Why A Book Club Matters: Thoughts & a Zine for LGBTQ History Month

Based on a presentation given at the WTF LGBTQ Conference 7 February 2013 at University of the Arts London, just in time for LGBT History Month.

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I. Why Join a Book Club?

“Green in Nature is one thing, green in Literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

-Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)

That quote from Orlando is the crux of the thing for me – why bother with a book club? – because the sense of frustration that it brings for the author translates into a sense of possibility for the reader. We’re left with the legacy of the imperfect description and it’s up to us, we have to try to glue the two together, life and letters, and all we have to for paste is our own experiences, memories, agendas.

But what if one agenda isn’t enough? That’s where the power of reading communally can be felt: to see the multiplicity of viewpoints made possible by an infinitude of experiences. Even the same conclusions aren’t come to by the same means.

That, combined to the fact that I was moving to London without knowing anyone, was the reason I started a book club.

There was one more reason though, specific to the kind of book club I wanted to start: at that point I wasn’t well read when it came to the LGBTQ canon. As someone who’d largely lived life by the book, coming out was nevertheless a profoundly illiterate experience. For most of the members of the group it’s the complete opposite: stumbling onto books was what profoundly changed their lives and the construction of their identities. Both possibilities really interest me because they get to the primitive root of why reading matters.

You have to remember it’s only very recently it was possible to Google and buy them quickly and safely online. As a teenager my reading habits were shaped by what local second hand bookshops thought were ‘Literature’. It was mostly Jane Austen. Or what our local librarian Mrs. Partridge thought was ‘Literature’ in our 200 square foot public library. It was mostly Danielle Steele. I remember being shocked and confused the first time I found Naked Lunch in a Penguin Edition, the cover art was so different than the usual. My teacher asked me if it was some kind of cookbook when she saw me reading it. I think this kind of teen suburban subsistence as totally typical, but then again, a book club makes it easy to compare notes and see what you’ve been missing.

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II. The LGBTQ Library & Archive

But something unique about reading around a topic like LGBTQ literature, the literature of marginalised people, is that reading is an important form of activism, a way of fulfilling the work of scholars and activists who have fought to preserve a history long pitted against antagonism, discrimination, erasure.

Fittingly enough today is the 516th anniversary of one particularly nasty Bonfire of the Vanities held by Savonarola in Florence. He was a mad preacher-prophet and his idea of a party was burning literally thousands of books and objects he thought were sinful: clothing, makeup, sculpture, paintings, Boccaccio, Ariosto, some Petrarch, and as many of the works of Sappho he could get his hands on.

Sappho sticks with me in particular. We still have the Decameron, but the Bonfire of the Vanities is one reason why complete poems of hers don’t make it. She’s a poster child for what has happened to the LGBTQ archive stretching into the distant past: chipped away, scratched off, torn apart, her odes to other women were deemed unseemly and consigned to the flames.

But she’s also an example of the power of readership: her works survive because readers wrote them out, copied them onto papyrus, Herodotus into his histories, Catullus into Latin translation. To the extent that reading is dedicated to remembering, reading is a great act of conservation that anyone can perform.

And we have to keep reading, and digging, and asking people about themselves, and asking to look into their notebooks, because there are vast gaps in the LGBTQ archive today. In their introduction to a historical work Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons reconstruct from eyewitness accounts and police records an example of the earliest known gay riot in LA in 1959, ten years before Stonewall. “On a seedy stretch of Main Street between two of LA’s older gay bars, the Waldorf and Harold’s”, they literally publish the story of Cooper’s Donuts out of the oblivion it had otherwise been filed under:

“Most patrons were queens, butch hustlers, their friends, and their customers. Many were Latino or Black. The queens wore the half drag of Capri pants and men’s shirts, which, they hoped, would enable them to escape arrest for ‘masquerading’ as women (though they knotted their shirts at the midriff in the feminine style of the day). Because the patrons were obvious or suspected homosexuals, Cooper’s became a frequent target for the LAPD, which prided itself on being one of the most determined enemies of homosexuality in the nation.

That night in May, a patrol car circled the block a few times, parked, and two police officers entered Cooper’s, demanding to see identification from those seated at the long rectangular counter. As usual, the police stated no reasons for their harassment….But the crowd rebelled…Under seige, the officers fled to their squad car…summmoning backup. More squad cars arrived…Rioters were arrested and jailed.”

Despite the thriving gay and lesbian lives they uncover and discuss spanning the late 19th and early 20th century, the authors can’t help but say that “our work has sometimes been frustrating because we know that much has been lost.” One great zine responding to exactly this frustration is “Out of the Closets and Into the Libraries”, by Conrad – it’s available for free online.

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Preserving past anecdotes, from Sappho to Stonewall, has impacted publishing. For instance in an article on “Millennial Thoughts on Gay Archives, Gay Biography, and Gay Library History” (Libraries & Culture 35, 2000, pp 88-102), James Carmichael notes:

Great progress has been made in the quantity and quality of historical and biographical studies in lesbigay history over the past quarter-century. In 1995, the high-water mark of gay publishing to date, over 244 nonfiction monographs were published, of which at least 27 were historical or biographical. Compare this figure to only twenty-seven monographs in 1970 (one historical plus two literary histories), thirty in 1981 (three his torical plus two literary histories), and forty-three in 1985 (no history per se but two literary histories), and one begins to appreciate what the numerical trends say about the growth of gay studies in the past decade.

Most importantly, he says, during that time a few hundred archives for LGBTQ cropped up across the US and US.

But these are the same institutions, he notes, which often used bizarre ways of censoring their own rich archives: destroying records, using misleading cataloguing descriptions making them unfindable, not cataloguing them at all, euphemizing their contents, or literally picking and choosing what to keep of archives, and what to discard on the basis of outdated notions of pornography. Again, think of what we have lost, or have yet to find: “One can’t have the same sort of confidence in analysis of the statistics for gay archival collections, because only a fraction of relevant material is catalogued online.”

