The Post Office and the Making of America

 

Winifred Gallagher is a good storyteller, a scholar who selects interesting topics and writes excellent narratives of value both to academics and the public. She has written books about purses, houses, and the meaning of place. Her latest book, How the Post Office Created America: A History (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), helps us understand another dimension of what we deem to be the information age, one we often take for granted.

Most of us have firm opinions about the postal system. I love mail, even the worse junk that arrives with it. It provides a window into our culture and, every once in a while, an interesting personal letter or other personal communication comes with it. The postal system also drives me crazy, occasionally losing mail or damaging it or just not delivering it. Whatever our feelings about it, the post office has been critically important to our country. Gallagher argues, “with astonishing speed, it established the United States as the world’s information and communications superpower” (p. 1). Gallagher’s book “tells the nation’s story from the perspective of its communications network” (p. 5).

Gallagher weaves the story of the development and role of the post office including, among other things, railroads, stamp collecting, greeting cards, newspapers, personal correspondence, economics, politics and patronage, law and legislation, technology, and significant personalities. It is a good read. Gallagher discusses the construction of the great post offices, symbols of America’s might, and she deftly charts the debate about whether the postal service is a business or a public service. Gallagher concludes that the post office is the institution that “did the most to create America’s expansive, forward-looking, information- and communications-oriented culture” (p. 287).

The book could have been better. A stronger bibliography would help the reader to delve more into this topic. The set of illustrations do not support Gallagher’s own text about the symbolic and cultural significance of the post office; it looks like an add-on when it could have been a much better addition to her thesis.

The Human Impulse to Collect and Preserve

We see evidence all around us of the human impulse to collect; there are libraries, archives, museums, flea markets, and antiques shops, just for starters. These re not equal in their importance, of course, serving a wide range of purposes. The differences in collecting can be seen in two recent books.

Eric Spitznagel, Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past (New York: Plume, 2016), describes the author’s efforts to re-acquire the LPs he long ago dispersed. The number of people growing up with vinyl as the primary means of listening to music is declining; I was one of those people. I remember their weight and bulk and, growing weary of carrying them around, getting rid of them (some thing I still regret a bit).

Spitznagel, a journalist, commences his book this way: “Think about the first song that meant something to you” (p. 3). He pulled me in right away. Then he connects music listening to the physical objects enabling this activity: “Records are something different. They’re physical objects: Big, bulky, inconvenient, easily damaged objects. Vinyl is the skin that changes in good and bad ways, over a lifetime” (p. 5). Some of them even have a “distinct smell” (p. 5).

Spitznagel is interested in the characteristics of vinyl records that might enable you to recognize the precise record that once belonged to you. As a result, Old Records Never Die is a meditation on technology and memory, a personal testimony rather than a scholarly study. He writes about love, happiness, sadness, success, failure, life and death – all marked by the acquisition and ownership of certain records. For example, in hearing one particular recording, Spitznagel muses, “Hearing it again in this fresh context, blaring from an old record player, the hisses and pops were a reminder that this song existed before Julia Roberts movies, before chain restaurants put it on constant repeat” (p. 109).

Sometimes there is more system to personal collecting than we realize. For our journalist, his grandmother served as a kind of repository: “Over the past half century my grandmother’s house had evolved into a sort of walk-in safe-deposit box. It’s where we left everything we didn’t want anymore but weren’t ready to throw away, because what if we needed it” (p. 117). Spitzbagel’s book will stimulate some self-reflection about your own collecting.

We recognize how and why communities and other groups labor to preserve something of their past and identity, beyond families and individuals. Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016) is a case study of the former. Despite the hip title and exaggerated claim, these are not the most important manuscripts – significant, yes.

