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Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Crafting a New Historical Genre

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by Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, Timothy Naftali.


Though it has been slow to develop and achieve recognition, it is now becoming apparent that scholarly works based on the extraordinary cache of presidential recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation.

The history profession is familiar with books that exploit new primary sources, or interpret old primary sources in a fresh way, along with works that are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. There is also an honored place in the canon for books that annotate the private papers of such prominent figures as Woodrow Wilson. Books based on audio recordings, however, are arguably distinct from these traditional categories. The main reason is that the historian shoulders an even larger burden in this new genre. He or she is obviously selecting, deciphering, and making judgments about a primary source, much like the editor of a documentary collection. But, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also creating a facsimile—while still endeavoring to produce a reliable, “original” source. In essence, the historian/editor unavoidably becomes the author of a “new” source because even a transcript alleged to be “verbatim&r