“the library is itself their laboratory and museum”

2 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

synthesizing the past

24 May 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

seeing and believing

3 April 2010

Alana Newhouse’s article about photographer Roman Vishniac, his photographs, the stories he told with and about those photographs, and the evidence that challenges those stories, is really kind of fantastic. Never heard of Vishniac? (I hadn’t.) Not sure you’re interested?

Take a look at the slideshow that goes with the article – whatever you think of Vishniac’s storytelling, his photography was very, very good. Then read these three paragraphs from near the start of the article:

But the center will not only be acquiring Vishniac’s entire life’s work; as the father-son spread suggests, it is also inheriting a fascinating set of ambiguities and unanswered questions — all unexpectedly uncovered by a 34-year-old curator named Maya Benton. As Benton has discovered, Vishniac released, over the course of a five-decade career, an uncommonly small selection of his work for public consumption — so small, in fact, that it did not include many of his finest images, artistically speaking. Instead the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.

Sometime in 1989, Maya Benton, then a 14-year-old living in Los Angeles, had an epiphany. The daughter of a single mother, a psychoanalyst who as a child lived for years in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Benton grew up in a household that was a relative rarity in American Jewish life: Yiddish speaking but cosmopolitan, well off and not Orthodox. As she lolled on the couch of her grandparents’ home, Benton started sneaking chocolate rum balls from a sterling silver box — one of two family heirlooms from, she had assumed, Novogrudek, the historic Jewish town in what is now Belarus from which her grandparents hailed before the Holocaust. As Benton stared at the weighty birthright from the alte heym, or Old World, bafflement struck: she knew, from an interview she conducted with her family members for a history class, that they fled the German invasion, hid in nearby forests, were interned at multiple labor camps and trekked through miles of often snow-covered forest in the east. How on earth, Benton thought as she considered the ornate container, did they manage to schlep this through Siberia? The confusion grew when she considered the second heirloom: a full set of Rosenthal china.

As it turned out, the box and the china had not been in the family for generations, nor were they from Novogrudek. As Maya’s grandmother, Tonia Benton, explained that afternoon, they were among the things that she and her husband bought from impoverished Germans after the war; bartering the chocolate and cigarettes they received in the displaced-persons camp, they were able to buy valuable items that could be used as currency to get the family to America. That day, Maya Benton says, she learned a lesson about people’s need for, and uses of, mythical narratives.

Then decide if you want to click through (or, you know, just click through, really, it’s worth it).

major complications

5 March 2010

The Krugman anecdote silbey excerpts here reminds me of how I ended up finally deciding, after leaning that way for about a year, to major in history. I was sitting in a political science lecture when the professor, who had worked out a generalized model for explaining certain phenomena, said somewhat off-handedly that while political scientists try to simplify things and create models, historians pick at those models and point out all the ways they don’t quite fit particular instances.

At least that was the gist of what he said; it’s been years since I took that class and I remember him making the point in a pithier way. He wasn’t disparaging history, but it was clear from the way he said it (if it wasn’t already clear from the fact of his being a political science professor) that he preferred the political science way of thinking. Anyway, I heard that and I thought, that settles it–I’m majoring in history.

wait, Americans value history now?

7 February 2010

At the end of his review of Richard J. Evans’ new book on British historians, Mark Mazower writes:

Thus Evans’ book is not only a lament for a certain postwar moment in historical scholarship; it is also, perhaps, a paean to a time when history’s public role could be taken for granted. This is no longer true, at least in Britain. And perhaps this is another, sadder, reason why so many British historians find their warmest reception abroad, not least in the United States, where history still seems to matter.

I don’t know what it’s like to do historical scholarship in Britain, but considering how often I’ve heard people say that Americans just don’t care much about history, this surprises me. Are the teledons extinct?

