Thursday, May 29, 2008

Misidentified photographs

I set of photographs recently published as showing the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing really represent the effects of the 1923 Kanto earthquake (an event which seems to have produced a similar number of deaths). I remember noting that the bodies in the photos didn't seem to show the burns I would expect to see, but I didn't really question the identification.

Finger pointing ensues:

Hoover contains over 5,600 collections with hundreds of thousands of individual items. The Institution’s Assistant Director Richard Sousa indicated that the size of the holdings prevented a thorough authenticity check of all archived material.

“Our goal is not to authenticate every piece of information we get,” Sousa said. “But we do document, in each case, where it came from. We do not go through and cross-reference every single piece of material.”

“I’d be surprised if the Library of Congress did that, or any big archive,” he added.
Le Monde correspondent Sylvain Cepel, who wrote both the newspaper’s initial report on the photographs and subsequent pieces in the wake of the correction, said that a catalog description from an institution like Hoover implied the materials had been checked for accuracy.

“If you go to the Library of Congress,” Cepel said, “and you find some letter by Eisenhower, and it’s written on the box, ‘this is a letter of Eisenhower’s,’ you would not think this is not by Eisenhower but by Adlai Stevenson!”
When we trust other people not to have made mistakes, we've just made a big one of our own ....

The photos are here and still aren't pretty. But if you really want to see ugly, dig into the comments, most of which take the line of "As long as I have a grievance to cling to, I refuse to admit that anyone else has suffered enough!"


James Hanley said...

So is Hoover right? Is it normal not to check the accuracy of materials that are received?

Scott Hanley said...

When an archives takes in a collection, they want to know who's had it and where it came from, of course. If you're taking in a load of purported Mark Twain letters, you ask a lot of questions and try to nail down exactly how these things can be what they're claimed to be. With ten photographs from an unknown soldier who was in more or less the right place at more or less the right time ... well, you're lucky to find the time and money to process the collection at all, let alone research every item. That's what your patrons need to do when they use your stuff. They're supposed to be experts before they're through with their project.

If you notice that something seems wrong, then you try to confirm the items' identity, or use qualifiers in your descriptions. I imagine a Japanese archives wouldn't have missed this, much like future American archivists will probably not mistake photos of 9/11 for Hurricane Katrina images.

James Hanley said...

Sigh, the ol' economic problem of unlimited wants, but limited resources.

But the Hoover Institution does have a lot of money--if they were rational they would have spent the money to get that stuff right. If they're going to be so careless with their endowment, maybe we need a government investigation.

Calling Arlen Specter, as soon as he's done chasing the New England )Patriots...