Interview with Lisa Miller, Associate Archivist, Hoover Institute Archives, Stanford University

Pamela Vadekan: Hello, this is Pamela Vadekan. Today is June 10th, 2011, and I’m here with Lisa Miller. Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. First off we’ll just start with your job title.

Lisa Miller: I’m an Associate Archivist at the Hoover Institution Archives.

PV: And is this full-time?

LM: It is a full-time job.

PV: And when did you start working at the library?

LM: About nine years ago. And I’ve done a great variety of different things in my time here.

PV: Well, it would be great to start at the beginning, if you don’t mind, and talk about what led you to this particular department.

LM: Well, if we go back to the beginning, my career as an archivist began when I was accepted into the archivists training program at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. And that was in 1989, I think. I have more than twenty years of experience now, which is kind of amazing. And I went through a two-year training program at the National Archives, worked in the legislative branch in Washington, D.C. when I completed the program. And then transferred to the regional archives facility of the National Archives, which was located in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco. And I worked there for about nine years and then came to Hoover. And all of my time at the National Archives was spent with traditional paper-based media, and it’s only since I’ve come to Hoover that I’ve gotten involved in AV materials, and digital materials, and other digital things.

PV: And what are your primary job duties and responsibilities?

LM: Right now most of my work is with the digital and AV reformatting projects and programs here. I’ve been working with removable computer media that come in with our collections, figuring out how to process them and what sort of program and policies to set up for digital preservation. And it’s by processing these different media that we’ve fleshed out what our plan and procedures will be. And so, I’ve done that from the very beginning of the digital program here at Hoover. Originally I was working with floppy disks, but now we’ve sort of jumped ahead and started dealing with optical disks as our curators bring them in. I’m beginning to see moving image material on these disks and I’ve been exploring how we might process and preserve them.

PV: So you’ve found yourself doing more immediate preservation planning as soon as collections come in.

LM: Certainly, yes. And I wouldn’t stop at preservation planning, because from the very beginning, my approach has been to go beyond preservation to make sure that anything we process and preserve is also available to researchers. So perhaps more than some other repositories, we’ve really focused on providing a use copy in our reading room. I gather that a lot of other archives are preserving but not doing that last step, and that’s been very important to me here.

PV: That’s great. And I guess just backing up a little bit- could you describe how the archives fit within the Hoover Institution, and the greater Stanford University?

LM: Well a lot of it I’ve never quite understood either, but the Hoover Institution is an affiliated library at Stanford—that seems to mean that we’re very independent. We get a small amount of money from Stanford for the library and archives, although not for any other functions at Hoover. But the vast majority of library and archives funding comes from development work by Hoover staff. So, our funding is largely independent of Stanford. We do follow Stanford in terms of personnel policies and that sort of thing, but we are pretty much independent.

And then the library and archives, I would say, tries to be somewhat independent from the rest of the Hoover Institution. Originally [it] started as a library and archive in 1919, but over time, mostly starting around the ‘50s and ‘60s, the think-tank component really got rolling, and that’s become the most recognized and largest part of the Hoover Institution. And that [arm], of course, has much more of a political and philosophical focus. The library and archives tries to stay separate from that. We collect a whole range of political and economic viewpoints. There’s an unfortunate belief that we’re only interested in collecting from one side of the political spectrum in our archival and library materials, but that’s not the case. We really strive for any sort of material that documents economic, political and social change in the 20th and now the 21st century. So we try to be independent from the rest of the Hoover Institution.

PV: And it sounds like the collections must be pretty expansive in terms of formats. Could you describe them? It’s obviously a mixed collection….

