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Publick Occurrences 2.0

April 27, 2009

More Visiting Team Tea Party Commentary

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Conservatives,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 12:26 pm

Last week I did some more Tea Party commentary elsewhere:

…it’s true that many (though not all) of the conservative protesters were invoking the “tea party” mostly as empty symbolism and not as an explicit historical parallel. But such unthinking (not to say cheap) symbolism can be potentially dangerous. After all, the actual perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party destroyed over £9000 worth of goods (the equivalent of between $1 and $2 million dollars in today’s money), and this was after weeks of threatening the British tea agents at their homes and places of business. Perhaps we might agree today that the colonists were forced to resort to violence and destruction because they suffered under a “tyrannical” empire that ignored their arguments—but in a representative government, we have other alternatives. Despite the signs calling for “tarring and feathering,” in New York City, the strong police presence probably discouraged any real thoughts of violence. But will those protesters who were calling for “rebellion” be content with civil disobedience in the future?

Check out OUPblog for the rest.

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April 17, 2009

Ink-Stained Wretch

Filed under: Conservatives,Newspapers,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 10:26 pm

Here’s why I was holding back my experiences at the NYC tea party from earlier this week:

The night turned chilly as dusk settled into darkness, and a dampness hung in the air from the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. In a sea of citizens who said they were fighting for freedom, I saw young men dressed as American Indians. I saw tea being brandished in protest. And I heard plenty of anger about taxes and tyranny.

This wasn’t Boston on Dec. 16, 1773. I was in New York City on April 15, 2009.

Read the rest in the Washington Post Outlook section.

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Taking Tea Parties Too Seriously

Filed under: Conservatives,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 2:11 pm

I have read through some of the material linked to in Ben’s last post and my sense is a lot of people in the blogosphere (including the left side) are taking the tea party protests a little too seriously, pondering the possible grass-roots origins of the “movement” and speculating that this may (finally) be the right’s answer to the Web 2.0 innovations (blogs, mobile devices, YouTube & other user-directed web sites) of the Dean and Obama campaigns. I am not so sure.

There may be an element of the right borrowing from the left in the protests, and I gather that the protesters did organize themselves through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, but the major borrowing would seem to be from the goofy-to-intentionally-annoying “street theater” approach and extreme rhetoric that have long been popular with the latter-day peace movement, radical environmentalism, the 9/11 “Truth Movement,” and other hippie and post-hippie  causes. Only with tricorn hats instead of tie-dyed shirts.

Politically, it is a hopeful sign for liberals and Obama that the right has turned to protesting like this, it seems to me. Such tactics have never been been the road to majority support in this country, at least not since the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the most politically successful of which emphasized dignified displays of solidarity over circuses of political self-expression. Funny signs and crazy costumes are good for getting publicity, at least for a while, but the message that most average citizens seem to take away from such scenes is that the cause in question must be as freakish and cranky and unappealing as its supporters. Indeed, one might argue that colorful street protests of this type are the natural mode of expression of hopelessly-outnumbered gadfly causes that seek attention for their viewpoint rather making any real attempts at persuasion.

As usual, Jon Stewart had it exactly right, emphasizing the exchange of left-right roles involved and suggesting which role is the likely winning one:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Nationwide Tax Protests
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Even beyond the right’s turn to unpopular hippie tactics, it is hard to see how colorfully-delivered but utterly boilerplate conservative complaints about high taxation in general are going to catch fire at a time when taxes have not actually been raised above the historically-low rates of recent times. As this excellent Chicago Tribune piece points out, Americans generally seem far more concerned now about the spiraling economy than vintage 70s tax concerns. Moreover, the possibility of needing some transfer payments themselves, or at least that they might actually benefit from government programs, seems to have dawned on more middle-class Americans than at any time I can remember. That is what has the Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman set so exercised. That, and other stuff I will mention in my next, on why we might need to take some of the attitudes animating the tea parties very seriously indeed.

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April 16, 2009

Steeped in Tea Party Links

Filed under: Conservatives,Historians,Media,Political culture,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 11:32 am

Last night I went to one of the tax day “tea parties”–this one in lower Manhattan, by City Hall Park.  I have a lot to say about my experience there, but I want to hold off for a little while.  In the meantime, I wanted to provide readers with some of the most interesting links I’ve perused over the last few days.

