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?


This past 22-23 November marked the launch and celebratory conference of the latest database resource for scholars and book collectors of the 15th-16th century: The USTC, or Universal Short Title Catalogue. The ‘universal’ appeal we’re talking here is very Western: “all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century” as they put it on their website.

Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf

But the ‘universal’ also means access in a truer sense of the word. It is a worry that the preservation of cultural heritage is a little too confined within institutions of higher education, but this database is free and open to the public, has done well to link with digital copies of texts where possible, which really gives face to a name in a way that would appeal to anyone (an area that will only expand), and in the meantime, the opening party was widely attended: Italian, French, and German consulates were all there and yes, even the Edinburgh Renaissance Band provided the music and did it in period costume. To add to the excitement, the launch dovetails with news that the project, based at St. Andrews, has received funding to expand into the 17th century.

For anyone that couldn’t attend, but would have liked to, I’ve tried to make sense of my notes here:

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The other day I successfully bid at auction on this seemingly unwanted book, Rowland Vaughan’s Most Approved and Long Experienced Water-Workes (London: George Eld., 1610) not only because it has the distinction of being the first book in English about Crop Irrigation, but because when I turned to the last page of the work I found this:

It seemed odd to me that at the end of a practical treatise on a uniquely boring area of husbandry there would be a blank promissory note, that is, a note that in theory enables the reader to lend money to the author alone, without interest and to be paid back within five years. Not your average happily-ever-after or colophon – moreover as the note passes without explicit mention at the beginning or end of the book, and references to the book (STC 24603) lists that the note does not occur in every copy. Why would Vaughan take up the space to ask you to lend him money, confident that the space is worth taking up, and confident that he can pay you back?

In times like this it helps to start reading the book, I guess. The first 20 or so pages contain various poems about what an all-around great guy the author is. The first, by Vaughan’s cousin John Davies (“A Panegyricke”) didn’t answer my question about the promissory note, but did change my opinion on how entertaining water works could be, and how good Vaughan is in the “royall TRENCH”

This puts the Leaze in Sleaze.

The poem continues to compare Vaughan to King David, King Arthur, God himself, and a variety of pagan deities; in the next poem, Robert Corbet turns the trench into a hive, and Vaughan into that time-honored workaholic, the bee. Each poem paraphrases the story of Vaughan’s discovery of the new technology (told by the author himself later in the book). Once upon a time, he noticed the greener grass on the one section of his property that well-watered because of a molehill that let water flow freely into the small valley below which it created. He spent the next 20 years trying to copy from his observation. The book, these opening poems promise, will include a detailed description of this as well as instructions as to the the season and length of time to “drowne the Grounds”, the type of trenches to be dug depending on the terrain, and other handy tips, including how to keep moles out of the waterworks. And Vaughan delivers.

The exuberant praise for Vaughan and his irrigation system is no less exuberant than the author’s own introduction to the Earl of Pembroke, which takes up half of the volume, and here is where the promissory note is given the full force of its impact. It’s not just water works Vaughan needs to borrow money to fund, but instead he wants to build an entirely new society based upon his advances in crop irrigation, a new social order that will eliminate unemployment and rejuvenate his local economy: he wants to “raise a golden world…in the Golden-Vale of Herefordshire” (check out the side-note below “The richest Country breeds the idlest (therefore the poorest) people)”

In the Herefordshire of the early 17th century there are many in need, by Vaughan’s count there are five hundred out of a job within a mile and a half from his house in all directions. The poverty stems from unemployment, or an employment cycle that lasts three months and entails so much traveling that it results in a loss of income rather than a gain, the equivalent of paying cheap rent so far out of Central London that your travel fair in pounds per annum & hours lost to the commute leaves you exhausted, and what’s more, prevents you from saving any money at all. “There is not one amongst ten that hath five shillings to buy a Bale of Flaxe” to weave into linen, without several days worth of travel and wasted time.

In other words, if you give me money, I can make the system that worked for me work for everyone!

In controlling the flow of water, Vaughan controls his crop yield as well as the mill that grinds it into profitable corn, such that he can build offices and rooms to house all of his workers and “meckanicals”. Building from this model, “Two thousand imploide in the under-business of the Common-wealth” will be made possible when corn from the Mill is used both to feed laborers but also in trade for other goods to employ other tradesman: leather for tanners and shoemakers, flax and pelts for clothiers and glovers, etc. Each trade will have one master in charge of its administration, and as many apprentices as that master sees fit. “A famous preacher shall be maintained” to teach children and give sermons. There will be a Church but no seminaries or monasteries, an almshouse for the elderly and infirm.