New old material pop up all the time: just this week the Bodleian Broadside Ballad project kicked up a 17th comical/bawdy ballad that nevertheless has at its punchline a same sex marriage: “The Deptford Wedding, Or the Mad Marriage between Peg and Mol

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In 1970 the American Library Association founded the first professional gay organization: The Task Force on Gay Liberation (and only as recently as 1986 did they add Lesbian, 1995 Bisexual, and 1999 Transgendered). The Task Force was founded to address publishing and archiving inequities and provide an official means of recognizing fiction and nonfiction, and preserve it. Barbara Gittings, who was in charge of the Task Force from 1971, was as much interested in activism as she was in archives, and it is due to her that it gained visibility and credibility in advocating on behalf of LGBTQ History. As recently as the 1990s, radical librarians like Sandy Berman were still spilling ink over pointing out the structural flaws of the Dewey Decimal (And Library of Congress) Classification systems which categorized works treating of homosexuality as a sexual disorder “even though no reputable medical or psychiatric authorities any longer regard homosexuality as a disease or psychosis” (American Libraries 25 no. 4 p. 306). The 616 Dewey Decimal subclass making exactly that kind of judgment is not entirely out of use.

It’s worth noting that only when there is public interest in these subjects, would publishers take them seriously – advanced reading copies of works of fiction and non-fiction play a powerful role in determining the industry even today. For instance, the Hunger Games was vetted this way, by librarians with specialties in young adults literature, and book clubs, think of how important these chains of communication were pre-internet – I would love to read a study of that.

I wanted to mention this handful of historical examples because this is what makes me thankful when I hold a mass-produced copy of the Well of Loneliness or Tipping the Velvet in my hands. It isn’t just a payoff to the publisher, it’s a tribute to activists who fought to have Nature committed to Letter, and no matter how imperfect Virginia Woolf thinks the result is, it is priceless, it is power.

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III. The Book Club as an Exercise in Community-Building 

Reading can easily force participation in a wider history. I know that is something that, in leading discussions for my book club, I work to emphasise, to research, and to keep out into the open. I want to know the context of a book so I can know how I’m altering it or adding to it or throwing it under the bus completely as I read. To this extent the personal can easily become political.

Case in point: our book club was meeting to discuss Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. If you’re not familiar, the series of comics spanning the 80s to 2008 is hamfisted in its liberal politics, and that’s part of its eloquence and its great value.

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Nevertheless its politics is a part of its tension: the main character Mo (pictured left) is in a near constant state of despair over the way the world works, and her involvement in it one way or another. She beats herself up over her feelings of helplessness:

“JADED, I’ve become JADED. Where did all my revolutionary FERVOR go? I remember when Clarice and I came out together in college…we were so EXCITED, so RADICAL, so COMMITTED to dismantling the PATRIARCHY!”

In the book club we got stuck on that panel. What makes us radical nowadays? We came to the conclusion that in our own quiet way we were in fact radical in our reading, in our discussion, in not needing a classroom or any other excuse to read intensely and discuss sometimes very heatedly how stories work, why they matter, what they do wrong. We give equally rigorous treatment to well-known canonical texts like Orlando and we strain like hell over The Diaries of Anne Lister – but we make them account for themselves and in turn for the continuing history of which they are apart.

And in operating on a very local level, even a book club can creep into all other areas of life. We support one another: we attend events, gigs, movie nights, we go dancing, we organise groups to walk together at Gay Pride, the Dyke March, the Slut Walk, we support local bookstores with our reading lists, and, ultimately, our dissections of books become the building blocks of a community whose least common denominator happens to be one hell of an unforgiving analytical eye.

Nowadays there’s a lot of attention paid to how damn global and huge everything is, and the great potential of the internet to put everything and everyone close to hand whenever we want. But potential doesn’t auto-translate to any meaningful, concrete reality. In fact, to give the vast resource of the internet any vitality or concrete grounding, I would argue that you have to bring it back down to the personal, the local, the discussion. In a really small & quaint corner of life & learning, I think book clubs can do that. So start book clubs, and join them, and float around to different ones and cross-polinate, because it’s fun and because it matters.

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IV. THE ZINE!

I made a zine to hand out with my presentation, click here to download it.

To join The Most Cake book club (based in London) email: bookclub@themostcake.co.uk

Books We’ve Read So Far:

  • Foxfire, Joyce Carol Oates (February 2013)
  • Tom Boy (Film Club Substitute for December 2012)
  • Trumpet, Jackie Kay (November 2012)
  • The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson (October 2012)
  • Daughters of the North, Sarah Hall (September 2012)
  • Chelsea Wives and their Mistresses, Sarah Bramley (August 2012)
  • Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel (June 2012)
  • The Diaries of Anne Lister (May 2012)
  • Rent Girl, Michelle Tea (April 2012)
  • The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel (March2012)
  • Orlando, Virginia Woolf (February 2012).
  • The Rapture and The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy (January 2012)
  • Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters (December 2011).
  • Nightwood, Djuna Barnes (November 2011).
  • Carol; Or the Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith (October 2011).
  • Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (September 2011).
  • The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall (August 2011).
  • The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson (July 2011).
  • Beebo Brinker, Ann Bannon (June 2011).

Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse: Or a Secret History of the Museum

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I made my first tapestry, a tap-or-click storyboard that I think is the next great thing that will shape digital reading practices. The star of the story is Don Saltero, alias James Salter, one time valet to collector Sir Hans Sloane (above), who collected Sloane’s hand-me-down curiosities. Have a look:

http://tapestry.is/knf3v

In addition, one edition of the catalogue of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse can be found here.

Some Further Reading:

Richard D. Altick’s The Shows of London (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1978); Which describes Salter’s as the “first public museum in London” and provides the quotes from William Hutton’s journal.

Altick also recovers an advertisement: in 1723 James Salter, paid Mist’s Weekly Journal for space to the effect of two stanzas:

Monsters of all sorts here are seen,

Strange things in nature as they grew so;

Some relics of the Sheba Queen,

And fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.

Knick-knacks, too, range round the wall,

Some in glass-cases, some on shelf;

But, what’s the rarest sight of all,

Your humble servant shows himself

For more contemporary reading, in Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (1751 – cf project gutenberg) the gang visit a curiosity cabinet of a ‘virtuoso’ in Rotterdam. “No private collection in Europe was equal to that of Sir Hans Sloane,” they argue with their continental friend. But ultimately their claims are based no on  Sloane’s collection (which they haven’t seen), but Don Saltero’s: “And as for that matter, I would not give one corner of Saltero’s coffee-house at Chelsea for all the trash he hath shown,” one of Peregrine’s companions exclaims. Smollett is listed by Salter under his “Benefactors” list in the back of the Coffeehouse catalogue.

