Voices from the Stacks (Fiction)


(Note: The Society of American Archivists recently held a short fiction contest. I did not win. However, below is what I submitted, to add a little fun to my blog. If nothing else, after you read this, you will desire to read some good fiction.)

John Gage had worked as an archivist for nearly thirty years. He presently labored in the large manuscript collections of an old historical society, an institution that had been aggressively acquiring all sorts of stuff for over a hundred and fifty years. As a result, the repository held many rare and valuable historical sources, along with a variety of materials that can only be described as junk — although no one can ever guess who might use such documents. Scholars of all varieties regularly showed up, from the famous to the young graduate students hoping one day to be famous, to contribute a breakthrough and insightful study changing the way we understand some aspect of our past. John enjoyed talking with all of the researchers, always interested in what they found interesting and likewise tempted by what they thought they could find among the millions of documents. Gage, when it came to the possibilities of useful historical research, was always the optimist (this he always found surprising). He longed to do some of his own research — he possessed numerous ideas for articles and books — but he lacked the time and he was reluctant to engage in any activity that might suggest the slightest hint of a conflict of interest with his professional duties and the mission of his employing institution. But he loved being an archivist.

Gage was not a people-person. In this regard he shared much in common with other archivists, curators, and librarians, although he thought the stereotyped notion of the shy and withdrawn archivist was both demeaning and inaccurate. A researcher would never know this, since he was always charming and outgoing with them. And he was not afraid to express his opinions when an opportunity. But what had attracted him to be an archivist was his passion for history and his ambition to work alone. He often quipped that he had an easier time conversing with dead people than with his very much alive contemporaries; he always hoped that his co-workers and family understood that this was a joke, but as he got older and grew into what people generally thought of an archivist — grey, bearded, slightly disheveled, with faint odors of dust and must — some believed that this was Gage’s mission in life. He thought it was funny. He kept current with new approaches, technologies, and ideas, all without grumbling or any nostalgic sense of the good old days. Although he had slowed down a bit in terms of conference going, Gage was equally at home in the reference room even as he was debating archival theory and methodology with his colleagues. He couldn’t be happier.

“Good morning John,” announced Julia, as he made his way through the security area and into the Manuscripts reading room. His reply was a mumble, but he recovered quickly, and cheerfully retorted, “Good morning, Julia. How are you today?” She smiled at his recovery, something she witnessed most mornings. Julia wore her green and brown J Jill dress, looking like a hostess at a posh restaurant. John, on the other hand, was attired in his normal khaki slacks, polo shirt (whatever was on sale, as long it was green or blue), white or black crew socks, and a dark Navy blue blazer (just in case someone important came in). No one would suspect him of being a male model, especially with his middle age belly.

“Are you ok, John? You seem distracted.” Indeed, he was distracted, but not wishing to discuss the source of it, he again cheerfully replied, “Ah, no. Everything is just fine. I was merely thinking about what needed to be done to finish up the Thomas Winslow Papers.” Nice recovery he thought.

John had been working on the Winslow Papers for the past couple of months. Winslow was a businessman, mostly in land speculation in the city and its environs, who died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918. His business records were neat and meticulous, leaving nothing to the imagination. But it was the voluminous personal correspondence that was the gem. Winslow knew everyone, and he regularly spun out letters offering his opinions on social issues, politics, economics, sports, the arts, and just about everything going on as the Gilded Age passed into the Progressive Era. Gage had been wondering just how to convey the richness of this set of papers, without spending the rest of his career working on it (although that would have suited him just fine).

Julia already had moved on to remind him of the events of the day — “John, don’t forget the staff meeting at 11 and the tour of graduate students at 2.” Gawd, how he hated staff meetings, breaks in the day never resulting, in his opinion, in anything productive. He mentally wrote essays based on whatever records he was processing, always hoping that his private reverie would not be interrupted, “Thanks, Julia, I have this on my calendar.” The students’ visit would be welcome relief. They usually asked perceptive questions and they could be fun. The staff meetings were tedious and boring, and never much fun.

As he walked into his office, his worries returned. Starting a few weeks ago, he had begun to hear voices. He laughed at the thought. This sounded so much worse when he thought about it in this way. He was not hearing voices all the time. John only heard them when he worked past opening hours, something he did a few days a week when he was particularly engaged in a rich historical archive. The Winslow Papers had drawn him in a way unlike anything else he had ever experienced. He looked forward every day to examining the records, bringing some kind of order and succinct description that would help researchers. Sometimes he thought they could serve as a basis for a novel or a powerful documentary. Gage had an entrepreneurial streak, although he never set aside time to indulge in such efforts. Gage was content with his relatively meager salary, always surprised that someone would pay him for what could be his hobby.

After he had started writing his dissertation, twenty years ago, John had taken what he thought was a temporary archivist position to pay his bills but it soon transformed into an unexpected career. He loved the work, the challenges it brought to the fore, and the unlimited opportunities it gave to immerse his self in documents from and about the past. He never gave up on the notion of an academic career, but he never quite could pull himself away from the archives and the researchers wanting to use them. Gage likened working in the archives to being on the front lines or, better yet, in the front row at an important sporting event. The voices were a new wrinkle.

The day went along quite nicely, with the staff meeting and the student tour. By late in the afternoon all John wanted was to get back to work on the Winslow Papers. Julia was the last staff person, other than him, to leave. Now he was alone, without distractions, to pick up examining the various documents. He had finished the financial records, and he was in the midst of the personal correspondence, a task that was taking longer than normal. The letters were often longer and more detailed than others he had worked on, and he was moving slowly in order to take careful notes of their contents. Gage was struggling to figure out how he could prepare a useful finding aid that would reveal the extraordinary riches of this particular collection, totaling several hundred cubic feet of documents spanning the years from 1880 to about 1930. Mixed in with the letters, there were a few diaries, receipts, and scraps of notes created from Winslow’s voracious reading habit, along with several volumes of photographs documenting all aspects of the family’s private life and the public acts of Winslow as an important businessman, social life, and prominent political broker.

