Archive for September, 2006

perspectives upon standing up

September 26, 2006

If it is true that there are two types of people, as Mark Oppenheimer claims in his important opinion piece  in the September 22nd issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “those who were deeply saddened by Barbara Epstein’s death in June and those who had never heard of her,” then I suppose I must fall into the former camp. Oppenheimer’s article rings particularly true to me in a number of ways.  For the last three years my closest friend has worked at the NYRB, first under Mrs. Epstein and later Robert Silvers. Despite my friend ultimately having the intellectual upper hand, our almost daily, ongoing conversations have been assisted by evidence from certain articles published in the Review.  In the summer of 2003, following the NYRB Classics imprints, we thought it would be a good idea to read Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station.  It was my introduction to Edmund Wilson, and perhaps a turning point in my development, as I learned it was possible to discuss Marx and Engels from a journalistic or biographical point of view in addition to the ideological.  In college I had read the usual Marx and Engel’s essays a college kid reads, but was mistaken in attempts to bolster these readings with Marxian criticism of the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment While this book might have been important to me as a young, flailing college student, I was left with many unanswered questions for Marxist cultural theory.  In the lunch area where I work, I recently put up a picture of Eleanor Marx, Karl’s youngest daughter in part because it reminds me of how much I prefer Wilson’s more personal version of Marx. But also it also serves as a symbol of how reading Wilson‘s To the Finland Station opened my mind to a plane of historical imagination, where I felt comfortable claiming knowledge based on my ability to recognize the power of individual personalities in the historical process.

The knowledge of knowledge is a scary one. Who wants to come off as a pedant, or know-it-all bore? Furthermore, it is impossible to know everything.  But we must not let this impossibility further encumber our ability to know anything at all.  We must take stands, recognizing their potential for err, and claim knowledge or else risk further obfuscation of the intellectual tradition.  The archivist or reference librarian is particularly well suited to help restore this type of action to the academic community as we are depended on not for our critical thinking, but our ability to at least grasp the popular versions of academic debates.  While I might not be able, nor would I want to tell a person every possible reading of a certain diary of David S. Edwards, I can tell a person that the David S. Edwards Papers contain first hand descriptions of Italian antiquities which may be important to a scholar interested in transatlantic romanticism.

Why is any of this necessary considering how simple it is to discover Edmund Wilson, Karl Marx or David S. Edwards simply looking them up in a library’s electronic catalog? Online catalogs are on the verge of exploding beyond the control of traditional librarian techniques.  The phenomenon of the unfortunately monikeredmashups” is going to stretch the OPAC until it breaks, after which it will never be put back together the same way.  It will then be doubly important for archivists and librarians in reference positions to make basic claims about their collection. I will addmy feeling that these so-called “mashups” are good for the OPAC, since they signify an end of (failed) attempts to make computers recreate card catalogs, and instead point to a future in which computers can be  employed within libraries in ways they are better suited for i.e. information distribution.  One can begin to feel somewhat weightless contemplating the electronic catalog of the future, and perhaps to academic types this whole trajectory appears cliche.  Borges offered as solution his idea that “The Library is unlimited and cyclical in his 1941 Ficciones. But what we must not lose sight of as archivists, is how our resources are used by a wide range of scholars.  We will continue to offer sources to sophisticated scholars who are experts in their fields, but rather than be intimidated or consigned to dealing only with experts as silent partners, we should feel comfortable even where we may only know an intellectual argument as a layperson.

Some possible benefits of Harvard’s H20.

September 15, 2006

I’ve just come across the Harvard H20 project and for some reason am attracted to it. Reading lists and syllabi are an effective way of constructing useful arguments and sharing ideas. From what I can understand H2O creates feeds of materials from reading lists, or what they call ‘playlists,’ on any subject a user wishes to focus on. I’ve created a profile and will experiment by creating a playlist on accessing archival material at NYPL. If this proves successful, I plan to create a ‘reading list’ on manuscript collections within other archival repositories. If unsuccessful, I will erase the playlist as well as this post and carry on my merry way. The potential benefit of H20 is the promotion of published editions, or digital versions of manuscript collections that currently collect dust on library shelves but serve as a basic supplement for archival research. For instance the Complete Writings of Roger Williams which lie sadly offsite, and not in the Manuscripts and Archives Reading Room.