Hammer, a journalist, provides us a story about the remarkable efforts to assemble, protect, and smuggle away thousands of medieval Islamic and secular tomes long safeguarded by individuals and families in Mali. He describes their initial collecting, focusing on the activities of Abdel Kader Hardara, and the subsequent cultural renaissance with the founding of government and private libraries and archives. Most of the book considers the danger posed to the manuscripts by the rise of Al Qaeda in the region. Hadara, calling on contacts around the world and assembling a wild array of archivists, librarians, family members, and volunteers, manages to get the vast majority of the textual heritage to safety into various safe houses. Hammer reminds us that while there are strong sentiments for preserving such materials that their symbolic and other values make them tempting targets as well.

Perceiving the Value of Archives

 

Archivists have come up with many different ways to describe the value of archival sources: legal, fiscal, administrative values; evidence and accountability; various research uses; memory; community building; and social justice. And the list goes on. The nature of potential value has expanded exponentially since the days of archival pioneers such as Jenkinson and Schellenberg. Some of these values can seem contradictory at times, but all of them have merit for why the archival enterprise is essential.

There is a more traditional way of perceiving the value of archives, via their use by storytellers, when they choose to take on this function, such as historians, journalists, and other scholars. While on my vacation in Maine, when not eating lobster or painting, I read two books reminding me of this. William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (New York: William Morrow, 2016) is a detailed account of the early nineteenth century explorers and their accumulation of documentation about their efforts (revealing how much more we have yet to know about this civilization). Carlsen, a journalist, draws on this rich textual and visual documentation to tell their story pitting them against harsh conditions, political and civil unrest, and other challenges. Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History (New York: Crown, 2016), is a contribution to the history of the field of natural history. Lunde, based on his long career in this field, builds on Roosevelt’s many writings and archival remains to provide an engaging portrait of this President’s scientific interests in the context of his own era (and what a contrast he is to those currently seeking higher office; there was a time when ideas were important).

It should be obvious that I selected these two books as entertaining diversions while I rested from other tasks. I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, by the many references to letters, diaries, photographs and drawings, and many other sources. In addition to the usual acknowledgements to editors, friends, and family, there are thanks to librarians and archivists. The power of archives is, perhaps, best expressed through volumes such as these, rather than in what archivists assert about their work and holdings. Anyone reading about historical events, politics, and society should be remind of the significance of archives and that their description as “dusty” (as one of the authors references) is only appropriate when we ignore them.

Arguing, Arguing, and Arguing

The endless political debates, arguments, accusations, and rants filling up our airwaves have worn down many of us. Personally, as I am on the eve of my annual Maine vacation, I look forward to a break from all of it. Even as I admit this, I also know that we have had earlier times when politics seemed mired in such murky depths. More importantly, every day every one of us are engaged in arguing about everything from politics to sports to religion, and the list continues.

Arguing can be exhausting and often seem pointless. However, there are other ways of looking at this. Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (New York: Harper, 2016), is a thought-provoking discourse on the nature of argument, and a timely one at that. Fish, the prolific legal scholar and humanist, gives us an assessment of the value of argument and how we should view it. No matter what practical insight one might draw from this book, we are reminded that our world is one of arguing, about everything and at all times. Fish suggests that we not try to avoid such discussion, but that we embrace it in ways that might produce positive ends.

The strength of Fish’s book, indeed of most of his books, is his clear writing, supplemented by numerous examples from a wide range of scholarship, current events, and popular culture. While presidential politics were not far from my mind, I was most interested in how Fish examines academic arguments, my daily environment Fish notes that the “basic economy of the academy” is as follows: “you advance and prosper to the extent that the solutions you offer to intellectual puzzles are found persuasive and are subsequently credited to as their originator. Promotions, honors, and influence follow” (p. 162). That’s a pretty good description of life in the academy, except that it’s missing the focus on generating revenue that seems to be a necessary part of the modern corporate university. Fish also handles, delicately, the issues the academy will not debate, such as Holocaust deniers, and grapples with the broader question of whether academic arguments matter all that much (I’ll let you decide what he concludes).

