Monday, August 26, 2013

The past is unevenly distributed, too.

William Gibson famously said ("many times"), "The future is already here; it's just not very evenly distributed." What if we turn this around, and think about the past? "The past is still here; it's just not very evenly distributed." 

Traveling in Europe (as an American), it's easy to be jealous of the past, the overwhelming physicality of cathedrals and castles, ruins and walls, stone roads with thousand-year-old ruts. We need a Faulkner to remind us that we are saturated in the past, too (and a Woody Allen to remind us that Faulkner reminded us). Our past is in the stories we tell, and mistake, and repeat, and tell falsely, and misattribute, and misrepresent.

The great error, of course, is thinking that the past is gone. But the other (greater?) error is to have a crappy copy of the past. A cheap knockoff past, that looks, from one angle, and in a dim light, like the past. But it's beyond fake; it's a toy, a cardboard cutout that could never have worked.

Or worse, it's a working model, like a model railroad: it chugs along, clean and on-schedule and under control in its little world; but again, the past isn't that utopian memory. It's got an infinite number of moving parts, it doesn't run on some magical plug in outside the universe; it's coal fired and the coal has to be mined by dirty men and shoveled with dirty shovels and Jesus everything is dirty and your lungs are eventually dirty and you die.

But refusing to be bound by the past is one of the freedoms of America. And freedoms are never free ("Thank a serviceman" the bumper sticker goes on). Belle da Costa Greene passed for white, broke free of the centuries of being Black in America; she spent (incredibly well) vast sums of money collecting the best of the past for J.Pierpont Morgan, and never spoke to her father, Harvard-educated lawyer and diplomat Richard Greener.

Richard Greener lived at 5237 S. Ellis, a few blocks from where I sit  now. The apartment building he lived in was, evidently, home also to Ida Platt, admitted to the Illinois bar in 1894 as the first Black female lawyer in the state. She was making a living in 1910 passing as a white woman. In 1920, while Platt was still practicing, Violette Anderson became the (second!) first Black female lawyer in Illinois. While Richard Greener watched, Ida Platt gave up her place in history, for flourishing in the present, just as his daughter had. The past came and went and folded back over itself.

And the apartment building is gone, now, replaced by townhouses. The past cropped up a few miles away, in Englewood, though--unevenly distributed.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Tale of Two—No, Three—Libraries

Last Tuesday I found myself in New York City, with a few hours in the afternoon to spend. I’d arranged to meet my Vergil, Jon Bruner, at the New York Public Library. Awaiting Jon on the steps, I felt I’d stepped into a W.H. Whyte map: 

The place demands interaction, and lo! a fellow sitting behind a tray table, with a sign on on the front proclaiming, “MEET THE AUTHOR.” Well, why not? The gent turned out to be Garrett Buhl Robinson, and he read from his books, with a pitch-perfect southern accent and pace. As an editor, I caught some quibblable phrases, but on the whole, the imagery, the connection of the personal and the historical and, the rhyme between structure and sentence were impressive.

The Library is, of course, an astounding achievement, not just a monument to the democratization of knowledge, but an ongoing project of the same. The openness of the reading rooms and the easy access to the collections are obvious. And my god, is it astoundingly beautiful.
New York Public Library

But wait, as they say; there’s more! The NYPL does its exhibits well, too (we went to The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter), as any good late-20th-century research library does. The building renovation, subject of debate is one indicator of their thinking about the future—I’ve got no dog in that fight but it’s easy to see that they’re focused on their users and trying to continue providing what their users need.

But let me back up a week and mention the last time I came across the NYPL. A few years ago, it would have been in the course of acquiring images from their collection; this time it was much more exciting.* The NYPL map vectorizer is a really cool tool to extract data from paper maps and encode it as geographical information that can be layered with hundreds of other layers and kinds of information.

What’s more, it’s a totally open-source project on GitHub, so you can tweak it to your purposes or contribute to improving the original project. This is democratization of research at its highest. Given the range of what NYPL has put on GitHub, they are taking ‘public’ very seriously.

Changing gears

The next stop after the NYPL was the (Morgan Library and Museum)[]. An utterly flabbergasting place, it was J.P. Morgan’s personal study and library, since converted into a research library and museum, with an appendix by Renzo Piano. The presence of so many historically mindblowing and phenomenally valuable things (three Gutenberg Bibles! manuscripts from Percy Bysse Shelley to Blowin’ in the Wind! I could go on, but I’d break down in tears) in such a setting was almost too much.

(As an aside: if you go, be sure to ask the security guards—they are very well-informed—about the staircase. I won’t spoil the surprise.)_C020271.jpg 
It’s good to be the richest man in America (and to have Belle da Costa Greene managing your collection and acquisitions).

Between the NYPL and the Morgan, we have two wonderful and very different libraries, mappable onto (let’s be honest—ancient Athenian) notions of democracy and oligarchy. But they called to mind a third library, George Washington’s library at Mount Vernon.

Washington was, according to the Atlantic, America’s wealthiest president. Yet his library had a mere 1,300 volumes (1,287 + maps, charts, etc, to be specific). Mine has about 700 (probably a few more; I haven’t updated my catalogue in a systematic way in a while). Mount Vernon is about 7,000 square feet; my house is about 3,200. You see where I’m going with this: One of the wealthiest men in America, and our first president, had a standard of living (hey, can you think of a better measure than library and living space?) broadly comparable with mine; the multiplication and spread of wealth and knowledge brought about by the Industrial Revolution is embodied in these three buildings.

*Your excitement level may vary.