LM: Yes. Of course, in 1919 we started out with paper materials. But now we have about one hundred thousand audio items. Our big [audio] collections are the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty sound recordings and accompanying paper records. We also have a large collection of Commonwealth Club of California records, which includes thousands of sound recordings in several formats, and also paper records. [Then we have] about ten thousand videotapes, the largest collection probably [being] our Firing Line television show collection, for which we [also] acquired the rights; [as such] we focus most of our video work on that particular collection. Though we of course have many other collections with small video components. And then we have five thousand reels of motion picture film. [One of our most significant film collections is that of] the Agnew footage of the explosions of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. We have a collection called the [Herman] Axelbank collection that has more than two hundred reels of historical footage of the Soviet Union and Russia in the 20th century, including footage of the czars in World War I, and [footage of World War] II. If you’ve seen any documentaries [showing] the Russian czars, there was probably some Axelbank film in there. We have film footage of [Leon] Trotsky and Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico in a couple of our collections. We have a large collection of UFA [Universum Film AG] films from the period of the Third Reich in Germany. And many other things. We think there are films in about one hundred different collections in our holdings.

PV: And what about the digital stuff that you were talking about earlier?

LM: We haven’t quite gotten a deluge of digital yet. Small things come in, often along with paper materials. And it’s beginning to grow. I can’t say there’s one really large collection that predominates and that’s particularly striking. It’s just kind of creeping up on us and infiltrating. And I think there’s a deluge to come, but we haven’t quite hit that yet.

PV: And is it mostly DAT tapes, or—? You mentioned CDs, optical media, DVDs.

LM: I’m starting to get some travel drives. I’ve got one plugged into my computer right now that I’ve been working on. Optical disks, some portable hard drives—it’s just a little bit of everything.

PV: And moving backwards a little bit …. What are your primary job duties and responsibilities? And if you could describe a typical day or week of your job, that would be great.

LM: I have a feeling everyone has trouble describing a typical day. I work on a project and program basis. So [I deal with] different reformatting projects, including microfilming, which we still do. Audio, video—we do very little film work at this point. And any project like that, a special project, I usually have an oversight role. [I] help plan it and try to make sure that all of the proper archival things happen so that even though it’s not paper materials anymore, we’re still adhering to all of those archival steps that are really fundamental to what archives do. And unfortunately, I think sometimes there’s a tendency with specialists to have deep expertise in their particular area, without grasping or understanding the overall process, from accessioning and appraisal, to providing things in the reading room and describing them. I feel my role is to make sure all of those things are addressed somehow in the workflow. And in terms of programs, I mostly work in developing our digital processing/preservation program again, in light of that full process of working with archival materials.

PV: And how many staff work here?

LM: You can slice and dice it a little bit. I think we have about twenty-five people in the archives, including our book and paper preservation staff, and our administrative support staff. And then we have about four people in the library, and about five or six curators.

PV: And is there anyone that specializes in moving image and audio archiving?

LM: Yes. That’s been a huge growth area for us, thank heavens, because we really need specialized help in those areas. When I started working here nine years ago, we had a part-time person who took care of all requests for AV and still-image materials—it was really more of a reproduction-orders position. And within a few years, that job became full-time. Then, with the amount of work [to be done], and the growth of our AV holdings, we began to hire more staff. First we hired a full-time audio person, about seven or eight years ago. Next we actually built out some specialized lab space, especially audio processing. We got a Quadriga system, a very high-end system, to deal with audio transfers. And then we hired an audio engineer to work on transfers along with our audio archivist. The reference-orders position remains and [that person] handles moving image requests and also still image requests. Eventually we professionalized that position, hired a person with video expertise, and then hired an assistant for that person. And that assistant gradually evolved into a full-time person.

So in the course of seven years, we went from really no one specialized in AV materials to having two audio specialists, and two moving image people, who unfortunately also have to deal with still images. And the other thing that happened is, with the turnover of staff we’ve shifted from having people with expertise in video, to people with expertise with motion picture film. So I’ve made it sound rather complicated, but Hoover has invested a lot of resources in recent years in beefing up its AV department and the staff resources to work with these materials.

PV: It’s great that you have the institutional support to respond to the need of the collections.