After he had been at work for a few hours, around 8:30 in the evening, John heard the murmurs of the voices, again. The words were not clear, muffled as if multiple people were talking all at once. He tried, he always tried, to locate the source of the voices, but usually he had no success. Tonight was different. Now he realized that they were coming from the document boxes in the stacks. As he moved into the storage area, John realized that very distinct sentences were coming from different boxes. More than sentences, what he was hearing were stories. “I was a stonemason, and I worked for most of my life on the churches in the city — that is, until I lost an arm in an accident.” From another box, he could hear a clear voice saying, “I was a schoolteacher, but I was dismissed for teaching African-Americans how to read.” From his left he heard, “I was a semi-professional baseball player in the early twentieth century, but I could not make it to the major leagues, even as a coach. I committed suicide just after my forty-first birthday, the age past when I had any chance of playing professionally.” Each of the disembodied voices revealed lengthy and poignant events of people of all social classes and walks of life. Occasionally, John heard a voice describing someone else’s life, with an explanation that this individual could not write and was represented only accidentally in a photograph or two or in a letter providing eyewitness accounts of events involving other people.

John could hardly believe his ears. Was he imagining this? Out of curiosity he followed some of these voices to the archival containers they seemed to be coming from. In each case he found documents relating to what the voices were saying, although the documents provided much greater detail than what the voices were articulating. The voices seemed to be adding a human element, a personal statement of pain, angst, euphoria, amusement, and hope. And the voices were poignant, compelling enticements to go and examine the physical files.

It was also the case that what the voices communicated were not on topics familiar to John, and John prided himself on his knowledge of the archives holdings. Gage walked back to the binders holding older and newer revised versions of finding aids related to the collections that had become audible. In these guides he found terse descriptions but in none of them did he discover commentary reflecting what the voices were saying. In fact, he thought, it would be safe to say that the finding aids were not very inspirational in terms of drawing prospective readers to use the original documents. Dull and lifeless they were, Gage pondered, and he was the author of some of the finding aids in question.


By the time Gage had done some of this sleuthing, the voices had become muted and then stopped altogether. Gage slowly packed up his working note files and made his way out through the security alarm system and into the parking lot. As he was driving home Gage pondered over these recent events, resolving that he would keep all this to himself. At least for the time being. He wouldn’t even talk to his wife about any of this, at least for a while. He knew Mary could detect that something was on his mind, about work (of course it was always about work), but doubted that even she could guess the wild stuff going on with him at the sedate historical repository. Mind you, John was sure she could work it out eventually. She was a people person, and everyone wondered how the two of them had ever gotten together (he sometimes wondered as well).

Some weeks passed, and the voices did not return. Gage was at first disappointed, but after a while he found comfort that they had gone. At least now, he wouldn’t feel like a nut case.

When the next staff meeting took place, Gage argued that they needed to launch a project to re-examine some of the descriptions for key groups of records. Jonathan Harris, the assistant director of the repository, seemed flabbergasted by this idea, noting, that so much of the holdings still had not been catalogued at all. Why, he demanded, would we backtrack and re-evaluate the collections that were under some level of intellectual control? Gage squirmed a bit. “We need to do it because there are treasures buried in our stacks that no one could find at the moment. We owe it to our researchers to do some remedial work.” Harris mumbled something unintelligible, something he was prone to do at meetings, especially in response to John. Julia stepped into this discussion, asking a very practical question. “John, how did you arrive at this point? What have you been doing with your time?” And, yes, there was an edge to her voice, implying that John had been fooling around with matters that should not be of any concern to him.

After a couple of weeks, John had forgotten about the voices, focusing all of his energies on trying to finish the Winslow Papers project. He wanted to search for some grant funds to digitize some parts of this collection. He had reverted to his old style of representing a set of documents, creating a workman like if not very creative description. As he reverted to the old work mode, he became oblivious to much around him. Now he could no longer pause to read the more interesting documents, even though being able to do so was akin to having air to breathe. It was time to get these records open for researchers, drawing on the best methods available to him to do so.

Then, the voices returned, much like before, although the voices seemed to be telling longer stories than before, adding more detail and additional human interest. What could it mean?

The next morning, when he arrived at work, he found Julia waiting there for him as usual, except that she looked ashen, distracted. She was not her usual cheery self.

“John,” she said as soon as he walked in, “can I talk to you about a problem I have encountered when I am down in the stacks?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Last evening, when I was here a bit later than usual, I started hearing strange voices.”

John tried not to look too shocked, but he nearly wept when she stated those words. “What do you mean? Were you picking up voices from other parts of the building? You know how voices can drift through the air vents. . . .”

“No, I thought of that and I tried to follow the sounds. The voices were coming from the archives containers, a distinctive voice from each box. At first I couldn’t make out the words, but then I realized they were recounting personal stories from long ago. But I also realized that the stories were not about matters I recognized from our collections and the finding aids we had available for them.”

“How do you know that,” John asked, even when he knew she had done exactly what he had done. He listened patiently as she slowly explained how she had arrived at this conclusion. Then she surprised him. “I talked about this with Mary.” Mary was the young graduate student intern who had been working there for a few months. “Mary told me she had been hearing voices just like mine.”

Gage must have looked shocked, because Julia immediately said, “You have been hearing them, haven’t you?”

John didn’t respond for a few moments. “Let’s talk about this later, after work.” He turned swiftly, and somewhat awkwardly, and proceeded to his desk. Julia knew he wasn’t going to talk about this. At the end of the day, John announced he needed to work late so that he could finish the Winslow Papers inventory and description — which was true.

A week passed, and another scheduled staff meeting arrived. The agenda was fairly pedestrian, mostly about some future staff training in interpersonal and communication skills, something they were regularly forced to go through but something that never seemed to get any better (at least in John’s opinion). As he dozed, he was startled to hear Assistant Director Harris’ voice saying, “I have been thinking about John’s suggestion about revisiting the existing descriptions of our archives’ holdings.”

Well, this was different, John thought. Was he about to be fired? Should he pre-empt what was about to come? Had the word gotten around about his hearing voices?

Harris, after what seemed to John to be a rather dramatic pause, said, “I believe this is a good idea and that we should work out a strategy to do this.” John thought Harris seemed extra fidgety, when he usually full of bluster and himself. Then it dawned on John that Harris had heard the voices as well, and maybe not just on one occasion. Maybe he was still hearing them. Nevertheless, Gage was surprised by the next announcement, that he would be in charge of this project.

