Like most librarians, I’ve been following the changes going on at the New York Public Library. It is one of those issues that casts a spotlight on the larger library world because of the vast importance of the institution. Charles Peterson’s essay in the amazing and fabulous journal N+1 burrows deep into the issue and he comes up with some suprising findings that have a lot to say about the corporatization of libraries and the future of reading culture. Here is a representative quote:
“More than anything, this rhetoric reveals the fundamentally anti-democratic worldview that has taken hold at the library. It is of a piece with what the new Masters of the Universe have accomplished in the public schools, where hedge funders have provided the lion’s share of the backing for privatization, and in the so-called reforms to our financial system, where technocrats meet behind closed doors to decide what will be best for the rest of us. Oligarchs acting in the people’s name (with the people’s money) is not democratic; selling off New York’s cultural patrimony to out-of-town heiresses, closing down treasured divisions and branches, pushing out expert staff, and shipping books to a warehouse in the suburbs, all without consulting the public, is not democratic. If the reconstruction goes through, scholarly research will be more, not less, concentrated in the handful of inordinately wealthy and exclusive colleges and universities. The renovation is elitism garbed in populist rhetoric, ultimately condescending to the very people the library’s board thinks they’re serving. It suggests that no one other than an Ivy League professor or student could ever hope to engage in scholarship or original research. Leave the heavy lifting to the folks at Harvard and McKinsey (and the quants in our commodities division), the financiers are saying; for the rest of you, there will be lovely sun-filled spots to check your email.”
I encourage you all to read the whole thing and let us know what you think. Part One can be found here and Part Two here
(I’m usually pretty lackluster when it comes to generating blog post titles, but at least for this one I ignored my brain when it repeatedly suggested “A Radical Archive Grows in Brooklyn.”)
A few weeks ago, a group of librarians was invited to an evening at the new Interference Archive in Brooklyn, NY, not far from the Gowanus Canal. The Interference Archive “explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements,” according to its mission statement. The space opened in mid-December 2011 and represents 20-25 years of the collecting of countercultural and political memorabilia in the areas of feminism, punk rock, criminal justice, and more.
Two of the three collective members, Josh MacPhee and Molly Fair, met with us librarians and archivists and talked about the present and future of the Archive. (The third collective member is Kevin Caplicki, and the late Dara Greenwald is also an integral element.) The Archive began, inadvertently, around a quarter century ago when Josh and Dara independently started saving print and other materials related to the movements they were active in. When they decided to open a public space, the guiding question was how to translate longstanding personal collections into something accessible and relevant to other activists.
Josh and Dara felt that the collection they had amassed should be controlled by the community and not risk falling through the cracks if it were given to an institution. It should be accessible — literally and emotionally — to activists, non-students, and others who may not feel comfortable trying to use a university archive. The Archive’s philosophy is to privilege use over preservation (and, in the process, to get the stuff out of the living room).
Just how much stuff are we talking about? Josh and Molly estimated that the Archive includes 3000-5000 books, roughly the same number of pamphlets, 20 drawers of posters and prints, and hundreds of newspapers, plus t-shirts, buttons, and other items that social movements produce. At a guesstimate, they said that 40% of the materials are from outside the U.S.
The shelving and drawers that hold the items are in the middle third of the space. At the front is an open area for displays. Right now, they have a Squatting Europe Kollective Library exhibit up, and they’re organizing future exhibitions, to change on a quarterly basis or so. There’s even a small public coworking space in the rear. The collective’s vision for the Archive, besides the obviously archival function, is for it to serve as a space to socialize and engage with history.
The Archive’s inspirations include Brooklyn’s own Lesbian Herstory Archives and the Freedom Archives in terms of their autonomy, commitment to community, and representations of living history. Another model is “Signs of Change,” an incredible, wide-ranging exhibit that Josh and Dara themselves organized at Manhattan’s Exit Art gallery in 2008.
One key difference between the Archive and more traditional institutions is that while materials may be well-preserved in a museum, the staff there doesn’t necessarily know what they have, and they cherry-pick the highest-profile artists. Josh talked about visiting the archives at the Museum of Modern Art, which displays the Keith Haring and Claus Oldenberg work but leaves the American Indian Movement posters and other items “not cool enough to catalog” (a real staff notation, Josh swore) in drawers. As Josh and Molly put it, they don’t follow the “hero” model.
