The following article was originally published in Practical Thinking, the newsletter of the Minnesota Independent Scholars’ Forum.
Learning institutions that serve the public good – and those who serve the public through museums, historical societies, libraries, archives and their ilk – are the vulnerable targets of zero sum politicos eager to “trim the fat.”. There is irony in the fact that those who profess allegiance to the fundamentals of this nation are leading the campaign to strip support for those institutions and individuals who preserve the much vaunted record the nation.
In recent months I have spent considerable time in the James J. Hosmer Special Collections at the Minneapolis Central Library. I am in awe of the breadth and depth of the resources so meticulously identified, collected and maintained by generations of librarians and archivists. At the same time I salute 21st Century professionals who groom the information path for today’s seeker of truth. These keepers of the word plumb the depths of the collection as is while they painstakingly digitize the record to unlock the treasures for current and future researchers, students, individuals pursuing their genealogy and anyone else who seeks to know more about what’s gone before.
My experience at the Minneapolis Central Library is the day-to-day in countless public settings – museums, archives, historical societies and other venues in which ardent keepers of the record serve the nation, the state and neighbors on a quest. The powerful impact of Legacy grants has been to bring history and stories to life for countless 21st century Minnesotans. Projects such as the Minnesota Digital Library and a host of initiatives of the state and local historical societies ferret out treasures and open the doors for users. These access projects build on the work of decades of committed service by unsung public servants with a vision and deep conviction that collecting and tending the record must be a priority.
The record is surely flawed and occasionally shaky on the facts, short on stories of those who fall outside the mainstream, e.g. American Indians, immigrants, women. Still, this is not the issue here. The issue is that, as a tempero-centric society, we have come to disdain the historic record and those who tend to it. Those in power (The Deciders) assume is that the world began when they burst on the scene. They treat history with cavalier abandon. When the facts of history conflict with the tales they spin, they dispatch the troops to re-write the record.
Unaccustomed as they may be to besmirching their political purity, scholars need to be aware and to speak out. Scholars who are independent learners, lacking time and privileges of academe, have reason to take particular heed of the challenges to resource access. Ironically, independents face a double threat – the promise of digitization and the systems that facilitate the flow of resources among institution are absolutely in peril.
Make no mistake, the threat is immediate and it is serious. The “reformers” are declaring that their “public” discussion of proposed reform, managed by a select few charged with the challenge to determine the fate of a range of publicly funded institutions and information services, has exempted itself from the Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act. This effectively stifles press coverage today while it assures there will be no record of the process. This “nip it in the bud” attitude reveals some Deciders’ attitude about their immense power today and their minimal interest in the future
Preservation of the record is a slow, labor-intensive process understood by few among The Deciders. Preservation produces not physical objects with price tags but ideas that are informed, implicit, powerful and beyond immediate fiscal impact.
On the surface, the threat is to the physical manifestation – building, staff, hours, resource development – death by a thousand cuts. In fact, the fundamental attack is on our nation’s heritage, our understanding of history – not just the wars but science, social norms, movements, arts, health care, education systems, legal and judicial developments, transportation, agriculture, leisure, religious institutions, the media, families, treatment of children. Only an exploration of the record will be able to trace the forces in our history, the truth about institutions, people, their stories, their impact and their legacy.
Bottom line, we crave and assume access to retrievable resources to guide and arm us, mere mortals that most of us remain. Knowledge of the past informs and fuels society’s ongoing struggle to understand the past and to envision the future. Reconstruction of the past depends on institutions and individuals whose job it is to shape an effective system.
Clearly, the burden of making the case for preservation cannot remain to the professionals who have a dog in the fight.
So what’s an independent scholar to do
• Analyze the information chain of which each of us is a vital link. Concentrate on the chain per se:
o Who collected the information? From whom or where?
o Who “packaged” the information – in book, video, email, newspaper, clay tablet, diary or whatever format?
o Who were the filters – editors, publishers, librarians, archivists, others who made decisions along the way?
o Does Marshall McLuhan’s “medium is the message” theory apply today?