Finally, for a great history of wunderkammern, wonder, curiosity and the history of curiosity cabinets to the 18th century, check out Daston & Park’s Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001).

My original work on Don Saltero was a paper firstly about the importance of vulgarising curiosity (the opening up of curiosity cabinets was frowned upon by some; and curiosity cabinets in general were made fun of by the 18th century, but it serves its purpose). The second point I sought to make is that Don Saltero, who was himself treated as an object of curiosity (cf. Steele’s cataloguing of him as an “ODD FELLOW”) showed a shift in curiosity’s focus from objects of natural history, etc. to human subjects.

Technology Wars Online and in Print

From the London Olympics Opening Ceremony 2012

Last week Farhad Manjoo over at Slate Magazine published an article about the invention of the internet, which lately has become a political issue in the USA: is it the work of the government (as President Obama says)? Is it the work of private companies (as per an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal)? Your answer puts you in your place: Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative, and Manjoo argues that the controversy exists only for the purpose of taking sides:

Everyone in the tech world knows that the Internet got its start in the 1960s, when a team of computing pioneers at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency designed and deployed ARPANET, the first computer network that used “packet switching”—a communications system that splits up data and sends it across multiple paths toward its destination, which is the basic design of today’s Internet. According to most accounts, researchers working on ARPANET created many of the Internet’s defining features, including TCP/IP, the protocol on which today’s network operates. In the 1980s, they strung together various government and university networks together using TCP/IP—thus creating a single worldwide network, the Internet.

But history is always written into a hierarchy, with priorities in mind, with sides to be taken. Otherwise, why bother writing history at all? Manjoo’s timeline prioritizes the history of the programming language that made the internet possible. In this sense history is very strictly interpreted. I agree with this rigorous interpretation and so do the experts as far as I know.

Gordin Crovitz’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the other hand prioritizes the history of the idea more broadly. He argues that the development of the Ethernet by Xerox to connect networks of computers in the 1970s is the birthplace of the internet. Technically speaking, the ethernet only connects computers that are as close together as the same room or building (local area networks). But it sounds enough like a small-scale model of the internet, and that makes it easy to elide (or confuse) the details into a history that conceptually makes some sense, and politically makes even more sense.

It would be surprising if either side dropped its case, now that the stakes are clear for whomever backs down. Obama is interested in talking about the government’s crucial role in the development of the internet because he wants to justify government spending. His opponents want the opposite, among other things.

And it’s not just about broad political ideology, but personal reputation. Remember Al Gore? During his 2000 presidential campaign he emphasized his role in promoting government funding of IT initiatives, a political move which became garbled into the shorthand claim of ‘inventing the internet’. Nevertheless he won a Lifetime Achievement Award for “for three decades of contributions to the Internet” at the Webby Awards in 2005. It’s important to be in the right place at the right time when it comes to technological innovation.

But where you’re coming from is equally important, given the nationalistic streak that accompanies invention: in the case of the internet and in addition to the Pentagon, think of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who appeared in London’s Opening Ceremony of the Olympics during a tribute to his invention, the World Wide Web. The glory of Berners-Lee’s work reflects well on Great Britain, but then it also is a credit to France the actual place from whence he didst build the first website. Go figure.

In a wonderful little dovetail of past and present, the guts and glory of technology wars today fit with a book that recently passed across my desk about the invention of printing: Jacob Mentel’s On the Origins of Printing (Paris, Robert Ballard, 1650). Necessity may be the mother of invention, but everyone’s clamoring for Eternal Glory to take a paternity test and own up, 400 years ago as now:

The book is not so much a dusty historical tract as it is a tirade against anyone who dares think Johannes Gutenberg invented printing. Just look at this 17th century caps lock:

Long translation short, the author argues that his ancestor JOHANNES MENTELIN OF STRASSBURG (‘Argentoratensem‘) INVENTED THE ART OF PRINTING FIRST AND IT WAS STOLEN BY GUTENBERG (both ‘Gensfleischii’ from G’s family name, and ‘Gutenbergio’). And so on and so forth.

The work is based upon hearsay printed by Johannes Schott in a 1520 preface to Ptolemy asserting that his grandfather Hans Mentelin had invented printing in 1466. Another of Schott’s books published in 1526 alleged his grandfather’s invention to have left Strassburg for Mainz with Gutenberg only through treachery. Otherwise the story was handed down over the centuries with no other archival trail. The local belief it gave rise to was that Mentelin had taught Gutenberg about printing with moveable type before G. took his ideas to Mainz for improvement. More specifically, that Mentelin had invented the art of copper-plate engraving (known as ‘chalcography‘) and passed it on.

The single scholarly source referenced in Mentel’s angry book is the Epithoma Germanorum (1505) written by German humanist Jacob Wimpheling, who designates Strassburg as the birthplace of printing. Conveniently Mentel cites that without Wimpheling’s overall attribution to Gutenberg who supposedly invented it while in Strasbourg in 1440.

The work jumps into the end of a longstanding scholarly and nationalistic debate between the Germans (in Mainz) and the Dutch (in Haarlem) on the origins of printing.

Mallinckrodt

In Mentel’s time he was addressing his book to the scholar that inadvertently kicked off the controversy in 1639. Bernhard Mallinckrodt, whose ‘On the rise and progress of the typographic art’ was the first full-length work on the origins of printing (it also was first work to use the term ‘incunabula’). Mallinckrodt recognized that the Dutch were printing with wooden blocks (known as ‘block books’) in Haarlem but he concluded Gutenberg was the inventor of metal moveable type and along with Fust and Schöffer, that he had printed the first book. Marcus Zuerius Boxhorn, a Dutchman and historian, took almost personal offense at this assertion and refuted Mallinckrodt a year later claiming that Laurens Janszoon Coster had beaten Gutenberg to the draw. Mentel’s first book was published anonymously and directed at Boxhorn, insulting the Dutch to no end because they had presumed to claim the glory of print for Haarlem. His second book treats Gutenbergists likewise. If he had his way we would have a Mentelin Galaxy (or ‘Mentelin Milkyway’ because it preserves the alliteration). But his angry little treatises on behalf of his ancestor barely survive, which is funny, because we know now about all of Gutenberg’s financial troubles in Strassburg from court documents that exist from the time: and we also know that the same year it is claimed Mentelin developed printing methods (1466), Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III updated Mentelin’s arms and status to nobility. But we don’t know why.

