thirteen ways of looking at a catalog (in verse)

I’ve said in the past that if people are going use Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a literary conceit to introduce something they’ve written, it would be nice if they would at least put in a little verse. I was reminded of this today because I finally sat down and read Lorcan Dempsey’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries, Discovery, and the Catalog: Scale, Workflow, Attention“, which appeared last December in Educause Review. It’s an excellent article and if you’re at all serious about libraries, library catalogs, and the directions they may go in the future, you should read it.

But I should warn you: you won’t find any “thirteen ways”-style verse there. So, because I apparently didn’t have anything better to do this evening, I came up with this*:


Among twenty open networks,
The only local thing
Was the eye of the catalog.


I was of three minds,
Like a catalog
For which there are three interfaces.


The catalog merged with the larger web.
It was a small part of the data mine.


A search and a suggestion
Are one.
A search and a suggestion and a catalog
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The unity of experience
Or the diversity of resources,
The catalog interface
Or just discovery.


Metadata filled the long record
From abundant streams.
The data for the catalog
Crossed it, to and fro.
The model
Traced in the data
An interoperable dream.


O traditional library,
Why do you imagine one-stop sites?
Do you not see how the catalog
Can work through the flow
Of the people about you?


I know external sources
And local, curated collections;
But I know, too,
That the catalog is involved
In what I know.


When the catalog slipped out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many layers.


At the sight of catalogs
Aggregated in a network,
Even the champions of serendipity
Would cry out sharply.


He drove around the region
Storing books off-site.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of a printed page
For a catalog.


Network sources are growing.
The catalog must start linking.


They were sourcing all around the room
They were scaling
And they were going to scale.
The catalog sat
In the server rooms


*I tried to make the points match the verses in order, even at the cost of some prosody. (It’s not like I had some artistic vision to compromise, anyway.) If I’d done this from scratch, I’d have made different choices.

Categorized as libraries

a bunch of stuff I said about archives

It’s a sign of how much I’ve been neglecting this blog that even though I did an email interview last month about archives, and even though I posted links to it from my social media accounts, I’m only now mentioning it here. I don’t know if anyone reads this blog at all who doesn’t follow me on twitter, but if you do, then presumably you’d be interested in reading the interview.

My interviewer was Roisin O’Brien, who is a Masters student in Digital Arts and Humanities at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland. The topic was “What is the role of an archive in the digital age?” Much of the discussion is about digitization, although I think a lot of what I said applies to born-digital material as well. As an added bonus, I decided to go against prevailing trends and decline to offer up a definition of “digital humanities.” I figure it gets defined so often, I don’t need to add my own. (My interview answer is less glib.)

Anyway, I’m probably still new enough to archives that you should apply the appropriate discount rate to what I say, but I was glad to have the opportunity to do some real writing again. I’ve been struggling to get back into the routine of blogging regularly.

a sign of the times in academic publishing

Catching up on end of the year email, I came across the following notice in the UC Berkeley Department of History’s Fall 2012 newsletter (pdf):

Geoffrey Koziol’s new book was published by Brepols: The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas (2012). Thanks to subventions from the History Department and UC Berkeley’s Committee on Research, the price is a moderate $100, which may seem like a lot, but European academic presses are increasingly pricing books at $200, beyond the ability of even mid-sized college libraries to afford them. It is becoming very difficult to publish innovative scholarship of any length and complexity. Flexible sources of funding are sorely needed.

Incidentally, although I eventually found myself specializing in American history, Koziol’s undergraduate survey course on medieval Europe played a big part in my decision to major in history. You can find out more about his book here.

what would it take for historians to be able to share archival material?

Recently, a friend of mine asked if I had any thoughts on why historians tend not to do much sharing of archival materials – that is, of materials that they’ve collected in the course of their research. I said I didn’t really know why, but I could speculate, and since speculation is one of the reasons blogs exist, I thought it would be worth writing up a post about it. The conversation also got me thinking in a more positive direction: let’s say historians do start sharing more archival material, what forms could that sharing take? What kind of infrastructure would they need? Is it something we could start building now?

But first, what do we mean by sharing archival material? Let’s say you’re a historian and you’re on a research trip. You request material and some of it turns out to be relevant to your research, some not so much. (And some of it is just too interesting to pass up.) You take notes, maybe even make some full transcriptions, but there are almost always going to be some materials that you decide you want to copy. Maybe you want to be able to see just how the document was laid out, maybe you want exact wording but don’t have time to transcribe it, or maybe you simply don’t have enough time to read the documents during your visit, but you can take lots of photographs quickly. Whatever the reason, odds are you’re going to come home and find yourself with lots of copies of archival material from the trip. This is the kind of material we were talking about sharing.

