They are often found by browsing. We find them in antique shops, or abandoned on that hard-to-reach shelf: forgotten. You can randomly encounter them preserved in an archival collection, displayed on a museum wall, or even in a digital library like Calisphere. The snapshot: a random glimpse of the world capturing someone you’ll never meet and a story you will never know. But yet, it draws us. We search for meaning. Vivian Maier’s street photographs come to mind. The composition, the lines, the color, or lack of, and the emphasis all conspire to spark the imagination and engage us.
Consciously or unconsciously made, art stands on its own authority; the artwork must exist successfully regardless of the creator’s context. The use of light, space, movement, rhythms, and textures must interact so compellingly that we gain insight on the human experience regardless of the work’s origin. The creator’s story can shape and enrich the work, but our engagement, that “snapshot” moment the work captures the viewer’s imagination, is the starting point. We want to understand the human experience. Can we solve the mystery?
The creation of and engagement with art is, among other things, a deep and personal search for knowledge, for certainty. It is a search for meaning. But this thirst for knowledge is a double-edged sword: overexposure can lead to wisdom or paralysis; underexposure to bliss or ignorance. Perhaps we must be both overexposed and underexposed to truly understand the meaning of being human. Understanding is not found in a single snapshot, but awareness is, and consciousness is a good place to start.
In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World Jane Hirshfield writes about the Heian era Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu stating [his] poem reminds its reader that the moon’s beauty, and also the Buddhist awakening…will come to a person, only if the full range of events and feelings are allowed in as well.
“What do you want to do,” he asked. “Thorndale…I want to visit the Texas town where you were born and grew up.” We drive through Milam County listening to my Father’s stories as he points out his life landmarks. Travelling the farm-to-market roads in cotton country, we pass through mostly ghost towns like Bartlett, a once thriving farming community and sometime Hollywood location shoot, and San Gabriel, originally a Spanish mission. Under gray winter skies, the soil, where corn and cotton were recently harvested, still look rich and black. Farmers still grow these crops here, but you get the feeling, people don’t do much of their living here anymore. Living might be a few miles to the south where the economy has shifted to the technology industries surrounding Austin.
It’s Christmas Eve and Thorndale is quiet. Thorndale is about ten miles east of Taylor where my grandparents and my mother are buried and about forty miles from Temple where I was born. A few trucks are parked in front of the main street café where we get a last cup of black coffee before they close down for the holiday. A main state highway cuts through town paralleling the railroad tracks. Pick-up trucks roar by and now and again the sound of a Santa Fe diesel train engine horn moans lonesomely in the distance. We walk around town visiting the Victorian era farmhouse where my Father was born and grew up during the Great Depression. Living mostly in busy urban centers, it’s hard to believe that many of these ramshackle wood frame houses – that a strong wind might scatter – are still lived in.
When my Father was a boy, more than one thousand people lived in Thorndale. Ironically, the 2010 US Census counts the town’s population at over one thousand. As we walk, my father points out the now boarded-up movie theater where he watched Tom Mix movies, and the abandoned car dealership. Some businesses from his childhood remain, including Mr. Butts’s dry goods store where you can still buy a good pair of work boots. I feel like a human Historypin, my imagination does the work of the computer overlaying linked-data historic photographs of a busy farm town on the now sadly deserted streets. Down the street, stands a small brick building framed with Doric columns, still housing the Prosperity Bank; I laugh to myself, recalling a scene from the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.
Set in a “Hooverville” along New York’s East River, Godfrey Park (the actor William Powell) and Mike (the actor Pat Flaherty) exchange a few words. “Mike, I wouldn’t worry. Prosperity’s right around the corner.” “Yeah. It’s been there a long time. I just wish I knew which corner.” Prosperity’s right around the corner was a phrase employed by Republican Party members advising the country after the Wall Street Crash to be patient and trust the free market’s ability to right itself. Will patience serve us today as our Congress and President tango close to the fiscal cliff? As we stand in front of the bank, my Dad recounts a sight that remains stamped on his brain. As a young man in the early 1930s, he witnessed grown men leaving the bank with tears streaming down their faces when the bank foreclosed on their farms. He recalls they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families and hoping the federal government would continue to provide the five-pound sack of flour for free. Woody Guthrie’s song about the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd comes to mind. The Smithsonian Folkway released a wonderful collection of his songs this year celebrating the centennial of his birth.