You can see the debate over the internet happening all over again: we can strictly interpret the history of the technology. Wooden blocks, like copper plates, allow for no flexibility in words and composition, as well as easy assembly and dis-assembly, so moveable type, and of printing the way it was made possible by moveable type, is where the magic beings. Gutenberg’s Dutch counterparts opt for the history of the idea: the idea of printing with large wooden blocks logically leads to printing with arrangeable, durable metal type. And finally Mentel writes more on the side of fire and brimstone than historical fact – but since that time historical facts (such as records from Gutenberg’s time in Strassborg) have arisen that make his theory much less insane than it may have sounded to scholarly audiences of the 17th century.

So to this day the debate is not resolved. Don’t look at Wikipedia because it will attribute printing to Gutenberg. Just look at any given edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s entry for ‘Typography’. Different authors maintain different opinions, and the timeline of imprints, account books and court battles rambles on for pages and pages. Even between the 11th and 13th editions of the Encyclopedia there is dissent. So there will never be a straightforward answer so much as an answer that seems best in its telling and most persistent in its circulation, and then as now it’s for everyone to pick sides.

 

An Introduction to Paper Computers

After computers were made of bronze cogs but before they were made of integrated circuits, they were made of paper, they were found in books:
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The figure pictured above is called a volvelle or wheel chart; it’s a series of circles held together that can be rotated in order to yield some string of information. On paper, the concept dates back to the 11th century Persia where it was used most frequently in astronomical texts to depict the movement of the planets and stars, or by astrologers to forecast the future in devices known as zairja. Based on its ability to yield calculations, however simple, the volvelle is considered an early example of a computer. But you can also find one that doesn’t compute anything on the album sleeve of Led Zeppelin III.

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From East to West

A portrait of Lull in Giovanni Imperiali’s ‘Musaeum Historicum’ (1640), a biography of great intellects.

Volvelles were imported into the West in the 1270s by Raymund Lull (1232-1315, also possibly the first European novelist). The ‘Quarta Figura’ pictured above is a printed version of his ‘Lullian Circle’. Lull marketed the idea as the Ars Magna or ‘General Art’, and provided a system of logic blending influences from Arabic mysticism, Egyptian hermeticism, and his own missions to Jews and Muslims, to power the movements of his little paper wheels. Ironically enough he had built a tool to debate Muslims – to debate the beliefs of the Arabic philosophers from whom he had poached the design concept.

Each letter of the circle represents a topic, and each circle represents one portion of a sentence: there are nine main subjects including God, Angels, and Man, each assigned a letter B-K. The same letters next are assigned to predicates: Goodness, Greatness, Duration, Power, Wisdom, Will, Virtue, Truth, and Glory. The relationship between these sets of terms is determined by three triangles in the middle that highlight their differences, similarities, and magnitudes of importance to one another. Sample statements include: “God is eternal” and “Angels are Wise”. Lull worked under the assumption that there were basic, indisputable truths, and that his ‘machine’ could produce all of them. The concept of truth here is pretty limited, but theoretically this early computer is not far in its ambitions from more recent models, and unsurprisingly someone has tried to make a computer program for it.

The Ultimate General Art caught on in manuscript, then print, and then came the commentaries and how-to guides to ensure some trickle-down longevity for scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries (click here for a meticulous list of Lullians through the ages). Henrich Cornelius Agrippa’s popular commentary on Lull’s art reached several editions from 1530 – 1605, so unlike me, his readers must have agreed the system was “easy to learn for schoolboys and old men alike” as he claims in the Preface. This is the book that crossed my desk last week and introduced me formally to Lull, and the long history of paper computing.

Agrippa provides broken down diagrams of the circles, descriptions of their components, and an exhaustive list of all possible letters combinations and their values (BK, BC, BD, BE, and so on up to four characters), but he does not provide the volvelles, although you could cut-and-paste together your own:

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From Philosophy to Poetry

In ‘Raymund Lull’s Thinking Machine’, Borges’ main concern with the Lullian circle is that its terms are outdated, not the machine itself: “We (who are basically no less naïve than Llull) would load the machine differently, no doubt with the words Entropy, Time, Electrons, Potential Energy, Fourth Dimension, Relativity, Protons, Einstein. Or with Surplus Value, Proletariat, Capitalism, Class Struggle, Dialectical Materialism, Engels.”

In a sense that had already happened by the end of the 16th century: by Agrippa’s time, Lull’s combinatory art had already blended with poetic practices dating back the 4th century - centos comprised of cut and pasted fragments from poems and chance operations as with bibliomancy - and updating it to suit the latest tastes. Poetic ‘machines’ were used to piece together syllables into words, words into verse, proving that computer-generated poetry isn’t just a child of the 20th century.

The poems might not have been any good, but the adaptation of the paper machine to new pursuits meant new audiences. As a poetic system it had more formal uses: in 1651 Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, equal parts poet and linguist, used volvelles to compute the limits of the German language:

Georg Philipp Harsdörffer’s Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache, or the Five-fold Thought-ring of the German Language (1651), is composed of five nesting paper discs, each of which is inscribed with a set of word parts along its edge. The innermost ring contains forty-eight prefixes; the next ring, fifty initial letters or diphthongs; the middle ring, twelve medial letters; then, 120 final letters or diphthongs; with the outermost ring storing twenty-four suffixes. When spun, this simple mechanism can generate German words, producing as many as 97,209,600 different combinations. (Source)

For more on Harsdörffer and the Lullian connection see Whitney Trettian’s dissertation: “Computers, Cut-Ups, and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms” which thoroughly covers the poetics in the age of mechanical reproduction and can be found here. It’s both an amazing resource for material on the history of paper computing, and a computing device in its own right – as it focuses on the use of volvelles to produce poetry, so it practices its preaching and allows you to produce your own textual ordering of the essay.

From Poetry to Mathematics

At the close of the 17th century, there were really only two roads a paper computer might follow: the satirical and the serious. Luckily there was enough paper and time to travel down both.

Enter Jonathan Swift. On his travels, Gulliver is given a tour of the Academy of Lagado, and taken to the department of “Speculative Learning” where a professor aims to enable  “the most ignorant person…[to] write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study” using a giant ‘machine’ ridiculous yet imaginative, adding wire and iron to the paper works:

It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language….The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes.