Gage noticed that Julia and some others all had faint smiles on their faces, when, if for no other reason that John and Harris had never agreed about anything, they all should have been shocked. Not to worry, however, as John had already begun to map out a plan in his head. He was excited about the possibilities being offered to him. His task was to highlight the stories trapped in those dull gray archives containers. For there was nothing dull about an archives, even if John has forgotten this amidst all the rules, protocols, standards, and whatever that had come to be the core of archival practice. He was about to rediscover, maybe they were all going to rediscover, what it was that attracted them to become an archivist in the first place.

Archival Stories

If you are looking for stories, there may be no better place to find them than in the stacks of archival repositories. For archivists, the challenge is how to let these stories come into the public sphere, how to open them not just to scholars and other researchers but to make them more visible in society. Archivists, even the best, sometime seem not to realize the nature and power of the human stories they have responsibility for in their repositories. They seldom use the Web to describe these stories, and they often muffle the stories in lifeless finding aids where they seem more concerned with standards and other technical minutia.   And then they wonder about why there seems to be such a public misunderstanding about what they do and the mission they pursue.

Archivists need, as well, to become better listeners in order to find their audiences for the stories they administer and preserve. I am sure they can do so, but they need to start working on this in earnest. However, at least one archivist thinks we are doing better when it comes to the stories we have custody of; Anne Gilliland states, “Perhaps it might seem strange that it is stories, and not records, that have been the starting point for this research. I have been struck in many of the recent discussions about human rights and archives by how much ‘stories’ rather than, or as well as ‘records’ have been featured. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten in archival circles, with the exception of oral history archives, collecting or telling ‘stories’ would not have been considered by many to be the business that archivists were in” (Anne J. Gilliland, “Moving Past: Probing the Agency and Effect of Recordkeeping in Individual and Community Lives in Post-Conflict Croatia,” Archival Science 14 [2014]: 261. See also, David A. Wallace, Patricia Pasick, Zoe Berman, and Ella Weber, “Stories for Hope-Rwanda: A Psychological-Archival Collaboration to Promote Healing and Cultural Continuity Through Intergenerational Dialogue,” Archival Science 14 [2014]: 275-306).

We live in a world of stories. Alain de Botton writes, “We live in an era of unparalleled cultural richness. Every year humanity publishes some 90,000 films, 2 million books and 100,000 albums, and 95 million people visit a museum or art gallery” (Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual [New York: Pantheon Books, 2014], p. 235). Another way of saying this is to imagine all the stories driving these cultural products and activities. It is time for archivists to get more involved in storytelling. But in order to do so they need to learn how to craft and tell stories about themselves and their work.

While many archivists have been proficient writers, publishing in journals and conference proceedings, they have ignored what professional writers have advised about learning to write in order to gain larger audiences. Richard Rhodes, a master of creative nonfiction, connects writing to stories: “There are more ways to tell a story than there are stories to tell; a story is a map, and maps always simplify. You write a story whenever you put words on paper – even filling in a license form. A love letter or a business letter, a novel or a narrative, a short story or a news story, a screenplay, a song lyric, a family or scholarly history, a legal brief, a technical manual, a biography or an autobiography, a personal journal, a scientific paper, a photo caption, an essay, a poem, a sermon, advertising copy, schoolwork – all these and many others are forms of story you may wish to write” (How to Write: Advice and Reflections [New York: Quill, 1995], p. 1).

Reading broadly and deeply will help archivists learn how to discern opportunities for stories and how to write them. There are many other aids to learning how to present stories in effective ways. An interesting new addition is Randy Olson, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Olson, a marine biologist who gave up tenure and went to work in Hollywood to become a filmmaker, explains why he believes science suffers from a “narrative deficiency” (p. 8) and needs to learn “what makes for a good story” (p. 9). Olson considers the nature of narrative, “stories that connect a series of events over time, creating large-scale patterns” (p. 52). He describes numerous case studies of and methodologies for improving science communication, beating back “boredom” and “confusion,” the two primary ways communication breaks down (p. 113).

Probably every profession has worried about its ability to communicate to the public. This is especially true in the sciences. Cornelia Dean, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), is an excellent example of trying to improve communication with the public, with considerable advice that is apropos in other fields. Dean, a science journalist, considers interacting with reporters, ways to present scientific research to the public, the necessity of knowing the audience and its capabilities, the nature of press releases, writing letters to editors and op-eds, testifying in court, and a host of other matters. Here is a representative example of the kind of basic advice offered: “When you start to write a science story, imagine how you would describe your favorite baseball game if your listener had never seen baseball played” (p. 133). Here is about the clearest advice you could ever get about writing a book: “it is not enough to produce a scholarly data dump. You must consider your readers and find a way to keep them engaged” (p. 162). Dean also provides a useful set of suggested readings.

The Olson and Dean books can be profitably read by archivists interested in reaching the public. I once had an essay nearly rejected by a leading archival journal because one of its reviewers thought it read like a piece from an airline magazine. Indeed, my intent was to write something that had a broader appeal. Clearly, our profession has a way to go in learning how to communicate beyond its own borders.


Reasons for Being an Archivist in the Digital Age

In considering archivists as advocates and the ethical issues of their work we can create a preoccupation with the negative aspects of the profession, especially in discussing such matters with individuals preparing to be archivists or who are in the early stages of their careers. The aim is to identify what we need to fix in the archival community, mainly how to strengthen it so that it’s important societal mission can be carried out. It means understanding that the value of archives is not some set of principles based on a nostalgic longing for what documents used to be like before the dominance of digital systems. What follows is an effort to emphasize a set of positive aspects of archival work. It is a preliminary statement for discussion; there are other reasons that can be added to this set of reasons. An early draft of these reasons was prepared for use in my course on archival access, advocacy, and ethics. Given some of the challenging issues we were dealing with in this course, many of the students perceived my attitude about the archival profession to be a negative one. In this statement I tried to emphasize positive reasons for being an archivist (although some of the students still saw this statement as negative because it differed from their own presuppositions about archival work). There is, for example, a growing debate about the rationale for archives as tools for social justice and community memory (See, for example, Wendy M. Duff, Andrew Flynn, Karen Emily Suuramm, and David A. Wallace, “”Social Justice Impact of Archives: A Preliminary Investigation, “Archival Science 13 [2013]: 317-348 and Michelle Caswell, “On Archival Pluralism: What Religious Pluralism (and Its Critics) Can Teach Us About Archives,” Archival Science 13 [2013]: 273-292).