Preparing for a Full Archival Career: Research, Teaching, Mentoring, and Administration; Comments Made at the AERI Meeting, Kent State University, July 10, 2016

 

Academic life can be a great career, but only if you are truly prepared for it; if you are not prepared, it can be miserable, disappointing, and frustrating. My field, archival studies, is relatively young in its placement and role in the academy, having emerged (barely) in the 1930s, expanded in the 1960s, and established in the early 1990s (some might argue about the details of this chronology, but my personal experience and observation suggest that this is a good working outline of what has happened).

What I am writing here is based on notes prepared for the Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI) held at Kent State University in July 2016 (explaining why my focus is on faculty in archival studies). AERI, now in its eighth year, is important evidence of the maturing of graduate archival education in both the United States and worldwide (AERI has become an international conference and meets next year in Toronto). While AERI was formed to strengthen the field’s research, and this literature has both broadened and deepened, we still face many other issues and challenges.

In my own career I have striven to be a balanced academic, but can we claim that AERI is providing a balanced perspective for doctoral students and faculty? AERI has enabled us to have some substantial success in certain areas, such as strengthening research and publication, creating a distinct community (one that is international), and making archival studies a distinct field within the archival profession (including establishing it as a discipline within the academy). Some may quibble about some aspects of this, but I believe all will agree we have come a long and that AERI has played a significant role in the most recent decade. But we can still ask whether we have developed a sense of what faculty do or ought to be doing?

The matter of what faculty do is, of course, something that has been a topic of debate for a long time as well as an issue that some contend has been under siege in the modern university.  Here is a general assessment of faculty responsibility. They build and contribute to a record of scholarship, establishing their own expertise and adding to their disciplinary knowledge (and that of a repository of knowledge for society). Faculty conveys their knowledge via publishing, conference attendance, and teaching. They are advocates for their disciplines and programs. They mentor students and junior colleagues. Faculty collaborates with each other and works within their professional communities. And, finally, some take on administrative responsibilities.

However, it is in the realm of administration that we seem to have been the weakest. At AERI I have commented in the past on the ethics of teaching, expanding the nature of publishing to include public scholarship, and preparing doctoral students for faculty positions that are defined in well-rounded ways. Now, I am most concerned for how well we are preparing the next generation of administrators. The original motivating factor for AERI was strengthening research, and we have accomplished much in this. However, if we do not develop the next generation of administrators, we will not have the venues needed for graduate archival studies.

We often forget that there is a synergy between teaching, research, and other such basic functions. Teaching is, after all, a form of publishing. Being an active scholar, meaning reading and engaging in research, is essential for teaching courses that are current and forward looking. Teaching can also be used to target new potential areas for research and to enlist students in assisting in such work, with the added benefit of improving their research skills. But where does management fit into all this? There is little debate that students need help with learning about how to be administrators; they need a good working knowledge of this as they enter the workplace.

Preparing doctoral students to be administrators is the missing part of the AERI conferences. This is not surprising, of course, since the primary purpose of this group was to nurture research and publishing. But the circumstances have begun to change. The faculty who first banded together to create AERI is beginning to retire, affecting both AERI’s future and the future of graduate archival education in general. It seems that many doctoral students or early career faculty is focused nearly exclusively on their research and scholarly work, perhaps reflecting a general trend in academe. It raises the interesting question about how sustain or build graduate archival education programs. We need succession planning for the benefit of the future, but how do we do that if there is few interested in taking over such administrative posts? If this attitude had been prevalent a decade or two ago, we would not have the graduate programs we now have or, for that matter, AERI.

This is made more complicated by various trends in higher education. The declining number of tenured and tenure-stream faculty positions and the declining number of graduate students in some disciplinary areas are challenges complicating the future development of graduate archival studies, requiring a new corps of academic archival leaders. The positive growth in recent years of graduate archival education programs also has had another other consequence, increased competition for new students. This has been especially noticeable among the programs offering their programs via distance education; such programs tend to attract students (although not exclusively so) who are focused on credentials and who shop around for the best deals financially. There are many other variables affecting all this, such as increasing tuition costs for students and the present corporate mentality of many universities, creating many challenges for the future. This suggests all the more reasons for preparing future faculty to be prepared for administrative responsibilities, requiring that we help them to understand how the university works.