“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw, You say that I’m a thief. Here’s a Christmas dinner, for the families on relief.”
“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
“And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam. You won’t never see an outlaw, drive a family from their home.”
Two years ago, I came to the UC Santa Cruz University Library to manage the project team building GDAO, the Grateful Dead Archive Online. The petals have all unfolded and the roses are now in bloom. On June 29, 2012 – just another day at Redwoodstock – we celebrated the opening of the Grateful Dead Archive and the Dead Central Exhibit space and the launching of GDAO. We sang the song electric for the living archive of all things dead. From the attics of their lives, full of cloudy dreams unreal, all lights all eyes can see, all that’s still unsung. In just over twenty-four hours, almost ten-thousand visitors from around the world from China to Iran have browsed and searched GDAO and contributed content. Building GDAO, has been a long strange trip taken with some amazing pranksters dedicated to digitizing the collection, creating metadata, designing the website, considering fair use, searching for rights holders, programming GDAO’s functions and building the virtual machine. So, as this spectacular tour comes to a close, we know another show lays ahead just a little further down the road. Update from goin’ down the road and feelin’ “glad”: electronic records archivist Jeanne Kramer-Smythe blogged so sweetly about GDAO in her recent entry Grateful Dead Archive Online: First Impressions Yee Hah!
Nearly every morning I meet my good friend at Java Junction and we bike to work at UC Santa Cruz along the boardwalk and finally up the hill and through the great meadow and the redwood trees. It’s a special way to spend the early morning: connecting with a great friend while cycling in such a beautiful place. The eight miles pass quickly always made fun by the stories we tell each other. My friend says “its all about the conversation,” and she is so right; life is all about sharing our stories.
In this age – our moment in time – it’s all about sharing our stories of the past, present and future and staying connected. Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, Twitter, WordPress, Yelp and YouTube make this possible. Its also about having the tools to make sense of all this information – to gather, organize, comment, enhance and recommend this information using tools like Digg, Reddit, RSS feeds, Storify, Tumblr, TweetDeck and Unilyzer to name but a few. My life in archives and libraries is all about collecting, preserving and making accessible our culture’s stories – and it is a broad range of stories – published and unpublished, formal and casual, analytical and subjective.
At the recent WebWise 2012 conference we learned about many exciting projects funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to help individuals and groups create, share and preserve “stories” and build tools to make sense of and use this information. Simply put its about making it easier to make connections. Dave Isay founder of StoryCorps spoke passionately about his belief in the power of the microphone. A simple, straightforward format places two people in front of a microphone for forty minutes and their stories are recorded. While it does not take the place of formal oral history, StoryCorps capture an important snapshot of people’s lives in space and time. In over eight years, StoryCorps has captured over 40,000 interviews with over 70,000 people that are now archived in the Library of Congress. David Klevan of the US Holocaust Museum described the sobering but important work of the Remember Me? Project which uses Facebook and Twitter to release photographs of children (now adults) orphaned by the Holocaust and World War II with the goal of reuniting them with surviving family members worldwide. Eileen McAdam of the Hudson Valley Sound and Story Project described her project’s work to share sections of formal oral histories using new technologies synchronizing oral history snippets with GPS enabled mobile apps. Doug Boyd of the University of Kentucky Digital Library Project to create the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer to dynamically index audio and video digital files creating access points to collections of oral histories.
Today’s technology is increasingly about sharing and staying connected. We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips and a world populated with individuals we can tap into <and they to us> in an instant 24/7. As in past revolutions, our emerging technologies provide new opportunities to share and learn about each other. Creating new opportunities to build tolerance and patience, and perhaps empathy for one another. To make a connection. It is a promising story with promise to fulfill.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville described the Pacific Ocean as the “tide-beating heart of the earth that makes all coasts a bay in it.” Describing the interconnectedness of the lands ringing the Pacific Rim he wrote “the same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday…..lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of the Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans.” On Friday March 11, 2011, mankind was humbled by a 9.0 magnitude quake striking the northeastern coast of Japan and triggering a Tsunami whose force quickly silenced thousands of voices near Sendai and damaged harbors – including Crescent City and Santa Cruz – 5,000 miles to the east along the North American coastline. Nature will always bind what man’s competitive psyche seeks to distance. Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave” part of his series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji has long been a favorite of mine; mesmerized by the beauty of the wave, it is only now, newly humbled, that I truly grasp the precarious position of the fishing boats depicted in the print.