Our regular readers will have already seen my previous thoughts, plus smart observations from Andrew Shankman.  The website for the NYC event I attended is here.  Wikipedia does an informative rundown of the 2009 history; see also the talk page.  I found good advance coverage by David Weigel of the Washington Independent, who followed up by reporting on the Washington DC tea party here.  Lawrence Downes was caustic about an earlier tea party event in the NYT; more interesting was this rundown of previous tax revolts in US history.

Samuel Adams biographer Ira Stoll graciously linked to this site in this Forbes piece: “Time for a Tea Party?“  So did John Fea of Messiah College, who records his observations of the Harrisburg, PA, tea party, and Jared Elosta of bottom up change, who began reporting what he saw in Boston.

Thom Hartmann offers historical perspective from the left in “The Real Boston Tea Party was an Anti-Corporate Revolt,” at CommonDreams.org (hat tip to PJT).

Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee offers a sympathetic discussion of the movement’s political mobilization in the Wall Street Journal, and Jack Balkin of Yale Law School does a great follow-up to the Reynolds article.

From the right, Ross Kaminsky combats some left-wing stereotypes about the Tea Party in “Lunatic Left Wrong About Tea Parties,” in Human Events; Angry White Dude offers his thoughts.  Supporters of the tea parties give a rundown of the day’s events at taxdayteaparty.com and redstate.com.

Skeptics have included Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan (also here), Amanda Marcotte, the folks at thinkprogress.org and buzzflash.com (see Ann Davidow), the Huffington Post, Robert Reich, and Rand Simberg (though he’s also somewhat of a supporter).

Anyone have other links to add?  I’m not particularly interested in television coverage; if people have links to standard press coverage (or other opinions from any part of the political spectrum) then I’m more interested, particularly since I’ve found very little on the NYC protest I attended.

UPDATE

More links: Ross Douthat from the right, and Kos, Ezra Klein (with newer thoughts here), James Wolcott and Whiskey Fire from the left.  Also, Jared Elosta (an Obama supporter) continues his Boston coverage.

Gordon Belt of the Posterity Project linked here with his own linky post (with some videos too).

And Jon Stewart is funny, but John Oliver is even funnier.

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April 15, 2009

Early American Solutions to Modern American Problems

Filed under: Conservatives,Government,Military — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:50 pm

The “teabagging” movement (the one that involves throwing teabags at things in the name of liberty, or something) reminds me of something I have often thought before when encountering modern right-wing “libertarianism” or “constitutionalism.” Though I never feel sure whether they are misguidedly sincere or mischievous or delusive in their observations and proposals, what such libertarians constantly seem to gravitate to are early American solutions (usually misunderstood or decontextualized) to modern problems that were actually much worse before the government institutions that libertarians dislike were created. Here is today’s example, which I learned of from Josh Marshall at TPM, applying some of his colonial history know-how. As you will see below, former presidential candidate and Republican congressman Ron Paul has proposed that a good small-government solution to Somali piracy would be to reestablish privateering, the practice of authorizing private shipowners to arm their vessels and play pirate against enemy ships:

Josh has many good points about the obvious problems with this proposal, and he also makes the interesting historical observation that privateering was “a classic stage of under-developed state power in which we may not have the capacity to have a fully built out Navy but we can subcontract the harassment and capture of enemy shipping and commerce by setting up privateers to do the job for them.” I see what Josh means, but it should also be noted that in the 18th century even powers with plenty of naval capacity (like the British Empire) engaged in privateering. It was just part of the tool kit of international politics, as we might say today, along with press gangs, mercenaries, dynastic marriages, and other unsavory practices.

Privateering was a form of economic warfare, a way of turning part of your civilian economy into a weapon that could be used against your enemy’s civilian economy and the underpinnings of his military machine. The practice, and the attitudes behind it, were part of what made the high seas a far more dangerous and chaotic place 200 years ago than they are now. The waters off Somalia may be somewhat hazardous to ply at the moment, or at least expensive for shipping companies, but generally the odds of modern ships being intentionally sunk, or being forced to land and be sold or scrapped in an unfriendly port, or having their crews taken captive (and possibly sold into slavery), or having their men pressed into service on a foreign ship at gunpoint are far, far less than they were. The creation of powerful modern navies and the worldwide revulsion against German U-Boat attacks on civilian craft during the 20th-century world wars seem to have made commercial shipping safer than it has ever been. The very fact that maritime dangers are a kind of amusing novelty for the U.S. and European media speaks volumes.