What do we do to prepare doctoral students for the reality of higher education that they will face in the future? We need to make them understand that the academic life is not just about research and publishing, as important as this may be. We need to get them into classrooms as instructors. In the archives field we need to encourage them to interact with practitioners; some of the emphasis on various theoretical approaches raises the question of the relevance of such perspectives on basic practice. We should introduce them to the growing literature on higher education, although, unfortunately, many faculty themselves neglect this area of scholarship. For example, Jonathan R. Cole, Toward A More Perfect University (New York: Public Affairs, 2016) evaluates, in quite some detail, matters concerning online education, funding, undergraduate and graduate education, higher education’s relationship with industry, and the role of faculty. Given that many doctoral students and faculty engaged in research about archives are concerned with matters of social justice, accountability, community, and so forth, Cole’s assessment of higher education is particularly relevant. Cole connects the state of higher education to his hopes for the future of the United States, stating that “over the next several generations I trust that our society will move closer to a true meritocracy for minorities, for women, for people with different sexual orientations. I trust that we will begin to appreciate difference more than we do today. We will have greater appreciation for cultural artifacts, for humanistic and creative thinking. Simultaneously, we will renew our belief in the ‘common,’ and that those who have been most fortunate in our society need to help those whose lives have been less so. I expect that we will reduce our level of anti-intellectualism and that we will value products of imagination, especially those that are embodied in the arts and sciences” (pp.322-323). There is no question, in my mind, that many archival faculty members are committed to fostering such a societal transformation (as well as documenting it).

Academics are not born; they are made. They learn to discern how to impose order on chaos, to be able to provide and receive criticism, how to develop regimens of research, to become experts in certain subjects, and how to be a colleague and develop relationships. None of this is particularly easy, but it is important. Preparing doctoral students to be competent researchers is only part of what they need to learn. AERI, as it continues to develop, needs to expand what it offers, especially if it wants to have a future.

 

The Slow Professor

The literature, scholarly and popular, about the nature of the modern American university, especially critiquing its recent corporatization, has grown at a steady rate over the past two decades. As a university professor, I am drawn to these books as a moth to a flame, part of an effort to understand the history and nature of higher education. Usually these volumes provide little in the way of realistic practical advice, but occasionally there are exceptions. A recent example is Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), a brief book focusing on how academics should view and manage themselves. Berg and Seeber, both English professors, consider issues such as time management, teaching, research, collegiality and community, and collaboration. There are no surprises in the range of topics they comment on, but the book is likely to provoke lots of discussion, discussion that will appear quite different depending on whether you are a professor, administrator, trustee, or parent of a student.

The authors define what they mean by slow culture as constituting a culture that “values balance and that dares to be skeptical of the professions of productivity” (p. 21). In other words, they question the university’s use of productivity measures for everything that a professor does (citation counts, numbers of publications, teaching evaluations, etc.) in favor of building space for reflection and understanding. Some of what they are contending with has to with the nature of the corporate university. For example, in considering research, they note, “The increasingly managerial model of research shifts the focus away from those doing the scholarship and creates faculty compliance with institutional imperatives” (p. 54). Berg and Seeber emphasize the need for faculty to recapture their mission to focus on understanding their own areas (and helping others to understand as well). And they elevate the need to recast how faculty view themselves by stating, “Slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (p. 58).

One of their most interesting observations concerns faculty collegiality. They contend that the present nature of demands on university faculty work against any semblance of collegiality. Faculty members stay huddled in their offices or rarely come to their offices, busy with demands on their time for research or just filling out forms and surveys intended to keep them compliant. Visitors to departments often find that they are “ghost places” (p. 75). This needs to change. If faculty members are to develop creative and innovative programs and conduct research of use to their fields and society they need to be available to work with each other. If they are to mentor students, they also need to be available to them.