A second preliminary point: historians do share. Maybe not everyone, maybe not all the time, and almost certainly not everything, but I don’t want to give the impression that historians solely collect and hoard documents and then guard their hoards. However, I think much of the sharing that goes on stops short of sharing actual (copies of) material. You’ll see historians talk to each other about what they’ve found; give each other advice about what to expect when working at a particular place or on a particular collection; or even publish articles in historical journals discussing where to find sources for various topics or, conversely, what kind of topics could be researched using  particular collections. All of this certainly counts as sharing, but it may not extend to the sharing of archival material to go along with information about archival material. That said, there is still a tradition of formally publishing selected primary sources, whether in journals or as edited book collections. This may consist of archival material (in the sense that archivists understand by the word “archives“) and previously published material.

I am deep in the realms of speculation here, but I suspect that when historians do share archival material – outside of formal publication – it tends to be stuff they are not actively using. This could be stuff they’re done with, or it could be “incidental finds”: stuff they’ve collected that turns out not to fit in with their research, but which they know may be relevant to another researcher (“I was looking through the papers of so-and-so and came across these letters, thought you’d be interested so I’m passing them along”). Sharing those kinds of finds is, not so incidentally, one of the reasons I went into the archives/library fields: I love playing matchmaker between sources and researchers.

These kinds of sharing – whether of information, materials, published research – shows the scholarly community at its best, so why don’t more historians do more sharing of archival materials (assuming that it is accurate to say that many don’t)?

Here are my guesses:

1. It hasn’t become standard practice, so it’s not something that occurs to everyone while they’re doing research. That may be a tautological explanation, but I really think this is something that could be self-reinforcing: if more historians were already sharing material, then you’d probably see more sharing. There’d be more models for it.

2. Worries about being “scooped.” Releasing their raw materials, so to speak, might make it possible for someone else to use the material they collected and then publish first. Depending on context, this might be a real concern, but in other cases the two historians might end up taking very different interpretative approaches: priority in publishing isn’t quite as important in history as in some other fields. Also, this shouldn’t really be a big concern once the historian who collected the material has published.

3. This is closely related to point 2: historians still generally get the most credit for traditional publications. This seems to be changing, but the incentives have long been weighted towards publishing and disseminating finished research, rather than the materials on which research could be based.

4. A “do your own research” ethic. Maybe I’m being uncharitable here, but I think many people who are more than willing to talk about material they’ve found could still be reluctant to share the copies they’ve made themselves, especially if it took a lot of time, effort, and money to collect them. I suspect people are more willing to share when they’ve built up trust with their colleagues and when there’s some reciprocity involved. This also ties in to the point about credit and incentives.

5. Permissions/rights. In my experience researching the 19th and 20th century US, it’s pretty uncommon to come across truly unrestricted archival materials. In the days when I primarily requested photocopies, the vast majority of those copies arrived with stamps on them saying that they were for personal research use only and that further permission would be required if I wanted to use them for any other purpose. Even when taking digital photos myself, there’s usually an agreement somewhere that puts similar restrictions on those images. Furthermore, copyright in unpublished materials can be a really complicated area, especially if it’s not something you’ve been trained to navigate. The physical owner of a letter, for instance, might not have the right to publish that letter, much less grant permission to do so to someone else.

6. Lack of infrastructure. Let’s say you have material to share and you have the right to share it (or are just willing to take risks): how are you going to do that? You could e-mail a few files or send out paper copies in an envelope – if there even is a paper form to your records – but what if you have a hundred or more files/images/pages?  And how are you going to handle the descriptive context and content that goes with the material? You usually need citation and location information, at the very least, if you’re going to authenticate the materials as being legitimate copies of the originals. You should have this information, if your intent was to collect things in a way that would make it possible to cite them later, but it’s still something to watch out for.

I think that last point is really key: once you’ve gotten past all of the other objections, there’s still the problem of coming up with an effective way to share material that the average historian could actually carry out without too much trouble. Not everyone has the time/background/resources to just go out and build  their own digital repository/collection/archive (I’m sidestepping the terminology question here).

What are the possibilities? I can think of a few:

1. Personal networks. I guess you could call this peer-to-peer sharing, if you like putting everything into technology terms. This is basically scholars sharing material with each other at an individual level. This can be done through the mail or in person – I assume that for most of the history of history, when scholars shared material this is how they did it – or through e-mail or other file transfer methods.

Advantages: It’s pretty simple and doesn’t really require historians to do anything they don’t already know how to do, unless they’re trying some complicated file transfer method. It also happens to be a method that historians are already using.