LM: Yes, and I have to say, that’s absolutely true for audio. I can’t say it’s absolutely true for moving image material. Because we don’t have any in-house capability to do the transfer and preservation work with moving image material. All of that work still needs to be outsourced. So it’s kind of ironic that we have these staff with expertise, but we don’t have any dedicated funds to pay for any preservation and transfer work on video and motion picture film. The only funding is through reproduction requests. So if a researcher wants something bad enough, they will pay to have the film or video lab do the transfer. Again: unfortunately our moving image people are also responsible for still images and too much of their time goes there. I would like to see that change, but that’s been the tradition here, and it’s been difficult to [alter] that split focus that, to me, doesn’t make sense.

PV: And do you work at all with Hannah Frost at the Stanford Media Preservation Lab in terms of reformatting?

LM: No, we’ve [only] used vendors outside of Stanford—commercial vendors. We certainly go to Hannah for her expertise. And before all of our AV staff were hired, when I was beginning to deal with some of the collection materials and had questions, she was a wonderful resource and gave me very helpful information on many occasions.

PV: And for any of the preservation work you are able to do besides the reference requests, do you end up writing grants?

LM: We’ve taken a stab at one or two grants and were not successful. Because Hoover is a very well-funded organization compared to a lot of archival repositories, I think there’s a sense among the managers that the best funding sources are our donors rather than federal granting agencies or other granting agencies. So that has been the tradition here.

PV: [I’d like to hear more about] how you’ve been preserving the Firing Line series, because I think it’s really interesting.

LM: Thank you. And I should’ve mentioned that, because it’s a very unique collection, the way we’re dealing with it is very different than the neglect [experienced by] the rest of our moving image materials. And because Firing Line was such a wonderful fit in terms of its content for the greater Hoover Institution and the donor base that funds much of our operations, there has been a great deal of interest in the Firing Line collection and a great deal of attention and resources given to it. Originally we had funding to do some transfer work with the videotapes and Hoover paid for a fair number of transfers. We also got a National Television and Video Preservation Foundation grant to do a little bit of work on that collection.

But over time we developed a relationship with Create Space and Amazon and because we own the rights to Firing Line, we were able to develop a program for video-on-demand with sales of DVDs through Amazon. And it’s been a wonderful program for us. We’ve generated a fair amount of money through royalties on sales of Firing Line DVDs and we’ve turned around and put that money back into the preservation of more videotapes in the collection to again be able to create and sell more DVDs of Firing Line programs. The royalties don’t come in fast enough for the amount of tapes still in need of preservation work, but it’s still a really rewarding model. And it’s working well in terms of at least allowing us to continue to do preservation work.

PV: I also think it’s a good way to give the public an idea of the process and what it takes to actually get that DVD. I looked at your Frequently Asked Questions on your website, and there’s a question “Why can’t we get more?” And then you have to explain, the lab has to take the tape and do the work and ….

LM: It’s true. I can’t tell you how many comments we have to deal with from members of the public who are wondering why the whole thirty years of Firing Line is not available and why aren’t we doing them in chronological order and why aren’t there more done. And people really don’t understand that we’re dealing with things like twenty pound videotape reels that fit on a machine the size of a refrigerator and take a very specialized engineer to operate. Indeed, we did go to at least one private source [for funding] and they seemed to balk because they couldn’t understand why someone can’t just slap it into a machine and digitize it. And so it’s an ongoing effort to try to educate people regarding the complexities of doing videotape transfer work and digitizing.

PV: I guess it’s a good lesson to learn that it’s one tape at a time basically. People need to be patient.

LM: Yes.

PV: Could you estimate what percentage of time you spend working with moving images?

LM: In all honesty I spend relatively little. It’s probably five percent, something like that. It’s not very much. Because we’ve got more specialized people I feel very comfortable leaving it in their hands and they have the training that I lack in this specialized area of moving image material.