 

 

 

 

Stepping Aside (Not Just Yet)

 

Most of us have observed, heard about, or read stories about excellent athletes who try to squeeze one or two more years out of their aging bodies. Back in the late 1960s Charlton Heston starred in a movie, Number One, about an aging pro football quarterback, with the final scene a fading image of him lying injured on the field. Some of us remember Willie Mays, in his early 40s, trying to play one last year for the New York Mets, watching the once sleek and graceful outfielder stumbling around the bases. There are countless examples of this in the sports world, and everyone has their favorite story or memory. Other examples can also be found in all other areas of life, from politics to academe. What we find in the university is, perhaps, not as exciting as what happens in athletics, but the fading academic can be just as poignant and compelling (the stuff of novels).

Although we don’t hear many such stories in academe (probably because few care about such matters outside of the university), we all have experienced some version of this. At conferences and other venues, one can hear the chatter about someone, now well into their seventies or older, still teaching from decades old notes or falling asleep at faculty meetings and during student advising hours. We forget about how cruel we were when we were younger. And, ultimately, we face these decisions about ourselves. This is the story I want to tell, but certainly not in a way that would ever suggest that I was anything like a superstar at what I do.

I am on the faculty of an information school, and I was recruited nearly thirty years ago to come as an untenured lecturer, start a program in archival studies, and pursue my own doctorate. It was a strange time. Then, in my late thirties, and with no real intention of staying there after I finished the degree, I alternated between faculty member and doctoral student, not always without some awkwardness. Full of energy and enthusiasm, I completed the degree while writing two other books, something that amazes me today. How did I do this? And should anyone else ever attempt such a foolhardy stunt? No, I don’t think so.

Because I was recruited in a field then with few individuals qualified to serve as faculty, I was invited into a tenure stream position and moved through the academic chutes and ladders game to become a tenured associate professor and then a full professor. From arrival in 1988 to full professor in 2000 now seems like a dream. No one called me a wunderkind, but there were times when I felt that way. However, somewhere along the way I crossed over the peak and began a downhill slide, not in mental acuity but certainly in physical stamina. Who knew what was ahead, however? Certainly not me.

What has happened between 1988 and today? Without question, the major change has been in the university itself. During this period we passed into the corporate university stage where revenue emerged as the priority. Everything — teaching, research, and even service — began to become increasingly measured by the dollars brought in. Given the nature of the up and down economy, the costs of technology, and the issue of assessment and compliance at every turn we take, none of this was a real surprise. However, it seemed to happen much faster than any of us expected. I imagined I was feeling like the laboratory frog being slowly put to sleep, then death in a beaker of water slowing rising in temperature. This prompted me to write a book, The Demise of the Library School: Reflections on Professional Education in the Corporate University, that few seemed to read or, if they did, didn’t want to talk about.

Physically, and in other ways, I have changed. A few years ago I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, and as I adjusted my lifestyle, this has involved bouts of fatigue and other issues that I was unaccustomed to dealing with. Accompanying this, but not in a cause-and-effect relationship, was deteriorating vision caused by developing cataracts (correctible, but not yet to the point where this should be done). So, I walk more slowly, take naps more often, and more deliberately pace myself in my teaching and research projects. Through this, I seemed to be productive to others, but I felt like I was accomplishing less than I used to in the past. As I completed my annual reviews, at our school a fair and comprehensive process that we all like t whine about, I witnessed a decline in productivity as compared to other faculty members, now all of whom were much younger and more energetic than myself.

All of this is quite natural, of course, but it has had an effect on how I view myself. For a long time I assumed I would work until I turn seventy, mainly because I love what I do. I enjoy the research process, and the extended bouts of reading and reflecting required to do this. I also love the interaction with the increasingly younger students, leading them in discussion and their research, learning as much from them as I imparted to them. And working with bright new and younger faculty colleagues also brought riches with it, always stretching me intellectually. But other things have started to happen that have caused me to sometimes question my own plans at the end of the career.