Challenges: It’s not public, for one thing. So it’s not quite open sharing. (For some I’m sure that’s a feature, not a bug.) It also might not scale very well as the volume of material that gets transferred grows. Plus there’s a potential problem of losing track of essential metadata when sending around batches of image files: you have to be careful not to end up with directories full of filenames like DSCG1128 with no clear indication of what archives and what collections those files are supposed to be linked to. That latter issue is something everyone has to face when managing image and text collections, but coordinating among many different individuals is likely to be more difficult than coordinating among institutions or groups.

2. Historian-hosted websites: Historians could set up their own websites to host the material they want to share.

Advantages: This could be open to any visitor, though of course the site owner could also employ password protection. It also would maintain the connection between the historian who collected the material and the material. If the historian were to change affiliation, as often happens in the academic world, the site could “move” with them fairly easily (in the sense of being updated to reflect the new affiliation).

Challenges: It requires historians to know how to host a site and manage an image and/or text collection, or at least to have access to someone with that knowledge. (Note: I’m not saying these are bad skills to have, just that you can’t assume many historians have them right now.) This actually might not be too difficult, depending on the platform being used. I didn’t have to know much about the internal workings of wordpress to be able to set up this blog, but finding a pre-packaged archival system that’s easy for a regular user to set up and maintain is a bit trickier. WordPress is comparatively simple.

Also, this could lead to material being distributed across dozens of personal sites, which could make it difficult to find things. As with option 1, coordinating among lots of individuals can be difficult. And what if two or more historians have materials they copied out of the same collection? Ideally, that would get linked up.

3. Institutional hosting based on the researcher’s affiliation: The researcher’s home institution supports and hosts the materials.

Advantages: As in the historian-hosted model, in this model the materials could be placed on the open web. Ideally, institutional support would mean that the institution’s archivists, librarians and IT staff would all collaborate, reducing the burden on any one individual. Institutions might be able to work the archival materials into existing infrastructure, such as a digital repository if they have one up and running.

Challenges: As mentioned above, academics often change affiliation. What happens to the material then? Does it become part of the institution’s holdings or will it be transferred? Or will one copy go with the historian and one stay with the institution? And will the new institution want to host material that’s been/being hosted elsewhere?

Another issue that could come up is the difference between records that the historian produces – such as notes, drafts, teaching materials, and other personal papers – and those that the historian collects – such as archival and other source material, much of which will be copies of materials held at other institutions. The historian’s home institution might be very interested in keeping the (or “their”) historian’s personal papers while at the same time being reluctant to keep copies of source materials taken from elsewhere.

There would also still be a need for coordination to make it possible for researchers to search across different institutions’ holdings. This is essentially the same problem the historian-hosted model would face, but at least there would be fewer institutional sites and many institutions already have a history of sharing metadata.

One additional note: the Valley of the Shadow project, which I think has been both successful and influential, might fit this model. William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers have since moved to other institutions, but the site remains at the University of Virginia.

4. Archival institution hosting: in this model, the institution that holds the original also makes the digital copy available.

Advantages: lots of archives already have ongoing digitization projects. As holders of the originals, they are in the best position to authenticate the material they put on the web. They are also in the best position to maintain the links between individual items and their archival context – that is, where the items fit in within the larger context of the collection and perhaps of the institution as a whole. Duplication of copies among researchers shouldn’t be a problem, as the originals (or maybe we should call them “original copies”?) will be available at the archives’ site.

Challenges: Historians’ choices of what to copy and archivists’ choices of what to copy are likely to diverge quite often. Historians are probably most interested in individual items or ranges of material within collections. This can make perfect sense in the context of a research program, but to an outside observer it might look rather haphazard and partial and may not make the best focus for a digitization project. Archivists have to be concerned with their own institutional priorities and in many archives historians may not even be the primary users. That said, there are surely many opportunities to collaborate  on projects and I’m sure that historians will find many archives’ own digitization projects useful for their research.

As for the kind of sharing I’ve been talking about in this post, there are some archives that employ “scan-on-demand” policies in which material is scanned as it’s requested. I don’t know how many of these scans get posted to the open web – in some cases, the scanning simply makes it less costly to produce additional copies in the future – but it could be one way to facilitate sharing among historians. I think some archives are also experimenting with programs where historians can take digital photographs in the course of their own research and then have the option of giving the archives a copy of those photos (or some subset of them) to then be put on the web. But I’m not sure if that’s actually happening, or I’ve just read about it as a proposal.