PV: And can you talk about other challenges you face in your position, beyond those you’ve already mentioned?

LM: Well, I alluded to the need to outsource all the preservation work on moving image material and the fact that Hoover doesn’t have a fund to do that. I’m trying to find ways to sell our managers on spending some money on that. And one issue I see is justifying the cost of the work. I don’t see a lot of people using moving image materials for their research. There’s the specialized category of documentary filmmakers, and we do have some requests from them—I think they’re our primary users of moving image materials right now. But we don’t get a lot of those [requests] and of course there are a lot of rights issues that need to be addressed before they can use our materials. And our more traditional base of historical researchers who come to use our other collections, our paper-based materials, don’t seem to be very interested in audio or moving image material. And for that kind of use, rights aren’t usually an issue.

But I see a bit of conundrum in that we often don’t have very much description of our moving image materials and we’re dependent on the labels on videotapes, for example. We can’t even watch them [before they are preserved]. So we don’t have very good descriptions [and] that prevents use. And then researchers seem to gravitate to textual materials—they don’t want to spend the real time to watch a moving image item or listen to an audiotape. And so those things cut down on use, but without it, it becomes harder to justify to our managers why we should spend so much money on preserving what’s a relatively small number of items. I’m really trying to focus on ways to get out more description of our materials so that hopefully researchers will start using them more. But I think there needs to be a new generation of researchers who are more comfortable with moving image materials. And I’d also [like to see] more training in university settings to get [scholars] thinking about those materials as historical sources.

PV: Investing the time …

LM: It’s hard. People travel here. I’ve traveled to do research—it’s incredibly expensive, you have very little time, it’s very valuable. Spending an hour to watch a video is a huge cost to a researcher and most people now are just coming in with their cameras and snapping away at our documents and then taking them home and spending the time doing research at home. And I understand that model and it’s hard to sell researchers on a different model.

PV: And what additional roles do you play within the library. Are you involved in committees or anything like that?

LM: I kind of help to make sure the archives gets through the day. I make sure any holes get filled or whatever. I staff the reference desk if necessary. That sort of thing. Beyond that, most of my committee experience is with the Society of California Archivists, and the Society of American Archivists and other sorts of professional organizations like that.

PV: And do you go to the conferences often?

LM: I try to. Unfortunately Hoover cut off its travel support for conferences almost two years ago and it hasn’t been reinstated and I’m not sure if and when it will be. This year I’ll probably pay for attending some conferences on my own. I am involved in some committees and hold some offices where I absolutely need to attend.

PV: And this is kind of backtracking a little bit, but what are the lines of authority at your library?

LM: The lines of authority are pretty flat I would say. We have a director of the library and archives who works directly with anyone on the staff who can do what he needs done. So that flattens out the organization quite a bit. Within the archives there are probably two or three of us who are the more long-term experienced staff members; we’re sort of the senior staff and we have a fair number of people reporting to us. But it’s really a pretty flat structure and we deal very directly with each other; there’s not a lot of hierarchy.

PV: That’s nice for you. You have flexibility and movement.

LM: Yeah.

PV: And it seems like you actually have a direct impact on the collections and you can decide where you want to focus your efforts.

LM: Yes, and I think a lot of us really appreciate that. That’s one of the rewarding things about working here. There’s not a lot of red tape. You can cut to what you think needs to be done.

PV: And what are some of your recent accomplishments and how would you describe your impact?

LM: Well, recently I was able to get digital cameras into the reading room. That’s had a really amazing impact on the reading room because almost every researcher now has a digital camera. In terms of AV materials, I have made a great effort and developed some processes to make sure that information created during the preservation process—and it’s primarily audio materials since that’s most of what we work on now—gets back out into the finding aid so that researchers can find these materials and come use them. And I’ve done a lot to get those descriptions into the finding aids that are on the Online Archive of California. I’ve also done a lot to encourage our audio staff to get more work done because we’ve got one hundred thousand audio items and one audio engineer. I’ve been really pleased to see them develop multiple, concurrent streams for digitizing. A few years ago there was just one or two, and now we’re up to three or four depending on the type of original carrier. We’re getting a lot more audio materials transferred and that’s been really rewarding to see.