Recently, our new Chancellor challenged the various schools and other academic units to envision the grand challenges we wanted to engage. However he may have articulated this I am unsure about, but the conversation seemed to quickly evolve into the prospects of wealth and other treasures and riches. Soon we seemed not to be thinking about education or learning but about ways we could stimulate new revenue streams, all with a kind of Wall Street cache about it. This was, I believe, not the result of anything our Dean did (I have great confidence in him), but it was probably the result of the corporate-think and -speak that had been slowly emerging over the past decade and more. Whatever its cause, I found the conversation dispiriting and upsetting, and I faced a weekend (the meeting was on Friday) of soul-searching.

The intent of the grand challenges approach was to get us to grapple with the future, something I had focused on quite a bit in my own field and was, in fact, just putting the finishing touches on such a paper for a conference then looming just ahead. And this is where things got interesting. Sandwiched in between this faculty meeting and my travel to the conference was my birthday, my sixty-fifth one, a milestone by any means of contemporary social measure. What I realized was that my sense of the future was a considerably truncated version of the ones being dreamt by the much younger faculty I most closely worked with (now ranging from thirty to forty years old). Any discussion about grand strategic objectives that set our future seemed irrelevant to me. My future, at least as a faculty member, seemed to be no longer than five tears; that of my colleagues ranged from 25 to 40 years. Why would want to divert attention to my views that were so shorter?

Upon considering this, I relaxed quite a bit. I conferred with one of my younger colleagues about her taking over my administrative responsibilities, something she then seemed quite eager to do. Following a few short meetings to make sure this was acceptable to the program chair (and, presumably, the Dean), it was announced to the faculty. The faculty warmly greeted the new program leader, but not a word was said regarding me. So much for almost three decades of work in building the specialization, including both masters and doctoral students. I was not surprised by any of this, but it was, nevertheless, a bit disappointing (although it reinforced my decision to hand over the responsibility to another faculty member).

 

While I was at the conference, I commented on the change in leadership and this caused some comments. Some figured I had been deposed. Some believed this because they could not imagine a senior faculty member just handing over such a responsibility. Others wondered if the younger faculty member had different plans for the specialization, to which I replied, probably. This prompted me to explain that at my school we liked to have faculty teaching from different perspectives, believing that it shaped a better educational experience for the students. This seemed to cause more concern and questions, making me wonder if what I had just done was more unusual than I thought.

 

However, in short order all this changed. My younger colleague decided she was not interested in being the lead faculty member and, fairly soon after that, announced she was leaving, for reasons mostly known only to her. I wish her well. While all this was transpiring I found myself elected to be the chair of a new department, something that only a few months before I had no inkling of or would have dreamed that I would do.

 

I do not know what the near future holds. If my health stays good and I continue to enjoy my teaching and research, along with my new administrative responsibilities, I fully expect that these years will be positive and a good transition into retirement. Of course, in retirement, I envision having more time to read, write, and paint, and hope that some of my most successful writing, by which I mean meaningful to me even if not published anywhere, will occur. I am up, I believe, to the new challenge, even if I wish I had treated my elders better in the early part of my academic career and had become a better mentor to both younger colleagues and my students. However, one of the joys of the academy is having the time to reflect, learn, and apply new lessons learned. I hope I can do this in a caring and empathetic way; at least, I am going to try to do so. A substantial part of my activity will be in refocusing transition planning for future leadership. I want to leave knowing that the department is in better hands and shape than when I took over.