Did anything worthwhile happen other than what Jonathan Swift thought worth making fun of? Probably not. But if he acknowledged “My main purpose in everything I do is rather to enrage than to amuse,” he also documented change. In this case, change of possibilities for the ‘thinking machines’: from religious debate and poetry to any field of knowledge, from a fixed set of 9 subjects to words on 40 six-sided cubes. Such a heightening of the stakes made the device, for all its absurdity, more recognisable as a computing machine, one that has to grapple with randomness and in terms of information science, one that makes a whole lotta noise.

It’s no coincidence Swift lambasts a machine that mostly produces random babbling: it was an idea he had criticized over a decade before he wrote Gulliver in “A Tritical Essay Upon the Faculties of the Mind” (1711):

[H]ow can the Epicureans Opinion be true, that the Universe was formed by a fortuitous concourse of Atoms, which I will no more believe, then that the accidental jumbling of the Letters in the Alphabet would fall by chance into a most ingenius and learned Treatise of Philosophy…

Swift’s scepticism happens to form the basis for one early articulation of the infinite-monkey theorem - “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce the works of Shakespeare” – traced by Borges in his essay “The Total Library”. But his preoccupation with accidental jumbling is no accident: a few countries over it had been put to serious practice by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

There is too much to say about Leibniz. What a guy. You should probably just read Maria Antognazza’s Intellectual Biography and in the meantime his Wikipedia page. Funny that Swift complained about a ‘fortuitous concourse of Atoms’ and the ‘accidental jumbling of letters’ in the same breath: Leibniz’s doctoral dissertation on the Art of Combining (1666) had discussed just that, drawing a parallel between the random yet meaningful combination of the atoms of the universe into matter, and the particles of speech that comprise words and sentences. He concludes that language and the universe are similar in that they are the work of the same acts of mixing and re-mixing. Leibniz applied Lull’s combinatory art to the idea of a universal human language, what he called an ‘alphabet of human thought’, the inspiration for which was drawn from Harsdörffer’s German language wheel. He wanted to reduce all thought to a series of characters (like hieroglyphs), and a computer to order these characters in every possible combination. This would mean that the system would produce all possible ideas, old and new. Such a machine would eliminate the unknown.

Unfortunately he never elaborated on the actual alphabet he had in mind, although it is thought he imagined it to be a kind of algebraic language. By 1714 he had abandoned the project and distanced himself from his schoolboy ambitions, but not without reflecting on the merits of his resources for the in a letter to Nicholas Raymond:

“When I was young, I found some pleasure in the Lullian art, yet I thought also that I found some defects in it, and I said something about these in a little schoolboyish essay called On the Art of Combinations, published in 1666, and later reprinted without my permission. But I do not readily disdain anything—except the arts of divination, which are nothing but pure cheating—and I have found something valuable, too, in the art of Lully…”

He might have dropped the idea of universal language, but he kept the idea of a machine that could compute the language into each possible combination. The calculator. The value in ‘the art of Lully’ was that it contributed to the calculator Leibniz invented in 1694: the Stepped Reckoner. It was the first to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide (Blaise Pascal’s calculator could not multiply and divide automatically). So from Arabic Astrology to Raymond Lull, Religious Debate to Poetic Composition and Language study, revolving paper wheels were finally put to the task of solving math problems, leading to the calculator, and setting the foundations for computing instruments of the 19th and 20th centuries - c.f. The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing.

All of this adds just another dimension of the relationship between book and computer. More than containers that sometimes compete for the same information, they are on the family tree of a daunting ambition to compute and compile all that can be known. Each in their own time are the best-fit materials for the job, and the complexity of harnessing that ideal in some material form is as troublesome for Lull’s paper machine as it is in digital terms.

If we look at these two technologies based on the loftiest ideals they’re meant to serve, a universal library being one of them, things seem a little less tense. Thinking about each as instruments to aid and abet in that (as-of-today) impossible goal is one way of arguing on behalf of both, because neither serve the purpose. Both have failed so far. So one has not trumped the other. Like the majority of sibling rivalries, it produces all kinds of anxieties and behaviours that never truly resolve themselves but are never as life threatening as they seem.

Fine Books and Collections Blogging

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Source - The Women’s Library

It all started with a feature on Nate Pederson’s “Bright Young Things” column over at the Fine Books and Collections Blog. Whether or not any of the words bright/young/thing actually apply to me was not part of the interview, luckily, but one thing led to another and now I am occasionally contributing news stories to that website, viz:

1. On Occupied Collecting, that is collecting materials from the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

2. On Vintage Writing Instruments, as they will be featured for auction at Swann Auction Galleries.

3. On the 40th Anniversary of the Index on Censorship.

4. Most recently on how to Help Save the Women’s Libraryan amazing resource in London threatened by cuts to its funding.

I only post this in case you’ve wondered where some of my more ‘in-the-news’ style posts have gone to.

Watch this space for more updates soon as I’m cooking up some new ideas here at 8vo HQ, and working on a site re-design. And for a more steady stream of consciousness, check out my tumblr.

Bloggers of the World Unite: Rare Book Bloggers and the Links They Build

This is a collaborative post by Brooke Palmieri and Daryl Green and can be found cross-posted on both of their blogs (8vo and Echoes from the Vault)

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In August 2011 Brooke Palmieri [BP] wrote an entry over at her blog, 8vo, about a discovery she made while cataloguing a book for Sokol Books Ltd: an unassuming copy of an incunable on the authority of the pope that turned out to have been owned and heavily annotated by one of the premier among chroniclers and bibliophiles of the 15th century, Hartmann Schedel (best known for his “Nuremberg Chronicle”).  The discovery dovetailed with the release of Sokol’s Catalogue 59, where it caught the attention of Daryl Green [DG], Acting Rare Books Librarian (Rare Books Cataloguer at the time) of the Special Collections Department at the University of St. Andrews, who also happened to be a follower of Brooke’s blog. Daryl, also the chief editor of St Andrews Special Collections blog Echoes from the Vault, had seen the catalogue and had gathered nominal support for purchase from his departmental colleagues, however, for a book this expensive, wider institutional support was needed. Therefore, the rare books team began circulating not only the seller’s description of the book, but also links to Brooke’s blog which told the story of this book and how it came to be on the open market. The support from the relevant academic departments (history, divinity, philosophy and art history) was unanimous and the book was purchased thereafter.

