Dear Archivaria

Surely you jest.

It can’t have been more than a week since I last visited your site. And don’t get me wrong, I love the content available online. Though normally I find PDFs an annoying offense against good web design, I make an exception for journal articles. But Friday night—Saturday morning, if we want to get technical—what did I find? New content, in the form of Issue 72. An issue which appears to be devoted to digital records. Your first such issue in eighteen years.

That’s right. People who weren’t yet born when you published your last electronically-focused issue can now vote.

So you wait eighteen years, and then decide to release the issue now? Why not a few weeks ago? I am, after all, writing a paper that examines digital records. And if you couldn’t release the issue in time for me to read and incorporate the articles, why couldn’t you have waited another few days, after the deadline passed? It would’ve been sort of funny, at that juncture. Now, it induces annoyance (with myself, as well as you) due to the fact that yes, technically I could read some rather interesting sounding articles, and probably incorporate some of the material into my paper, were I willing to sacrifice more sleep (and had I accomplished more farther in advance of the due date).

And while we are on the subject of Issue 72…fall? Really? I grew up in upstate New York, Archivaria, and let me assure you early December means snow at that latitude—and you’re even further north. Never mind the date of the solstice, it’s morally winter.

Oh, Archivaria. Whatever shall I do with you?

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It’s not just about the tuna fish sandwich

In Scrolling Forward, Levy extols the simple receipt, the weight of intellectual and technological development that stands behind a ubiquitous, disposable document. I couldn’t help thinking about BPA. The positive achievements evident in a receipt (widespread literacy, papermaking, etc.) are not the only things embedded in the physical object.

Pick-your-own-class-reading: The Book of Ash

Originally I was planning to read and report on Archive Fever, because it just seems like I should. But the copy I requested through the library didn’t materialize, and I thought there was a reasonable chance that while reading I’d just want to stab somebody.

So instead I picked a book where a lot of people get stabbed.

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“History” versus…whatever else you call it

I really enjoyed Gaddis’s The Landscape of History; it spoke to a number of issues I’d never properly articulated.* My general approval of that book informs my reaction to early bits in Memorial Mania, as well as The Presence of the Past.

Rosenzweig and Thelen were doing social science, no question: it was all about data, collecting it in a systematic manner. Analyzing the dataset was necessarily squishy, and there was certainly art (or at least craft) to the interview process, but the goal of compiling all the qualitative data was to boil it down into quantitative results. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I still really like the way they went about it, and I think it is worthwhile to undertake such studies in the future…but it is a very different thing from the sort of history Gaddis discusses, and his book provides fodder for an alternate (or additional) reading of the rise of public history in the 1970s. Left-leaning, socially-conscious practitioners who wanted to make a difference, in a contracting academic job market…in a Cold War environment where the impact of Science and Math (especially the hard stuff) were privileged, and the temptation to retrofit fields abounded…. It doesn’t contradict the somewhat celebratory (if self-reflexive) narrative I’ve encountered several times this semester, but it does complicate it.

When Rosenzweig and Thelen eschewed the word “history” in favor of alternatives (if not synonyms) like “the past,” they uncovered their respondents’ active engagement. Doss puts it more bluntly, citing the postmodernists’ “perception of history’s repugnance” as a reason for the boom in “memory studies.” It makes me a little uneasy. I am very used to the idea that one criticizes things, even (or especially) if they are worthwhile. Renaming a thing can be useful, can describe it more precisely…or it can be outright Orwellian. Catering to one’s audience can also be a very useful thing…unless it turns into pandering. And so the repackaging that seemed like a shrewd tactic in The Presence of the Past now reads more like an indicator of a troubling trend. “History” as a discipline is subject to trends, some works are crap or evil…but it’s been around a while, and IMHO the word itself is important, in part because of all the concepts that have accreted over the years. It’s weighted, nuanced, complicated…appropriately so. This is not to say that “memory” and “the past” are devoid of nuance; they’re just different. I like using them “in addition to” (or even “in opposition to”); but using them “instead of,” quietly shunting “history” aside because it’s somehow too hard, is a different situation entirely.


* E.g. anxieties about methodological choices, most specifically my reluctance to commit. I rather like what my former co-worker said about postmodernism: it’s a useful tool for generating questions, even if it’s less satisfactory at answering them. I had a little “Yes!” moment when he said that, and reading Gaddis was kind of like a rolling version of that conversation.

I suppose in a Gaddis-approved shuffle, the public historians (rather than trying to convince the other historians that they were doing history, too—emphasis on “doing”) would take their balls and databases and go hang out with the social scientists, the rest of the historians (rather than trying to argue their discipline’s rigor and relevance) would go hang out with the physicists, and I suppose the postmodernists would sit in a corner and critique everybody. And they’d all pretty much do what they’ve been doing; they just might change the departmental codes for their classes or their tables in the cafeteria.

