Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Map Thief and Book Collecting

I picked up Michael Blandings's The Map Thief  in the airport yesterday to read on the plane and highly recommend it.  It's about, well, a man who steals maps from Yale, Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and the British Museum, among others, and gets away with it for many, many years.

Having just been to one of these archives, I was ridiculously excited to see it appear in the book--way more excited than the exceedingly unhappy librarians were to discover the thefts, to be sure.  We have a thing in my family, sort of a joke and sort of not, of saying "I've been there!" when a place shows up in the news, so of course I had to bring out the book and show it to the family, as in "I know that reading room! I know that court building! I know that coffee shop they're talking about!"

This book, like The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, tries to get at the heart of why someone--specifically, Forbes Smiley, the thief--would do this.  Part of it is the old Willy Sutton thing about why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is." After first making himself an expert in maps pretty much for the love of them, Smiley stole from archives because that's where the maps were, and if he could get $50,000 to $100,000 for one, it seemed worth it to him.  It's a bit like the creepy art underworld in The Goldfinch. He'd fold up the map, put it in his coat pocket, wave to the librarian, and leave. 

But there was more to it than just the money.  Like a lot of other criminals, he was able to rationalize what he did by saying, "Well, people don't appreciate my great expertise. The libraries aren't paying enough attention to these maps. By removing them from atlases and selling them to people making real collections, they'll be studied much more."

I was surprised to learn that, as an expert on maps, he apparently wasn't subjected to the processes that other researchers go through, from filling out forms for each set of materials studied to having the guard rifle through his papers and laptop when he left the archives. And you archive hounds will cringe not only when he steals the maps but when he touches some of them up to make them more salable.

I was thinking about this when reading Historiann's post on book collecting, in which she wonders whether lit people get into book collecting.  While I'm acquainted with some serious Grolier Club-type collectors, I wouldn't say I'm a real collector.  I do, however, try to get first or early editions of one or two of the authors I study, because there's nothing like being able to hold and read from your own first edition, even if it's not what a real collector would consider to be in great condition.  You can go to your shelves in the middle of the night and it's there, without a library tag telling you to bring it back on such and such a date.  It's yours.

The thing is, some of us have the book gene but not the collecting gene, so to speak.  We want the book because we feel a connection to the author, but we lack the inclination as well as the money ($25,000 is the going rate for a well-known classic by one of the authors) to watch eBay, scope out auction houses, and keep track of prices as if we're primarily interested in them as an investment, because we're not.

And when we buy books, like Tom Bredehoft (whom Historiann cites), it's often because we think they're interesting or we may write about them some day. I have a couple of schoolbooks, one a grammar book, from the 1820s or 1830s, and they are not in great shape (cover missing) and are probably not valuable, but they are interesting and I enjoy looking at them. I don't want to search for perfect copies of them. It's the interior, rather than the exterior, that interests me, but both are important for the reading experience.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Karen Kelsky on self-promotion

Karen Kelsky at ChronicleVitae advises younger scholars to "Ignore the Haters and Toot Your Own Horn." 

Now, one of the ways she says to do this (the second one) is to introduce yourself to people at conferences, suggest getting together for lunch or coffee, etc. 

I never thought to do this when I was a junior scholar but, since I benefited from being invited to these by more senior people, I've tried to model that behavior & invite more junior people for lunches and things now that I'm a senior scholar.  Similarly, junior people ask me to get together for coffee and I'm genuinely happy to hear about their research.  This is what academics do, and I never thought of it as tooting our own horn.  It's reciprocal.

How do you feel about this, her first suggested method?
So how do you self-promote? Aside from self-citation, there are two basic avenues. The first is to send your publications to colleagues, peers, and influential people in your field. By important or influential, I mean people who are active leaders in your particular area of study, particularly those who have had an impact on your thinking. That was done in the old days via the sending of paper “offprints.” Now, sending a link or an attachment via email would be fine. Include a note that says something to the effect of: “I am sending you this article because your work has been very helpful to me in the development of my thinking. I’d welcome your thoughts on it.”
How do you respond if, on top of the email tsunami you get every single day, you get an invitation to read something that is not part of the heap of work stacked on your desk, not part of the many, many deadlines you have, and not from someone who is depending on you to turn around that article/recommendation letter/manuscript review/reader's report, etc. in record time? Do you read it and respond, or do you ignore it?

Self-promotion is part of the game in 2015, especially for new scholars.  I get that. 

Twitter (and Facebook) are a big part of self-promotion.  Indeed, some day I am going to do a study to see how many messages are devoted entirely to promoting someone's work.  (I'm guessing about 30% of tweets, down from around 40% because I unfollowed some people who promoted their posts--the same posts or articles--multiple times in a day.) 

I am heretical enough to believe that self-promotion has no relationship to the quality of the scholarship, though. Instead, it reflects the ego and self-promotional savvy of the person doing the tweeting.  That doesn't mean that the scholarship isn't good, but the number of retweets doesn't have any bearing on the quality of the work.

I have also noticed that some of the incessant tweeters are, in person, people who aren't especially good listeners. (Correlation or coincidence?)

But what's the line between letting people know about the work you're doing and annoying people by doing so?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Notes from the archive

I'm in Archive City again (well, an Archive City), and settling into a routine. All I do is eat, and sleep, and write, and walk to and from the archive. It's not a vacation, but it is a break, and a welcome one.

It's funny: the city isn't cool and quiet, and yet I have an impression of things being cool and quiet because that's what an archive does for you.  Some thoughts about the experience:
  • There are campus tours going on, lots and lots of them, and it's fun to see the maybe-someday-students and sometimes their parents walking around and talking. They are chattering and hanging out in the sunshine as I go into the cool stone building where their voices echo when they go inside for a quick tour.  Soon, they're back outside, and it's quiet and cool again.
  • At one archive I've worked in, you're assigned a table, but here, you get to choose, and everybody seems to choose a spot and stick to it. I think it lessens the distractions, not that there are a lot in a room full of people reading.
  • This must be what it is like to be an athlete in training, not that I would know. You get up early, work on one task before the archive opens (writing); then you go to the room and read; then you come back to your room and resume writing.
And some thoughts about the process:
  •  For some folders, I've laid out the work plan and am supposed to be simply checking problem areas in the transcriptions from before as well as taking photographs of the manuscripts. (I have managed to turn off the bells & whistles and am no longer the fool with the noisy camera.)  But then I start to read the manuscript, and I just want to sit there and let those words unfold, with all the crossouts and inserts and everything. It's like hearing a more direct voice from the author with all the hesitations and choices.
  • Reading fluent, graceful English in the form not only of manuscripts but of items as small as a thank-you note is a pleasure. 
  • It also makes me realize just how much debased and trivial junk I read on the web every day--stuff that says nothing and yet it's there so I read it anyway. I think that's why the web is so addictive: a lot of the writing and many of the ideas are basically junk food, repeated endlessly as they cycle through their 24 hours of fame. You read and read, but it's never satisfying. 
  • Oh, author, why did you stop writing that story just when I was getting interested in it?  Why didn't you finish it? Maybe you found it boring or unpromising, but I didn't.