This post will change as I reconsider and restruct the H20 playlist, such is the fluidity of the web as a medium for communication. The first struggle I forsee is how to include such classics as Catalogue of Latin and vernacular alchemical manuscripts in Great Britain and Ireland, dating from before the XVI century. Hiding behind this post is a larger question over how archival reference is best performed. Does everyone know that they should have a Dictionary of Ancient Greek at the ready at all times, and isn’t it overkill to put that in an RSS format? The internet is the future and our present, so perhaps thinking in terms of ‘playlists’ will help me understand the revolutionary ideas behind 2.everything. The shadow of books is cast over the internet as print sources remain the far superior tool for accurate and responsible research.

Perhaps 2.0 projects like H20’s shared syllabi will prove an effective way to share and promote newly minted Google books. The belief behind the Google project is that full-text search is the way of the future. Being somewhat familiar with the argument in “Will Google’s Keyword Searching Eliminate the Need for LC Cataloging and Classification?” by Dr. Thomas Mann, I am of the opinion that subject searching still has vital significance to future research. If one looks at the Google record for O’Callaghan’s The Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674, they see a PDF sitting on the Google server waiting for someone to happen across it using a keyword search such as ‘William Niuman’s wife.’ Since is completely new, somewhat unexplored and changing daily, I could potential use an H2O playlists to find and perhaps “catalog” relavant titles ready to be gobbled up from the Google menace.

The H20 interface allows users to copy other resources from other people’s libraries and add them to their own. This reminds me somewhat of LibraryThing, but the H2O’s shared syllabi create lists of books arranged by subjects and not lists of books added to LibraryThing’s libraries. The difference would be browsing a stranger’s book shelf at a party and getting a suggested reading list should be quite obvious to everyone. H2O also allows users to link to any type of document, while LibraryThing is limited to books.

My first ‘playlist’ is accessible here.

florescent / degenerate

September 15, 2006


Gray, Charles Edward. A Measurement of Creativity in Western Civilization,
American Anthropologist, 1966

Archive Blogs

September 13, 2006

What is an Archive Blog? This should be a crucial question as the growing field of “blogs about archives” offers up posts stretching from the recent SAA conference to South Carolina Gamecocks. Perhaps it would it be helpful to make a distinction between official blogs relating to news and services from archival repositories and personal blogs written by people who happen to work in archives? The ‘2.0‘ world tends to unite people with common interests on general topics, bringing computer users together and allowing for the positive information sharing models. However, archives are used by a wide range of people such as academics of all types, journalists, art researchers, genealogists, authors, archaeologists, etc. who search for answers and uncover stories in collections of materials described and organized by archivists. I understand this is a very simplistic interpretation of the function of archives but still I wonder if it is in the best interest of archives to consider ‘Archive Blogs’ to be blogs written by archivists only? Using blogs to create additional information to finding aids seems to me to be a legitimate purpose of an ‘archives blog,’ but apart from the Polar Bear Expedition Club I haven’t seen too much experimentation with blog-like technology and collection description. Perhaps I need to keep searching for an someone crazy enough to be making Finding Aids 2.0.

Anyway, to repeat to myself, I ask again just what is an Archive Blog? What is the role of blogs in archivists lives? I could ask this question in a thousand different ways and each answer would be as important as the next. I have witnessed how blogging tends to suck the life out of people as they turn from multidimensional humans into single-minded RSS feeds. Blogging deserves a large amount of criticism even from those who do partake in it, as a technology it rests on flimsy foundations of emerging, changing tools and only a slim representation of people find time to write them. Constructive criticism is just and no matter how much I think blogging is purile, I still can’t help from posting these silly notes. Back to archives, I fear that it’s almost absurd to consider ‘blogs about archives’ in anyway capable of truly reflecting the nature and significance of the documents contained in archives and that it would be somewhat of a blunder on the part of anyone truly committed to the collection and preservation of historical materials in any serious way to closely link themselves with fleeting phenomena such as Blogger, Moveable Type, Technorati or WordPress. However, I might be wrong and should have rather spent the last 4-6 minutes cutting and pasting odd facts into the computer such as how yesterday I saw our uncataloged document, Examination of Tittuba the Indian Woman, 1692.

constitutional backgrounds, c. 1512 and lifelong learning

September 13, 2006

One of the best parts of being committed to ‘lifelong learning‘ is always feeling proximate naivety, like peering into the closet of an older sibling to find clothes, boxes and awards organized in an unattributable manner. Reading certain, “classic” texts hitherto ignored for some lost reason, is to uncover large pieces of your missing self. This hit me, especially hard reading selections of the Discourses on Livy this morning:

