Monthly Archives: September 2013

Hail American Archivists – October is American Archives Month

Over the last few millennia we’ve invented a series of technologies – from the alphabet to the scroll to the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone – that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity.                                                    Joshua Foer

 October 2013 is American Archives Month – a time to take note that Minnesota is “The Land of (nearly) 10,000 Archives.”   In case you haven’t visited your county historical society, public, government agency, corporate headquarters or university library, gallery or other citadel of learning lately, you might be surprised what’s happening behind the scenes in archives.   In countless institutions and communities archives are facing the challenges of the digital age.

In this information age, everyone expects to find information at the click of key.  Whether genealogical research, stories of the town or neighborhood’s history, the accomplishments of state leaders, business mergers or house history, we want to know what’s gone before.   The urge to dip into history, to build on what’s gone before, to understand our roots, is great.  The more we catch a glimpse the more we find ourselves lost in the pursuit of more information, stories, pictures, data, graphics, audio and visual recordings – our thirst for information is never quenched.

What’s often lost is recognition of what goes into the process of making that wealth of information accessible.  Because we see the technology on the output end of the information chain we credit the app, as if an inert tool can magically locate the needed crumb of information, then present it in living color on a hand-held device.

In fact, it is the unstinting work of archivists who, from the beginning of time, have identified, preserved, and organized the record of human kind, regardless of format, assuming that their meticulous efforts will bear fruit some day in the future.

What’s happening today is that, even as they continue their traditional role, archivists are meeting unprecedented challenges, including these:

Expectations – The challenge to archivists is to establish standards then design and introduce appropriate technologies to digitize and organize materials so that the record itself reaches the user at the moment of need.

Format – Information comes in an ever-expanding range of formats that require new standards and procedures for storage and portability, organizing principles and massive examination of archival basics.

Security/privacy – As everyone must know by now, when information is ubiquitous and the flow of data is fluid, it’s a new world for archivists.  Ask NSA.

Ownership – Information has become a commodity with economic value.  Archivists face unparalleled issues that have major implications for who owns what, who pays for and who gains from value added to raw information.  Access issues are particularly problematic for archivists whose purview is information that is classified as “public.”

Outreach – The work of archivists of no value unless and until the information they identify, organize and preserve is put to use.  Increasingly, the public wants to know how to get the records they know, or suspect, are out there somewhere.  [ One example that piques the imagination is the recent release of thousands of FBI files, files that divulge buckets of delicious tidbits collected by the zealous FBI on issues and individuals ranging from Hollywood stars to war protesters to college professors.  Somewhere someone had to decide how or if to inform the voyeuristic public of the release and the points of access.]

The Midwest Archives Conference met this past week in Green Bay.  A quick scan of the agenda for that meeting offers some ideas on what’s on the minds of archivists in September 2013.   These are the conference sessions:  User-centered design; Website analysis on a budget; Designing for hand-held devices; Crowd-source transcription; Leveraging Wikipedia; Using Omeka for web-based exhibit; Scan-on-demand reference and research services.

For another glimpse of today’s archives, check the October 25 meeting of the Twin Cities Archives Round Table (http://tcartmn.org/2013/09/23/twin-cities-archives-round-table-fall-meeting-2/) Archivists from a wide range of institutional settings will be meeting at the Red Wing Shoe Company (yes, corporations are important pillars of the archives community).   Archives of every stripe will share their combined skills and experience to assure that the record of each institution is preserved and made accessible to users, whether corporate, academic or the public at large.

Celebrate American Archives Month by taking a few minutes to view some starting points – this is a quick list of a very few of the state’s archives – don’t stop here!

 

 

 

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Heeding the prescient insights of Herbert I. Schiller

For manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be nonexistent… It is essential, therefore, that people who are manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions. Herbert Schiller

As a naive would-be activist I learned from my wise father that it was  folly to “argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”  Thus primed I absorbed with delight the wisdom of Herbert I. Schiller who railed against commercialism and made a powerful case for the imperative of constant vigilance in the arena of media ownership.  Though Schiller wrote decades ago – he died in 2000 – it is no exaggeration to say that his insights have played into my innate skepticism and framed my perspective on the tsunami that threatens the free flow of information and ideas that is the sine qua non of our democracy.