Privateering was also an example of the kind of legally sanctioned injustice and predation that was once standard operating procedure for almost all governments, especially in times of war. When the British and French fought their imperial wars in the 18th century, they not only issued letters of marque and reprisal against each other’s civilian ships, but each also encouraged their Native American allies to join the land-based conflict in the American colonies. Usually this amounted to authorizing the kinds of actions we call “asymmetric warfare” or “terrorism” when they are practiced against the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. The frontier equivalent of roadside bombs and RPGs was raids against isolated settlements and ambushes of hunting parties and lightly defended supply trains. Scalp bounties were commonly paid for each enemy the Indians killed, and distinctions between soldiers and civilians could not really be made based on that one little piece. Some settlers may have had it coming in some ways, but innocents were extensively harmed in these conflicts, on both sides, often by design or tacit design emanating from the high ranks of government. To say the least, governments of the privateering era placed very little stress on the sanctity of individual autonomy and private property, a la Ron Paul, despite their greater willingness to deploy private initiative in the service of their goals.

The fact that creating some modern institutions, paid for by a few taxes, actually made life, liberty, and property considerably safer for citizens of the developed countries seems to be completely lost on most of our modern “libertarians” and conservative thinkers.

[Let the record show that these positive thoughts on the modern state were thunk, and written, immediately after sending off a couple of rather large checks to relevant taxing authorities. So you know I am not thinking with my wallet.]

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April 14, 2009

Tea-partying like it’s 1773 — no, really!

Filed under: Conservatives,Guest posts,Revolution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:47 pm

Here’s another, welcome but unsolicited view of the modern “tea party movement” that Ben just wrote about, from Myths of the Lost Atlantis guest poster Andrew Shankman of Rutgers. The so-called teabaggers have been the snark of the liberal blogosphere and MSNBC the past few days, but Andy suggests that this may be a rare case of a right-wing historical analogy having a certain accuracy:

Tomorrow in what appears to be a scripted farce, some number of Americans will wave tea bags to denounce what they view as the outrageous, un-American taxes of the Obama Administration.  The teabags are meant to invoke the Boston Tea Party of December 15, 1773, when, in current U.S. dollars, the Boston Sons of Liberty dumped between $1.5 and $2 million worth of tea into Boston Harbor.

Many of my fellow Obama supporters have denied that these modern tea-partiers can claim a proud American heritage since President Obama has lowered the taxes of the vast majority of U.S. citizens.  This modern nonsense, they insist, can, therefore have nothing to do with that brave act of resistance, which provoked the Coercive Acts that led to the First Continental Congress and two years later to the Declaration of Independence.

Yet how wrong my fellow liberals are.  In denouncing President Obama’s smug, elitist insistence that taxes be lowered, the modern tea-baggers follow precisely the example of the Boston Sons of Liberty.  The Tea Act of 1773, conceived by the ministry of Frederick Lord North, gave the East India Tea Company monopoly privilege to sell tea to the American colonists.  This privilege was intended to bail out the floundering company.  In exchange for it, the company paid a light tax and also agreed to sell the tea to the colonists at prices lower than they had been before Parliament passed the Tea Act.  The Tea Party occurred because the Massachusetts colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let company ships laden with tea that had arrived in the harbor leave without unloading.  The tea sat for several days and the time when it would have to be unloaded or seized and sold at public auction neared.  Leaders of the Boston Sons understood that if the historically cheap tea made it on shore, whether unloaded by the company or as a result of public seizure, the good citizens of Boston would happily purchase it.  So into the harbor it had to go before a principled stand against no taxation without representation ended with Bostonians drinking very cheap (but taxed) tea.

So wave your teabags by all means.  Denouncing taxes that have actually been lowered and resisting shrewd, well-designed policies is so American that it predates the United States of America.

Andrew Shankman
Associate Professor of History
Rutgers University, Camden

I might add that the other factor that the 1773 and 2009 Tea Parties have in common is that they primarily express their organizers’ atavistic political antipathies, and their desire to put on attention-getting political stunts, rather than any coherent ideas about tax policy. Of course, Sam Adams and his cohorts may possibly have organized their stunt in an otherwise worthier cause than Rick Santelli and his.