“Of all men who have been eulogized, those deserve it most who have been the authors and founders of religions; next come such as have established republics or kingdoms. After these the most celebrated are those who have commanded armies, and have extended the possessions of their kingdom or country. To these may be added literary men, but, as these are of different kinds, they are celebrated according to their respective degrees of excellence. All others — and their number is infinite — receive such share of praise as pertains to the exercise of their arts and professions. On the contrary, those are doomed to infamy and universal execration who have destroyed religions, who have overturned republics and kingdoms, who are enemies of virtue, of letters, and of every art that is useful and honorable to mankind. Such are the impious and violent, the ignorant, the idle, the vile and degraded. And there are none so foolish or so wise, so wicked or so good, that, in choosing between these two qualities, they do not praise what is praiseworthy and blame that which deserves blame. And yet nearly all men, deceived by a false good and a false glory, allow themselves voluntarily or ignorantly to be drawn towards those who deserve more blame than praise.”

Machiavelli, Writings Vol. 2 – Discourse on Livy Chapter X: In Proportion as the Founders of a Republic or Monarchy are Entitled to Praise, So Do the Founders of a Tyranny Deserve Execration.


September 13, 2006

“We can trace the forming of the jeremiadas as early as 1640s, in the last publications of Shepard and Cotton…The foremost published utterances of the 1670s were all jeremiads”

Samuel Danforth, A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness, 1670
Thomas Shepard, Eye-Salve, 1672
Urian Oakes, New England Pleaded With, 1673
Increase Mather, The Day of Trouble is Near, 1673, A Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostacy, 1677
William Hubbard, The Happiness of a People, 1676

Building my own historiographical account of Perry Miller historiography

September 12, 2006

Why am I interested in Miller?I am interested because I am interested in ‘unity,’ or those times when humans let down their guard long enough to enter into cosmos and bring back into their mind ideas inspired by oneness occasionally felt. This sounds pretty hokey, so I can try to fix it up by saying I am interested in the emergence of the free will, or better in historiography and ways in which America as a country or a culture can trace ideas itself back to Classical culture. I am interested in intellectual history, how ideas effect time.  At this point in my life I am no longer interested in economic and cultural determinism which has provided me with nothing but misery in the last decade.  I want to know people and I want to believe in their ability to act according their own volition. 

In his day, Miller defended Puritans from narrow readings of economic determinists, and showed how (at least some Puritan preachers of) the Seventeenth Century were interested in humanism traceable to Hellenic times. Miller may be read today by a complete fool such as myself to discover the Puritans belief in a world created by God as a unity. Perhaps I am still ‘wet behind the ears’ enough to revel in the idea that (1) the universe was created by a mysterious force and (2) since the world was created good and beautiful, depraved man is the source of all disharmony (well this still irks me a bit, but I go roll with it a bit.) Man does seems to destroy the earth, and although the earth may never be destroy, just changed, I am interested in recovering certain traditions which have been lost in the last few generations with the amplification of the echo of free will.

It all adds up to the enormous questions about the freedom of thought, and our place in the world as the living; how life is simultaneously simple and difficult, …

Post of sources to be worked with.

Anxieties of Influence: Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch
Arne Delfs
The New England Quarterly > Vol. 70, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 601-615Delfs above reads Harlans below as a source for the potential conflict between Bercovitch and Miller.A People Blinded from Birth: American History According to Sacvan Bercovitch
David Harlan
The Journal of American History > Vol. 78, No. 3 (Dec., 1991), pp. 949-971One of Bercovitch’s early essay potentially opposing Miller.

New England Epic: Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana
Sacvan Bercovitch
ELH > Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1966), pp. 337-350 Older Perry Miller historiographical essays (these articles printed and filed):The Myth of Perry Miller
Francis T. Butts
The American Historical Review > Vol. 87, No. 3 (Jun., 1982), pp. 665-694

Perry Miller and Philosophical History
David A. Hollinger
History and Theory > Vol. 7, No. 2 (1968), pp. 189-202

Hot off the presses; obsessively

September 11, 2006

Is there a joy more robust and clear than reading a biography? Perpaps scoring one penned by S. E. Morison, whose entries in the Dictionary of American Biography read like full length books condensed down into a few paragraphs. (For proof of this see Morison’s ‘Elbridge Gerry, 1744-1814’ from the Base Set.) Here in Supplement 3, Morison treats the “father of History 13” with overflowing pride, the elect commending the elect, delving into wistfulness while maintaining appropriate acumen. It’s a classic tale of what an old man was in 1940. “Students regarded him as a sort of Rip Van Winkle; he wandered aimlessly through the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library like a bearded ghost.

