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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

A day which will live in infamy

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 23, 2006

"a day which will live in infamy"

 

That phrase is part of one of the most notable speeches of the 20th Century.

 

Many people can identify its source by hearing just that one phrase.

 

It was the speech delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1941, before a Joint Session of Congress.

 

On the previous day, the Empire of Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Roosevelt was requesting a Declaration of War from Congress.

 

Of interest to a librarian is the background to the speech and its phrasing.

 

The attack on Pearl Harbor was reported to Roosevelt early in the afternoon of December 7 during a meeting with his Foreign Policy Aide, Harry Hopkins.

 

Secretary of War Henry Stimson called to advise the President of the action.

 

President Roosevelt dictated to his secretary, Grace Tully, a brief speech to be delivered before Congress.

 

He then revised the typed draft, strengthening the opening phrase by replacing "a day which will live in world history," with the same phrase; except using the word "infamy."

 

A new typed version was produced, and Roosevelt used that copy for his speech the next day.

 

That copy was lost to history, until 1984.

 

An archivist found the reading copy filed with Records of the U.S. Senate in the National Archives.

 

Roosevelt had left it in the House Chamber in 1941 rather than bringing it back to the White House for filing, and a Senate Clerk picked it up and labeled it "Read in Joint Session" and placed it in the Senate files.

 

This story is to illustrate the importance to history of notes and research, letters and correspondence.

 

First, the retention of draft copies is important to the study of history.  If Roosevelt's secretary had not filed the first draft, we would not know that "world history" had become "infamy."

 

Today, that would have been part of word processing, where words and thoughts are changed online, and the previous thoughts disappear forever.

 

Secondly, the mere existence of letters and correspondence in a paper format helps to ensure a paperwork trail for future reference.

 

Today, Roosevelt's speech would be on a teleprompter and hopefully the speech itself would be retained in some format.

 

But what is going to happen to all of today's communication that takes place with e-mail, instant messaging, and whatever?

 

100 years from now, will we have 50 volumes of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson; or all of the research notes from Robert Frost?

 

In our own lives, will those letters from aunts and cousins be retained somehow if they are only e-mails?

 

Of course, some of the e-mails I have received with a lack of capitalization, lack of sentence structure and format; would be care if it isn't saved?

 

If electronic communication is archived, how is it saved?  Technology allows the retention of vast volumes of information, but what if the format can't be accessed 50 years in the future.

 

Will there be a machine to view that beta videocassette, or that 8mm movie?

 

Will our days live in infamy, or be lost to history?