5. Some other kind of consortial or centralized hosting. Could this be something like an arxiv for collected archival material? In theory, it would be possible to create something like that, but getting it off the ground could be difficult, as it would have to find a home somewhere. Maybe this is a possibility that the Digital Public Library of America could look into. Many public libraries have history rooms, after all.

Those are the five main models I could come up with off the top of my head. I think you can probably find actual examples of the first four, although I’m not sure I’ve come across a personal website hosting copies of archival material. My takeaways from this exercise:

  1. Outside of mailing packages from place to place, we’re really talking about digitized or digital materials here and the web remains the most open way to share them.
  2. To make this kind of sharing more open and more routine, historians need to have relatively accessible ways to transfer their material into a system for sharing.
  3. In the near future, I think we’ll see the first and third model most often. That is, historians will continue to share with colleagues and peers at an individual level, while larger-scale sharing will come mostly in the form of projects. Projects make it possible to pool resources and seem to align best with scholarly incentives.
  4. As for model 4, I think archives-driven projects will continue to be much more common within archives than historian-driven projects, for obvious reasons. However, the boundaries between models 3 and 4 are pretty artificial, as archives and research institutions already do a lot of collaboration – not to mention the fact that many universities have archives and special collections on campus. So in some ways the boundaries are an artifact of the way I’ve set up the post.
  5. There need to be ways to share and combine metadata so that people can search and browse across sites and collections. This is already true and people are working on it.
  6. There’s no escaping permissions and rights questions. Another point already in effect.
  7. A lot of what I’ve written here applies to any type of researcher who uses archives. I’ve focused on historians because that’s the context of my original conversation but I don’t mean to exclude other researcher groups from the larger discussion.
  8. There are a lot of issues I haven’t even gotten into, such as bulk access to archival material.
  9. Sometimes you just have to see the originals for yourself. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you like visiting archives and you’ve got time and support.

new url

I’m not sure if anyone’s still checking this blog, given the infrequency of my posting, but if you are, you might be interested in knowing that I’ve finally gotten my own space and have a new blog url.

Categorized as meta

about (1)

It is difficult to write a good short bio; it can be difficult to share a good detailed one. I doubt this will turn out to be either, but I feel like I should write one anyway. To put it euphemistically, I am currently “between things”; to put it more literally, I am currently on the job market. So I can’t yet rely on a job title to carry information about myself. Instead, I’ll say something about my background and my interests.

I have graduate training and experience (and masters degrees, even) in history, archives, and library and information studies. I also have work experience in journalism (I was an intern at Talking Points Memo) and open government/transparency (through an internship at the Sunlight Foundation). I’m interested in pretty much everything that goes with that background: history, archives, libraries, information and especially access to information, journalism, politics, government. I’d even say I’m interested in bureaucracy but I don’t want to sound boring.

In the last few years, I’ve also become really interested in computers and technology. I’m not going to chase every subject that has the word “digital” in it, but I’m certainly interested in digital preservation, digital archives, digital libraries, digital history and the digital humanities – you get the point. I’m learning to code and getting more and more comfortable with Linux (Ubuntu) and free and open source software every day. As someone who did a bit of programming in junior high and high school (Logo and Pascal, those were the days), but then spent years using computers mainly for word processing and web browsing, it’s been an interesting experience.

Anyway, this is my personal website and personal blog, and even though I could probably assign it a call number, give it a few subject headings, and place it in a taxonomy somewhere, I’m not going to classify it. The odds are pretty high that what I’ll write about will be consistent with the interests I’ve just talked about.

Since there’s not a lot of content here yet, you might want to check out these posts if you’re curious about my writing:

A post I wrote for my old blog reacting to Nicholas Carr’s original “Is Google Making Us Stupid” article. This is the only post from the old blog that I’ve copied over onto this blog. I just like it for some reason.

A “this day in history” post I wrote about the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution during World War II that appeared as a guest post at The Edge of the Aemrican West.

Something I wrote about Brandeis and the history of transparency at the end of my internship at the Sunlight Foundation a few years back.

And for the library crowd, something I wrote on my old blog about subject headings. This one might not sound the most exciting, but it was once called “high-quality library nerdery” on twitter, so there’s that.

Finally, a meta note: You may have noticed that this is an “about” post rather than an “about” page. I’m going to try a bit of an experiment. As time passes I’m likely to want to update my bio. Rather than keep changing the page, I’m going to write new “about” posts each time and then keep the old ones. This might not happen often, but it could be interesting. Four years ago I would not have even thought to mention computers and technology.