Essential Roles. Records are essential for institutions, governments, historical sites, and cultural organizations to function, be accountable, remember, and maintain their activities, knowledge, and places in society. This is the essence of the most important role for archives and archivists, and it is a role newspapers, courts, government tribunals, truth commissions, fiction writers, historians, and other entities and individuals remind us about daily. Archivists ought to stand ready to be interpreters to society about these messages, both sublime and transparent, but archivists should realize that, with or without them, messages about the significance of records are going out in a regular fashion. It is difficult not to read a newspaper, news magazine, or news blog without encountering some story that affirms the importance of records. Sometimes it is difficult to discern the particular role of archivists or the attributes of archival sources, but the opportunity regularly presents itself for archivists and related professionals to step in and explain what these are about.

Societal Mooring. Archival records are critical for enabling individuals and their families to locate themselves in a place (real and virtual), time, and culture that are all rapidly changing. Our digital, networked era has loosened our anchor in any one of these critical aspects of our culture. Cyberspace is not a space or place, even if lawyers have had to create it as a means to deal with legal issues. Such records provide both comfort and discomfort as they position us into the realities of the world. Real records reflect real events ad circumstances, connecting us to a history full of horrors, tragedies, surprises, greatness, happiness, and humor. Records can make us feel both good and bad about ourselves, offering us, with some effort, a glimpse into the truth of our past. The cacophony of voices we hear both literally (from movies, audio recordings, and oral traditions) and figuratively (from letters, diaries, receipts, and other textual documents) can be confusing, but, if listened to carefully, also can be illuminating. Archivists have the responsibility to build portals to these records and, in many cases, to interpret them for society. Archivists certainly have the responsibility to educate researchers, the public, students, and other professionals about the nature, uses, and importance of archival materials.

Community Foundation. Archival records are the building stones of community and communities are the foundation of cultures and societies. By community we mean everything from neighborhoods to professional groups, from indigenous populations to networked groups. We cannot understand ourselves or our worlds without archival records. Without archives, communities cannot exist. Archivists have had a long-term focus on communities, and they have recently sharpened the focus in new ways. Now, many archivists are working with communities to assist them to establish new kinds of independent community archives (rather than seeking to sweep up community-related records into their archives). While we recognize the many different forms communities can assume, archivists are far more tolerant of the definitions and methodologies and more committed to connecting with those who constitute the particular community. Some archivists have embraced the idea of citizen archivists, seeking to train and mentor non-professionals to care for their individual documents, without necessarily, except as a last resort, taking physical custody of them. Archivists have to develop new ways of supporting the diversity of communities in our society (For a recent collection of essays concerning new ideas about community archives, see Jeannette Bastian and Ben Alexander, eds., Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory [London: Facet Publishing, 2009]).

Changing Archival Documents. The nature of the archival record, or at least how we perceive it, is changing in profound and complex ways. It is both virtual and physical, fixed and mutable, visual and audio-visual, and artifactual and spiritual. Some archival sources are oral traditions, while some are ancient artifacts, and others flicker on screens. The broadening of the definition of the record has paved the way for more interdisciplinary thinking and work, leading to a productive harvesting of ideas about documents from many different fields. In past years archivists have often fussed and stressed about whether they could freeze and preserve in usable ways these new documentary forms. Now they seem to be more intellectually engaged in such work and its possibilities. Yes, archival work can be both intellectually engaging and fun, (although perhaps not as much fun as fondling ancient paper documents) with the added benefit that nearly any archivist at any level can make observations leading to contributions to our understanding of what makes a record archival. Positioned on the Internet, archivists also can present archival documents in new and engaging ways, from producing teaching modules about the nature of archival sources to directly making available a variety of documents.

Stories and Storytelling. Although not always emphasized by archivists, archives are stories, some powerful, others quiet and simple, and some more controversial and especially revealing. Being able to read and learning to present these stories can be a great joy, especially as doing this stretches archivists to rethink everything they have been doing (such as preparing finding aids and building Web sites). We need to work harder to allow the stories to escape into space. Just a generation or two ago, archivists struggled to inform researchers and the public about what they held and what they were doing; now they can convey both breadth and depth about archival work and the potential uses of their records, in ways and with an ease unimagined not very long ago. Archivists have been working to advocate more effectively for their mission and work to the general public and policymakers, but all along it is the naked stories that could make this happen. In the archivists’ zeal to be professional or scientific (or, at least, consistent), they have lost sight of the entertaining and enlightening stories (and so has, therefore, the public, researchers, and policymakers — all of whom would benefit from the stories). But just as oral narratives were the precursor of archival sources, today these narratives provide a rich potential for new archival work and advocacy.

Analog, Digital, and the Future Possibilities of Archives. The increasing shift from analog to digital sources poses many profound and engaging challenges. How do we deal with the ample supply of legacy systems, while coping with the digitally born systems? What new opportunities will archivists have in working with the powerful digital records and information systems? All of these are exciting and interesting prospects for archivists and archival work. For at least twenty years, archivists (some, at least) have thought that the new digital systems, rather than being dangerous, will allow for the full-fledged expression of archival expressions and principles (A pioneering example is David Bearman, Electronic Evidence: Strategies for Managing Records in Contemporary Organizations [Pittsburgh Archives and Museum Informatics, 1994]). We should be able to build systems whereby we identify and capture records possessing archival value from the beginning point of creation, fulfilling in practical ways what the records continuum model suggests (a better model than that of the venerable life-cycle) (See Gillian Oliver and Florella Foscarini, Records Management and Information Culture: Tackling the People Problem [London, Facet Publishing, 2014]). But we need other models and, more importantly, more outlets for creativity, experimentation, and collaboration for building practical approaches to managing the contemporary world of Big Data. Rather than searching for pat answers and easy formulae, archivists can be laboring on interesting challenges, profound problems, and stimulating issues. It is an exciting time to be an archivist.