During our visit, there was a lot of discussion about how to build an Interference Archive catalog. Molly is looking into Collective Access for the database. They want whatever platform they choose to be able to store data that’s meaningful to activists — such as whether a poster was printed in a movement print shop. An archivist from a labor library pointed out, to several heads nodding in agreement, that archivists these days know a lot about metadata and the technology of archival access, but they don’t necessarily know — or care — about finding the context of the material. Projects are grant-driven, and the people who get hired are the ones with the data skills.
At any rate, digitization is not the answer here — it doesn’t automatically lead to permanence anyway, and the Archive collective is very sensitive to the fact that the experience of viewing a PDF is simply not as rich as handling the actual poster. They also recognize that images shouldn’t just be available online, floating around without context. Otherwise, they’re just “empty signifiers,” as Josh said.
The subject of copyright came up. Josh and Molly framed the issue as the question of whether they’re in the service of the movement and its inheritors, or of the producers of the materials. Essentially, the collective is still working out how to deal with creators’ rights regarding reproduction of their images — complicated terrain, to be sure. They also noted that their and others’ research on the context of production will help keep people from claiming ownership of collectively-produced pieces, which has happened in the past.
So, what’s next for the Archive? A major policy question they’re grappling with now is what to do about intake. Josh and Molly talked about needing a collection development policy as well as a referral list for people who are offering items that ultimately don’t fit in the archive. They’re also figuring out how to shelve materials. In the absence of a database that can assign multiple descriptors to an item, where it’s physically located is a key determination for the time being. More conceptually, they need to confront their own bias. The collective members come from anti-authoritarian, horizontal traditions and tend to privilege materials in that vein, but they don’t want to be just an anarchist archive.
If you’re in the NYC area and are now totally amped to help out at the Interference Archive, here are some things you can be a part of:
The Archive is open only Sundays for now, and the collective is looking for reliable people to get involved and ideally allow the space to be open more hours.
Right now all the funding is out of pocket, and they’re looking for funding models as well as a fiscal sponsor.
They’re also looking for people to facilitate events that are connected to the collection — for example, themed critique and analysis sessions, art-making workshops, and cataloging parties.
And they wouldn’t turn down DIY preservation tips. They need to balance preservation with a low budget, and buffer paper is expensive!
Author: Wayne Bivens-Tatum
Published: March 2012
Contemporary American libraries are products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment–the intellectual and political movement that emerged in 18th century Europe–consolidated various scientific and political ideals into a worldview advocating scientific discovery and experimentation, reason as a touchstone of truth, intellectual freedom to study and publish, skepticism about received traditions, individual liberty, political and social equality among all persons, democracy, and toleration of diverse opinions among other beliefs. From the 17th century on, libraries were crucial to the development and dissemination of Enlightenment ideals. Early modern “universal libraries” such as the Bibliothèque Mazarine attempted to collect books on every subject to promote study and research and preceded the rise of research libraries supporting another Enlightenment creation, the research university, with the goal of collecting, classifying, and disseminating the human and scholarly record. Early circulating and subscription libraries such as the Library Company of Philadelphia were founded by enterprising citizens who wanted to educate themselves about the latest scientific and philosophical knowledge. They led to the development of the public library movement in the 19th century, founded on the premise that people needed access to books and information to continue the education necessary for citizens in a democratic republic. These two goals of Enlightenment–to support the creation of knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge throughout a free society–provide the philosophical foundation for modern American libraries, with the ultimate ideal of a universal library universally accessible. There can be libraries without Enlightenment, but no Enlightenment without libraries.
