he traveled across Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland and collected interviews with displaced persons--many of them Holocaust survivors--in the aftermath of World War II. Most of the recordings were uncovered in the late 1990s between the Library of Congress and the Illinois Institute of Technology, spurring much interest in Boder's work.
Boder off trainFrom a 16mm film of Boder in Germany
There was one wire spool that was never found, being referenced in his work but not found in the various Boder collections. This spool was of Jewish songs from a displaced persons camp in Henonville, France.
As I went through the three boxes of spools that we have at the archives I began to take stock of what we knew we had on spools versus what we had no idea about. Among these “confused” wire spools was the one below.

The spool above had been erroneously entered into the finding aid as “Heroville Songs” when the collection was originally processed in the 1960s. It did not take me long to realize that the tin says “Henonville? Songs.” But this was no guarantee that this was the content on the spool. Even the tin itself seemed a bit unsure about its own content.
It took me a few days to get comfortable enough with the medium to put the Henonville Songs on to digitize – these are very fragile and I did not want to risk destroying history – but when I did I was blown away.
These are the missing songs Boder recorded from those survivors, recorded more than 60 years ago. The feeling of knowing what I had found and the understanding that I was  listening to something few before me had heard was a very different and personal thing for me. It felt like I was helping in some way to bring these voices to the present, voices that had become somewhat lost to the historical record.
The discovery of this single canister holding a lost recording means that  these songs can be heard again, they can be studied, and they can inform us in a new way about the experiences, the joys, and the frustrations of these displaced persons.
Below is a link to the CCHP blog that contains several samples from the Henonville Songs spool. Please give them a listen, they’ve been waiting a long time.
[Note: If you're interested in hearing or using Boder's work for research, please contact us at]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

6/27/16 - 7/8/16

This past two weeks I have really delved into the content of the Boder spool collection. As of now I am 15 spools in. Most of these are from the Displaced Persons box and the Sylvia Case Study box.

It seems that my previous assumption that we have very little of the Holocaust material was confirmed. So far in the Displaced Persons box I have found:

  • Spool 05: Interviews with people in the US in 1946, including interviews with veterans who suffered from traumatic events in the war. All of these men seem to be suffering from "nervousness" and anxiety. One is of a paratrooper who came under friendly fire during a jump. The others do not go into great detail about their wartime experience.
  • Spool 06: A collection of songs from the Henonville displaced persons camp in France in 1946. The spool in question is very likely one of the lost Boder spools that I have read about -- in fact I am all but 100% positive on this. I am extremely excited about this find, but have to speak to Dr. Baker about it before I can confirm anything or before the recording is made available in any way. In any case it was amazing listening to this spool that has not been heard likely since 1946.
  • Spool 07: This spool is labeled "The last 20 minutes are a transcription in German of spool 83 which is damaged - conserve German text." The beginning of the I have not listened to as thoroughly as I should so far, but it seems to be one Holocaust interview in English. The last portion has a man speaking in German, I would have to assume that this has to do with the Holocaust recordings, but I did not go past German II in high school many years ago so I have no idea what the person is saying.
  • Spool 09: This spool is a recording of the Midwest Public Forum in 1946. I have been unable to find out exactly what the Midwest Public Forum was but I would assume it is like the Cleveland City Club or something to that extent. In this forum there are two speakers, Senator Claude Pepper of Florida and also Dr. David Petegorsky. Senator Pepper was known for being extremely leftist and even pro-Soviet Union before the start of WWII. Dr. Petegorsky was the National Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress at the time and during the war was the Deputy Director of the Canadian Wartime Information Board. The talk is fascinating as it focuses on two subjects: how to get Europe back together after the war and also the question of what happens to the Jewish people. Petegorsky goes on about the idea of creating a Jewish state where Jews and Arabs would coexist peacefully (interesting to hear the concept some 70 years later). What is most interesting to me, however, is a portion of the recording where the speaker talks about the amount of Jews that died. He said that many still would not believe that 6 million had died, another thing that is odd to hear 70 years on. This spool brings up historical points that as a person in 2016 I would not think to ask. Also, there is no mention of the word Holocaust as it was not yet a term used for the events that happened. 
A clip from Spool 09:

  • Spool 12: This spool takes us back to the United States and has nothing to do with the war. This spool is labeled "Chicago Hospital Dunning, Andy, and Helen" and according to the intro by Boder is part of research by David (? possibly Mandel) and Irene Sherman. Irene spent many years working with the Chicago Board of Mental Hygiene and did a wide variety of research. The spool includes interviews with two patients at Dunning State Hospital (also known as the Chicago State Hospital and a place where horror stories came to life). These two are Andy and Helen, and they are mentally ill.. The spool concludes with what sounds like a whole day room of patients singing "Oh My Darling Clementine." This, of course, could be left over from a previous recording, but it is creepy none the less.
  • Spool 16: The final spool that I have so far digitized in the Displaced Persons box. This spool is a child language study by John Chapman under the guidance of Dr. Boder. As Chapman says in his intro it is a Language Study of Half Orphans conducted at the Klingberg Children's Home in Chicago in 1951. The interview is with one 11 year old girl (her name is mentioned, but it is possible she is still alive). Much of the interview involves her coming to the home, what she does throughout the day and when she goes to visit relatives. She also seems to be a baseball fan as she is talking about the Indians beating the Cubs. Go Tribe!
A clip from the very beginning of Spool 16:

This then takes us to Sylvia, I have so far digitized six of these spools and since the time of my last blog post I have tracked down Sylvia and have mapped out her family based on both what she says on the spools and also genealogical research. While I do have her full name, where she was born, all I will say is that she was born in Indiana and her father is a mighty interesting man within the communities in which he lived.

One thing I will do is post a picture of Sylvia. The only one I can find.

For the time being I am not going to put up any clips of these spools. It just doesn't seem right.

I have about another 10 Sylvia spools to finish. Something tells me her story will just continue getting more interesting.

For the next blog post I am going to have a bit of a change of pace and will be outlining how the wire recorder machine works, the process of using the machine, how to rewind and some thoughts on perfecting the digitization process.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

6/20/16 - 6/24/16

I have officially started on the digitization that is the lion's share of my capstone project. I finally gained the nerve to start putting the Boder spools on the machine after several days of testing with the test spools. One of the test spools didn't make it.

Godspeed, test spool, we hardly knew ye.

Losing this spool bummed me out. I hadn't a chance to digitize it and sort of feel like I am responsible for destroying history. This spool contained numerous sermons and services of some sort of Protestant church from the 1950s. (The fault does not really lie with me, they had far too much wire on the spool and it began spilling over the sides, it was not salvageable. Also, my dating of the spool comes from mentions of the Korean War currently happening.) But breaking things gives me confidence and I started in with the Boder spools on Tuesday.

The Boder audio collection is broken into three parts. The main one would be the Holocaust recordings, when Boder traveled Eastern Europe in 1946 collecting stories about the Holocaust from those in refugee camps after being liberated. The second selections of recordings are from Kansas City in 1951 after the great Kansas City Flood. Boder's main interest was in displaced peoples. The final portion of recordings are completely different from the other two. This one had no information in the finding aid or the papers and is simply labeled "Sylvia Case Study." The spools are dated over the course of several years. As I wanted to test each portion of the collection right off the bat I chose to do one from each to compare their condition and content.

The first spool I did was from the Holocaust spools. To my surprise however, it had nothing to do with the Holocaust (at least as far as I could tell).

This is the first spool.

It can be difficult to read, but both the canister and the paper on top of the spool say "Woman with Broken Arm / Veteran with divorced parents. April 18/46". My thinking is that all of his recordings from 1946 are in here, not just the Holocaust ones. As a result we may have less of the Holocaust materials than we had previous thought.

(Something I am still wondering: Boder's recordings were so obscure that they were not known of by major researchers for a very long time, they did not come to light until some copied transcripts were found and then the duplicate spools were found at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But we had the original transcripts since Boder's death in the mid-60s. Sooooo, why didn't the U of A get the limelight when that story broke in the early 2000s?) Anyway, rant over.

This spool has just what it says. The first interview seems to be a fairly depressed older lady who had recently broken her arm. She does on at length about her children, particularly her youngest son (born in 1918) who is about to get married to a woman she does not particularly like.

The second interview is with a WWII veteran who is experiencing "nervousness." I am inclined to think he was dealing with PTSD. The interview revolves around his 4 years in the Army and also his parents divorce while in the service.

Overall the audio quality is fairly good. But there are large portions where the speech is all but unintelligible.

The second spool that I digitized was the first of the Kansas City Flood spools.

I love clear labeling. Even after 60 years.