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After this transaction, these two bloggers, working on opposite sides of the country, met by chance at the launch party for the USTC database held in Edinburgh last year, and quickly began to postulate on the role of the blog in the rare books world. What follows are some of the summaries of the ideas and criticisms from multiple conversations held around individual blogs and on the wider theme of blogging and its place in the rare book sphere, told from both the private bookseller’s and the institutional collector’s perspective.

I.  Why rare books blogs are important

BP: In this instance blogging played an unlikely role in a very standard process of institutional acquisition: in order to buy a book, permission is necessary, and in order to get permission, a case needs to be made for the importance of the book. It’s not unlike agonizing over buying a pair of shoes, only the process is distributed across staff members for efficiency’s sake. I didn’t know it at the time, but my entry about Schedel’s copy of an otherwise common legal treatise that was floating around the internet made a case all of its own for the good folks of St. Andrews University Library.

St. Paul’s Churchyard has gone global: and just as London Stationers had their signs of Bear, of Star, of Pied-Bull, to identify themselves and to welcome, Booksellers can use websites. Blogging is especially important for booksellers who do not occupy a storefront as a way to see and be seen, for people looking to get rid of books as well as collectors. But it also makes sense as an alternative resource: just as there are aural learners and visual learners, there are those who look for books in printed catalogues, and those who search online.

DG: Grant providers such as the NEH, the CLIR Hidden Collections Program and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have been pumping money into libraries for the cataloguing of backlogs of material found in rare book and special collections for the past five years. These grants are providing the funding to bring in, or train-up, staff to catalogue, classify and collate these collections in an effort to ‘open the doors’ and extrapolate collections’ full potentials. This means that dozens of new cataloguing projects are coming on-line in the States and in the UK (to a lesser extent) each year, and with them come cataloguing jobs and more opportunities for new professionals to get the hands-on experience and training with rare books. There has never been a time of more activity in the institutional rare book world, especially as the curators of these collections are realizing that their work is one of the defining elements of a University’s identity in the world of the ever-more homogenized University Library. However, the sexiness of the job (which I describe to my parents as “book archaeology, or doing things like Indiana Jones, only with books and minus the large boulders and murderous Nazis”) can be lost in the creation of the prescribed catalogue and very rarely do the people (who are often the first ones to pick any given book off of a shelf in a long, long time) get to tell their stories and convey their every day excitement. Setting up a blog to run alongside these new projects that are putting together old and rare books and burgeoning professionals is not only one of the easiest ways to get your inevitable “new finds” out there, but it is also a very useful method of recording people’s initial reactions when working through all of this material.

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II. Why blog about old or rare books?

BP: In fancying itself a science, descriptive bibliography has always avoided sensationalism. This might be due to the fact that most things considered sensational are also considered low-brow, page-three, “hack work”. But taking a book of historical interest and talking about it in a less formal medium doesn’t cheapen its significance at all. It just puts it into a less formal medium.

I’m not saying that the standards of cataloguing should change so much as give a warm welcome to some complementary action. I’m saying that you can do all your blogging around town, and still take your shoes off before you come through the door.  A blog lets you have it both ways: excess, without violating the sanctity and precision of professional standards. Blogging about excesses and behind-the-scene details is a way of advocating for the importance of books to new audiences. In a technological sleight-of-hand blogs make it possible to avoid mere specialty in favour of accessible expertise. In the most prominent words on Simon Beattie’s excellent website: blogs make it possible to sell “The Books You Never Knew You Wanted”.

DG: In any given month, a full-time rare books librarian or cataloguer will have worked with dozens, or even hundreds, of books deemed ‘special’ enough (i.e. old, rare, racy, falling-to-bits, or locally important) to be put aside in a rare books or special collections library. Each of these books have a story to tell, and it is the cataloguer’s job to distill the elements of each individual book’s history into the most concise description possible to make an accurate, but not too verbose, catalogue record. This process, like most others in the library world, comes with its own set of prescribed and detailed rules which assists in the creation of a uniform and fully indexed catalogue that is the first port-of-call for library users and researchers. However, the work that we do as rare book cataloguers, sellers and enthusiasts is 90% Sherlock Holmes and 10% Fredson Bowers: the behind-the-scenes story of how a cataloguer found out what bookplate belonged to who — how that person related to a signature found on the title page of the book — the potential story of how that book changed hands — how that book relates to other books in a collection, can be lost in the indexing, classifying and processing and rarely makes it into our finished catalogues.

The ability to express fully the amazement of the job that we do can be realized in the blog format. Cataloguers and librarians are in constant contact with fantastic material, and , sure, some of it may not be of interest to the ultra-scholarly crowd, but recording a cataloguer’s or student’s initial reactions to having worked with a Nuremberg Chronicle or the first edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus is just as important as finding out the more esoteric elements of any period of printing. It tells us why these books matter in this age.

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III. What should you be blogging about?

BP: A blog (and the Twitter account you should link it to) is an opportunity for booksellers to create content. I have noticed many using these platforms to simply re-blog and re-tweet other content. And while that is one way to attract followers who are interested in your particular take on the Curator’s Code, there’s a point at which it’s recycling, plain and simple. And not the kind of recycling that helps the environment so much as add clutter to it.

The followers it can attract plateau very, very quickly. Your chances of being the first port of call for readers are slim: no one is going to find you, let alone click on you, if the first thing that comes up in their search is the original article from the Guardian you’re linking. But they will click your link if it offers a unique spin on their search topic, complete with pretty pictures, both of which you probably have. You’ve got to expand the vocabulary of algorithm culture, you’ve got to make things Google-able that aren’t. Moreover, if you make a cycle out of creation and recycling, the free PR you’re crowdsourcing for the people you re-blog and re-tweet about will hopefully do the same for you. The history of reading is a very imprecise and unfathomable study, but at least with the internet you know that if a reader likes your work they will often pass it on.

