The place for books

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itsabookI found this poster in the window of a Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford.  My attitude was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that my eReader died on the flight across the Atlantic, but I was immediately struck by the simplicity and wisdom of this poster.  While books obviously cannot compete with the technology housed in smartphones, eReaders, and tablets, they still are a great source of comfort and memory for me.  Some of the memories are triggered by things that I have left in my books, such as the bookmark that reminds me of a visit to Powell’s when I was in Portland, or the seat assignment card that reminds me of a trip to China.  Other memories were shaped by my choosing to read certain books at specific times, such as reading Michener’s Hawaii before traveling to a workshop at Pearl Harbor and thereby having a better grasp on the history and culture and language of the island.  I also tend to underline passages that hold great meaning for me; when I later re-read that book, my highlights and notes provide a window into my self that read the volume years before.  I recognize that some of my uses of books could be accomplished by electronic versions, but I know that for me, fingering through my collection of novels produces a sensation that is very different from browsing through the volumes on my eReader.

Melk Abbey library

library at Melk Abbey

William H. Gass wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1999 that echoes my thoughts.  He explains, “We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures and a long time.  Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts they’ll be gone.  Off the screen they do not exist as words.  They do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit” (November 1999, 46).

Strahov library picture

Theological Hall at Strahov Monastery

Some high school libraries are completely eschewing books in favor of electronic resources, and most public libraries offer more technology training sessions than they do book group meetings.  While I certainly recognize that libraries cannot afford to remain so enamored with the way things have been done in the past that they overlook the changing needs of their patrons, I for one hope that children for generations to come will have the ability to develop a love for books in all their forms.  Gass talks of frequenting the public library while he was in high school and borrowing “a new world.  That’s what a library does for its patrons.  It extends the self.  It is pure empowerment” (48).  Though hard to codify in a five-year plan, I think this is a goal that all libraries should embrace.

Addendum: For a succinct and moving testimony to the power of libraries, read the story of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing women’s rights and who spoke at the opening ceremony of the library in Birmingham, England.

As we are coming up on Banned Books Week, it is interesting to consider why books can cause such visceral reactions.  The American Library Association has compiled a list of the reasons various books have been challenged.

Here are some of the books that I have found to be influential:

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Remembrance of Things Past
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • On the Road
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • From Slavery to Freedom
  • Absalom, Absalom
  • A Farewell to Arms
  • The Optimist’s Daughter

The case for the humanities

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On 15 August 2013, the president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, was interviewed on The Colbert Report about the “The Heart of the Matter,” a recently released report on the humanities that was produced for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) by a committee co-chaired by Brodhead.  Brodhead gave Colbert this definition of the humanities: “The humanities is humans studying the things other humans have achieved and suffered and struggled for in other times and places.”

The Executive Summary of the report provides this overview: “As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common” (9).  In reading this report, it strikes me that there are many ways in which archives, libraries, and museums can help to fulfill the goals outlined in this report (10-13)—in particular, goal 1: “Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.”  I assert that archives, libraries, and museums should answer the call to increase access to online resources and to engage the public—activities that can easily go hand-in-hand.

The Research chapter of the report challenges institutions to focus on the “grand challenges” as well as “curiosity-driven research” (45).  I believe that key here is to encourage and facilitate collaboration among institutions in defining these grand challenges and in determining how collections can address them. The Digital Public Library of America certainly provides a foundation for allowing institutions to collaborate and discover new uses for resources.  With the apps developed for this platform by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (among others), you can also see how the field of digital humanities can help to define and address these challenges.

The chapter on Lifelong Learning presents a concept of a “culture corps” (51) that could easily mesh with the public outreach objectives of archives, libraries, and museums.  It also acknowledges the complications generated by copyright claims when institutions  endeavor to provide greater access to resources.

Appendix V of the report includes related resources.  For more information about the digital humanities, see New York Times‘ columnist Patricia Cohen’s blog Humanities 2.0.  Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke has also has a blog called Easily Distracted with postings on digital humanities.  Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost has a blog Beyond the Elbow-Patched Playground where he’s written about digital humanities as well as the role of the humanities in general.  Blackwell published an online guide in 2004, A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth.  Patrik Svensson published an article in the Digital Humanities Quarterly called “Envisioning the Digital Humanities,” looking at the scope and purpose of the digital humanities.  My thanks to Ryan Shaw for introducing me to these readings during his 2012 course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill entitled Making the Humanities Digital.  I include these resources here because it seems to me that the archives, library, and museum communities need to ally with the digital humanities field in order to investigate new methods of using and disseminating records that are maintained in these institutions.

New beginnings

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In 2011, I took a leap of faith. Sixteen years into a successful teaching career, I decided to give myself a sabbatical and go back to graduate school for a second master’s degree. I always promised myself that I wouldn’t become a jaded, burned-out remnant of the idealist that put two Duke degrees to work teaching social studies in a public high school. So when I recognized that I had mastered the content knowledge for my job to such an extent that it was no longer intellectually challenging for me, I knew that I needed to broaden my horizons. I always incorporated primary source documents into my teaching as a means of hooking teenagers into learning history. Plus a number of the professional development activities with which I filled my summers as a teacher involved conducting research at archives, and this exposure convinced me it would be intriguing to learn more about the organization and operation of these institutions. So I enrolled in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and determined to pursue a concentration in archives and records management. Having completed my MSLS degree in May 2013, I am beginning this blog as a way to document my discoveries along with my questions. Join me for the rest of the journey!