Celebrating Thanksgiving

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Last week, I wrote about Native American Heritage Month.  This week, I want to follow up with some reflections on Thanksgiving.  In 2011, Dennis Zotigh of the National Museum of the American Indian wrote an essay entitled “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?”  He succinctly explains the truth behind the stories of Squanto and the Pilgrims as well as the impact of culturally stereotyped celebrations of Thanksgiving.

All of which is not to say that American Indians do not embrace the concept of giving thanks.  As an example, here’s an English translation of the Mohawk version of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address.

I wrote last year about why the fourth Thursday of November is the date on which we currently celebrate Thanksgiving.  One other archival holding that makes me reflect on Thanksgiving is the Norman Rockwell print Freedom From Want.  Rockwell created this and three other prints for Saturday Evening Post to illustrate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedom Speech.  These prints  that illustrated FDR’s speech about the necessity of fighting Axis aggressions during World War Two were then chosen by the Treasury Department to headline a campaign to encourage the purchase of war bonds.  As explained by the Norman Rockwell Museum, Rockwell used as inspiration “everyday, simple scenes.”  Freedom From Want has always appeared to me as the embodiment of a family Thanksgiving celebration, so its use to sell war bonds is an interesting one.  Or perhaps it just goes to show that commerce and Thanksgiving have a long history.

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Native American Heritage Month

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November is Native American Heritage Month.  Here are some relevant collections at archives and libraries:

  • The Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and other partner agencies have generated a number of online exhibits and collections.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian has an archive center, which “supports the mission of the museum by collecting, organizing, preserving, and making available papers, records, photographs, recordings, and ephemera that reflect the historical and contemporary lives of Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere.”  The Collections Search allows users to search for people/cultures, artists/individuals, and places.
  • The Native American Rights Fund operates a National Indian Law Library that includes tribal codes and ordinances, constitutions, court opinions, compacts and agreements, treaties, and legal histories.
  • A group of Native American and non-Native American archivists, librarians, museum curators, historians, and anthropologists created Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.  These protocols “are presented to guide libraries and archives in engaging in culturally responsive care of Native American archival materials and in providing culturally appropriate service to communities” and include sections on building relationships, balancing perspectives, context, intellectual property, and repatriation.
  • NARA has digitized Indian Census Rolls 1885-1940, the citizenship rolls that were developed for the Five Civilized Tribes as a result of the Dawes Act, and the list compiled by Interior Department employee Guion Miller to verify tribal enrollment for the distribution of funds to the Eastern Cherokee Tribe as a result of a 1905 claim.

Reading as art and science

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There’s nothing quite like a cold night to make me want to curl up under a blanket with a good book.  Thinking about reading has also caused me to revisit some articles about books and reading.

In September, The Atlantic included a piece about publishing during World War Two.  But before I reflect on its content, let me fill in two gaps.  First of all, the era of the dime novel ran roughly from the Civil War to the Great Depression.  These stories tended toward the themes of nationalism and good versus evil, and with the development of inexpensive published books, reading was embraced by the working class.  (For more on dime novels, see collections at Stanford, Villanova, and the Library of Congress.)  Secondly, in 1926 the Book of the Month Club was launched, and for nearly a century, it delivered a new book to its members every month.  In so doing, it created a culture where books were items to be consumed in a physical, not just an intellectual, sense.

Now we can pick up with The Atlantic piece.  It points out that before World War Two, reading materials were largely dictated by class status, with dime novels being most popular among the working class and “serious books” the purview of the wealthy, who had both the time to track down these rare tomes and the money to invest in them.  But during World War Two, Pocket Books and Penguin Books decided to start publishing a wide variety of titles in an inexpensive paperback format, to be sold at magazine and newspaper stands.  The Council on Books in Wartime got on the bandwagon, and in February 1943 proposed to sell millions of books to the army at six cents a volume.  W.W. Norton, the chair of the council, convinced his fellow publishers that this business venture would pay off in the long run by creating a nation of readers.  He explained that the purpose was to offer “‘new books and books of enduring value,’ that might keep soldiers and sailors ‘in touch with thought and currents of life in their country.'”  As the author concludes, “By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares.  More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all.”  And in the process, these Armed Services Editions destigmatized paperback books.