Categorized as about, meta

learning to cursive

Judith Thurman’s recent post at the New Yorker blog on cursive handwriting and the Declaration of Independence reminded me of something I wrote some time ago about my own experiences learning to write and read cursive. Reading it over now, I don’t think schoolkid me would have been sad to see schools decide not to teach cursive anymore.


One of my earliest memories is of being in a shopping cart. This is followed by a memory of being on the floor of a supermarket near a shopping cart, followed by a memory of being in the car, my right arm propped up against the door, on the way to the hospital where my arm was put in a cast.

I’d like to think that being right-handed and breaking my right arm when I was four is the reason handwriting was so difficult for me, but it’s more likely that I simply lacked a bit of coordination at that age. I also had trouble coloring inside the lines and cutting things with scissors along the lines. And I still don’t hold eating utensils correctly. For quite a while, long after the cast came off, I could grip a pencil only with the help of a triangular accessory, but eventually I got the hang of it.

I don’t remember how my printing looked originally; in third or fourth grade we got to cursive. I couldn’t do it. I was given extra worksheets designed to lead me into it: mostly practice with italicization, doing everything but connecting the letters. By fifth grade, when all written assignments had to be in cursive (for reasons completely and utterly unknown to me) I could manage it, but only painfully, slowly, with hideous letters. In junior high they didn’t care about cursive vs. printing: they just wanted writing. I went back to printing, but my printed handwriting had by then taken on the shape of italics. I still print in italics and I still can’t write decent cursive. In English, that is.

One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian before I got to the first day of my first class was learning a new alphabet. One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian after the first day of my first class was learning that Russian handwriting is pretty much all cursive. To my surprise, it turned out that I had little to worry about. My Russian cursive may not be native-writerly, but it is better than my English cursive and it took a lot less time to learn.

It is not uncommon for people working with handwritten documents to run into problems making out what the words say; it is especially difficult when you’re just starting out in research. In the fall term after I first took Russian I began reading 19th century correspondence in English; even worse, the first letters I read weren’t just handwritten, they were faded copies of letters in a letterpress copy book.

I know a number of people who’ve had similar experiences with old handwriting: taking 10, 20 minutes to read a page; wanting to give up; wondering if the 20th century is really the more interesting period; nearly fighting back tears (literally or metaphorically) to finish those first few pages. A fellow grad student a few years ago told me that upon coming across, in the handwritten meeting minutes of some organization in 19th century Germany, a discussion of whether or not to buy a typewriter, she immediately said to herself, sitting there in the archives: “Yes! Buy it, buy it now!”

I’ve sometimes described trying to read old handwriting as a cross between “Wheel of Fortune” and cryptography. If you can make out a few words initially you can use them to decipher the rest. If you know a word is “the”, for instance, you have an idea of what “t”, “h”, and “e” look like – although initial letters often look different than the same letters in the middle of a word. Get enough letters in other words and you can read those words; get enough words in a sentence and you can read the sentence, or most of it.

Proper nouns can be especially difficult; so can initial capitals. Signatures are probably the worst. Once, through the careful examination of m’s, o’s, and w’s in a group of letters written around the same time by the same author, I concluded that a word I’ve seen quoted in publications as “work” most likely is “Mark”: not the most earth-shattering revelation, I know.

As I struggled through those first few letters that day I realized I was running into an additional problem: I had become so accustomed from my summer language course to reading cursive as Russian that I was struggling with the English letters that look like Russian ones. (Example: “m” in Cyrillic script is transliterated as/sounds like “t” in English.) Realizing this, I went up to the main desk at the archives, got a piece of scratch paper, returned to my seat, and set about forming, for the first time since grade school, a cursive list of all the letters of the English alphabet – upper and lower case – which I could then turn to as a reference sheet.

“the library is itself their laboratory and museum”

From William Coolidge Lane, “The treatment of books according to the amount of their use” (1903):

(emphasis in the original; I have added paragraph breaks for readability)

The question then resolves itself into this: Can a scholar accomplish his work if he has to depend exclusively on bibliographies, the library catalogs, and selected standard works, to learn what material he ought to examine, and is not able to find the books themselves brought together into one or several specific places on the shelves — groups of books, that is to say, which he can run through in searching for his facts or evidence, and can easily recur to from time to time, groups of books in which he is almost sure to find volumes for which he would not have thought of asking, but which would prove to have value; while many others he can dismiss with a glance, though he would have felt obliged to send for them if he found them recorded in the catalog. No catalog record can take the place of a first-hand examination of the book, and it often happens that a moment’s glance at the book will show a trained bookman that there is nothing to his purpose there. The saving of time from this fact alone is an important item in any scholar’s daily work.