In defense of my obsession with the DNB, Dan Cohen writes in a defense of blogging here “When I was in graduate school, the Russian historian Paul Bushkovitch once told me that the key to being a successful scholar was to become completely obsessed with a historical topic, to feel the urge to read and learn everything about an event, an era, or a person. In short, to become so knowledgeable and energetic about your subject matter that you become what others immediately recognize as a trusted, valuable expert. As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession.” This is a point I both recognize and heartily agree with. Knowledge is obsession.

Without further adieu, I present to those with the most discerning taste Samuel Eliot Morison’s biography of Albert Bushnell Hart from the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 3: 1941-1945.

of primary sources and wonder

September 9, 2006

People seem to praise primary sources. Coffee was first planted in Hawaii sometime around 1817, a few years after pineapples were introduced. In order to prove this fact, documents of some type must have been consulted. That document contained a type of memory cue able to confirm the suspicions of those people interested in the history of Hawaii.  The record of a farmer, a listing of a ship’s cargo or notebook containing the experimentations of a knowledgeable plantation owner could help answer the question as to when the pineapple first arrived in Hawaii. If some other person had written a poem about an imaginary fruit in early 19th century Hawaii, it probably wouldn’t carry the same weight as the document to which the growth of an actual fruit can be ascribed.  Thus business records are often of vital importance to historical evidence seekers.  But who writes of imaginary fruits? And what is a pineapple and its nutrients? Eating a pile of sugar may be able to cure jaundice, nutrition is so vital to human life.  What is the mind if not conglomerations of tissues running off ingested proteins and sugars. What is the mind without protein and sugar is probably the better question.

I know why pineapples are so important to the story of humans populating the globe, but I am still puzzled by the constant emphasis on the first thing in things? A larger question: Why is their so many things people don’t care about when so many of them make it their job to care? The dealing with ‘first thingsl seems to take up an exorbitant amount of time, and too large a portion of the historical record. First walk on the moon, the first equinox of the year becomes new season despite it having occurred countless times, the first day of the week, the first morning since sleep… Perhaps emphasizing the first in things creates the very history which people care about. If it weren’t for the reading of events in a partly sequential people would be at odds over what to talk about.  Who would initiate the discussion? The document of the 2,000,000th pineapple cultivated in Hawaii is most likely in the trash, yet that might have been someone’s first pineapple.  Let this remain as a question.

Getting to the substance of a thing is a type of duty for humans.  Greg Hawkes of the Cars started to use a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 keyboard in the late 1970’s to produce rich melodic accents in his band’s music. New features such as oscillator sync and digital patch storage were most likely helpful to Hawkes’ task as a keyboardist for a very popular band whose sound relied on the correct settings of his ADSR envelopes.  But why then are their people who who likes the Cars’ music but doesn’t care about ADSR envelopes? When should we stop being interested in something and move on? How do our interests create interconnected worlds from music to technology to the dates in which instruments were used? Do these connections ever really stop as move along from meal to meal?

If Google and the information age are to be trusted, then new words exist like ‘montaigne mind‘ and ‘montaigne essays‘ employed as keywords in searches for more information. These new types of ‘keyword words’ represent moving knowledge, they are pathmarkers on the trail of interconnected everything. This is most likely why serendipity remains the best, or most forceful way in which our mind receives information.

Even as Nature makes us to see, that many dead things have yet certaine secret relations unto life. Wine doth alter and change in sellers, according to the changes and alterations of the seasons of its vineyard. And the flesh of wilde beasts and venison doth change qualitie and taste in the powdering-tubs, according to the nature of living flesh, as some say that have observed it.” Book I: Chapter III, Montaigne’s Essays , Our Affections are transported beyond our selves.

About one decade since I first read “Zu den Sachen,” or at least had it translated for me. Yet, I still haven’t gotten down to what matters. What is a thing? What is a thing itself.  How good is a person who just insists on wondering? What is death? How bad is a person who does the same? Death is the end.  So I labor on, dim in my mind relative to the lime kiln at which I stand. Perhaps substances will always get the best of fragile humans, who even in their most fragile state seem to be convinced that their being is higher than the compounds both cellular and atmospheric on which they rely. And why it is that so many humans as people remain so fixated on certain combinations of these elements when they first arrive in their mind and in the minds of others who documented these forces in the years, decades and eons passed.

The day Paul L. Ford was shot

September 6, 2006

Paul L. Ford Slain by his Brother