Last weekend I attended the Point Reyes Book’s third Geography of Hope conference bringing together people, place and literature to discuss water as both a life-giving and a life-taking force. As rain poured outside in biblical proportions, the Japanese people were never far from our consciousness in this community located on the San Andreas Fault so near the Pacific Ocean. An inspiring gathering, we listened rapturously to poets, writers and scientists – including Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, William Least Heat Moon, Tim Palmer, Philip Fradkin, Eddy Harris, Peter Gleick, Evelyn Reilly and Julia Whitty — speak about rivers, lakes and oceans and their hopes and fears for the health of our planet. The desire to teach children – through art, literature and science – about the connections between humans and nature was a major theme, but concerns about the potential of social media and hand-held technology to disconnect society from the natural world was an undercurrent of the gathering.
My work as a digital archivist working in academic libraries fosters my belief that social media can be leveraged to enhance our connections with and understanding of the natural world. If any good can be drawn from the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, it is the knowledge that this is likely the best documented disaster in recent history, and this information will be repurposed for constructive use. Numerous digital images and video recordings of the Tsunami’s destructive power were captured by survivors of these events and uploaded for sharing on social media sites. This week a BBC article published on March 21, 2011 “Japan Tsunami to Help Predict Future Waves” reported how scientists will use this data to study Tsunamis. At the 2011 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Webwise conference, Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President for Research at the Rennslaer Polytechnic and Dr. Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Information Technology and Dissemination of Knowledge Program at the Sloan Foundation delivered keynote addresses making several complimentary points: the role of the “crowd and the social network” in the generation of observational research data; the need for a macroscopic approach to gather comprehensive data sets and analyze and visualize data at scale; and the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to be central players in data curation workflows to appraise, manage, preserve and provide access to data supporting ongoing research. Its important to note that this kind of work is underway. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded DataONE a multi-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration of universities and organizations including the California Digital Library to lay the foundation for a distributed framework and sustainable cyberinfrastructure that meets the needs of science and society for open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.
Webwise also featured workshops and sessions on Libraries and Museums engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning. STEM is part of President Obama’s program “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in these disciplines. Teachers, librarians and museum staff are developing many fun and engaging learning modules using social media and technology. One particular module — Habit Tracker – caught my eye; I saw a demo of the prototype at the conference. Using the Apps developed for iPhone and iPad2 technology, Habitat Tracker will help students learn about the nature of science by learning to ask their own questions about the natural world, recording observations, performing analysis and participating in peer review with fellow students.
A humble respect, enjoyment and love of the natural world and a belief in the utility of social media technology and services are not mutually exclusive. They can be symbiotic and when so joined the resulting analysis can support greater understanding of the natural world and our place in the cycle of life. It is my hope that technology advancements – like social media – will bring individuals greater engagement with nature and help humankind shoulder the stewardship responsibilities required to ensure the natural world survives for future generations.
*From the poem At the Fish Houses by Elizabeth Bishop read by Eric Karpeles at the Geography of Hope Conference
On Sunday April 4, 2010 a 7.2 earthquake rocked Baja California and the desert lands near San Diego, Anza Borego and the Salton Sea. For nearly a minute tectonic forces were oblivious to international boundaries and struggling peoples trying to make ends meet on either side of the border.
Such a jolt shakes personal and collective memories to the surface…quakes I have known myself such as October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta or quakes I have mythologized such as April 18, 1906 San Francisco. On October 17, 1989 after leaving the Montgomery Street BART station, I walked the six miles home. Gone were the thoughts of seeing the opening game of the World Series Giants versus the Athletics as I hiked past the milling crowds of displaced persons, broken glass, fallen bricks, and scent of natural gas. I heard snatches of news from people sitting on their front porches with battery powered transistor radios reporting fires in the Marina District, the collapsed Cypress Structure in the East Bay, and the severe damage to the Bay Bridge. I trudged onward uncertain as to what I would find at home in Noe Valley. Sometime later, I reached the Mission District and walked up the Dolores Street hill where with enough elevation, I was able to get my first view of the city. I turned slowly, dreading what I might see, but the city was intact — yes there were fires and yes I knew some person’s lives would be changed irrevocably, but at that moment it was not the chaos and extensive devastation I feared. Suddenly I realized where I was standing at 20th and Dolores the site of the Golden Hydrant.