Emphasis on content creation also should trump self-promotion. As a student of bibliography I am told to let the books speak for themselves. It ain’t a bad business model. In a recent article in his blog column for the Guardian, Rick Gekowski argues that there are more perils than benefits to ‘courting the press’ to advertise stock (‘self-promotion’). Gekowski’s reservations are a little too specific to rule out blogging/press coverage/self-promotion altogether. The moral of his story is to double- and treble-check the legal status of books and manuscripts in your stock, not to hide those books from public view, because no matter where you keep them the legal grey area follows. Our example with Sokol Books and St. Andrews proves the opposite. If you look at my blog post, you’ll notice there’s no mention of the book being for sale, I only focus on the thrill of the hunt. Sure there is an element of self promotion in it, but there is a really easy way to give self-promotion a positive spin: promote the ideas, the books, not the fact that they are for sale. Trust collectors to get in touch with you when they want to. If they have found your article, they will be able to find your calling card.

One of the best bookseller-bloggers is Laura Massey over at Peter Harrington Books: just see for instance her eye for curiosities from the First Book on the Loch Nest Monster, Thomas The Tank-Engine Models and Flappers at Sea. Not only does her expertise range from leaves of the Gutenberg Bibles to children’s pop up books, but she has a way of combining text and image that invites anyone in, and nobody says it better than her when it comes to content creation:

“The best way to make an impact online is to provide unique content, and as booksellers we already spend a lot of time researching and writing, so it’s natural to progress with blogging that material. I particularly enjoy posting the unusual and interesting items we have in stock, things that people may not be familiar with and which won’t have big web presences. There’s certainly a hunger for this type of rediscovery online, particularly for antiques, printed and handwritten text, book bindings, photographs–the type of material that we may have less contact with on a daily basis than previous generations did. Blogging is now one of the best ways to contribute to the cultural discourse, and I like to think that, in addition to raising the profile of the shop, we’re also increasing the amount of knowledge that’s available in the world.”

DG: The excitement that bubbles in a rare book library when a cataloguer finds an inscription of significance or a previously unrecorded book is tangible. It is the same kind of electric energy you can get when working with students or interested researchers.  It is this initial connection, the visceral realization that you see come across a reader’s face as they realize they are handling something that was crafted 500 years ago, or was once held and read by Pope or Johnson or Woolf or Wells; that is why we do our job and that is the ‘magic’ that I hope to convey when blogging. The kind of energy that comes from a researcher’s first contact with an important rare or old book shouldn’t just be limited to the workroom or the classroom; blogs should help to populate search engines with photographs and indexed terms which bring the casual browser in [virtual] touch with these wonderful items that we have been entrusted to work with. Most library catalogues aren’t crawled or indexed by the major search engines, and so much of the minutiae that we include in a descriptive bibliographic catalogue record is behind a virtual closed door. The blog format gets that information out there. It liberates the information that is laboured over in the cataloguing process from the catalogue.

A good rare books blog has two key elements: commentary or content and images. Images are so important for these types of blogs, because, for many, these things first attract our visual senses and are stumbled upon by accident. Images from rare book blogs get Tumbld, Tweeted and Pinned by interested readers and casual browsers alike, these things are getting shared… who can say who will be interested in a reverse sheep binding, or the inky fingerprint of a 15th century printer? We should be blogging about what excites us, what might be interesting to a reader or something that you’ve worked with that is hardly talked about online. For example, some of the most popular and random search terms that bring readers to my blog from search engines include: “Albert Robida,” “manicula,” “dos-a-dos binding,” “17th century playing cards” and “Florida crocodile”.  All we can do is put information out there as accurately as we can and hope that our voice sounds out in the crowd.

Rare book blogs range in level of commentary: from the very deep, scholarly works to the casual, “hey, look what I found today” style. All of these work, as long as you are writing original content and are open to having a discussion on-line and out-in-the-open about what you’ve written about. Terry Belanger, in a recent promotional video for the Rare Book School, said that “Most collectors want to talk about their collections, most friends of collectors don’t want to listen,” but I think that if we, as professionals, talk about what excites us about these thing in the open, on the web, more people will find out about these things, and more people will listen. Scholarly and trade conversations have been locked up in print publications and don’t serve the new generation of potential users of rare books or certainly the casual web surfer who stumbles upon an image of a great rare book. Previous correspondence between sellers, collectors, librarians and researchers are full of information about where copies of a certain book were and in what state. Having a conversation, out in the open, where it can be read and seen by all is key. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that we don’t know something or even to get something wrong. Confronting a known community with a question which stokes their minds will ultimately produce results.

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And that’s why we say: RARE BOOK BLOGGERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!

-BP & DG

MAKING A FEDERAL WRITERS PROJECT IN 2012

Since the 2008 recession there have been calls to renew the Federal Writers’ Project, founded as part of the WPA in 1935 by FDR to create jobs for writers, artists, even archaeologists and geologists, along with other unemployed Bachelors of Arts. The financial crisis in 2008 sparked discussion across journals, an outcropping of blogs, and most recently members of the American Historical Association, discussion in favor of reviving the little corner of Roosevelt’s New Deal that gave writers like John Steinbeck, Kenneth Patchen, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ralph Ellison steady work.

Federal Writers’ Project works are pretty collectible according to ABE books, but it’s also easy to work with them because there is a decent archive of them on the internet.  They’re catalogued on the Digital Book Index, and many websites from the Library of Congress (1, 2) to regional historical societies in Oklahoma proudly preserve the benefits the FWP had for them across the 250 works it saw to press. The Library of Congress still holds manuscripts from many projects, including one of the most insightful among them, a collection of thousands of testimonies and photographs of former slaves, published in 17 volumes as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

The project was an equally great outlet for photographers and designers, and even a cursory look through the Digital Books Index displays a thorough catalogue of American art  of the time from Art Deco….(as in this guide to Santa Barbara):

…to a kind of  Social Realism (coming from Kentucky here):

Even preserving local murals (again from Kentucky), which as we learned earlier this year are by no means permanent.

So the project preserves history but also captures an amazing artistic and literary moment in American history in its own right. Conservatives hated the American Guide Series in the same way that they hate Public Broadcasting and Sesame Street today: it gives work to almost inevitably lefty thinkers to disseminate their lefty ideals. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a Liberal reading of the projects entails coming to terms with racism among other things. But the point is, jobs were created, and there’s a body of work to show for it. You can’t learn from history that’s not recorded. As the introduction to the Philadelphia Guide points out: “The ultimate product, whatever its faults or merits, represents a blend of work of the entire personnel, aided by consultants, members of university faculties, specialists, officers of learned societies, oldest residents, who have volunteered their services everywhere most generously.” For all its sins the methodology is thoroughly dependent upon the fabric of local communities and local color. Add that to a fully collaborative approach between disciplines from history to physical science, and you’re working in an ideal intellectual world.

