Tuesday, November 23, 2010

American Studies Association Annual Meeting

I went to the ASA to give a talk about the class I taught last spring, “Reading Culture in the 19th-Century Library,” and the resulting exhibit that’s now on display. The talk was called “Self-Improvement and Unplanned Pleasures in the Public Library, or, Why I Had to Change the Title of this Presentation.” It’s really not a big deal to change a conference title, but in this case the change itself became my topic: how my idea about what was important in the class had to change based on the students’ responses and their independent work.

I planned the course intending to use the George Peabody to show, not just the emergence of the public library and its connections to developments in print technology, literary tastes, education and the growth of cities, but also how the public library movement was contradictory in its ideals and actual practices. That is, all the great ideas about self-improvement, civic duty, democratic participation and cultural progress that “books for the masses” would supposedly accomplish—well, they were compromised in practice, as demonstrated by the gap between Peabody’s founding letter (and similar documents like the Report of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library) and the library’s policies and procedures. I thought this was interesting in itself, and also a great representation of the cultural dynamics of late 19th- and early 20th-century progressive ideology.

What I found out as I taught the course was… students did not find this gap all that surprising or dismaying. If you’re curious about why, check out my presentation, which I’ll post in JScholarship shortly. Happily, the students’ final projects—book collections which became the exhibit—are wonderfully adept at revealing the nuances of 19th century reading practices and their connections to larger social issues. In short, without the burden of exemplifying the canned argument I had prepared, the students did a better job at actually showing that argument in action.

The panel itself, called “Archive This?!,” was about the politics of archive formation. Lauren Coats from Louisiana State University gave a talk about the proliferation of Christopher Columbus’ letters and how they appear differently in different archival contexts—often without the metadata or interpretive frameworks that help readers understand their status as objects. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun from Brown University talked about “undead” information, as exemplified/examined by a new project she is creating on the scalar platform, developed by the same folks at USC who created the multimedia digital journal Vectors. After the presentations, there was a spirited discussion with folks from museum studies programs, libraries, history and American Studies.

Two other highlights of the conference: getting to hear my favorite historian of ephemera, Ellen Gruber Garvey, talk about Civil War scrapbooks and the circulation of newspaper poetry. Also great was the meeting of the digital humanities caucus, which used a lightning talk format. People on the program spoke briefly and frankly about successes and challenges with a variety of digital projects and opportunities, most of which involve scholars, librarians and technologists working together. A few examples:

• Multiple Interpretive Markup on the Horatio Nelson Taft Diary
Susan Garfinkel and Jurretta Heckscher, Libray of Congress
What’s the next step for the “American Memory” digital materials at the Library of Congress? This is one example.

Our Americas Archive
Lisa Spiro, Director, Digital Media Center at Rice University
Bringing together dispersed digital collections.

• “American Enterprise” at the National Museum of American History
Kathy Franz, Associate Professor of History, American University
Creating a pre-exhibition website to solicit feedback from the public to help set up exhibit.

• “Ranking America” blog
Mark Rice, Chair, American Studies, St. John Fisher College
Great source for twitter! This project led him to a series of articles in Forbes and a new class.

Searching for Siqueiros
A. Joan Saab, Associate Professor of Art History & Director, Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester
Based on her research on the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, this will be a community-collaborative digital book about his impact on the visual culture of L.A., using the scalars platform that is currently in development by the folks at Vectors.

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