Schiller rued the fact that “the cumulative effects of unbridled commercialism, however difficult to assess, constitute one key to the impact of growing up in the core of the world’s marketing system.  Minimally, it suggests unpreparedness for, and lack of interest in the world that exists outside the shopping mall.”

“The flow of information in a complex society is a source of unparalleled power,” Schiller wrote.  It is axiomatic that power thrives on complexity.  The Have’s proceed unfettered, content that few will have or take time to monitor the manipulations of the Federal Communications Commission, much less the politics of who serves on the FCC.  They know that no one, including aspiring writers, will track the mighty and ever-shifting global publishing monopoly. We are assured that FISA is keeping a keen eye on the NSA, including the legions of contracted employees whose allegiance is to the corporation. Clearly, only advertising giants have the resources or motivation to track the flow of information through the complexities of social media.

Unwittingly perhaps, each of us is profoundly affected by the messages that flow to our unsuspecting and generally distracted minds. Those with the power to shape the message deftly deliver it to its intended target – us. We the consumers, the voters, the preservers of “the American way” absorb like a sponge the media- saturated culture in which we marinate.  We blithely deal with the cares of the day, oblivious to the engulfing reality that Schiller anticipated:  “That media system (whose ownership and control becomes ever more concentrated under capitalism) will privilege selfish and authoritarian values over positive notions of the common good and social justice.”

Schiller didn’t mince words.

Our democratic society, quick to denounce overt manipulation, is nonetheless susceptible to the more subtle influence of the media. Schiller warned of corporate conglomerates’ control of the channels of communication – TV, radio, book publishing, newspapers, film-making, even recreational industries.  Specifically, in 1996 Schiller decried the Clinton administration’s information infrastructure politics as a move to abdicate “all power to the corporate communication sector.”  The media, Schiller insisted, are not neutral but active players in society, forces that demand attention, regulation, oversite.  Schiller cautioned that the federal government, steward of the channels of communication that belong to the people, was building “an infrastructure that promises to carry, for business and home use, all the image and message and data flow that the country produces.”

As outspoken as he was prolific, Schiller anticipated with remarkable prescience today’s monopolistic stranglehold on the flow of information and limits on cultural expression.  One can only speculate what Schiller would have to say today about the state and future of social media, online consumerism, cross-pollination among once-diversified industries, the ways in which information and ideas enter and flow through an intertwined network that spews forth from an elite cadre of decision-makers with their grasping hands at the controls.

Were he chronicling our societal regress, Schiller would no doubt lament the political and societal impact of the ferocious trend to aggregate wealth, control he media, and defer to the Deciders the implicit power to control.

Still, Schiller would not have lost hope in the power of an informed nation to focus on the restoration of the basic democratic values of equality and justice.

True, only a Neanderthal would revisit the work of a 20th Century thinker – especially an elderly scholar who had the temerity to delve into technology, consumerism, free expression and politics.  Still, for me it is therapeutic to understand from whence came my deep concerns and my commitment to do something.  All I can do is post this incomplete piece on my blog – on a rainy weekend when I hope someone will read it.   The ideas of Herb Schiller, a voice crying in the wilderness, deserve to be heard today.

Notes:

These 20th century imprints may seem dated – the ideas are not.  These are a couple of sources I find helpful in understanding the work and impact of Schiller:

  • Lovink, Geert,  “Information Inequality: An interview with Herbert L. Schiller (http://cryptome.org/schiller.htm)  Includes a great list of Schiller’s writings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passionate Readers Regroup during National Reading Group Month

As autumn settles in and the world settles down, serious readers regroup.   Passionate readers begin to hear the resonant voice of a debut author; they prowl the indie bookstores, comb the alternative media for book fairs and readings, check the library for what’s forthcoming in their genre-of-choice.  Soon will come the crucial gathering of the minds when The Book Club will choose The Book, the tome that will ignite the group to delve into the syntax, symbolism and significance of a shared read.

For this reason October is the chosen month for bibliophiles to unite their literary forces in celebration of National Reading Group Month (NRGM)!

True confession: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a Reading Group. In one respect, this post is cathartic, a way to assuage the guilt that haunts me and leaves me in the literary shadows.  Still, since legitimate bibliophiles are busy reading, interpreting and discussing The Book, I feel some responsibility to offer an objective report on the mission and events of National Reading Group Month.