Wayne Bivens-Tatum is the Philosophy & Religion Librarian at Princeton University
Arthur Brisbane is New York Times Public Editor, a position outside the regular editorial team that is supposed to act as the reader’s representative. Followers of this blog have probably already heard about his recent post, “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?, which many readers found maddeningly stupid. Brisbane was asking whether NYT reporters should challenge statements by journalistic subjects that the journalists know to be untrue. Brisbane was responding to broad public discussion about “He Said/She Said” reporting, in which the truth tends to get lost, although he seemed not to realize that this was the context of his post when he followed up on it yesterday. (Ostensibly, he was responding to an op-ed by Paul Krugman published in December, but he must know that the discussion about this problem has been much broader and been going on for a long time.) An informative early response to his initial post was from the tireless watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). (I will also point to a useful note from FAIR about “both sides are right” presumptions at PolitiFact, the political fact-checking blog.) What is so maddening about Brisbane’s question to readers is that it verges on questioning a fundamental principle of the fourth estate as the supporter of the public sphere – to be an independent monitor of power. At a time when traditional journalism is in a crisis for reasons beyond its control, it is difficult to comprehend why the public editor of America’s paper of record would flirt so explicitly with the idea of giving up on that principle that is the source of journalism’s enduring value to people. What it seems to me that he was doing in asking that question was asking the public to validate a journalistic trend that has been in progress for some time, that seems to be born of a failure to stand up to political pressure. The public hates He Said/She Said reporting. I think Brisbane simply miscalculated in his hope that the public would take the paper off the hook by providing a number of useful responses supporting this sorry trend.
I have said in the Library Juice blogging pledge that we won’t write about news topics that other people are writing a lot about unless we have something new to add, so let me attempt to add another angle to the discussion. What I would say it’s worth considering in light of this debate is that issues like this one have been debated from the beginning of modern journalism, and those earlier discussions can offer much to us now. Some recommendations along those lines. First, an article in Acadame, the AAUP’s journal, by Eric Alternman, summarizing the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over a broader question about the way journalism works in relation to democracy. Lippmann held that (even at the time) real policy issues were too complex for the public to understand through a simple presentation of accurate information, and that the main service of journalism is to provide the basis for conversation rather than information, and that this conversation is the real basis of democracy. In the time I spent as a reference librarian at the California Research Bureau providing service to policy analysts and legislative staffers, I came to sympathize strongly with this kind of view, because I saw that in fact public debate was highly simplified and dramatized versus the more sober and technical discussions that go on in the policy sphere, and this was partly because of the orientation of the public toward issues. Dewey’s side of the debate was more idealistic. It may be that journalism’s insiders see this problem partly from the perspective of the policy sphere about which they are charged with reporting to the public, with the result that in the process of negotiating the level of technical detail versus drama that they provide in news, they also negotiate with the level of truth.
An answer to this apology for compromised journalism could be found in many sources, and I will cite a couple of them. First, a book that is dated in its examples but not in its overall thrust: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. This book provides thorough evidence of the the kind of positive falsehoods, as opposed to oversimplifications, often offered by experts and reported unquestioningly by journalists. It is dated, but to the point.
More important, however, is the rich area of work surrounding the effects of the capitalist organization of the institutions that give us the news. From the most recent past era, a cornerstone work is Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly. Though it is from before the internet era, I think it is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the core problem behind “He Said/She Said” journalism and related failures (such as that steady stream of PR that makes up so much of what is presented as news). There are other important works related to Bagdikian’s from the same era, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and works by Robert McChesney. Not long ago these books were essential starting points for anyone wanting to think progressively about journalism, but new issues are causing them to fade into the background. It’s time for new to works deal with the same issues in the new media context. But these works and older ones are still important. For an understanding of how far back these market effects on journalism have been a problem, books worth consulting would be Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is freely available in various forms; a compilation of media criticism edited by Robert McChesney and Ben Scott, titled Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Media Criticism; and a new book out by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Press Critics of the Progressive Era. (Full disclosure: Litwin Books is the publisher of the latter one).
I think the historical and political-economic context Brisbane’s question to readers is worth understanding better through some reading beyond the blogosphere, where past work is easily forgotten.
Robert Darnton, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books on libraries and author of The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future, was interviewed prior to a talk at Cardiff University, by Cardiff grad student Rhys Tranter. The interview was posted to the blog of Cardiff University’s Centre for Editorial & Intertextual Research.
I ran across this essay by Karl Mannheim while looking into ideas on “styles of thought” in relation to philosophy and politics. Mannheim was one of the founders of the “sociology of knowledge,” which is an area of inquiry that some in LIS have said constitutes a good theoretical underpinning for what we do. The field of sociology of knowledge is a little too relativistic about knowledge for my taste, but this essay on “conservative thought” by Mannheim, one of his most famous, really floats my boat. I would recommend it to anyone who ponders what “conservative” and “liberal” really mean, in our time and historically. Mannheim describes the conservative mode of thought and its historical genesis through the lens of an intellectual history of Europe. Useful reading for our times.