At the same time, as I read the review, I kept wondering where the Americans fit into the story. Evans’ book is about British historians studying the history of continental Europe, and how they differ from their counterparts in the rest of Europe:

The problem is an interesting one: how to explain the divergence between Britain (and the United States), where a large proportion of historians concern themselves with the history of other countries, and its EU partners, where professional scholarship is much more nationally focused? Evans offers some rough and ready statistics to support his account of this difference, but one has no reason to doubt his basic thesis. British universities may offer expertise in Baltic, Balkan, or Iberian history, and no decent department lacks a goodly array of non-British subjects; but the poor Czech, Polish, or French student who is interested in digesting something other than the glories of his national story will find a much thinner menu.

According to Mazower, Evans offers a number of reasons for this, which he addresses in the review, and which I’ll leave you to read if you follow the link, as I’m more interested in a reason that does not come up. (Whether the omission is Mazower’s or Evans’ I don’t know – I’d have to see the book.) And this is the fact that the British speak English.

The two blockquotes above are the only two mentions of the U.S. in the review: a comment about how history apparently still matters there, and a parenthetical aside noting that just like in Britain, many professional historians in the U.S. study other parts of the world. But despite the aside, Evans’ book (as summarized by Mazower) gives only British and European reasons for British and European divergence. But how do the Americans fit in? (If they do.)

Does the fact that another large historical community, using more or less the same language, studies a similar range of areas have anything to do with the British divergence from the rest of Europe? And if so, does the influence go both ways?

I don’t know, but the impression I got from the people I knew in grad school who specialized in non-U.S. topics – especially Europe, Africa, and the Middle East* – was that they needed to have a grasp of all the English-language scholarship, regardless of country of origin. I assume those trained in Britain would have to meet similar expectations.  So it seems plausible that the American historical community would have some influence on British practice (and vice versa), at least in the relevant fields. It’s too bad it sounds like Evans doesn’t take this up, even if only to dismiss it as an additional explanation.


*And then there’s the question of whether Britain, though similar to the U.S. with respect to continental Europe when it comes to studying continental Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania (to use some traditional geographical terms), is actually more like continental Europe compared to the U.S. when it comes to studying the Americas.

There are certainly a lot of departments in the U.S. with British specialists (though recent trends suggest they may be in the process of becoming Europeanists) – how many British academic historians study the U.S.? How many study Latin America? Are the numbers comparable?

I really don’t know the answer to that, though I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if more British than American historians study Canada.

let us all, or maybe each, cultivate our own legislations

29 December 2009

I was a bit surprised to see this somewhat panglossian take on how bills get passed in Mark Schmitt’s recent piece on the Senate health care bill:

The bill is flawed, but only by comparison to some hypothetical piece of legislation that could never have passed. The same could be said of any successful legislation, from the first progressive income tax to Social Security and Medicare to the Clean Air Act. And conservatives would say the same about their own legislative achievements. This is How A Bill Becomes A Law.

It’s one thing to point out that the legislative process always involves compromises and leaves most people partly (or more-ly) unsatisfied with the resulting bill; it’s quite another to suggest that these compromises have led to the best (according to some implicitly progressive standard) of all possible bills. I suppose it’s true in the sense that it’s the best bill that was passed, but it’s too bad we can’t know these things beforehand or it might have saved people from writing, just ten days before the bill was passed, about the encouraging possibility of the bill including a Medicare buy-in in place of a public option. (I’m probably being unfair, and this was simply a slight overstatement for rhetorical effect.)

Anyway, what initially struck me about the piece I quoted above was the initial line:

“The most troublesome task of a reform president,” Henry Adams wrote in his autobiography, is “to bring the Senate back to decency.”

Because over a year ago, during the Democratic primaries, Schmitt wrote a piece about the Senate that opened:

“The most troublesome task of a reform President,” wrote Henry Adams, is “bringing the Senate back to decency.”

I don’t think this is an accidental repetition: there’s a lot of continuity between the pieces, with Obama being first the potential, and now the actual, reform president. But it makes me think of the Simpsons line, said by an automated DJ machine: “Looks like those clowns in Congress have done it again. What a bunch of clowns.”