Publick Occurrences 2.0

April 26, 2013

Congratulations, Dr. Philip Lampi

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:28 pm

Expanding slightly on my tweet from earlier this afternoon, I wanted to pass on the wonderful news that Phil Lampi, of AAS and “New Nation Votes” project fame, is going to receive an honorary degree from Tufts University next month. Phil has been saluted at length in this space before, so I will keep it brief this time. A true hero of archival scholarship and a real-life “King of New England,” Phil deserves recognition from the academic community more than most of us who are in it, so this honor is much more than just well deserved. Here is the citation from the Tufts press release:

Philip Lampi is a historian. Lampi’s work could change the way historians teach and write about the politics of early America. Without training, a college degree or funding beyond his own modest resources, Lampi traveled the country to gather the single most complete record of early American election results ever compiled. He is now the driving force behind the New Nation Votes Project, the most significant database of early American voting records in existence, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, Tufts University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lampi will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.


December 14, 2012

Understanding the Uses of the Past

I haven’t yet mentioned the new early Americanist blog in town, The Junto, so I would encourage you to head over there and check it out. As Ben Park wrote in the opening post on Monday:

Staffed by a host of junior academics studying a broad range of topics—our brief bios are found at the end of the post, and more details are found on each individual author’s page—we aim to provide frequent content related to the academic study of America prior(ish) to the Civil War. But more than just serving as a sounding board for our authors and a clearinghouse for various news, events, and calls for papers, we hope that The Junto will become a vibrant community for the field of early American studies.

I am one of those signed on to write for the blog, and I look forward to being part of that conversation, but you will still be able to find me here.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does a disservice to history by reinforcing the notion of history as the realm of “Great Men,” even as we try to find different (and, as Ken notes, less conservative) figures to describe.

Part of the discussion in the comments has led me to think more deeply about historical memory as the key to creating a better sense for students (and by extension the public) of how to make a useable past. To expand on that here, I’d like to ironically return to the Founding Father among the Founding Fathers, George Washington. As loyal readers may know, today (December 14) is the anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799, an event that precipitated broad mourning across the young nation and launched a cottage industry of merchandising. The most important of those efforts may have been Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, published in several editions in the early 1800s by the noted itinerant book salesman.

I bring up Weems because I’ve been using his chapter on Washington’s death in my survey course to have precisely the kind of discussion about the uses of history that Ken points to. If you’ve never read it, it’s near comical in its maudlin description of the deathbed scene:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father– around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies–nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Much of the discussion in the class period centered around how to use a document such as this to learn anything about Washington (it’s useful as biography for the things we can trust that he got from other sources, as the newspaper accounts of Congress’s mourning would have been broad public knowledge) and to learn about Weems and his goals (the deathbed scene with not a soul present, and surely no one who gave an exclusive interview to Weems). Through the discussion, I want to help my students understand not just the past but also how people attempt to use the past. In other words, as I mentioned in my comments to Ken, Al Young may have had the right approach to helping students understand the past as a process of historical memory. (Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy thwarted the class days devoted to Shoemaker and the Tea Party – so I can’t discuss the pairing of Hewes and Weems until April).

The important part, therefore, is not just to engage in mythbusting, which can be useful even if it’s not a complete process. As important, to my mind, is to encourage students not just to engage in historical thinking, but also to engage in thinking about the uses of history through an engagement with historical memory.


July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on “Who Reads an Early American Book?”]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.


June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.


April 3, 2012

More Than We Thought

If you thought you knew how many died in the U.S. Civil War, you may be wrong, according to this morning’s New York Times. David Hacker of Binghamton University has offered new estimates in the December 2011 issue of Civil War History of the number of men killed in the Civil War (not women, see the article for why) that increase the total by about 20%. [NB: if you have access to Project Muse, you can read the Civil War History piece here.]

Portrait of Captain Bacon and the 34th Mass. Company E, courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Hacker made the estimates by blending traditional methods of statistical estimation with new tools available digitally:

Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.

Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.

“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.

As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.

Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.

Hacker then revised the data to control for the normal mortality rate and other factors, and acknowledged problems with estimating deaths for women (both white and black) and for black men. The new counts overturn data that historians have relied on for over a century. In a blog post last fall, Hacker answered the question of why the revised higher count matters:

So what? Above a certain count, do the numbers even matter? Well, yes. The difference between the two estimates is large enough to change the way we look at the war. The new estimate suggests that more men died as a result of the Civil War than from all other American wars combined. Approximately 1 in 10 white men of military age in 1860 died from the conflict, a substantial increase from the 1 in 13 implied by the traditional estimate. The death toll is also one of our most important measures of the war’s social and economic costs. A higher death toll, for example, implies that more women were widowed and more children were orphaned as a result of the war than has long been suspected.

The techniques that Prof. Hacker employed are fascinating, and point to some of the possibilities in thinking about newly digitized data sources. My question, however, is why—after publishing Hacker’s post on the Disunion blog last September, and with his journal article in print for four months—the Times waited to publish this piece until just now.


February 17, 2012

Honoring Philip Lampi and A New Nation Votes


Yesterday afternoon, NEH Chairman James Leach came to Worcester for a special ceremony to honor the work of Philip Lampi, a longtime staff member at the American Antiquarian Society and the compiler of the data in the A New Nation Votes database.

Lampi has spent the last forty years, as he described at the ceremony, collecting election results for every election held in the United States between 1787 and 1825, from presidential elections to state and local contests in the twenty-four states in the Union during that period. Lampi collected the data by hand, mostly on visits to hundreds of archives around the eastern United States, combing through newspapers and official state records (in the days before much of this material was digitized). The material, Lampi said, was a “gold mine” that no one had ever examined closely. The event honored Lampi’s tenacity in collecting the data—speaker and sometime collaborator Andrew Robertson described him as a “hero of history” and Leach said he was an “alchemist” for what he made from the “gold” that he found. (For more info on the ceremony, see this profile in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)

In the last eight years, AAS has received several grants from NEH to digitize the records in coordination with Tufts, making that data publicly available for historians to use. I have a hunch that Jeff will have more to say about using the database for research purposes, but I will just say for now that it’s an amazing resource and opens a range of previously unanswerable research questions. You could see, for example, county-level results for the hotly contested 1799 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. Or, as project coordinator Erik Beck noted, you can gather additional information about characters we already know something about. He highlighted Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy, in which Wilentz briefly profiles Edmund Ruffin, who, as a 67-year-old private in the Palmetto Guards, was given the honor of firing the first shot on Fort Sumter. Check the database, and there he is as a young man winning a seat in the Virginia state senate. I’m sure a number of readers have used the database and worked with Phil—please feel free to share your stories in the comments section.

Data is currently available for a number of states, and being rapidly updated for others. No word on when the project will be completely finished; everyone seems to have learned that lesson.

Lampi is the first recipient of the Chairman’s Commendation, which is more than appropriate. From all of us here at Publick Occurrences, congratulations Phil, and thank you.


UPDATE: For more on the impact of Lampi’s work, see “Myths of the Lost Atlantis,” a series run in this space in 2008.

Photo credit: Abigail Hutchinson, AAS


November 19, 2010


Filed under: Common-Place,Uncategorized — Morning Chronicler @ 6:15 am

Well, hello there.

I’ve been meaning to start doing some light blogging at Common-place since Jeff invited me many moons ago, but work and life intervened to make time a scarce resource.

I’m not sure how much traffic my posts will draw, since I’ll be thinking out loud about page-turning subjects like political economy while trying to bridge the gap between my life as a professional historian and the world I inhabit as an observant citizen and newshound.

I think historians’ appreciation for deep context is what sets us apart from other disciplines, and it sometimes frustrates me (but doesn’t surprise me) that our work so often seems cloistered from a public sphere that’s decided context is irrelevant, or biased. Jeff’s posts at this blog have tried to bridge this divide and reach out colleagues and the public alike, and I hope to add to that effort.