These interviews reminded me much of the first spool that I digitized, however with these I know the exact context. What is on the spool does not completely reflect the labeling, it begins with a woman and then goes into the interview with Rodreguez. The label does note, however, that the beginning of the spool is missing. The questions Boder asks mostly have to do with how people escaped, what they took with them, where they went, and what the response of the government was. Like the first spool the audio was fairly good with some sections where everything was just garbled.

First Sylvia spool

The final portion of the collection was a giant mystery to me. And boy do I love mysteries. These 16 spools, called "Sylvia Case Study" are the only things in the Boder collection that no one has much of an idea on. In Boder's papers I have found no mention of a Sylvia nor of any case studies whatsoever. Also, the finding aid only says something to the effect of "Sylvia- 16 spools," not the normal item level descriptions that many of the 1960s finding aids have. I found this all incredibly odd as they start in 1951, go through 1953 with the last labeled 1956. This is obviously something that Boder worked on for a great deal of time . . . but he never wrote about it (or we didn't get those papers)? I understand that certain things would be sealed or redacted as when the collection was accessioned in 1960s Sylvia very well could have been alive and in her late 30s.

I have digitized and thoroughly listened to the first two spools and I think this is a mystery I wholehearted would like to pursue if I get the okay from the museum. So, Sylvia is the name of a patient that Boder began seeing in 1951 (possibly starting in 1950, I am not sure yet).

My interest was peaked as soon as I began listening to Sylvia's story (which I am trying to tie together as I would assume -- and I probably shouldn't -- she was suffering from bi-polar disorder and borderline personality disorder and is very much in a manic, possibly even psychotic, state in the first spool). She was turning 25 in August of 1951, meaning she was born in 1926. She grew up very poor in Chicago to parents who divorced when she was young and by 1951 was living in the Loop area, which I have determined was the heart of the arts and music scenes at the time and Sylvia was apparently very much a part of this community.

Another community she knew (but claims to not take part in) was the heroin community. Upon a bit of research I found that in 1951 the heroin epidemic in Chicago was reaching its peak due to the supply of the drug by Lucky Luciano's gang. Sylvia was also obsessed with getting a job at a newspaper and her knowledge of Chicago newspeople is astounding.  While her story is so far very sad and tragic I feel some connection with this person from 65 years ago.

These spools are intriguing for so many reason; their focus on drugs and music at the time, the lack of recommendation of medication or hospitalization (it just seems odd for 1951), for the context of Chicago in the post-war era, and for male female relations at the time.

Ultimately, I would like to know who this person was. I'd like to find a picture. Just knowing what happened to her after these spools would be fascinating.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 13-16

Alright, well after a week of not being able to do much on this project I now have the wire recorder that Jamie Newhall built out of the old one (it's actually quite impressive, this franken-recorder). I have also quickly discovered what a massive pain in the butt this format is to work with. The test spool that I have been using to learn the process of using this machine is breaking once every five minutes or so while rewinding, but this has afforded me the chance to become an expert in splicing broken pieces together. Another major issue is that the wire comes off the play head easily if the play head is moving in a different direction than the wire is spooled. I have also found in the test spool several foot in length of unattached wire. This allows me to test some things I might have to do to the Boder spools to get every iota of information off of the wires.

Below is a video showing the overall operation and a closeup on the play head with the wire running through it. This is the machine as it is "rewinding" (which is really reversing the spools and having the machine fast-forward), so there is no audio right now and it is moving faster than usual.

One thing that I did not really think about previously is the fact that on one spool there might be several different recordings, but some have either been spliced in backwards or it was used with no discrimination as to what is forward playing and what is backward playing. As a result on the test spool alone there are recordings that will play properly and then the next recording will play backwards. I must say, I am very glad I have computers to remedy this as it would be a major pain finding what sections play forward or backward and try to cue the recordings manually.

This is now where the fun begins. Over the next few days I will become more familiar and comfortable and will also perfect the digitization method. Starting next week I will begin the digitization of the Boder spools. There are too many to finish in this project alone, so I will mostly focus on the Holocaust survivor spools, but will also give some time to the other two collection of spools.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

May 31 - May 3

I've switched to a weekly format at this point as in the next few days the digitizing point of this project will be beginning. So, this week was mostly learning how to deal with the spools that are broken, at least the possibly salvageable ones. In a previous post I showed this photo:

When I removed the paper and looked at this spool earlier I felt like this would be one of a few spools that may not be repairable at all. However, the broken wires were looped around each other in an attempt to keep everything together (I suppose that is what the paper was for as well). So this indicated to me that at some point someone perhaps thought this was repairable. I spent about an hour untangling the mess of broken wires until I had the broken pieces all separated out from the intact wire that is still spooled. In the end I had four separated wires of varying length. One length was quite long at maybe 7 feet, the others were much shorter.