As the back cover of the Philly guide puts it, the Federal Writers’ Project “furnishes a wealth of information that will be of real value, not merely to those who visit…”. That value is only a richer renewable resource as time goes on.

At least in theory, the state-by-state approach is a good fit: each volume contains concise history, geography, and is illustrated. There are thorough bibliographies for the curious reader. In the case of Philadelphia, whose early history I happen to have learned a lot about, there is even more research than meets the eye in the bibliography: details provided, for instance, in the description of the foundation of Germantown relied upon materials only in manuscript form at the time. Combine that with easy-to-use maps and guided walks through the city and surrounding areas, and you’ve got no trifle of an educational resource.

Finally, there were also Federal Writers’ Projects on different areas of the sciences, often no more then 30-40 pages and aimed at children:

Aside from taking great pleasure in mining the online archive for fun facts about Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, it’s also an archive that steps outside its time and bids us to do some serious critical thinking. It says: See? Projects that enrich public life and learning can happen during times of depression as much as they can during times of prosperity. Our priorities are not misguided in demanding them of our government.

I’m guessing that if you are the kind of person who would read this blog, you are the kind of person to agree that at this point that some kind of wholly- or partly-subsidized Government program to employ folks and preserve the bits and pieces of our cultural heritage (and this need not be limited to the US) would be great. But how?

Robert Reisch’s call for the American Historical Association to implement something along the lines of the FWP, sadly seems to have amounted to little more than healthy google search results for me to contribute to. Ditto the earlier, 2008 New Republic article by Mark I. Pinsky, which nevertheless had a very handy view toward implementation:

Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration–perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities–and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects, in the form of grants, rather than hourly wages. Projects could be pitched locally to colleges, or suggested and posted by them, vetted preliminarily and then approved or rejected by the national staff.

But still nothing has happened. The current situation threatens something like the opposite: you may have heard tell of the so-called Research Works Act which would effectively close down one frontier of open access to information by keeping federal- (read: taxpayer-) funded research from the public domain and allowing publishing companies to charge for it! Rather than coming any nearer to something like a Federal Writers’ Redux, relationships between publishers and researchers are falling to pieces (you can sign a petition against the Research Works Act here). Legislation is threatening to tear apart the allies the Federal Writers’ Project once kept together.

Why? Why is the internet full of awesome ideas about saving culture that no one listens to? Are blogs (like this one) the new proverbially unpeopled forests filled with falling trees? Do you hear me? Are blogs just online equivalents of the mentality people have when they go to modern art galleries?

Internet = We Should Do That + Yeah But We Won’t. 

How are we going to get this Federal Writers’ Project Redux off the ground? We’re four years away from the crash that forced us to reconsider it and counting.

In addition to Pinsky and Reisch’s suggestions here are my thoughts. For now all we can do is keep talking:

We should start this from the ground up rather than wait for someone to do it for us. This point addresses one of the major criticisms of starting up another FWP: why should the government spend time and money underwriting books and documentary films when there are much more terrible problems with poverty and unemployment to fix first? Only too valid.

So how about those who have funding start thinking about allocating it to projects that fit the bill of the American Guide Series. Recognized leaders should take the lead. I’m looking at people like MacArthur Fellows, who have No-Strings Attached $500,000 grants. I’m looking at any of you, Jad Abumrad, Marie-Therese Connolly, Roland Fryer, Jeanne Gang, Elodie Ghedin, Markus Greiner, Kevin Guskiewicz, Peter Hessler, Tiya Miles, Matthew Nock, Francisco Núñez, Sarah Otto, Shwetak Patel, Dafnis Prieto, Kay Ryan, Melanie Sanford, William Seeley, Jacob Soll, A. E. Stallings, Ubaldo Vitali, Alisa Weilerstein, Yukiko Yamashita. Okay, some of you are curing diseases, I don’t mean to bother you. And I know there are other generous grants to single out, too.

But people like certainty with investment. Before we call for Obama to support this idea, to validate the dream that something which happened 70+ years ago is a best-fit solution to the jobs crisis in the humanities now, we should call for individuals who are already comfortable and who are already doing good work to take the lead, build a team, beta-test the thing so to speak. The initial Federal Writers’ Project was headed by a journalist and occasional theatre producer Henry G. Alsberg, who wrote some decent reporting on Mexico and Russia and was involved with advocating on behalf of imprisoned Russian writers, as well as civil liberties for suppressed writers more generally. A contemporary Federal Writers’ Project would only be as strong as the heads of each field it employed. They need to be good mentors, good teachers.

Finally, a key technology to integrate into the projects would be Kickstarter: not only is it a tried-and-tested way of crowdsourcing funding, but of making meaning: built into funded projects are indicators of public interest, the number of people who pledge cash to your project are the number of people who think it matters. The original Federal Writers’ Project of 1935 was to a very large extent FDR’s idea of a public morale booster. Transparency of projects and allocation of funds through means that Kickstarter has streamlined could be critically important in updating what was good for 1935 into what is good for 2012.

Lots of things need doin’: more oral histories, more folklore, since there no longer folklore departments in universities, more interviews, from documenting oral histories from soldiers serving time in Iraq, then Afganistan, soldiers serving before and after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, those impacted by 9/11, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and in terms of labor history those who lost their jobs from outsourcing, the architects of the occupy movements across the country. All of these issues in turn take us from narratives to the actual landscape of the country: the topography of cities change, memorials are erected, and canvas tents, factories are destroyed, and canvas tents. Even the rise of environmental consciousness has changed the shape of the horizon as smokestacks from nuclear power plants disappear for good:

There is much to be documented about America, a lot has happened since 1935.

There is also an expansion of job descriptions: Disciplines themselves have changed between 1935 and now: the fieldwork of the trained anthropologist and sociologist dramatically change what we could know about the world around us. A Federal Writers’ Project today would not just be filled with historians, photographers, cartographers, but designers, librarians, journalists, and there would be an important place for displaced IT personnel. How many websites have you seen that are owned by local government, libraries, registry offices, that are out of date, difficult to navigate, and even less helpful when it comes to telling you what you need to know? A Federal Writers’ Project could write and develop web content for many that could really use it.

Let’s do this!

What do you think?