For the most part, I’ll try to stick to what I know. However, I’ll surely be tempted to post some half-baked notions. But, hey, this is a blog after all.

And because it’s a blog, and not my full-time job, I have decided to keep myself anonymous, dear reader. Why? I think the reasons are fairly obvious. Our colleagues are often competitors, our promotion and hiring processes are opaque, and our so-called job ‘market’ is oversupplied, all of which amplify unequal distributions of power in the academy. This discourages junior faculty and adjuncts from doing and saying all kinds of things their senior colleagues can take for granted. So, if my pseudonymity bugs you, I’m sorry, but you should be far more upset with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for claiming the mantle of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay than an amateur blogger.

But enough of this palaver… let’s get this show on the road!


October 25, 2009

Academia vindicated!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:14 am

Academics cleared of wrongdoing in the balloon boy saga by country sheriff:  “He may be nutty, but he’s not a professor.” Richard Heene, the mad-scientist father in the case, turns out to be a high-school educated handy-man.

(Message: I am still here, just trying to catch up with other stuff.)

Now playing: The Broken Family Band – Devil in the Details
via FoxyTunes


April 8, 2009

Loving Your Library in the Digital Age

Filed under: Education,Media,science,Uncategorized — Benjamin Carp @ 9:24 am

There have been some good posts over at the new Historical Society blog–I want to respond to Chris Beneke’s, in particular, sometime soon.  (I’d like to try and keep our readers abreast of some of the other relevant blogs out there that touch on the early American history world–maybe I’ll do a feature on them and see if any of my suggestions inspire Jeff to update the ol’ blogroll.)

For now I’d like to respond to Randall Stephens’s post, “Goodbye Library?” with a defense of brick and mortar, shelving and circ-desks.  (Although when the digital revolution comes, I’ll be cheering when they line the microfilm readers up against the wall.)

This year I’m working on a book on the Boston Tea Party, and I’ve had a lot of chances to reflect on how I gain access to sources.  For a topic like this, it’s absolutely amazing how much I can read without ever leaving my study: all the Boston newspapers from 1773 are in America’s Historical Newspapers.  Most of the known pamphlets, broadsides, and books are on Early American Imprints.  (Thanks, AAS!)  Over on the other side of the pond, a lot of the relevant British material is at ECCO, although British newspapers can sometimes be harder to track down.  Furthermore, even once you start needing nineteenth-century serials, or Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s Traits of the Tea Party (which Alfred F. Young used extensively for The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), or the Reports of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston (which include the Boston Town Records and Selectmen’s Minutes), much of that stuff has been scanned on Google Books.  Many of the major academic journals are available through such resources as Project Muse, JSTOR, etc., although the gaps here are sometimes huge, and immensely frustrating.  As clunky or misleading or incomplete as these electronic resources can sometimes be, if you need to double-check a fact or a footnote without leaving your study, they’re massively convenient.

And yet, as catchy as it sounds to wave “Goodbye, Library!” I don’t think any of us (including Stephens) are ready to leave them yet.  I’ve had the honor to have library cards at some great libraries: Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library, Yale University Libraries (particularly Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Library), University of Virginia Libraries (particularly Alderman Library), Columbia University Libraries (particularly Butler and Avery, and I like Barnard‘s, too), and Tisch Library at Tufts (which is smaller than the research libraries, but scrappy and surprisingly comprehensive for its size, and there’s a great view from the roof).  And while two of those library systems (CU and Yale) are woefully exclusive when it comes to access and borrowing, the rest of them aren’t (last time I checked), at least where local residents are concerned.  Here are some of the major reasons why, even at a research university with access to multiple electronic databases, I’ll always feel that libraries are a crucial part of my work and life.