I made no attempt to splice these yet in the hopes I can find a way to run those bits through the wire recorder to determine the order they would go in. It seems that push to shove I could just splice them back together in an unknown order and then get them in the right position after they are digitized. 

With what I learned here I think there is really only one spool that will not be repairable. Just for fun I am going to post a picture of that spool before signing off. My next step should be familiarizing myself with the wire recorder and then beginning digitization. 

Unfortunately I could not get the canister open on this horribly destroyed one (it was a bear to open the other day even). So I can't show the full horror show inside this container. However, just seeing all of the wires poking out should show the state of disrepair. If I can get this open again and if I can even peel away the mess of loose wires I doubt there would be much to salvage. I'm saving this for last in the digitizing process as I am sure I am in for a major headache. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Wednesday - 5/25/2016 - 10 am -12 pm

Today is the first day of spool inspection, which I have no idea how to do. When inspecting film it is exceedingly easy to simply roll through the film, find areas that will more than likely break and repair those areas. Well, that does not really work for the wire spools. One thing to note is the sheer length of the wire. Assuming that most of these are one hour spools -- which may or may not be the case -- and assuming that they play at the standard speed of 24 inches a second then these wires can be up to 7,200 feet long or 1.36 MILES! Obviously hand inspection goes out the window at this point so as an alternative I went through the spools to find any obvious problem spools.

In doing this I took a few pictures that go through was is normal and good and also what is obviously a very broken spool that likely will not be playable.

This is what a typical spool will look like right out of the canister. Often the labels are very faded on the outside. Fortunately, when they were first processed at the archives the labels were copied down on the finding aids. Note the condition of the wire on the spool. It is unrusted and tightly wound, there are no obvious broken areas. I suspect this spool will be easy to work will and run through the machine when the time comes.

There is no real consensus that I can find about how to hold the wire when stored. Many of these were just loose and this did not work very well, the wire would unspool when taken out of the canister. My solution is simply to affix the loose end of the wire to the bottom of the spool with some archival tape meant for film. 

This gives some idea of the small gauge of wire being dealt with. I am not sure exactly what gauge it is -- or if it even corresponds to modern gauge measurements -- but it is very thin. Working with these wires means that there are going to be many little fingertip stabs much like when working with lower gauge guitar string.

This is a spool that has seen better days, in fact this is the second worse one that I have come across. Below the paper that is surrounding the spool are an absolute rat's nest of tangled and broken wires. I did not remove the paper for the picture because it would just go everywhere. I will probably try to attempt to at least salvage the last bit that is still spooled, but the areas that have broken off will likely be lost as I have no idea what order they would be in to splice it back together.

In going through the spools I only found two which are perhaps too far gone to be digitized, one for sure is completely gone. There were many spools that seem like they are perfect and about a third of the spools seem to be broken in at least some way -- when you pull the spool out of the canister and can see more than one loose end you know this is the case -- but hopefully these will be easy to repair once I get the hang of it. Splicing only consists of using a square-knot to tie the ends together, so I have my fingers crossed that that process is friendly.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tuesday - 5/24/2016 - 11 am -1 pm

Today was the first day to actually handle the spools we have here. They total three boxes with 14 reels in box 122, these are interviews regarding the Kansas city flood. Box 123 will be the big one as I understand it. These would for the most part be the Holocaust spools. Some seem not to be such as several spools that seem to be recorded radio programs from 1945 and 1946. However these 17 spools may include some interviews and recordings that are not available to the public yet, at least I am hoping. The spools are not very well labeled so I am not sure what interviews are on what spools. The final box, box 124, has spools labeled Case Study Sylvia. There are 17 of these spools, they all seem to be from 1951. I am unsure what these are or what is on them. Once I pull some of the Boder papers I should have some sort of indication.

After going through the spools and taking stock of what is in the boxes I moved on to seeing just what the Library of Congress has in the way of the Boder recordings. I went through their catalog and found the entries for the recordings. They are all listed by the name of who is being interviewed, these do not link up with the way the spools we have are labeled. As a result I could not easily compare what we have compared to what they have. This will be a task I will have to undertake after the digitization of these audio spools.