The promissory note is all but mentioned explicitly, as Vaughan has no problem asking for money from his readers, particularly those from the upper tiers of society, the rich to pay for the poor (they are probably even more than the 99%). “I cannot see how mony can be wanting, I have so many honourable friends…yet I thank God they cannot say I want honorable friends, such as the Lord Bishops,  your Lordships with others, which may lend me money (if please you and them) I will not for a million anger any of you, to make a motion to borrow money: if lendings come in out of your honourable dispositions…its a better course (tenne to one)  then to take money to usury…”

As an added enticement, Vaughan will keep at his own expense “a dining-roome to entertaine a world of worthy benevolent Contributors: The Table perpetually furnished to intertaine forty of those Contributers dayly in expectancy”. The room will be “wainscoted, and fairly hang’d with Arras” and it will have venison pasties and as many other meats as possible whenever they are available. If only Kickstarter campaigns promised that!

The word Utopia is never mentioned, even though it might be coming to your mind as it does to mine. But the work is distinctly unscholarly and estranged from the genre: “I have not observed a precise scholler-like Decorum: for Mars his University…affoords no rules of speaking in Print”, Vaughan writes: he was formerly a soldier, and the University of Mars the god of war seems to me as something like getting a Ph.D at the School of Hard Knocks. The only references made are to the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. He doesn’t imagine a chance to start over on a far off island, but instead borders Wales and answers to Parliament, and he doesn’t engage with More, Campanella, or even Bacon, he just wants a job and lots of meat for him and his neighbors. It’s not a Utopia because of being a “nowhere”, as the etymology of that word leads us, it’s in his own back yard.

The way he accomplishes this vision through local poets, a vibrant letter to the equivalent of his local representatives (nobles who had a say in Parliament) , and serious innovation: it is a shame this list of accomplishments, as well as the material addition of the promissory note to make good on his ideas, falls far afield of the usual templates of Early English Literature. It is a grass-roots stab at social policy, more than political philosophy, with a very reasonable approach to jump-starting local growth with liquid assets: give jobs and salaries to those who will immediately put that money into their subsistence. Unlike the usual praise and flattery confined to the limits of dedicatory addresses, Vaughan gives his readers the chance to actually make good on their support for his new social order with a peculiar boldness that I have not found in other treatises on husbandry, Utopia, or any other book of the period. The ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) lists a book published over a hundred years later in 1791 that includes a promissory note, only this note is to fund the publication itself, not a comprehensive view of society.

Has this entry become relevant to contemporary politics yet? Is cataloguing this book political? Is it possible that thinking critically about obscure texts from the distant past has something to say to us now? That history’s bidding is more than a return to more bookishness? I hope so, but I also thought it would be cool to write about this so something more substantial would come up when you google “Rowland Vaughan” or “Crop Irrigation”.


via AvecLivres.Tumblr.Com

In any given week’s news about books, there are always 2-3 elegant uses that have nothing to do with reading them, but make great pictures, so I thought I’d consolidate the references in one place, with some conveniently located reading on the subject.

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of
all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts
will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice
it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired
his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘‘And you
have read all these books, Monsieur France?’’ ‘‘Not one-tenth of them. I
don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?’’ —Walter Benjamin

Walking into Persephone Books one day, my partner was congratulated on her appreciation of their content, since, the cashier claimed, most people only came in to buy the uniformly grey-bound titles to decorate their homes. While getting to know one of the booksellers from Classic Bindings Ltd. at the Olympia Fair, he told me how he was excited that his business was moving from the realm of interior decorating to “real” bookselling, that is, selling books to people who intend to read them rather than en bloc manorial furnishings, buying by the book rather than by the foot (and let us not forget to extend to books Edgar Allan Poe’s weighing in on the Philosophy of Furniture). And before either one of us could afford bookshelves in our flat, we built them out of our books– efficient for display but not recovery.