I am sometimes accused of not liking movies for this reason. Not just the specific movie I’m talking about, but movies in general. Oddly enough, those friends don’t accuse me of not liking, say, the U.S., or Western democracies in general. I guess they’re just less touchy about criticism of politicians than screenwriters.

Sometimes good enough is, in fact, good enough

Fool’s Gold is an incredibly vexing book, in large part because I agree with the thesis that libraries (particularly academic and research libraries) are important, and their functionality not replaced by the web. But many of Herring’s arguments fall somewhere on the continuum between straw men and logical fallacies, and the tone (I hate to make tone arguments, but it just can’t be ignored) is completely over the top. It’s okay for the poster or an article, but is not effective at book length.

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Making sense of philosophy in the specialist age

Scrolling Forward was one of our books in Archives a couple weeks ago. My reaction was generally positive, and I have a bunch of little starred notes in my notebook.* A chunk of class was more annoyed, particularly near the end. Chapter 10 is explicitly existential in nature, with much Becker and Loy and a dash of art history.

And here I encounter a bit of a personal conundrum. I’m unfamiliar with Becker and Loy. I know of Kierkegaard, but that’s about it. I never studied philosophy, formally or otherwise, so I feel myself unqualified to judge its deployment in the text. I feel more comfortable with other parts of the book: though I don’t count myself an expert§ in, say, nineteenth century industrialized society or twentieth century information technology or all corners of the web…I’m on more solid ground. I know the shape of things, I can independently think of points that support or counter statements Levy makes; I feel like I can, potentially, offer opinions that go beyond “blue is a nice color.”

It is, perhaps, a problem of specialization: if a field is so deep, how can an outsider usefully participate or evaluate? It’s also an issue of trust and authority. It’s a reasonable assumption that Levy’s read the authors he cited. But is he sufficiently expert in a field outside his obvious academic and professional experience? Making connections is a scholarly value-add. Interdisciplinary study is, IMHO, a good thing, and the trade off for breadth of vision is, necessarily, depth. So how do you peer review Specials?** In a book that is steeped in anxiety, this is one of mine.


* Starred notes are my thoughts, upon which I mean to follow up in either a blog post or paper. Brackets are my asides. Handwritten, mostly legible. Notebook illustrations—in ink and yellow crayon, thusfar—are by The Daughter and make me smile.

Employing vague shorthand because a) we don’t take class minutes, b) it wouldn’t be appropriate to reproduce them if we did and c) vague shorthand is perfectly adequate for my purposes.

I’m not proud of this. Nor am I especially broken up or insecure about it. So many books, so little time and all that.

§ More of a selectively well-informed generalist, perhaps.

** In several of Cherryh’s novels, Specials are a legally protected class of people with a specific set of skills, generally held to be unduplicable; Cyteen is about attempts at duplication.

“Huge and menacing aqua-dogs, ready to go fetch Madagascar”

Gog and Magog

Gog and Magog (Psalter Map detail)

I’m only a couple chapters into The Island of Lost Maps, and I find myself simply floating along from one well-timed diversion to the next, smiling at some delightful turns of phrase (like the post title, referring to the imaginary creatures illustrating maps; another favorite is “the hellish spawn of Big Bird’s one-night stand with Jaws”). Harvey makes a virtue out of necessity: lacking the cooperation of his purported subject, Gilbert Bland, Jr., he is not restricted to ferreting out the “truth” (psychological or methodological) of the crimes in question. His map of Bland is in the mold of the medieval mappae mundi, diagrams of legends and perceptions and morality rather than objective geographic information. The comparison unfolds with such a practiced inevitability that I wonder how doggedly Harvey pursued Bland as a source, and how disappointed he was to be rebuffed. After all, flesh-eating denizens of Gog and Magog are much more interesting than anything in the vicinity of the Caspian. How could the prosaic life of a habitual criminal compare to a story woven around tantalizing details and the author’s own obsession?

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School days

The fall semester has started. I feel somewhat odd about it. For the first time this millennium, I’m taking fall classes (which is somehow qualitatively different from spring or summer classes). Two courses does not a full time student make, but it’s the first time I’ve taken more than one at a time this millennium.

For the next few months, this blog will serve a dual purpose. I’ll continue to blather about class readings and brain candy and the like. But blogging is also a requirement for Managing History, so some of the posts will contribute to my grade. The course will involve a presentation (which has never exactly been in my comfort zone, so I suppose it’s good to see it on the syllabus) and a group project to write a grant proposal. Writing a grant proposal is so far removed from my experience that I can’t relate it to my comfort geography. But, again, it’s good to stretch…and one of the APS folks was very enthused after a grant writing workshop, so I hope to find it a rewarding and useful experience.

My other class, Research in Archives and Manuscripts, is a bit more traditional in structure: reading and a big paper. A fair chunk of the first class meeting was devoted to what we all did on our summer vacation: interning in the Philly area (this past summer for most, the previous summer for a couple of us) and establishing a library in Kigali.