Likewise I’ve really encouraged the audio staff to think about more than just the condition of the materials, and making selections for transfer that also incorporate the research value of the materials. They’ve been working more with our curators to identify those items with significant content and to get them into the preservation workflow rather than just materials that are most in need of reformatting from a condition perspective. And I’ve started some efforts to work with our film materials in terms of reporting to our managers about the condition of our film collection, trying to bring to their attention the lack of proper storage conditions. I hope in the future to bring that forward further and start our film and video collections down more of the road that we have with our audio collections right now. And of course building out a digital preservation and processing program. And especially making those digital items available to researchers. I think that’s really where we distinguish ourselves in some ways and I’m really proud of that.

PV: I don’t know if this too specific, but do you have the ability to look at film over a lightbox. Do you have rewinds?

LM: We do. I don’t think they’re quite set up yet. We’re really starting at the basics of film and just getting up a station to look at it and evaluate it. Should we buy a film [shrinkage] gauge? That’s the kind of question we’re asking right now. And I do think that’s the direction we need to go in, and because for the first time in the last year or so we have not one but two people with specialized training in film. And a year ago we didn’t have anyone who knew much of anything about film. I’m really hoping we can build on that and find time away from still-image reproduction orders and requests to start taking our film collection seriously and doing something to save it.

PV: Well, you mentioned earlier the challenges describing objects when you only have a label that might not even be reliable. So the nice thing about film is you can actually hold it up to the light …

LM: Absolutely. We have a library and archives blog, and I wrote a little blog post about that. Anyone who knows moving image materials knows that. And yet it’s such a basic thing—the difference between holding up a piece of videotape and holding up a piece of film. It opens up a lot of doors for us. And it’s all the more reason to try to work with it and find out what we have, [especially] as film has sort of been the orphan. So we find out more about what we have and find ways to start funding some preservation.

PV: What training prepared you to work with the collections you work with?

LM: I came to archives without any archival training. I had a Bachelor’s in Geography and a Master’s in American Studies and I was very fortunate to get into the National Archives training program, which I already mentioned. And that’s what gave me a very strong foundation in archival principles and practices. That training has served me very well and it’s been a very good foundation. It was only since I came to Hoover that I really had to start learning about non-paper materials and that opened up a whole new world for me. That’s when I became much more involved in attending professional conferences; following a number of listservs very closely, including AMIA’s; and going to workshops on anything archival, especially if it’s local. And I read a lot of books and journal articles. When I worked at the National Archives, I really didn’t have to do all that. The training and the time there was enough to deal with the issues we were dealing with.

PV: And it was all paper-based?

LM: Yes. Here it’s been very different. And the same with digital. It’s just opened new worlds to me. Since I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve recreated myself as a different kind of archivist and it’s been really wonderful that Hoover has given me the chance to do that. And as part of that, I also returned to school and got a library degree and Stanford paid my tuition.

PV: Where did you get your degree?

LM: San Jose State. But it was all my time… it took much longer than I expected. It took about three years while working full-time.

PV: That’s the nice thing about that program though, because it’s all online, right?

LM: Right. Well, there were still some in-person classes when I went, but since then it’s gone totally online. I’m not sure … I do have questions about how effective that is. But I was very thankful to have a program that could flex around my work schedule.

PV: Yes. It’s very nice that the institution paid for that. It’s very generous.

LM: Yes, Stanford is very good in terms of tuition reimbursement.

PV: And what in your opinion leads to the creation of positions such as yours in libraries and archives? Even not just your position—obviously you do a lot of different things. But the specialists in the archives?

