A Book A Week: At Dawn We Slept

If you’re a space geek then you remember December 7, 1972 as the day we sent the last of the Apollo missions (Apollo 17) into space.

For everyone else in the U.S. December 7, 1941 remains, as FDR said 71 years ago, a day that “lives in infamy.” If you need proof, just Google “Attack on Pearl Harbor” and watch the hits you rack up (I got 13.8 million hits on my search with the full phrase; drop the word “attack” and it goes up to 47.5 million ). Other than 9-11, it remains the best known example of a sneak attack by an enemy power on American soil. I don’t have access to the traffic stats on Wikipedia.com but I’m pretty sure the hits on their “Attack on Pearl Harbor” page are no less impressive.

I was in Japan teaching high school English classes for two of these days, in 1993 and 1994. Over there the big day to remember is December 8 (due to the fact that Japan had already passed the international date line when the attack began.) It’s a day when students study government-approved* literature describing the facts of the event. There is some discussion and questions are asked and answered as best as they can be.  Anyway, the moral that is taught is: this attack was a bad idea. A really, really, REALLY bad idea. You kids should know better.

None of the kids in my classes ever expressed the desire to be a soldier or sailor. So far, so good, I guess.

Of the many, many books on the subject that have been written since the end of the war, one that continues to stand out is Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept: the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. I came across this book by accident. I knew it existed as the men in my family are big WWII buffs (despite no Frater serving in the Pacific Theater that I know of) and Prange’s name had come up in conversation over the years. While on vacation I spotted copies in three different used book stores, each one asking less money for it,  and I took the hint. A perfectly good copy was obtained for three dollars.

It’s a dense book by any reckoning, and it took me months to finish. It’s not a quick read, but for historians and history buffs alike, the effort is very much worth it.

Prange’s attention to detail within these pages is legendary. Every actor, every decision-maker, every soldier and sailor who could be located was interviewed and their observations and recollections recorded for Prange’s research. Additionally, Prange dove deep into the collective archives and official documents regarding the working of government policy and military directives on both sides. As a result, the book details the who, what, where, when, why, and how of both sides, right down to meetings, phone calls, documented minutes, and personal notes and correspondence.

There is also a lengthy appendix on his source material, reproduced verbatim from a letter Prange wrote when first approaching publishers about his project. Included is a selected bibliography and lists of the people involved in both the attack and the post-attack investigations.

But for all the grueling attention to detail the story the book tells is clear and lucid, beginning with the position the Japanese military finds itself in as the global race for colonies comes to a close and the Japanese government finds itself with much less territory than its immediate rivals. Its answer: seize what can be seized and hold it for the growing Japanese Empire. Their plan to nullify the American Pacific fleet was part of a long, detailed process of planned expansion devised and developed by the Tojo cabinet.

The American side of the story is hardly left to the imagination. Prange’s narrative runs deep under the surface of the US military command structure and illuminates the systemic weakness that led to the catastrophic level of unpreparedness the world witnessed that morning. Prange was probably the first historian to attach major significance to the role of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner in obstructing the smooth flow of intelligence reports from Washington to Hawaii.

At any rate this book is the  most comprehensive treatment of the events in print, and as such, probably the most worth reading.

*All literature used in Japanese schools is approved by the Japanese governments. This has caused some real academic friction concerning Japanese actions in World War 2. The war crime status concerning the Rape of Nanking in particular remains a real point of contention between the Japanese and Chinese governments.

“Just a Bunch of Library Talk”

So you think we should be archiving all students' CAs* every semester. Hmmm.

Do you have any idea what you mean when you call this idea of yours an archive? Do you? Really? Really? Because I think we’re talking past each other here.