From a somewhat careful inquiry in regard to investigations lately in progress in the Harvard College Library, I am convinced that this direct personal access to a classified collection of all the material at hand is of the first importance if profitable work is to be accomplished.

From a description of some of these investigations, it will be seen that in many cases appropriate bibliographies do not exist to which the student may turn for information in regard to his sources. He is going over the ground, that is to say, for the first time, and is making his bibliography as he goes. In other cases the bibliographies which he can use are so extensive and record so much that is out of his reach that an enormous loss of time results simply from sifting out the comparatively small amount of material accessible to him.

The library catalog is of use in some cases. Its use should always supplement search by other means, but often the student’s inquiry is for specific points to be found only by searching through a series of general works, so that he cannot depend upon the catalog for the precise information which he requires.

In fact, the work of a philologist or a historian in searching for new facts or fresh evidence in regard to the subject of his inquiry may be properly compared to that of the naturalist searching in the field for his specimens. The naturalist cannot tell his assistant to go to such and such a stone in such a pasture and bring him from under it a particular beetle. He must himself search from stone to stone on the chance of finding what he wants, and in precisely the same way the literary worker searches from volume to volume for what he seeks. He knows the field in which his facts will be found, as the naturalist knows the habitat of his specimens, but can no more tell in advance in what volume he will find what he wants than the naturalist can foresee under what particular stone he will discover his beetle.

A physicist, to take another example, is studying certain unknown relations in electricity or sound. He refers to books in order to inform himself as to what others have already learned, that he may be guided by their results. His own work, however, is with the instruments of his laboratory, and his use of books is a supplementary matter.

A writer on economics, on the other hand, like the physicist, must know the results of others labors as recorded in books, but unlike him, books also form the main field of his investigation, for the facts which he seeks are for the most part to be found in print.

Scientists, who thus find the material of their studies in nature, and refer to books mainly for the records of previous discovery, often fail to recognize the fact that to the students of history, literature, philology, economics, etc. — to the students, that is to say, of human expression and accomplishment— books are themselves the very material of their study, and are not merely the record of what others have discovered before them (like the chemical journals and the transactions of scientific societies).

Books are, with architecture, sculpture, and painting the only tangible evidence of what men have been, and how they lived and expressed themselves. For the students of these subjects, the library is itself their laboratory and museum[*], and should be used in the same way that laboratories and museums are used by the scientists. Its resources should be as conveniently and systematically arranged as are the contents of the scientist’s workrooms. A museum that stored its birds, its insects, its fishes, and its reptiles packed indiscriminately together because they would thus occupy less room, or that expected an inquirer to know in advance on which specimens he would find a particular kind of parasite growing, would be as reasonably administered as a library in which a reader, seeking to trace out some special phenomenon in literary or social history, should be expected to know in advance in precisely what volumes he would find the evidence he sought.

Lane was Librarian of Harvard and was responding to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s suggestion that little-used library books be moved to a separate facility, to be built on less expensive land, where they could be shelved more densely–but where they could not be browsed directly. Readers would have to page these books at one of the central libraries; ideally, the books would then be delivered the following day.

As described in Kenneth Brough’s Scholar’s Workshop (1953), a study of the development of academic library services from the late 19th century to the early 1950s, Eliot’s plan sounds quite similar to what many academic libraries do today with their off-site and/or high density storage facilities. Eliot even advocated developing partnerships with other libraries to coordinate and share book storage; these sound quite a bit like the consortial arrangements that groups of libraries have developed in today’s world.

At the time, however, Eliot’s proposal was not adopted.** Lane undertook a survey of researchers and came to the conclusion that direct access to books was integral to certain fields of scholarship and needed to be preserved. He acknowledged, however, that other types of research would not be significantly affected by the proposed changes:

(again, I have broken this up for readability–this is part of one paragraph in the original)

A comparison of the above instances with the ordinary requests for advice and assistance constantly made at all library reference desks shows that there are two widely different ways of using a library. On the one hand, a man who desires to inform himself about some period or subject and is content to accept what some competent writer has published, consults one or two standard books on the subjects; these naturally suggest others and he follows them up if so disposed. For reading of this kind, access to a large collection is unimportant and may even be discouraging, and the elaborate equipment of a great reference library is quite unnecessary.

On the other hand, a man who undertakes to follow out some new line of inquiry, to establish relations between certain facts not hitherto studied in connection, and to draw fresh conclusions from what he learns, sets about his work in a very different way. So does one who attempts to collect from a wide range of sources, scattered and fragmentary references hitherto unnoticed on some specific subject, that he may thus add to the general sum of knowledge in regard to it. Nearly all the instances cited above are of this kind.