The Power of Records. Studies, from both within and from outside the profession, has displayed the importance of power, political and otherwise, in the creation, use, and maintenance of records over the preceding centuries down to the present (Here are some examples: Jeannette Bastian, Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost its Archives and Found its History [Westport: Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2003]; Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial []New York: Basic Books, 2001; Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice [Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009]; Estelle T. Lau, Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion [Durham: Duke University Press, 2006]; Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala [Durham: Duke University Press, 2014]). While these displays of power are informative for understanding the nature of record keeping, they are also valuable for helping us comprehend how non-archivists view us and, sometimes, how archivists debate among themselves. Historians, political scientists, social scientists, cultural studies experts, literary scholars, and others have pulled back the layers of recordkeeping systems to expose the motivations and necessities of records systems. While some have disparaged the often heavy philosophical language of many of these kinds of studies, feeling that they have first to master jargon not always necessary for their work, many have utilized these other disciplinary approaches as a stepping stone to new ways of considering archives and archivists. Nearly any critical analysis of documents unlocks the potential for archivists to re-examine what they are doing in their repositories and to make contributions to our knowledge of archives. From studying the reasons evil and totalitarian regimes often create elaborate records systems to the manner in which some regimes eradicate evidence related to certain elements of society, the power invested in records and their control resonates clearly and profoundly.

Archival Knowledge. Building archival knowledge is both necessary and a wide-open playing field. Whereas people entering the field just several decades ago had only a few basic manuals, several journals, and a scattered research and practice literature, today they can draw on a much richer literature. Yet, it is also true that this literature is immature and fragmentary, at least in comparison to other information fields. As such, archivists, whether practitioners or academics, whether pragmatists or theorists, all have an opportunity to make important contributions to archival knowledge. In fact, one might say that archivists in the trenches have the best opportunity to make such contributions because they see and experience daily how records move into the archives and how researchers then use these records (if they use them). There is no more important responsibility for archival professionals, as a robust and strengthening knowledge is essential to the health of the profession and its ability to cope with and solve new and emerging challenges. An archivist must be in command of the field’s knowledge and in order to ensure a strong and relevant knowledge he or she must be contributing to its growth and use.

Fundamental to Humanity. Writing and the creation of documents is a fundamental, human activity, not as essential as breathing or eating, but pretty close. As such, one might argue that no matter how badly archivists might do in proclaiming the importance of archives, they cannot ever screw it up so badly that the public will dismiss entirely the archival enterprise. Archivists need to let the importance of archival records shine through, essentially let them speak for themselves. The idea that archives and archival work is some kind of mysterious, arcane entity needs to be dismissed and archivists need to embrace the basic societal importance of records as a basic human activity. While those who become archivists often testify to the difficulty they had in discovering archives as a form of reliable or useful work, the truth of the matter is that records and recordkeeping extend back to the beginning of history. Archivists are part of an ancient and honorable vocation, and they should reflect this in all that they do.

The Necessity of Being Creative. Because archivists are responsible for documents essential for maintaining societal memory and order, they need to pursue their mission and mandate in as creative a manner as they can. Here is a useful definition of creativity by Howard Gardner: “The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting” (Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi [New York: Basic Books, 1993], 35). Does this require a new image? Mostly it necessitates archivists being creative problem-solvers, and this requires them to have a firm grasp of understanding both archival knowledge and their mission. What is commonly called thinking outside of the box can be stimulating and fun. For students, it can be good practice for them for first professional positions. More importantly, being creative is a way to be engaged with all dimensions of the field.



The Allure of the Archives


The recent appearance in English of Arlett Farge’s The Allure of the Archives seems especially poignant in how we may be adjusting ourselves to see the value of traditional paper archives. This scholar emphasizes how all sorts of evidence become embodied in government archives, both intentionally and unintentionally, providing an “infinite number of possibilities of representing reality. “In the end, there is no such thing as a simple story, or even a settled story,” she writes. “If the archive is to serve as an effective social observatory, it will only do so through the scattered details that have broken through, and which form a gap-riddled puzzle of obscure events. You develop your reading of the archives through ruptures and dispersion, and must mold questions out of stutters and silences” (Arlett Farge, The Allure of the Archives, translated by Thomas Scott Railton [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013], 94).

Allure, meaning having an attraction or charm, is the perfect word for expressing our sentimentality for all things archival. Countless young students arrive to start graduate programs in archives, but some lose their excitement when their notions of archival work and responsibility are dashed by the reality of what archivists now do and how archival work is presently seen.

Farge’s account is unashamedly about old paper records, perhaps a surprise for some who see us needing to contend with all the nuances and challenges of the present digital age. Some might think this focus is due to the fact that this is a new English translation of a book originally published in 1989. However, other recent publications of major books on paper suggests that the interest in paper today goes deeper than this, perhaps a reaction to the focus of all things digital (see my earlier post on the “Persistence of Paper”).

Being attached to paper is not good enough in itself; we must use this resource wisely. Archivists would assume that this means preserving evidence on paper, but I would add that it is writing that is important enough that you do not have nightmares about destroying trees or cluttering up libraries with junk. Other scholars and commentators have re-committed themselves to producing superlative and clear writing that not only reaches (and teaches) but inspires the public to understand both the past and present of their society. Historian Jill Lepore is a notable example of a public scholar. In a recent collection of essays, mostly written in her New Yorker column, Lepore reveals her effort to deal with serious historical topics in the form of well-told stories; not only do we get treated to exemplary academic writing, but we get peeks into interesting episodes from America’s past and its most compelling figures — John Smith, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allen Poe, Noah Webster — and a variety of intriguing events (The Story of America: Essays on Origins [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012]).. This is a book to read for inspiring yourself to write better. No one can say that she is wasting any paper.