Okay, back to the beginning: I like the idea. There isn’t a week that goes by when a student doesn’t come to the library and asks to see a sample of a CA. They get this forlorn look on their faces when I tell them that no, we don’t have copies of past CAs on hand to show them. And they could probably use the assistance that such a resource would offer—everybody likes to have an idea of what’s expected of them, especially students. Queens College library school, for example keeps a few examples of similar projects on hand in a box in the library school's main office. It's not much more than a cardboard box with maybe three dozen papers lying in it under the secretary'd sesk but they do have it. If that was what I thought you were sugegsting I'd be on board all the way.

But what you seem to be suggesting—that we archive every CA produced by every student every semester—is impossible. I don’t like using that word—impossible—but this time I think I have to, and here’s why.

First let’s define what you want. What you’re describing is not really an archive, it’s more like a depository. Depositories are great for storing vast quantities of material but they’re not exactly an accessible, searchable, medium. It’s not like you’re scanning each paper—yes, I know you said you wanted all this stuff to be scanned, but we’re not there yet. I’m getting to all that.

   A depository is like a bank vault. It stores absolutely everything in a designated collection. The only records you generally create indicate who owns the stash, what the stash contains, and what manner of access is required. That’s the simplest form of this exercise. In this case, I'd think the easiest way to go about it is to take the hard copy produced by each student and catalog it by the student's name, by the subject head appropriate to the paper itself, and index according to class number and semester. Each student would get their own file devoted to their work. Each new paper each student produces during their time here would be placed in their folder. That's maybe nine hundred papers per semster to be filed.

Every item needs to be indexed according to whatever search medium you want to utilize. Beyond that, everything has to be sufficiently labeled and only a qualified archivist should have ready access to it–that means closed stacks. If a layperson mishandles an item–replaces it in the first convenient shelf hole rather than where it was taken from, then it's gone forever. No one will ever find it again because no one will know where to look for it.

For that matter, where and how will this stuff be stored? If you’re talking about archiving the output of an entire school—even a relatively small one—then you’re talking about a thousand or so papers each semester. An average document size of fifty pages means roughly fifty thousand of pages every semester. That’s a lot of volumes. Think of a phone book, then think about how you’d house fifty or sixty of them. Each year, you need to find space for another fifty or sixty. Yes, I’m serious. That's the appropriate magnitude and scope of what you're describing.

It gets worse. If you’re going to make the catalog searchable online, each item needs its own MARC record as does the collection itself. You want to look at the items online? Great, that means scanning the pages. If you’re going to scan it, then that adds a level of complexity to your project. Heck, that's a full time job in itself. You need a scanner, someone who knows how to run one then each page converted and joined into a PDF. That electronic file then has to live inside a server somewhere or be scanned onto some form of permanent media like a CD-ROM or DVD—which may not be in use in say twenty years. Now that it’s a computer file you may need some additional metadata to define it so that a library computer can see it much less deliver the file online. Then there’s the—

Okay, I’m going to overlook that. I know this stuff is unappetizing but dismissing it as “just a bunch of library talk” isn’t going to help. You want to make a collection available and I want to help. I just need you to meet me half way.

Like how? Well, you need a full time archivist. A pro whose job entails sifting through mountains ofl discarded, disorganized, dissolving manuscripts, and coverting them into useable data. A librarian, ever a Tech Services liberarna, really can't do that. I'm not trained for it. You need a pro, and she needs to be on staff all the time. I mean this is an ongoing project, right? Every year, more CAs to archive. That’s a lot of work. A lot of man-hours and a lot of money changing hands.

Finally, you need to figure out whose documents will go into this thing. Everyone’s? A representative sample from each class? A representative sample from each department, or maybe from the school as a whole? Transfer of copyright waivers are a must if you don’t want to get sued at some point for theft of intellectual property. How are you going to document the transfer of material? How about permission forms? Opt-in forms? Opt-out forms? Actually, I take that back—this is the first thing you should be thinking about, not the last.

If this sounds like a gigantic hassle, well, maybe you should have asked what the project entailed before you asked the Dean to fund it. If you want to do this properly, I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. If not, I will wish you luck and wave bye-bye.

You’re welcome.


*CA = Constructive Action, which is the big research paper our students produce at the end of each semester.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...