The prime mover behind NRGM is Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), which initiated the idea in October 2007 as the capstone of their 70th anniversary celebration.  Focus on reading groups is just one of the WNBA’s efforts to foster the values of reading groups: “camaraderie, enjoyment of shared reading, and appreciation of literature and reading as conduits for transmitting culture and advancing civic engagement.”

Minnesota readers may find themselves in the role of observers of NRGM.  In spite of the state’s countless book groups, we are not an identified “chapter” of NWBA.  At this writing there are chapters in Boston, Charlotte, Detroit, LA, Nashville, NYC, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC.

In the inclusive spirit of a reading world that transcends geography, this detail should not discourage Minnesota book groups from joining the celebration.

One place to catch the wave is to check the list of titles identified as Great Group Reads.  The recommendations, made by WNBA in partnership with Book Group Buzz, (http://bookgroupbuzz.booklistonline.com)reflect a clearly stated bias; according to Rosaline Reinder, Selection Coordinator of the Great Group Reads list, titles are chosen because they are “lively, thought-provoking, and diverse, strong narratives peopled by fully realized characters, that will help passionate readers find those great gems of mid-list fiction and nonfiction that may be overlooked in the clamor over the bestsellers.”  The 21-title list is online at http://www.nationalreadinggroupmonth.org/ggr_selections.html

As might be expected in a region noted for its literacy Minnesota’s cities and towns teem with book groups.  The number and nature of these circles of literary activity is fluid, ephemeral, and incalculable in the extreme.  Still the honest efforts that have been made, suggest the universe.  The local CBS outlet dared to identify the “Best Book Clubs to Join in the Twin Cities;” They came up with profiles of just five.  (http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/top-lists/best-book-clubs%5Bto-join-in-the-twin-cities/) . MinnPost produced a statewide inventory and brief profiles of local groups in 2010-2011 (http://www.minnpost.com/sites/default/files/asset/9/9gvzs1/9gvzs1.pdf)

There are meet-up book groups organized by geography, genre, ambience of the meeting site.  Many public libraries and independent bookstores keep files and know a lot about the book clubs they serve.

What’s new in reading groups?  The Reblog Book Club, purported to be first official Tumblr book club.  They’re currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  They’ve had two sessions so far and will be meeting again the week of October 1 to discuss plot developments.  Participants in the Tumblr sessions are encouraged to express their feelings about the book however they wish, “in a written review, fan art, gifs, poems, letters, or whatever.”  Tumblr-philes can contribute by posting their own Tumblr blog and tagging the post #reblogbookclub, or submit directly to the book club Tumblr at http://reblogbookclub.tumblr.com/submit

Banned Book Week September 22-28

We’re halfway through the week, but it’s not too late to “celebrate” Banned Books Week (September 22-28).  Though the First Amendment deserves constant vigilance, it is wise – particularly in these times – to acknowledge and reflect that censorship is alive, well, and a bit quirky.   Banned Books Week is one of the ways we pause to refresh our commitment to free speech in whatever form and environment.  More important, it is a time to actively celebrate the freedom to read and learn, express and allow others to do the same.

Banned Book Week has its roots in the early 80’s when a surge of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries burst forth.  Today the week is sponsored by a coalition of booksellers, librarians, publishers, journalists, teachers ad readers committed to the freedom to “seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”

Sponsors of BBW are clear about the distinction between “banning” and merely “challenging” a book or other resource.   “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”

The list of books challenged in 2012 gives a flavor of what’s being banned these days.  Here are the top five titles that some folks find offensive.

  • Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
  • Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  • Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.
  • Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  • And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
  • Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
  • Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit

You get the idea.  There are always new titles, while some chestnuts, such as the work of Toni Morrison, are perennial favorites of the banners.

Basics of BBW are on the website at http://www.bannedbooksweek.org.  One of the eye-opening resources you’ll find there is a listing of the 100 most frequently challenged books listed by decade.  One reaction is the realization that the more then things change, the more they remain the same.  The other is the wonderment about what in heavens name someone found offensive in the challenged book!