As long as books have been produced they’ve been left unread, from the 16th century ducal library with an inch of dust kept by the upper crust of society as a sign of gentility– surely that is what libraries like the largest floating library in the world on the Queen Mary II, or at the new W Hotel in London are going for to some extent. Jeffrey Todd Knight in his ‘Furnished’’ for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture”, expands things further, there are books in his essay that lie on desks as would carpets, or books written on for scrap paper, practice, accounting purposes, all totally ignorant of which Canterbury Tale or book of the Bible they may be obscuring. The spectrum of use is very wide. He writes:

[W]e might gain a more inclusive understanding of what lies behind modern
taxonomies by considering texts in relation to a different category of things:
‘‘furniture’’—books that furnish space and furnishings that, like books,
have the capacity to fill minds with information.

Sometimes unreading happens to a single book, for instance the odd copy of M. Merleau-Ponty, covers well worn but unread, spine uncracked– something I have been told by a certain student of the École Normale Supérieure used to be carried around as a kind of intimidation tactic. Books can take on functions that have nothing to do with their content and everything to do with their form. Sometimes you might just like the weight in your bag, or the silent reverence of a secular space like the library, sometimes they help you think independent from themselves. And the emphasis on form isn’t always bad thing: as I have reported here, evidence is now showing that books that are aesthetically pleasing and well made do not suffer the same ravages of digital culture that mass produced paper backs have.

On a personal level, in the past when I have attempted to organize books by their covers and not content, I’ve actually found that emphasizing the visual allows me to remember more easily where they are, especially by color. So sometimes you can have it both ways and organize your books in a way that will get the compliments AND play to your own particular ars memoriae.

Some ways of organizing books:

  1. By color.
  2. By size. (a la the Duke Humphrey Library, Oxford. Or Oprah)
  3. Fore-edge out, chained.
  4. Fore-edge out.
  5. By sentences you can spell using their spines.

Some places to store books:

  1. Shelves
  2. Stairs
  3. Shelves AND Stairs
  4. Stairwells
  5. Scrolls
  6. Everywhere
  7. Everywhere

Some non-books:

  1. Fake Books
  2. Bedside Lamp

How do you use books that is off the beaten path of what we might normally expect? I’d love to hear from you.

Finally, beyond the jump I have pasted the most useful/amusing commentary on books and furniture yet written– two short chapters from Jackson Holbrook’s Anatomy of Bibliomania on “Books as Furniture” and “A Digression of Dummy Books”.

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Excuse the silence, it’s been a pretty hectic few weeks! But here are three weeks worth of digested news related to books, although by this time some of them may have been retweeted and shared to death. Aside from John Charles Gilkey being on the loose again, and the Codex Calixtinus going missing, here’s the shortlist of what’s up:

1. THE SLA [Special Libraries Association] CONFERENCE HAPPENED: Not that I was there, but the beauty of Twitter is that it allows for some distilled information of a very heartening sort, check out the feed here.

2. IN DIGITAL NEWS: Setting type and printing from an old-fashioned letter press? There’s an app for that. Single Stroke alphabets? Xerox has the patent for that. Although speaking of Apps, the British Library has released about 1,000 19th C books for iPad, and that’s only the start of it.

Creative Commons done made a book, The Power of Open, compiling stories of the glories of their work.

PS: E-books are decreasing in value, does that mean economic capital follows cultural capital, or vice versa? On that subject: I have been looking into Nabu Press which so often appears in my wildest Amazon and ABE searching frenzies– and I wonder if their impact on both economies of books doesn’t contribute in some way to the deterioration of perceived value of ebooks when they go back to hardcopy. The internet is rife with horror stories of Nabu buys, but has anyone ever gotten a print on demand that they were proud of?

Which brings us to:

3. IN DE-DIGITAL NEWS: The Internet Archive is backing its stock up in paper copies. Prediction: this is only the beginning of what will be a real news category, as we backtrack from the theoretical dreams & superfluities the internet seems to make possible, to the contingencies of their practical application.


Click Image to Reach an Illustrative Youtube Video

Re: the King James Bible Mini-Exibit at Penn (which I’ve linked to before) today the Penn Current posted an article about it, which I was interviewed for along with the good folks at Penn’s Special Collections, John Pollack and director David McKnight. The actual interview questions, which couldn’t have possibly been used for such a brief (but accurate) article, were nonetheless answered (as I tend to)…copiously.

So I’m copying and pasting it here for posterity and without re-reading it. Happy Birthday KJB. Continue reading