The digital LBJ

Library archivists give new voice to Lyndon Johnson's calls

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency spanned one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history since the Civil War.

It began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, saw the passage of two historic civil rights laws, included the massive buildup of the war in Vietnam that eventually soured his presidency, struggled through the social unrest of the civil rights and antiwar movements, and faded with the assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

During those times, Johnson recorded hundreds of hours of phone calls with national leaders, political honchos, friends, confidants and ordinary citizens, which the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum is preserving, restoring and making available to the public. These recordings contain the raw and largely unedited conversations of a larger-than-life politician known for his colorful language and the force of personality he used to influence political allies and adversaries.

The library, located on the University of Texas campus in Austin, has released recordings made through April 1968.

'We've been working on this since 1993,' when the first recordings were released, said senior archivist Regina Greenwell. 'We hope to release the rest of them, through early 1969, by the end of this year,' said supervisory archivist Claudia Anderson.

Preserving and restoring the recordings requires a small staff of archivists who transfer the original recordings from 40-year-old Dictabelts to digital audio tape for preservation and editing, and finally to CDs for public release.

'That process had just begun when the [JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992] came into being,' Anderson said. That law mandated the release of materials about the assassination, and relevant calls in the Johnson recordings had to be located and assembled quickly for release.

'So it was done fast, and it was done by amateurs,' said Allan Fisher, who, along with John Wilson, has worked from the beginning to prepare the recordings.

Both men are textual archivists, not audio specialists. 'None of the people involved with this originally were audio people,' Fisher said. 'But we learned a lot.'

No standards for speech

The audiovisual division of the LBJ Library has only a small staff and had neither the resources nor the security clearances needed to process the recordings. Learning to preserve and process audio recordings from the original analog medium through two generations of digital media was a hands-on process, Fisher said. All of the industry standards for sound preservation are based on music.

'There is nothing that is built around speech,' he said. 'So we read about what you absolutely must do to get a good recording, and then we discount most of it. Because of the frequencies involved, it just doesn't matter as much for speech.'

The resulting CDs have spawned several best-selling books, countless articles and a popular series of shows on C-SPAN Radio.

'There are people who want to give them as Father's Day gifts because they are fascinated by them,' Greenwell said.

No one knows just why Johnson decided to tape his phone calls.

'We can only speculate,' Greenwell said. 'It was a fairly closely held program at the time. He did use them when he wrote his memoir, 'The Vantage Point.' '

The recordings were largely unknown to the public and even to many of those whose conversations were recorded. After Johnson left the White House, they were given to an aide, who turned them over to the library after Johnson's death in 1973. Although they were made during his presidency, the recordings are not legally presidential records. The Presidential Records Act, a post-Watergate reform, made presidential materials from the Reagan administration into official records. But the LBJ Library is administered by the National Archives and Records Administration under the earlier Presidential Library Act, and the recordings are governed by Johnson's deed of gift to the library.

That deed stipulated that the recordings be withheld for 50 years after his death, which would have been 2023. But library director Harry Middleton began talking with Johnson's widow, Lady Bird, in the early 1990s about breaking the seal on the historic collection. She agreed, and a pilot program to duplicate the recordings began in June 1992. The following year, a comprehensive program began to inventory and prepare the recordings for public release.

'We don't know what percentage of calls he recorded,' Anderson said. 'He recorded more in the early years.' The official count of recordings is somewhere between 642 and 643, she said. 'When we did the calculation, it was 642.5.'

Choice for preservation

With few exceptions, the recordings are on plastic Dictabelts, made by the Dictaphone company. Recordings for Nov. 22 and 23, 1963, are on IBM magnetic belts, and one 1968 call with Sargent Shriver, a special assistant to Johnson, was recorded on reel-to-reel tape.

Dictabelt was a good choice for preservation. It is a plastic loop on which a stylus impresses a permanent groove to record.

'It handles like a tape, but it plays like a record,' Wilson said. Although they were not intended for long-term audio preservation, 'the Dictabelts have held up very well. The grooving has lasted much better than a tape. Magnetic media would not have held up nearly as well.' When the IBM magnetic belts were played back after 20 years in storage, they were barely intelligible.

However, Dictabelts are not perfect. 'Unfortunately, they were stored flat, which turns out to be the worst thing you could do,' Wilson said. Many of the belts developed a crease, which is heard as a regular thump when they are played back.

'And in many cases, the phone connection was awful,' especially on recordings made at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, Fisher said. 'The circuits were not great. There is only so much we can do about that.'

Speed adjustments

The biggest problem the archivists ran into with the recordings is speed. The Dictaphone recording machines had a continuously variable speed control with no fixed settings. 'There is no way of telling what speed it was recorded at,' Wilson said. 'You just adjust it until it sounds right.'

The first step in the preservation process is to have the original recordings reviewed for classified material, which requires someone with a security clearance. Then they are duplicated. During the initial pilot program in 1992, the belts were duplicated onto analog cassettes, but it was soon decided that digital audio tape (DAT) was a more appropriate medium.

In its infancy in the early 1990s, DAT never caught on in the consumer market, which jumped from analog cassettes to CDs. 'The market was in the editing field,' Fisher said. The digital format allows editors to closely snip out bits as needed, down to a 30th of a second. 'That seems to be the only advantage' of DAT.

Two DAT copies are made from the belt recordings, a master and a safety copy. The safety copy is used to produce a pair of master tapes, a restricted version that may contain material not slated for release because of security or privacy concerns, and an unrestricted master on which that material is beeped out. The unrestricted master is used as the production master that is duplicated to CD for release.

Along the way, some improvements might be needed. The pitch of the first DAT copies is the most common problem because of the uncertainty of the original recording speed. The digital audio equipment allows a 12.5 percent adjustment in the pitch of the recording, and Fisher said he often finds he has to decrease the pitch by 10 percent to get an acceptable sound. In a few cases, he recommended that the archivists go back to the original Dictabelt and start over again with a new DAT recording.

'We apparently didn't pay a lot of attention to what the speed was' when the original digital copies were made, he said.

The quality on another call, recorded from the president's ranch, was very poor, but Fisher came up with a workaround. 'You couldn't hear anything,' he said. 'I put in a second DAT machine as a preamp,' and that boosted the signal enough that a usable copy could be made.

But the archivists also have to be careful not to do too good a job cleaning up the tapes.

'You have to watch out when you're editing with computer audio systems,' Wilson said. 'You can clean it up too much.'

'Change isn't good in archives,' Fisher said.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above