Sunday, September 12, 2010

Of newspapers, libraries, and H. L. Mencken

Tenured Radical has an interesting post up about her travails in getting the paper copy of The New York Times delivered early enough to read it before it ends up in the recycling bin. Hearing that the NYT is going to an online-only model in the future, she concludes with this: "Then I was struck by a brighter thought. At a certain point you have to stop running from a problem, and do the sensible thing: throw money at it. So off to the iPad store I go." She also writes about Jeffrey Hamburg and Anthony Grafton's article on saving the Warburg Library.

I've experienced some of what she's talking about-- (I used to subscribe to the Sunday NYT but had to give up because it usually arrived on Tuesday)--but the part about the Warburg Library was what caught my attention.
A visionary scholar, Warburg was obsessed with cultural exchanges of all kinds and in all periods, and tinkered throughout his life with new ways to frame and display visual images, in order to reveal their interconnected meanings across time and space. His unconventional tool for studying this shifting web of historical relationships was a picture atlas that remained in perpetual flux, and to which he gave the name Mnemosyne, or memory.
The library is in danger of having its special character changed and its stacks closed, not to mention the possibility of having parts of its collection sold, which would, of course, destroy the connections and interconnected meanings that were possible by seeing the materials in context. (Go read the article, which says this much better.)

Not everyone agrees, I know, but regular libraries foster those connections in a smaller way when you browse the stacks. There's a process, and I don't know what to call it, when you're gathering information on a topic and working with its concepts in the back of your mind. You browse through your own books, or journal articles, or the library stacks, and suddenly you're making more connections. Conferences have always helped with this, but in recent years, the online bookstores (, Powells, and university press web sites) added to the process, as have Google Scholar, Google Books, and the online journal databases. It's not exactly research, because you're not "searching" so much as "informing" yourself in a casual way, and it's also not research because it's not in depth. You skim information; you don't take notes on it. But it's a useful and important process, because it feeds your mind with pieces of information that may not seem useful at first but may arise at a later state in the project. It's our own version of the picture atlas, maybe.

Why H.L. Mencken? Because Mencken believed in the value of books, and because Hamburg and Grafton quote him to good effect:
A center of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters. It is a picture, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “to bemuse the vulgar and to give the judicious grief.”
And because it's his birthday, of course!


Carl said...

This is great stuff Undine, and I'll now go back and link it with my own current post for that 'web of relationships' effect.

Would I be right in assuming that Warburg's Mnemosyne is no longer in perpetual flux? If not, what is it exactly that's preserved in Warburg's library? If his vision of memory was dynamic, doesn't the stasis of preservation violate it?

undine said...

Thanks, Carl! I don't know much about the project but am waiting for tenured radical's promised post about it. Thanks for pointing me to your post, too,