As many have reflected on both the positive and negative influences of our reliance on digital information technologies, there has been a nostalgic longing for printed books, bookstores, and libraries — and for nearly anything that is paper. We are also now looking, rather wistfully, at handwriting as a highly personalized extension of our personality and our place in our society. Some commentators have even suggested that as we do everything with digital devices that we are losing an important way of expressing ourselves (Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting [New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2012]). Paperwork, a term long associated with the rise of the modern state and often possessing a pejorative meaning, has become an object of study featuring all of its contradictory meanings. Ben Katka offers us a “psychic life of paperwork,” analyzing early modern France’s creation of documents and record repositories, the latter numbering more than five thousand on the eve of the French Revolution. This scholar notes that the storming of the Bastille found only seven prisoners housed there but more than four hundred boxes of documents concerning the more than four thousand prisoners that had been there since the mid-seventeenth century (Ben Kafka, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork [New York: Zone Books, 2012], 15). The result was both an archivist’s and historian’s dream, an alluring one at that.

Books have provided a kind of harbinger of how society considers the archival function. At the least, the book, especially in its traditional printed format, has remained constant as a symbol of societal memory, an archive of the world. In a recent book, Alberto Manguel establishes this role for the book: “The book is many things. As a repository of memory, a means of overcoming the constraints of time and space, a site for reflection and creativity, an archive of the experience of ourselves and others, a source of illumination, happiness, and sometimes consolation, a chronicle of events past, present, and future, a mirror, a companion, a teacher, a conjuring-up of the dead, an amusement, the book in its many incarnations, from clay tablet to electronic page, has long served as a metaphor for many of our essential concepts and undertakings” (Alberto Manguel, The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013], 10). There has been a regular industry of publishing about the future of printed books, even while an increasing amount of bookstore space is devoted to e-readers. What is intriguing about the commercial sales of e-books is all the other stuff being sold with the device in order to make the reader look like a printed book or a manuscript diary. We now read like we diet, eating a dietary substitute for one kind of food while longing for another (the idea that as one diets that your food tastes change doesn’t work with e-reading either).

When given a choice between digital and analog formats, many people today opt for the older analog formats. Even in this era of digital photography, people still reflect approvingly of caring for paper-based photographs. Then we come to letters. Historians, biographers, collectors, and others have heaped considerable praise on their value. They provide the backbone for unraveling the past and adding colorful retails to its depiction. Wade Davis, in his splendid history of the efforts to climb Mount Everest, reveals one reason why he was able to write his book: “In an age of letters, it was not only the receipt of correspondence that maintained a lifeline, it was the grace and comfort that came in the moment of reply, when each man could share private thoughts, vent frustrations, and express fears, knowing that convention demanded discretion, and that a private letter between gentlemen or an intimate note between man and wife implied an inviolable trust” (Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest [New York: Vintage Books, 2012], 343). Moreover, on a regular basis, books appear describing old style letter writing. While such books do not contribute much to the scholarship of the creation or value of documents or archives, they do capture something of the feel many people have for lost forms, styles, and artifacts of our documentary universe. It is a feeling many archivists bring into their jobs and even more students bring into the educational programs preparing them to be archivists. How to sustain their attraction to archival work, while educating them about the realities of contemporary archival work is the challenge archival faculty face.


Archival Uneasiness with the Digital World


More than thirty years ago, the archival profession (my community) was struggling to cope with the growing presence of digital stuff. Amidst handwringing and great angst, some archivists declared that we were losing our history or, more dramatically, our memory. Archivists were depicted as, or confessed to, laboring on procedures based on the old paper paradigm, and they were uneasy about their ability or resources to contend with the emerging digital culture. Archivists have calmed down quite a bit since then, even if all the programs and projects in digital stewardship have not solved any more than a small portion of the challenges we face; one does not need to scratch too deeply below the surface to discover that there is still a lot of concern about how well we are dealing with digital sources, the World Wide Web, and anything else relying on computers to create and sustain various information and evidence systems.

Increasingly, we are witnessing interesting messages in new publications bearing on our cyberculture and about the archival sources residing in that world. We are reading more comforting messages about the persistence of digital materials that might make us wonder what all the fuss was back in the 1970s and 1980s. More amusingly, books are appearing providing an almost nostalgic sense of the old paper archive. While the archivists who contribute to the professional literature tend to be writing about case studies, techniques and methodologies, and other micro-views of their practice, scholars and pundits outside of the profession are providing macro-perspectives of the care and feeding of archives. The former (microanalysis) tends not to lead to either optimistic or pessimistic notions, but the latter (macroanalysis) definitely might lead to false hopes and misguided attitudes. At the least, these newer perspectives suggest that the allure of old documents tends to be both strong and persistent, one key to understanding why we value archives today and, perhaps, for the very distant future.

A couple of Google administrators have written an extraordinarily optimistic assessment of the role of digital information technologies in our society (why should we be surprised by this?). Taking a polar opposite view from that of earlier archivists (or most archivists even today), Eric Schmidt and Janet Cohen forecast that this is an era of “near-permanent data storage.” “This will be the first generation of humans to have an indelible record,” they contend (Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013], 55). This account is tempered with statements that seek to assert that technology is both powerful and neutral, that problems arise only from people’s misuse of the technology (computers don’t kill history, people do). There is also the optimistic perspective about how the ubiquitous digital information technologies make it harder for dictatorships to stay in control and for democratic regimes not to be accountable to the people: “Permanent digital evidence will also help shape transitional justice after a conflict has ended. Truth-and-reconciliation committees in the future will feature a trove of digital records, satellite surveillance, amateur videos and photos, autopsy reports and testimonials. . . . Again, the fear of being held accountable will be a sufficient deterrent for some would-be aggressors; at the very least they might dial back the level of violence” (Schmidt and Cohen, 200). “Technology is an equal opportunity enabler” (Schmidt and Cohen, 151) and we should be grateful for it and its role in our lives. While we need to be diligent about the potential erosion of personal privacy or security, we also need to be aware of the advantages these new technologies offer to improve our lives in innumerable ways.

It is just such a perspective that Evgeny Morozov warns us to be cautious about, or at least critical about its relevance or utility (Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism [New York: PublicAffairs, 2013]). Morozov critiques the idea that the Internet is a revolutionary catalyst, a kind of new printing press, stressing that we celebrate rather than analyze the Internet, idealizing it and accepting all the claims for what these technologies will do for us. He also contends that openness and transparency are more complicated than they seem, especially since we tend to ignore issues of ethics, morality, political economy and other messy topics that reveal what we are up against. Morozov is challenging the belief that technology will help us solve every problem; we need to be aware of what this might do to us. It is what he terms “technological solutionism,” the use of technology to fix the problems caused by technology.