• Explore the territory – it’s a grand adventure:
o What resources are held by county historical societies? (I spent hours last week reading the online annotations of decades of Ramsey County Historical Society journals. Who knew these treasures were so readily at hand!
o Now that the Minnesota Historical Society is going full tilt again, how about spending a few hours taking a virtual or actual tour of the possibilities?
o What’s online through the Minnesota Digital Library?
o What is Minitex, or the Legacy grant program or the Tribal Historic Preservations Offices and what to they do?
o Which of the collections allow independent scholars to visit? Plan a group tour of a site of interest. A few offer regular tours – virtually all, including the smallest ethnic collection, love to tell their story.
o Could MISF and/or some of the interest groups take time to focus on resources rather than on a specific exhibit or topic. A panel of speakers addressing access to the public record, broadly defined, could open doors that may be unfamiliar even to independent scholars.
• Follow the money – aggressively:
o What and where are the costs?
o Where are the costs buried in the budget?
o Who are The Deciders when it comes to financial support of essential resources?
o On what basis – experience, metrics, relationships, whim – are funding decisions made?
o Does the rationale withstand scrutiny? For example, it pains me to know that elected officials and library administrators are wont to rely on circulation as the measure of all things meaningful.
• Be persistent. Libraries, museums, historical societies, historic sites and all of their works and pomps tend to be invisible to The Deciders (until and unless there’s a challenged book). Their relatively small budgets are routinely lost or obscured in the county, government agency, school, or any public entity. These quietly effective programs are up against competing priorities that hype services that are more tangible, thus more measurable, than high quality services that preserve and make access essential information resources.
• Review the properties of information, articulated by Harlan Cleveland three decades ago. You may be surprised how Cleveland simple construct shapes your thinking about information as something explicit, real, deserving of attention. Cleveland articulated the elusive characteristics of information, society’s renewable resource:
Information is expandable – “The facts are never all in – and facts are available in such profusion that uncertainty becomes the most important planning factor.” Thus, “the further a society moves toward making its living from the manipulation of information, the more its citizens will be caught up in a continual struggle to reduce the information overload on their desks and in the lives in order to reduce the uncertainty about what to do.”
Information is compressible — “Though it’s infinitely expandable, information can be concentrated, integrated, summarized… for easy handling.”
Information is substitutable — It can replace capital, labor or physical materials.
Information is transportable — “In less than a century, we have been witness to a major dimensional change in both the speed and volume of human activity.”
Information is diffusive — It tends to leak – and the more it leaks the more we have.
Information is shareable — Information by nature cannot give rise to exchange transactions, only to sharing transactions. Things are exchanged. “If I give you a fact or tell you a story, it’s like a good kiss: in sharing the thrill, you enhance it.”
• Gather and share examples, stories of the impact of good and timely resources that were spotted, gathered, organized and/or preserved by a real person in a real organization or institution with a real budget.
• Acquaint yourself – and the organization – with a sense of the political structures and roles of the staff members who play specific roles. Don’t try to explain all that to The Deciders, but know enough so you can justify why preservation of the people’s stories and the public record bears a cost – the little lady who volunteers is great, but there’s more to it than she can manage in three hours on a good week.
• Honestly deal with the painful reality that, powerful as information may be, good information and information workers cannot speak for themselves – Their powerlessness is reinforced when scholars and other info-mavens remain voracious consumers, even producers, while they ignore – or fail to understand – the concomitant responsibility to speak out in support of the institutions and individuals who make it all happen.
• Steel yourself, find time, know for a solid fact that one informed and concerned independent scholar can make a difference.
o Independent scholars are not generally perceived as a dread lobby group – an altogether good thing.
o Independent scholars distinguish themselves from the suits with tweedy clothes, thick glasses and a beard – dress for the role.
o If you’re too busy or reserved for direct contact, write as if to a non-scholar – easy words, action verbs, short paragraphs, vivid stories, no literary, historic, theological, philosophical, or advanced science references, though references to social media and laptop access to resources is acceptable.
o Acknowledge that, while you may have a host of degrees, an unschooled Decider, elected by engaged and informed peers, is clearly “smarter.”
Above all, profess whenever and wherever your conviction that scholars, writers, historians, researchers and society must attend to the state’s intellectual resources. The cause is worthy, deserving of the individual and collective support of Minnesota’s Independent Scholars.