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.

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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.