Both scholars and societal pundits worry about what they perceive to be lasting, ubiquitous, and negative influences of the digital on language, texts, and documentation (not unlike how archivists of the past two generations have stressed about the potential damage of digital systems to our documentary universe). Literary scholar and poet Kenneth Goldsmith provides an example of such concerns: “In today’s digital world, language has become a provisional space, temporary and debased, mere material to be shoveled, reshaped, hoarded, and molded into whatever form is convenient, only to be discarded just as quickly. Because words today are cheap and infinitely produced, they are detritus, signifying little, meaning less. Disorientation by replication and spam is the norm. Notations of the authentic or original are increasingly untraceable.” (Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age [New York: Columbia University Press, 2011], 218). Many archivists would agree with such an assessment, especially as Goldsmith is not alone in such assessments.

Poet, essayist, and scholar Andrei Codrescu gives us a rambling reflection on both his personal archives and the future of books in the digital era. Codrescu provides lots of observations about the nature of archives, some insightful and some confused — but all worth some consideration. His argument is not easy to summarize, composed in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, but some example quotations will give a sense of his ideas. “Storing my archive in an Archives was a comforting thought but hardly the cure for the bad (good?) luck of being born at such a momentous time of transition between flesh and machine. Would any archive survive so much archiving? It remains to be seen” (Andrei Codrescu, Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes [n.p.: Antibook Club, 2012], 89). Codrescu writes with some cynicism: “After outsourcing our memories to the machines, the only mental possession we will be allowed to possess is an individual Password” (Codrescu, Bibliodeath, 93). He makes sharp distinctions between the physical, traditional archives and that of the virtual, noting, “Archivists are angels in charge of an author’s afterlife: a flick of the wing and they can either disperse it to the winds or whoosh it into the right hands; they stand with feathers, not matches, between an author and the vultures who want the author’s remains” (Codrescu, Bibliodeath, 112). And — “The physical Archives inhabits a world that exists in parallel (but only physically) with an unarchives repository, the Unarchive, the Negative Archive. This Unarchive contains all this omitted, deliberately or unknowingly, from the Archives. . . . Every document recorded, or realized and stored, is accompanied by an undocumented, unrecorded, unrealized version that was aborted at some point” (Codrescu, Bibliodeath, 126-127). I am not sure how I would use this book, except that it does provide a unique perspective on how we are increasingly seeing personal archives, empowered by new digital technologies promising to allow us to store, organize, and retrieve just about everything. The ambiguities of Codresu’s message reflects the mixed feelings many, including archivists, possess about the position of archives in a society transitioning from analog to digital.

We still have lots to mull over.

Search for Truth


Truth is in trouble these days. Everywhere we go we find evidence about the precariousness of any sense of the relevance of truth. Students in our classrooms come expecting to continue to learn that there is no final truth. One student, explaining her undergraduate program, told me their classes would vote on what version of the past they would accept. I quietly asked what would it mean if two different classes, voting on the same issue, would vote in different ways; she had never thought about this. I have given readings about historical events or contemporary issues with varying interpretations and asked students to sort it out. Some do, some don’t, and others throw up their hands in despair, reverting to a sense of accepting any sense of truth (or wanting me to tell them what is the proper perspective). At least once I had a student ask, “What is truth?” apparently expecting that I could not answer the question. But I did have an answer, although it would not satisfy the student or her colleagues. We act like truth is still in play, although it is not the Truth of a half-century ago when it was the baseline or parameters for everything from statecraft to journalistic work. Now, no one is ever quite sure what anything means.

The university where I work has the motto “Veritas and Virtus,” truth and virtue, but there are many, students, faculty, and administrators, who seem not to know this. Or, if they do, they simply see such mottos as antiquated products of the ancient origins of universities (hey, why else is the motto in Latin). Universities are beset by many ethical, moral, and legal problems, exaggerated often by efforts to avoid having to deal with such complicated issues (although sometimes the issues are not really that complicated, but only made to seem this way by how the issues are dealt with). Athletics get the most publicity these days, such as with Penn State’s football child abuse case or the Duke Lacrosse team rape case, but the problems go much deeper, with extraordinary amounts of money involved and strong alumni groups often running the show (with academics taking a distant back seat). Getting less public attention is research fraud, but given the massive amounts of money involved these days, money has moved to the forefront and when one attends a meeting about research opportunities it is often about money possibilities. What some universities have gotten expert at is in either cover-ups or in wrapping up the cases in academic double-speak (not a good role model for students and others).

The issue is not the question of whether the truth exists or not, but it is that, even in this so-called Information Age, it is that truth is difficult to find or to discern. Journalist Charles Lewis, in his book 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), has tackled the relevance or demise of truth in the government, corporate, and news sectors, stating, among other things, “Truth delayed is truth denied. When the facts are bottled up by secrecy and deception, it means that the public and its elected representation can do nothing to prevent or reverse abuses. And it often means that officials responsible for misconduct are never held accountable for their actions, including their misleading comments to the US Congress and to the public.” (p. 98). Indeed, Lewis calls for a new area of academic studies, Accountability Studies, in universities. Accountability implies, of course, some understanding of the importance or relevance of truth. If we are to have investigative journalism, decent historical analyses, and governmental fact-finding reports, we have to recommit to the idea of truth.

This issue of truth is especially relevant for me. My area of expertise is archival studies, preparing masters students to work as archivists, professionals who deal with evidence and information. One of the fundamental themes in this archives program is the value of records for evidence, accountability, and memory; truth permeates through all of this. This may seem problematic, given that postmodernist-flavored scholarship often seems to refute the existence of truth as an important concept. Such scholarship has played a useful role in leading to greater understanding of records, their role in society, and the significance of archives. From my vantage, the issue is that there is truth in records, but that that truth is sometimes difficult to ascertain, one that even leads to more questions than answers (fitting well with the idea that real education prepares individuals to deal with ambiguity and new challenges). And, the postmodernist-tinged scholarship also emphasizes the archivists’ function of ascertaining the reliability of records for revealing past actions.