For such work, direct personal access to a well classified and abundant collection of books is the first requisite. To be deprived of it means at the very least a serious and unnecessary waste of time, and in many cases it altogether prevents the undertaking of the inquiry.

In fact, this liberty of access is itself of such primary importance that the question of a division of the library into books much used and books little used becomes a secondary question to be decided solely on the ground of practical convenience. A library may well find it convenient to place less used subjects, or the less used books on popular subjects, in a more distant part of the building, or even, when pressed by want of room, in a separate building, but it cannot afford to store them in such a way that scholars cannot themselves look them over and find them in an order convenient for such examination.

Writing at a time when just about the only way to read a book was to actually have it in front of you, Lane ultimately sided with a policy of open stacks, though he left the door open for building remote, but still browseable, facilities for little-used books. For the fields of research he identified as being heavily based on the types of sources found in libraries, some kind of direct access was considered essential.

Things have obviously changed quite a bit since Lane and Eliot’s time. I think it is still true that there are some disciplines that rely heavily on the kinds of materials one finds in libraries, though to be clear, I should point out that such sources can be found in lots of other places, such as archives or museums or, for that matter, in the possession of any institution, group, or individual that creates or collects (and also preserves).*** Browsing strategies remain important to these fields, but I think it’s a mistake to consider browsing synonymous with stack browsing.

Collections have grown past the point – indeed, they probably passed it years ago – where even a large research library could still provide open stacks for nearly everything it owns. Not just because of the expense and the extent of space needed, but also because increasingly materials are being created and stored in formats that simply cannot be browsed “physically” because they cannot be read directly by people: digital formats, of course, but also other forms of media (film, video, audio tape, and so on).

Moreover, there are now viable ways to gain access to the contents of books (and other sources) without actually having to hold the physical copies. You can browse in a browser. And even when you can’t get full-text, search engines, databases, and yes, even the much-maligned, often frustrating, but still valuable online library catalog can usually get you a lot farther than the old card catalog would. There are more ways of providing an “order convenient for…examination” than shelf arrangement.

Now, I don’t want to sound too technologically triumphant here. Is everything digitized? Of course not. Are there still barriers to digitizing and providing convenient electronic access to much of the material on the shelves of academic libraries? Yes.  Can stack browsing still be a useful way of finding new connections you might not otherwise have come across? Yes to that too. Does the physical object retain its importance? Certainly. We are living in a hybrid world, one that’s likely to last for quite a while.


*Given the terms of the analogy – naturalists and specimens – Lane was probably thinking of the museum here as a site of active research, not as an institution with mostly static collections. I don’t think this is a case of the library as “book museum” – although some of the other arguments Lane makes in the paper could be pushed in that direction.

**For a full discussion of the debate, see Brough, Scholar’s Workshop, 124-134. Lane wasn’t alone: the 1903 American Library Association conference hosted a panel – or what we’d now call a panel – on “The Treatment of Books According to the Amount of Their Use.” I found Lane’s paper, which appeared in the conference proceedings, by following a footnote in Brough.

***For a recent analysis of library- and record-based research, see Andrew Abbott’s papers here. It’s also worth noting that “conventional reading” is now only one of the ways to analyze such materials. There are also, to name just two broad categories, statistical and digital methods.

synthesizing the past

It was arranged for me to see Charles Beard, who was attending the American Historical Association’s 1935 convention in New York. Perched on the bed in his overheated room in the Hotel Pennsylvania, Beard poured forth his scorn for the pusillanimity and triviality of a historical scholarship that had lost all sense of its critical function in the civic realm. He gave me a formula for a fine scholarly career: “Choose a commodity, like tin, in some African colony. Write your first seminar paper on it. Write your thesis on it. Broaden it to another country or two and write a book on it. As you sink your mental life into it, your livelihood and an esteemed place in the halls of learning will be assured.”

-Carl Schorske, “A Life of Learning [pdf]” (the 1987 Charles Homer Haskins lecture)

Concerns about overspecialization in history are probably about as old as specialization itself. It would be easy to point to Carl Schorske’s 1935 conversation with Charles Beard quoted above and then to William Cronon’s recent column on the importance of synthetic, bigger picture history, then say something along the lines of “same as it ever was”, and then leave it at that. But just because overspecialization seems to be a persistent problem doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it, and just because it seems to be a recurring problem doesn’t mean that it’s always of the same magnitude.