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Now playing: Comet Gain – This English Melancholy

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April 11, 2009

The Endless Return of Depressing Economists

Filed under: Economy,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:47 am

I am normally a great defender of most things academic, but here is a case where I am not finding typical academic behavior all that helpful in a public figure. Is it just me, or is Paul Krugman sounding more and more like a senior faculty member pursuing an academic grudge?  There have been so many columns and posts over the past few months where Krugman’s overriding question seems to be: whose faction had the correct economic analysis (and underlying theory), his or Larry Summers’s, and when did they have it? For instance, from the most recent column, we have the following:

Only a few people warned that this supercharged financial system might come to a bad end. Perhaps the most notable Cassandra was Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, who argued at a 2005 conference that the rapid growth of finance had increased the risk of a “catastrophic meltdown.” But other participants in the conference, including Lawrence Summers, now the head of the National Economic Council, ridiculed Mr. Rajan’s concerns.

And the meltdown came.

While I tend to agree with Krugman that the Krugmanian economists had a more clear-eyed view of the recent finance-driven economy than the Summersians, the most important task now would be seem to be restablizing the economy rather than hashing out who was right in the past. Krugman has been holding a kind of endless academic roundtable session, only it’s happening in what is probably the nation’s leading liberal newspaper column rather than in the hotel ballroom where it belongs.

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April 10, 2009

Clio Takes a Look at 2009 Tea Parties

Reader BMC insists that I post on this clip from the Rachel Maddow show.  (If you want to know what all the snickering is about, I’d suggest consulting an online slang dictionary, and I’m not responsible for what you find.)

I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day).  But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.

Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague.  For instance, here’s what the website TaxDayTeaParty.com says on its front page:

The Tea Party effort is just a small piece of a much larger movement aimed at restoring the basic free-market principles our country was built on. The Constitution, for the most part, is being ignored by our current government and we intend on working together to correct the problem.

The Tea Party effort is a grassroots, collaborative volunteer organization made up of every day American citizens from across the country. We take pride in the fact that we’ve built a 50 state network of leaders and activists using nothing more than the internet, a few websites and a burning desire to restore freedom.

There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.”  (Well, me too!)  The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.

To the extent that the 2009 tax protests are part of a grass-roots movement, I think it’s fine to invoke the Boston Tea Party as your inspiration–although many suspect that corporate lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News have a lot to do with organizing and promoting this protest, and even Santelli himself apears to have been the frontman for a rightwing foundation.  Still, if people are responding to the movement and even organizing local “tea parties” on their own, then that does accord with the local tea protests that sprang up in 1773-1774 in the wake of (and even immediately before) the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.

One historical analogy that fails, however, is the idea that the Bostonians aboard the tea ships in 1773 were protesting higher taxes under the Tea Act.  This is just wrong.

  • First, the British Parliament first passed the tax on tea in 1767, and Bostonians had in fact purchased plenty of tea bearing the threepenny-per-pound duty during the intervening years.  New Yorkers and Philadelphians, who smuggled almost all of their tea from Holland and elsewhere, were in fact outraged at how little the New Englanders were able to stick to their “anti-tax” principles.  In this respect, the Boston Tea Party was almost an apology.
  • Second, the Tea Act would in fact have lowered the price of tea for Americans–so the idea of invoking the “Tea Party” every time you think your taxes are too high is incorrect.  Instead, the Tea Party protesters were energized by a series of principles: the government was propping up a monopoly company (the East India Company), the government was perpetuating an unjust tax (the 1767 tax on tea which had been confirmed in 1770), and the government was using the revenue from that tax to pay the salaries of judges and executive officials, thus rendering them independent of local legislatures.
  • Third, and most importantly: I’ve been extremely dismayed at how many of the protesters say, “Taxation WITH representation ain’t so hot either.“  (I’m not just cherry-picking a random blog comment here–this phrase is everywhere.)