We must remember that all the claims about the power of information and value of having access to it is of little use if truth is a casualty. The Web is full of misinformation, but who cares if we have no concept of what is real or unreal. We hear wild exaggerated claims about and by political candidates, and we are prey to such statements if we discount the relevance of the truth (political debates become reality TV, which, in fact, is what has happened). Corporations constantly doctor their books and present false claims about everything from their profits to the societal impacts of their products, but why worry if we lack any gauge for assessing their validity. Even universities are increasingly scrutinized about charges of research fraud, cover-ups of athletic scandals, and other such problems. It is time, of course, for us to re-embrace the notion of truth and its utility, from the classroom to the corporate boardroom.

Doing this won’t be easy, as it requires us to buck the trends so prevalent in today’s society. If we don’t start soon, as individuals, we will be lost. The debates about global climate warning ought to inform us of the dangerous path we are now on. Despite considerable scientific evidence, many politicians and social pundits, for a variety of reasons, deny that global warming is something real; instead, it is characterized as a conspiracy — or worse. However, it is not worth trying to engage in this debate if evidence is not important or relevant to the substance of the debate. Again, from my perspective, why would anybody want to be an archivist who does not believe in the value of evidence; after all, why would we need to keep records if no one ever plans to consult them and wrestle with the evidence they provide. Yet, scholars and others keep going to archival sources and, this gives me hope that there is flickering trust in truth. We can build from there.

Academic & Professional Publishing

Academic and professional writing and publishing is a topic near and dear to anyone working as a faculty member in a university. It is a topic that has been the subject of debate and controversy for generations. I have just recently weighed into this swampy territory with “Professional and Scholarly Writing: Advice for Information Professionals and Academics,” Journal of Information Theory and Practice 3, no. 4 (2015): 6-16. I am sure some will dislike my perspective.

Here is the abstract:

There has been an explosion of new research and writing about all aspects of the information disciplines. Never- theless, both academics and practitioners often find it difficult to engage in successful writing strategies. Indeed, writing is hard work, and doing it in a way that leads to publication is an even harder task. Since reading is essential to good writing, the challenges of learning to write are obvious. In this essay, I am drawing on many years of experience in writing and publishing, as well as considerable reading of writers’ memoirs, advice books on writing, literary studies, and other perspectives on the experience of writing in order to offer a set of approaches that can be pursued over a lifetime of scholarship and practice. Writing is a craft or art to be learned, and learning demands paying attention to the audience, having clear objectives, being an avid reader, and possessing the ability to accept and learn from criticism. While information professionals and scholars incessantly write for each other, there are large segments of the public and other disciplines who they ignore. Fortunately, the tools and resources for improving one’s writing are both broad and deep; discipline and realistic strategies are all that are required to improve one’s writing and, ultimately, to achieve success in publishing.

This was originally a paper presented at the Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI) at the University of Maryland, College Park, July 2015.

The Graduate School Mess

Leonard Cassuto, an English professor, has given us the latest critique of American higher education in his The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015). In this analysis of admissions, teaching, comprehensive examinations, advising, dissertations, and other aspects of doctoral education, Cassuto offers a stinging rebuke of higher education. Experienced faculty will find an astute assessment of what they mostly have known, and administrators, if they take the time to read the book, might find much to contemplate. The author tackles the heart of the problem right from the start – “The notion that graduate school is a specialized training ground for future professors has been untenable for more than two generations” (p. 2). No one reading the book will walk away unconvinced of this problem.

Of course, one’s perspective of the book will depend on what discipline and part of the university they labor in. Cassuto writes from the vantage of the humanities, “because,” he states, “they’re the proverbial canary in the coal mine” (p. 3). Cassuto argues that the length of completion times have become excessive, often over a decade, in preparation for jobs that do not exist. Other fields have different experiences to report, such as my own where we have had a shortage of qualified faculty and many other professional opportunities for those acquiring doctorates. While Cassuto makes comparisons to other fields, many in the academy might feel as if it is not strong enough and perhaps the book should have been titled to reflect a focus on the humanities. Nevertheless, the book should be read and discussed.

There are several aspects worth careful consideration. Cassuto’s comments on the lengthy time it takes to finish humanities dissertations seem spot on, arguing that too many are trying to write these as books (at a time when many scholarly presses have curtailed what they publish). The author bluntly states that this is a “mistake,” but it is one that is so ingrained in academic culture that it will be difficult to shake. Cassuto also is excellent in his commentary on the responsibilities given to doctoral students, to learn to become professors by serving as underpaid faculty with little authority or options. In considering this Catch-22 situation, universities dependent on doctoral students who generally have little hope for securing permanent and/or better paid positions, the author considers this to be an ethical issue: “The collective academic obsession with qualifications has caused us to lose track of an ethical issue of great pragmatic importance: time to degree” (p. 170). But he reveals that the ethical quandary goes far beyond just the years involved in the completion of degrees; his commentary on student debt and shallow job market are also part of this sordid picture.

As the title promises, Cassuto offers many ideas about how to fix the problems he investigates. His comments on restructuring the dissertation and providing much more professional preparation for doctoral students are solid, although how an entrenched faculty loaded down by tradition might rally to tackle such issues seems a stretch. His ideas about shifting the focus on research to one that is more balanced with teaching and other activities reflect some of the better notions that have been offered up by others over recent decades. Cassuto’s reflection on the purpose of the university, with the need to reach out beyond the academy to form new partnerships that will benefit graduate students, is an effort to demonstrate the extent of the crisis that is now facing higher education. Again, Cassuto finds the nature of a new purpose for higher education in its need for a “new ethic” (p. 210). This will, he argues, require university faculty and administrators to look more closely at themselves and their assumptions and practices.

It may be difficult for individuals like myself, tenured and at the end of their careers, to tackle such challenges. At the least, however, I can encourage some of my own students to read this book and advise them about how to consider other career options. It fits neatly on the shelf with other critiques of higher education offered up former university presidents such as Derek Bok and an array of faculty such as Michael Berube and Louis Menand. Still, it is hard to be optimistic. Cassuto’s consideration of the business model of the university, and how it does not really work as a societal mission reveals how deep in a hole we have dug ourselves. Movements to reform can be ignited by individual departments and universities, but it will be quite a struggle to have much impact.