Finding Teeth in the Archives

Jill Lepore, the prolific, award winning historian and New Yorker writer, has published another book about her sense of archives and their importance. Joe Gould’s Teeth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) follows the story of Gould and his supposedly writing the longest book ever, portrayed by him as a history, but more likely a diary or oral history. Gould may have suffered from graphomania, but the real point of Lepore’s book is determining whether this manuscript ever existed in the form Gould represented it to others and that gained him fame in some contemporary New Yorker profiles. Lepore visits many archives searching for traces of it and for clues about Gould, causing her to reflect on the nature of historical sources. For example, she states, “Reporting begins with history; history begins with reading” (p. 18). At another spot, Lepore declares, “Two writers guard an archive. One writes fiction; the other writes fact. To get past them, you have to figure out which is which” (p. 41). In this statement, you have the crux of the challenge in doing research in the archives. You also have the challenge for the archivist in representing archives. I’ll let you discover what teeth has to do with any of it, although any archivist will tell you stories about their equally bizarre discoveries (for me it was the shards of a broken shoulder blade, the remnants of a wound inflicted at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1814).

Memory and Archives

For a number of years, I have used evidence, memory, and accountability as the major components of why archives and archival work are important in our society. More recently, I added social justice and community to these. My own writings about the connection between memory and archives extend back a quarter-of-a-century.

Public or collective memory has been a major feature of historical and other scholarship for quite some time. More recently, however, there have been countervailing perspectives to this, such as studies suggesting that forgetting ought to be given its due. A recent addition to this literature is David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Drawing on a wide range of historical, scholarly, and literary sources, Rieff provides a cautionary tale for why archivists and their supporters should be careful about how they associate memory with the archival mission. For example, “Whatever its purpose, the authority of collective memory depends . . . on our not inquiring too insistently about it factuality and not worrying overmuch about its contingency, but instead allowing ourselves to be swept away by a strong emotion dressed up in the motley of historical fact. Typologically, it matters little whether the feeling in question is one of solidarity, of mourning, of love of one’s own nation or disenchantment with it, or of hatred for another’s nation or envy of it” (pp. 35-36). Archival sources provide the authority of interpreting the past, no matter how we use memory as part of valuing the archival mission in society.

Archives are for the long-term. Rieff writes, “Commemorations are not generally valued for their ability to shed light on the truth” (p. 129). And while archives and the users of archives have debated the role of truth in their work and in the nature of the record, rightly so, ultimately they are the substance that gets us closer to comprehending the veracity of past events. Consider this, for example, as a way of wrestling with this: “Commemorations of national tragedies such as the September 11 attacks are also occasions for the affirmation of the wholly illogical belief that events that quite rightly seem essential to us today will be as or almost as important to our descendants long after those of who lived through them are dead” (p. 130).

This is a thought-provoking book. If nothing else, it makes me wonder just how long archivists will be remembered for the work they have done. As we build our repositories and their holdings we work against the vagaries of memory and our own oblivion.

Odds and Ends

Here is notice of a couple of interesting books recently published.

Looking for an interesting read on a recent trip to New York City, I picked up a copy of Roger White, The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), feeding my ongoing interest in art, its production, and its marketing. White, an artist himself, describes the emergence of a “quasi-industrial manufacture of objects for a global market or ambitious ventures into other modes entirely: feature films, festival, political movements” (p. 4). White describes what goes on in art schools, the growing use of assistants by contemporary artists, a case study of the art scene in Milwaukee, and so forth. Academics might find his chapter on art assistants of interest as it describes, perhaps, a counterpart to the academy’s use of teaching assistants and graduate student researchers. From White’s perspective the issue is how these assistants figure into the notion of the creation of art and the idea of originality. But maybe there is something similar at play in the academy as well in the production of research. There continues to be a lot of concern about issues of compensation, responsibilities, and the ethics of the use of such assistants in the university, and White provides a window into the fact that such issues are not limited to higher education.

Another new history of paper has appeared. Mark Kurlansky, the author of the well-known studies of cod and salt, has published Paper: Paging Through History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016). I have not yet read this book, but I plan to since I read most everything this author writes. Anthony Grafton provides a generally positive review in “Between the Sheets,” New York Times Book Review, May 22, 2016, p. 12. Grafton praises the “versatile introduction to this long and complicated history,” while cautioning that there is more to this history than what Kurlansky provides.