LM: I think for us it was really having these huge quantities of materials. There was no way we could accept a collection like Firing Line without having a person to work with it because it has become such a central focus of our operations. So it’s the acquisition of the materials for us that has really driven the creation of positions to deal with the materials.

PV: And then, what are the obstacles to creating positions like yours or the specialists?

LM: Of course cost. The economy unfortunately affected Hoover as well as everyone else; we did lose some positions. I think we’re rebuilding that now. I think the longer I’m in the field the more I comprehend how costly it is to support an archive and how little return on investment there is. We don’t make any money for the Hoover Institution. We’re almost never one of the most popular web pages on the Hoover Institution site. Its always the more political parts of the Hoover website that get all the hits. While I believe very much in what we do, I can understand from a management perspective that we’re sort of a drain on resources and I can understand how expensive it is to decide to support an additional position.

PV: I wonder if there could be a strategy for you to link from those most popular places to the history of this place, and … I don’t know. If you could draw attention to the past somehow? So, this is actually our last question. What needs to be changed about the status of moving image preservation specialists in libraries and what is working well? And it could be moving image and audio.

LM: I think the people we’ve hired have excellent skills. They really know their formats well and I think their expertise has really worked well for the institution. They know what to do with our materials—to work with them and to preserve them. So that works really well. Without them, we still wouldn’t have any of the work accomplished and things would still be deteriorating across the board in our stacks.

I mentioned that sometimes, because they’re so specialized, they don’t understand the greater archival workflow. I see some problems with that here. The things that come in through the audio department for instance. And we’re starting to get video in through portable hard drives. These things start coming in a back way, through non-traditional processes. And when they come in that way, the rest of the archives doesn’t know about them. I think that’s a huge problem for us. I’m really having to work hard to educate our specialists about the need to do more than just get it off the hard drive and put it into our preservation system—that there’s a lot more in the process than that. I’d like to see a little broader understanding of the archival operations sometimes. And again, I think having research use is really critical to getting more specialized staff to work with these materials. Right now I’m amazed that Hoover has four people dedicated to these materials given the amount of actual research use [they receive]. I often wonder if at some point a manager is going to wake up and notice that. And I worry about it, so I’m very focused on ways to promote use of these materials.

PV: Well, is there anything else that you wanted to add that we might not have covered? We’ve been all over map …

LM: I’m remembering that the other big reason we have a strong in-house audio program, whereas we lack one for moving images, is that the digital audio standards have been established, but it’s still a wild west for digitizing motion picture film and video. And it becomes really hard to make preservation decisions and feel confident about them and feel like you’re investing resources well, when there are no preservation standards out there. That’s really a huge concern too. And actually, I should say too that I think our film staff and our previous video person, they were very good with the physical media, but weren’t necessarily always up to speed on the range of digital formats and how to understand and navigate those and make smart decisions. It’s such a moving target, and I think it’s hard for moving image specialists to keep up with it, and for programs to train students in those areas.

PV: It’s true—I feel like one of the major challenges is that people aren’t really publicizing the work that they’re doing. I think we all sort of do the work in solitary confinement or something. But there’s this need to really share the results and share the process because that’s where the standards come out of the work.

LM: Absolutely.

PV: That’s what I learned most recently at the AMIA conference this past fall, that there is no standard. But it’s good to get a sense of what people are doing with the hope that … I mean every situation is different so one standard might work here but it might not work somewhere else. So it’s basically dependent on the situation. I just find it encouraging that you’re not alone—everyone is dealing with these issues.

LM: And I see that everyday on the AMIA-listserv, which is kind of heartening but also discouraging because it’s so hard to keep track of all the different recommendations that come through on the listserv.

PV: Yes, that’s true. But I think over time, there will be space for an overall solution.

LM: I think so.

PV: And I think it’s good to remain flexible. Because the formats are going to keep changing. But that’s part of the fun I guess.

PV: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experience.

LM: You’re welcome.

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