Hello, this is Erik Sean Estep. I’m one of the new bloggers here. I’ve been a librarian for over ten years and I’m currently the Social Sciences Librarian at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
I’m honored to be a contributor because I think that this is one of the most intellectually compelling blogs in our field. Many times, this space has caused me to think more deeply and philosophically about library and information science issues. I hope to continue that tradition. For my first post, I’d like to draw attention to one of the best things I’ve read about the wonders of the library.
A nostalgic piece about going to the library as a young man is in one of the recent issues of The London Review of Books. Alan Bennett is one of England’s great writers and he elegantly gets at the tactile joys of going to the library without resorting to the sentimentality of pining for a lost world. Bennett is a true Renaissance Man and you get the sense that his inspiration came from going to the library. He was raised in a working class family and the library was his gateway to a wider life of the mind. Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring to our attention the important work that we do and the value we bring to our society.
Essay by Lincoln Cushing in Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, Catalog for a 2011 exhibition at the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach. Exhibition curated by Ilee Kaplan and Carol A. Wells, Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
This article is a brief historical overview, with illustrations, of some of the print shops that were associated with the New Left in the United States. Like a lot of historical writing about the 60s, it’s both nostalgic and indirectly instructive, for people who might want to do analogous projects now. Lincoln is an important and knowledgeable writer in the history of left political printing and graphic design in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and since.
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — When Republicans gathered at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum here for the presidential debate last week, the backdrop was an overhauled exhibition on the Reagan presidency, done under the watchful eye of Nancy Reagan. It is intended, in part, to be a more complete depiction of the Reagan presidency, replacing one that many had seen as a bit too worshipful and airbrushed.
But another exhibition that just opened at yet another presidential museum not far away — the Watergate installation at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda — has offered a stark challenge to the Reagan tribute here, exposing both the different ways that these two museums have chosen to remember their subjects and the different positions that the two former presidents hold in the nation’s and the Republican Party’s memory.
Protest on the Page:
Print Culture History in Opposition to Almost Anything*
(*you can think of)
Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture
September 28-29, 2012
Protest has a long and varied tradition in America. The conference will feature papers focusing on authors, publishers and readers of oppositional materials, in all arenas from politics to literature, from science to religion. Whether the dissent takes the form of a banned book by Henry Miller or documents from Wikileaks, conference presentations will help us to understand how dissent functions within print and digital cultures.
The keynote speaker will be Victor Navasky, Publisher Emeritus of The Nation and George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism, Director of the Delecorte Center for Magazine Journalism, and Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review. In addition, he is the author of such noted books as Kennedy Justice (1971), Naming Names (National Book Award, 1982), and A Matter of Opinion (George Polk Book Award, 2005). Perhaps best known for his long career as editor and then publisher of The Nation, Navasky has an understanding of dissent and its publications that has few peers. His lecture, and the subsequent reception, will be open to the general public.
Proposals for individual twenty-minute papers or complete sessions (up to three papers) should include a 250-word abstract and a one-page c.v. for each presenter. Submissions should be made via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for submissions is January 31, 2012. Notifications of acceptance will be made in early March 2012.
As with previous conferences, we anticipate producing a volume of papers from the conference for publication in the Center’s series, “Print Culture History in Modern America,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press. A list of books the Center has produced is available at the Center’s website (http://slisweb.lis.wisc.edu/~printcul/). The best proposals will mirror these earlier works, as they speak to their own authors, publishers, and readers.
For information, contact:
Christine Pawley, Director,
Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture
4234 Helen C. White Hall, 600 N. Park St.
Madison, WI 53706 phone: 608 263-2945/608 263-2900
fax: (608) 263-4849
Daniel Ellsberg spoke at the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans this summer, about the current world situation and libraries. ALA’s Leonard Kniffel followed up with this on-camera interview.
The new issue of Libraries and the Cultural Record has a review of LJP publication The Great Depression: Its Impact on Forty-Six Large American Public Libraries, an Analysis of Published Writings of Their Directors, by Robert Scott Kramp. Arthur P. Young wrote the review. Libraries and the Cultural Record is the leading journal in the field of library history.