Well, no, no one LIKES paying taxes, but most people recognize that you need some form of taxation in order to pay firemen and astronauts, defend the country’s borders, try to ensure that our food isn’t poisoned, etc.  The point of protest against the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act in 1765-1774 was that “taxation WITHOUT representation” would lead to slavery–in other words, the colonists believed that the British ministry was arbitrarily levying taxes on Americans when those Americans had no say in electing members of Parliament.  In a democratic republican government, if you don’t like the level of your taxes or you don’t like how your tax money is spent, you have the power to peaceably “throw the bums out.”  And you certainly have the First Amendment right to protest and rail against the stimulus and bailout.  But the point is, the people of the Revolutionary Era had to fight for those rights to get rid of a constitutional monarchy–it’s hardly the case that paying taxes from a colony to a (partially hereditary) government that you don’t elect is the same as paying taxes to a government consisting of representatives and an executive that you DO have the power to elect.

On the other hand, to the extent that the tax protesters believe that their government doesn’t adequately represent them anymore, they’re arguing something more interesting.  If we stipulate that the current execution of the United States Constitution has failed, and that reform of the Constitution is needed (which many on both the left and the right have argued), then legislation and executive policy under George W. Bush or Barack Obama (or whoever) really is the product of a flawed system, and therefore (perhaps) as unjust as anything passed by King George III and the British Parliament. Still, before making this argument, I’d recommend picking up (for instance) Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, on how Americans came to believe that a representative government DID have the legitimate right to make laws in a way that a king did not.

By all means, let’s have a civil debate about Obama’s policies in the midst of the economic crisis.  And by all means, if we think that the problems we’re facing are due to underlying constitutional problems rather than the current legislative/executive solutions, then let’s talk about constitutional reform.  But (although I realize it’s too late now) please don’t abuse the analogy to the Boston Tea Party, even if such abuse (again, from both the right and left) is almost as much of an American tradition as the Tea Party itself.

P.S.  Also?  Why even mention tea bags?  In 1773 they were dumping loose tea into the harbor–the tea bag wasn’t invented until later–and you can still buy loose tea.

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April 9, 2009

Tenured Replicants

Filed under: Education,Historians — Benjamin Carp @ 3:33 pm

After my hard-hitting foray into “historians liking libraries,” I think I’m ready for even more tendentious blogposts on subjects such as the cuteness of kittens, the madness of hatters, and the wealth of Croesus.

In all seriousness, though, I do want to mix it up with Chris Beneke a little (but I should preface it by saying that he’s a smart and thoughtful scholar, he’s written a really interesting book, and he’s a fine fellow all around).

I certainly don’t want to diminish the extent of the problems Beneke is addressing here–the bleak humanities job market and the terrible conditions in which adjunct faculty work.  I also agree with most of his prescriptions: we should be as forthright as possible in our defense of the value of the humanities, we should pay more attention to some of the underlying problems, we should engage with broader audiences (at least some of the time), and we should think about whether the training of graduate students best fits the world they will face upon receiving an advanced degree.

I do, however, want to push back on a couple of points:

First, his statement that “much of a history professor’s traditional teaching responsibilities can now be easily replicated and widely distributed.”  It’s not clear where Beneke is going with this–after all, our scholarship can also be “easily replicated and widely distributed,” and that hasn’t stopped us from writing books and articles (yet).  I also don’t think Beneke is seriously suggesting that watching a lecture on iTunes University is equivalent to being in a classroom with a professor and taking his/her course–but if he is, I think he’s selling what we do quite short.  In the comments, Beneke recommends (though he doesn’t necessarily endorse) Kevin Carey’s “What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers’ Decline,” which Jeff has already spiritedly attacked.

Second, I think Beneke needs to slow down a bit before arguing (in point five) that we should both “substitute more rigorous teacher training for grad school research committments” and scale down degree and tenure requirements such that full-length works of history aren’t necessarily demanded.  (Does he mean everywhere?  And if not, who gets to decide who disarms and who doesn’t?)

There are several things going on here besides “our standards are too high”: the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the disconnect (often unproblematic) between market saleability and scholarly value, and, finally, the good old-fashioned notion that our teaching and research can be vitally connected, and what’s good for one side of that equation is good for the other.  I’d also add that some ideas really do need a full-length book to fully explore–and the best way to ensure that a scholar has the discipline and endurance to write a big, book-length idea one day is to make sure that they first do it under the wing of a senior mentor in a university setting.  But whatever–this is an obvious argument.  I don’t mind debating the pros and cons of specific solutions (and I agree that some tinkering, or even overhaul, needs to take place), I’m just wary of arguments that appear to devalue what a Ph.D. in history ought to mean, and what it can offer.

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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.

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