During Homecoming weekend in 2009, the Duke Magazine hosted a forum about the future of reading and the impact of technology on reading.  Sven Birkerts explained that printed books have always been “premised on individual authorship, on systematized classification, and on cumulative progress along a timeline, at least where scholarship is concerned.”  Libraries have filled the role of providing centralized access to books but in a larger sense have also “been our culture’s way of putting an institutional imprimatur on the life of the mind.”  He goes on to make a compelling argument that physical books in libraries — with their intentional collection and organized classification and arrangement — contribute to the “structure of knowledge.”  And while the printed book undergirds the principle of authorship, the reading that is typically done from screens and databases is much more fluid and collaborative — what Birkerts refers to as “the hiving of information.”

Given the preponderance of electronic devices used today for all sorts of reading and information gathering, there is obvious cause for concern about the future of reading and libraries.  A few months ago, a technology writer for The Atlantic cited a poll by the Pew Research Center that actually found millennials are almost ten percent more likely to have read a book in the past year than their over-thirty counterparts.  But at the same time, they were more likely to have used a library website than to have actually visited a library to check out a book.

The transformation that shaped the libraries that most of us recognize was begun by Andrew Carnegie, who spent about $60 million in the early 20th century to create 1,689 public libraries across the United States.  (Prior to this point, most libraries had been subscription libraries, reserved for the wealthy.)  In the words of a 2013 NPR story, “public libraries became instruments of change — not luxuries, but rather necessities, important institutions — as vital to the community as police and fire stations and public schools.”

In light of our changing reading habits, I guess the question that remains is whether public libraries can continue to position themselves as necessities and instruments of change.  I for one hope we as a society can continue to embrace these institutions that sanction the life of the mind.

Fish as records

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I was shocked as I was driving home last Wednesday listening to NPR and heard Nina Totenberg discussing oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court that revolved around whether fish should be considered records.

The original case dates back to 2007 when a fisherman’s boat was boarded by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer, who found 72 undersized red grouper that had been caught by John L. Yates and his crew.  The officer issued a citation and ordered Yates not to disturb the undersized fish before he returned to shore, but Yates allegedly ordered the crew to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with larger fish.  Once the boat arrived at shore, this swap was identified and Yates was charged with destruction and falsification of evidence.  As a result of his 2011 trial, Yates served 30 days in jail.  The U.S. Court of Appeals in the 11th Circuit upheld this decision, and now Yates has appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The law at the root of this story is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal.  It amended Chapter 73 of title 18, United States Code to add section 1519 (18 U.S.C. 1519):

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
This section has come to be known as the “anti-shredding provision.”  Although this law seems to have been targeted at the record-keeping shenanigans of the likes of Enron and Arthur Andersen, it was invoked in this case.  So now, in the words of the Oyez Project, the question before the U.S. Supreme Court is:
“Are fish considered ‘tangible objects’ for the purpose of the statute that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal tangible objects to impede a governmental investigation, even though the term is undefined and exists in a statute that largely refers to record-keeping documents?”
Only time will tell whether this case will go down as an example of prosecutorial overreach or will establish a broader definition of what can legally be considered records.  Either way, I don’t want to be the one writing a retention schedule for fish!

Voting and political memory

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With the midterm elections finishing on Tuesday, it seems like a good time to return to the topic of presidential libraries.  The idea is a fairly recent one in U.S. history, beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His plan was to retire to Hyde Park and spend the rest of his days working at his library.  Although that ambition remained unfulfilled, by setting the precedent for presidential libraries, FDR forever changed the landscape of presidential records, charting the path toward their being seen as public rather than private records.  The Presidential Records Act, as codified in 44 U.S. Code Chapter 22, defines presidential records and explains restrictions on access to them. Obama’s Executive Order 13489 specifies a 30-day period in which the incumbent and former presidents may review records and potentially express a claim of executive privilege that would prevent their being made public.

Today, there are thirteen presidential libraries under the authority of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); additional libraries for earlier presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, are not under this NARA umbrella.

The Guardian recently posted a story about the architectural proposals of the four finalist sites to house the new Obama Library — Columbia University, the University of Chicago, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  The article cites historian H.W. Brands as a prominent critic of the idea of erecting separate libraries for each president — one that he sees as unnecessarily expensive to maintain and inconvenient to researchers.  The proposal of placing the libraries together while allowing separate museums for each president is an intriguing one, we may be too far into this endeavor to split the system now.  (See my post on February 16, 2014, for more information on this topic.)

The Clinton Library has also been in the news in the last month because of some documents that have been declassified.  New York Magazine posted a story on the day of these releases highlighting some interesting stories.  For an entire list of the documents declassified this year, go to the Clinton Library site.  There has been much speculation that the declassification of these documents has been influenced by Hilary Clinton’s potential run for the White House in 2016, hence the intersection of voting and records.