Taking a quote from About.com “On the morning of April 18, 1906 on the slopes of Noe Valley overlooking the Mission district, Dolores Park was packed with displaced citizens watching the fire advance from downtown. This hydrant across the intersection of Dolores and 20th streets was found to have water, but the exhausted horses could not pull the fire engines up the hill. The people mobilized to do the job, then spread out under the firefighters’ direction and, with crude tools and hand labor, stopped the flames” and saved the Mission District from the advancing fire. This hydrant is painted gold in a special ceremony every April 18th at 5:40AM.
That sense of a shared history and a collective memory with San Franciscan’s past and their strength to rebuild after tragedy gave me courage to keep struggling forward. David Blight in his book Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War describes collective memory as“the ways in which groups, peoples, or nations remember, how they construct a version of the past and employ them for self-understanding and to win power and place in an ever-changing present.” I think San Franciscan’s proudly tap collectively into the memories and mythologies of the ’06 earthquake drawing strength to overcome these unstable times.
Aftershocks continue here in San Diego, and daily National Public Radio updates me with news of the 6.9 earthquake in Quinghai, China near Tibet and the eruption of the glacier bounded volcano in Iceland. Amid these geologic statements that humble humankind reminding us that we cannot and should not expect to control all, I continue to work on my paper considering digital libraries and the “Landscape of Memory” and think about the role of archivists in shaping history and memory as described by Rand Jimerson in Archives Power “as generations pass, written records and other forms of documentation must take the place of personal memory….. Historians have also begun to recognize that archives are not simply locations to examine authentic and reliable records of the past, but are also active agents in the shaping of what we know of human history….the role of archivists in this interplay of history, truth, memory and evidence requires examination. As collectors, guardians, appraisers and interpreters of the archival record, archivists actively shape society’s knowledge of the past. “
Born in the 1970s in the African American, Afro-Carribean and Latino communities of the Bronx, Hip Hop culture includes DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing and rapping. According to Johnny Otis, rhythm and blues musician and teacher, in 1975, Mayor Abe Beame was faced with New York City going bankrupt. His choices were few as neither the federal or state governments would come to his aid. So, to solve his problem he fired over 19,000 city workers, and 15,000 of those workers were teachers responsible for instruction in the humanities: literature, art and music. Suddenly a generation of children had no access to instruments and formal music instruction. But ever resilient, these communities looked inward, drew upon their cultural heritage and created a new musical genre “rap,” one of the pillars of hip hop culture, using all that was available to them: language and percussion. The human spirit creates no matter how stripped bare.
Today our society, and by default, our educational systems are undergoing transformative change. To manage the fiscal crisis, our California state government is making deep cuts to our public universities, and campus and university administrators are now struggling with how to manage these reductions that will no doubt profoundly change our educational system. They will be faced with choices making decisions about what programs, what departments what campus units are sustainable and support the core mission of the university. External funding from public and private sources, though comprised during this economic crisis, continues to be available to support research in medicine, science and engineering, but not so readily available to the arts and humanities, Institute Museum Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanites (NEH), National Historic Publications Record Commission (NHPRC) and the Mellon Foundation being among the most valiant exceptions. Writing in the New York Times recently, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University wrote “since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in pre-professional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify. As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.”
In the September issue of Harpers Magazine, Mark Slouka (Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University) wrote “the humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth.” Slouka also wrote “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.”
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration invested in creating jobs across a wide spectrum including the arts and humanities. These became the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Writer’s Project. There was also the Historic Records Survey which employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historic records throughout the United States. Rand Jimerson writes in the introduction to his recently published book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice “Archivists [can] contribute to a richer human experience of understanding and compassion. They can help protect the rights of citizens, and to hold public figures in government and business accountable for their actions. Archivists provide resources for people to examine the past, to understand themselves in relation to others, and to deepen their appreciation of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. This is the essence of our common humanity.” Archives and teaching in the humanities are crucial to the formation of citizens able to participate fully in our democracy.
In February 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA which included stimulus funding making investments in infrastructure such as transportation, public schools, college financial aid, renewable energy programs, healthcare and homeland security. Conspicuously absent is direct funding for teaching and research in the arts and humanities, nor for libraries and archives. In his public high school rhetoric class Marcus Eure provides students with critical thinking skills as they study issues about civic morality. Eure believes “every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity. “ The time is now to invest and provide federal stimulus packages in our arts, humanities, libraries and archives. It is our duty and obligation to the future, to build citizens to grapple with the challenges of today.