  1. Rare or unique archival materials. Sometimes I’ll find out, miserably, that a manuscript collection is housed far away in some crazy, inaccessible place.  And given the shrinking of travel budgets and the high cost of fuel, plus the usual time constraints, it really is tempting sometimes to hope that they’ll just put it all online someday and I can save myself the trouble.  Except for a few things: using scanned manuscripts (or crack-brained OCR) online is a nightmare–tough to search, tougher to browse, and a pain to read.  The only thing going for these scanned manuscripts is that they preserve the originals from our oily fingers.  Plus, some collections are really intelligently organized, and you miss out when you don’t consult the collection in person.  Also, sometimes we really do enjoy the excuse to travel (even if you’re just an early American historian and London is as exotic as it gets).
  2. Browseable stacks. As beautiful as the New York Public Library, the British Library, and the Library of Congress are, none will ever be my favorite library to use.  Why?  I’m a stack rat, through and through, and these libraries force you to call up most of their materials.  For me, nothing will ever compare to the serendipitous effect of scanning through the stacks and coming upon a book you never knew you needed–you can replicate this to some extent by clicking on the “Subject” of a book you already know in an electronic library catalog, but those categories are never perfect, whereas you can spend all day traipsing through the E’s and F’s (or the B’s and H’s and N’s and P’s…), seeing where your mind takes you.
  3. Knowledgeable, experienced librarians. They really do know stuff we don’t, and most of the ones I’ve met really take joy in helping out scholars, students, budding young readers, etc.  I really wish my students spent more time talking to these folks than I suspect they do.
  4. The buzz of studious patrons. Libraries are places of quiet contemplation and/or (now with the rise of in-house coffee shops) active conversation.  The frisson of other people working helps me work in turn.  I’ve never been much of a coffee shop writer (I feel like I’m renting the table, hot liquids and laptops don’t mix, the caffeine high will eventually crash, and the vibe just isn’t the same), and although I usually do most writing in a home office, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how much I can accomplish in a library.
  5. All the usual reasons to love libraries. They believe in the promotion of literacy, equity of access, and intellectual freedom.  They are refuges for people who live the life of the mind, gateways for those in search of knowledge, and public spaces vital to healthy communities.  The internet and home computers allow each of us to work and play in our own little boxes, not too differently from televisions, video games, and private book collections.  Libraries celebrate the spirit of coming together to share in the pursuit of knowledge.

In short, I appreciate electronic resources as much as the next person–I’m no luddite–but if you’re a history person and you don’t love libraries, you’re probably in the wrong field.


March 17, 2009

Founding Bracketology

Filed under: Economy,Founders,Sports,Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:30 am

As part of our broader common interest in geographic minutiae, my son Isaac and I like to find out where all the NCAA tournament schools (and the conferences they come from) are located. Robert Morris University was a new one for us. It seems to be the only one of the Founder-named schools to make the NCAAs, and of course it was doubly interesting to me to discover that someone had named a college after a lesser-known (to civilians) and rather disreputable character from American history. Morris was the “financier of the Revolution,” true, but he was also one of the more Madoffian figures of his day,  running his own Ponzi-like schemes in the area of land speculation (frontier real estate flipping) and ending up in debtor’s prison. The Iroquois distrusted Morris and called him the “big eater with the belly” whose appetites ran to food, wine, and their lands. Read up on the Treaty of Big Tree.

We were pleased to find that RMU has a surprisingly nice, somewhat unsugarcoated page about their namesake on the school site. Debtor’s prison was mentioned. There is even a game you can play, and Robert Morris is given his own tabloid-ready nickname, “RoMo.” Really, more Founders need to have their own games and tabloid nicknames: G-Dub, A-Ham, J-Mad, T-Jeff … the list is endless.

The school seems to be a sort of business-oriented institution, which is appropriate but perhaps not so heartening in terms of whom it would good to take as your role model today. I feel certain that RoMo would have loved credit-default swaps and tried to use them to buy Kentucky or something. “FatCats” might be a better mascot than “Colonials.”

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