I could be mistaken, but I take Cronon’s title, “Breaking Apart, Putting Together” to be an implicit reference to the title of Thomas Bender’s “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History” [JSTOR – paywalled] which was published just about 25 years ago. Writing after a couple of decades during which social history – which often involved intensive research on particular communities or social groups – had grown to become quite possibly the dominant form of American historical research, Bender urged historians to begin to synthesize this work into broader interpretations. For those historians who continued to write monographs – and Bender was not opposed to the monograph – Bender hoped that more of them would carry out their research with the possibility of future synthesis in mind: there’s not really a standard way of combining individual works of history, but it stands to reason that some works are more amenable to synthesis than others.

Bender’s article generated quite a bit of discussion at the time, not all of it positive:  some objected to the idea of synthesis, some objected to the particular kinds of synthesis Bender preferred. About a year after the article appeared, the Journal of American History published a special forum on synthesis, in which Bender defended his ideas against some of his critics [table of contents; articles paywalled].

Despite the criticism, the impression I got when I was reading up on this a few years ago was that Bender was not alone in his concerns, that other historians – and not just those who specialized in the United States – felt that there was a need to broaden the scope of individual historical works. Sometimes this was expressed more as a concern with fragmentation rather than with synthesis, per se, but I think those are two sides of the same coin.

In the intervening years, there does seem to have been an increase in the amount of synthetic work being produced, at least in American history. While you probably still will have a problem finding a recent, academic-ish survey of all of American history that is not actually a textbook – textbooks are a kind of synthesis, but not the kind Bender was writing about – there are now a fair number of surveys that cover particular periods of American history that build on recent research.

And course general surveys are not the only kind of synthesis there is. As Andrew Hartman has pointed out over on the U.S. Intellectual History blog, many works that focus on a particular topic or question also involve synthesizing other historians’ research on the same or related areas. Hartman’s examples are from intellectual history, but I can think of relatively recent works in political or social history, such as the history of voting or the history of marriage, that seem to qualify as both original and synthetic.

All of that said, I don’t really disagree with Cronon. I’m not a fan of setting up stark dichotomies as a rhetorical device and I don’t think, for reasons I’ve outlined above, that the situation is as bad for synthesis as it was in the mid-1980s, but I’m also a big fan of synthesis (and survey courses, for that matter). Since I think there could still be more of it I don’t really see a problem with arguing in favor of it.*

What I do wonder, though, is what relationship academic synthesis has to public interest in history, but that’s a subject for another post.


*Even though I think I’m personally still more comfortable doing close-to-the-sources monograph-style research.

different kinds of stacks

I’m taking a course in collection development/management and I’ve come to realize that I must be somewhat of an outlier as a library user. This is probably less true of the number of books I check out than of the variety of repository types I’ve used. Some libraries actually keep track of how many “heavy users” they have – this may be defined differently in different institutions, but a heavy user is probably someone who takes out more than 100 books in a year – and I’m reasonably certain that there are a fair number of people whose circulation statistics match or exceed mine. People in the humanistic fields tend to take out a lot of books. I take out a lot now, but I took out even more when I was full-time in history.*

What I wonder, though, is how common is it to make use of more than the central collections? That is, how many people are reaching into the little-used areas, especially the “storage” collections: off-site facilities, mainly, but some universities, including this one, have on-campus high-density automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) that serve much the same function as an off-site storage facility. (Generally, you request a book  from an ASRS through the online catalog or at the circulation desk, and then a machine retrieves it, usually within 10 minutes.) Every university I’ve had experience with as a library user has had a significant amount of the collection in a storage site; this is really not unusual for modern academic libraries.

What I think might be unusual, however, is how much I’ve used these collections. In Berkeley, I made a lot of requests from NRLF (the Northern Regional Library Facility), despite the fact that it could take a day or two for books to come in. Similarly, at UCLA, I’ve done the same with SRLF. In fact, I’ve actually gone to the SRLF building in person because it’s on the UCLA campus and if you actually come to the site, they will process your request in one day. (For complicated reasons, I couldn’t wait for the usual next-day delivery.) At Stanford, I made a lot of requests from their storage sites, and visited the on-campus “auxiliary library” at least once. And here at UBC, I’ve used the on-campus ASRS quite a bit. Even at the San Francisco Public Library, when I wasn’t really doing academic research but just using the library while I did an internship in SF, I found myself requesting materials from their “paging” desks, where staff retrieve books from non-public stacks within the building.

This has to be fairly unusual behavior among library users, to judge by my conversations with friends and colleagues. But how unusual is it? I should look into this.

*This is partly the result of my using pre-1923 ebooks nowadays, an option that wasn’t as widely available just five years ago. Although I did read Roderick Hudson entirely online in its serialized form in The Atlantic, available via the Making of America project back in 2007.