The American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom offers some clarification on that question.  The top three reasons given for challenging materials are 1.the material was considered to be “sexually explicit”
2.the material contained “offensive language”
3.the materials was “unsuited to any age group”

Lest you think the bibliophiles are stuck in the world of print, BBW 2013 is a definite social media extravaganza.  For example, PEN American Center sponsored a live “hangout on air” with Sherman Alexis on Monday (Sorry to say it’s too late for that, but…

There are Twitter parties, one scheduled for Wednesday September 25, 1:00-3:00 CDT – Hashtag  #bannedbooksweek.

Local independent bookstores, educational institutions, libraries and others are sponsoring events, exhibits and promotions to remind the public of the subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, challenges to the fundamental right to read, learn and express ideas.

Sponsors of BBW include these national organizations and institutions:

 

Minnesota well-represented on National Book Awards long-lists

The bibliophiles at the National Book Foundation like to hold their cards close to the chest, playing one card a day to the anxious literary world.   Though they have one more card to play (tomorrow, September 19) the first three days have brought some great news to members of the Minnesota community of the book.  Under new rules for 2013 the National Book Award nominations are announced in what is henceforth to be known as a “long list” of nominations in each of four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Kate DiCamillo (http://www.katedicamillo.com), beloved author of delightful books for children and young adults, is a Minnesota favorite.  Her readers, their parents, librarians and booksellers are applauding her inclusion on the list of nominees in the Young People’s Literature category.   The nomination is for her most recent book Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick Press)

It’s a superhero story about Ulysses, the who never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who comes to the rescue, and what neither can imagine as Ulysses gains new power and Flora discovers her hidden persona.  The B&W full-page illustrations are by K.G. Campbell.

DiCamillo was a National Book Award finalist in 2001 for The Tiger Rising.   She is a frequent guest on public media and can often be spotted chatting with a gaggle of young readers at a Minnesota school, library, bookstore or playground.

Though focus of the National Book Awards is on the writers, the writers would go unread were it not for their publishers.  The works of two Minnesota publishers, Coffee House and Graywolf, are represented on the Poetry long-list announced earlier this week.

Minnesota publisher Graywolf (https://www.graywolfpress.org/) is the proud publisher of Incarnadine, Mary Sybist’s most recent book of poetry.  Sybist, a Philadelphia native, lives and works in Oregon.  Founded by Scott Walker in 1984 Graywolf is considered one of the region’s and the nation’s leading nonprofit literary publishers “committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature.”

Coffee House Press  (http://coffeehousepress.org) is publisher of Andrei Codrescu’s poetry work, So Recently Rent a World, New and selected poems: 1968-2012, also on the Poetry long-list.  Codrescu is a Romanian-born American poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and commentator for National Public Radio. He was Mac Curdy Distinguished Professor of English at Louisiana State University from 1984 until his retirement in 2009.  Coffee House, founded by Allan Kornblum, began as a magazine and letterpress.  Today Coffee House is one of the premier nonprofit literary publishers in the nation, known locally as the literary gem of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts community.

Tomorrow, September 19, the National Book Foundation announces the long-list in the Fiction category.  Stay tuned.  The “short list” of nominees is out October 15 an the winners will be announced on November 20.

The National Book Foundation will honor novelist E.L Doctorow and Dr. Maya Angelou with their 2013 Lifetime Achievement Awards.  Doctorow will be honored in recognition of his outstanding achievement in fiction writing; Angelou is a globally recognized author and humanitarian.

 

 

Do/Should Minnesota Farms and Agribusiness REALLY “feed the world?”

Last Saturday was “Celebrate Ag & Food Day” at the Gophers game.  It was a day to laud the U of M research resources and the benefits thereof to the economic health of the state’s agribusiness sector.  The celebratory pitch should also give pause for Minnesotans who support that symbiotic relationship to think about the businesses themselves as well as the food products they create, produce, promote and profit from, the hype and the reality.

As recently as yesterday, September 17, National Public Radio carried a major piece on the much touted “Feed the World” promotion favored by corporate farmers and agribusiness.  The “we’re feeding the world” mantra, according to NPR reporter Dan Charles, is ”high-tech agriculture’s claim to the moral high ground.”  Charles Arnot, a one-time PR executive for food and farming companies, now CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, observes that  “U.S. farmers have a tremendous sense of pride in the fact that they’ve been able to help feed the world.”

The problem is not everyone agrees that large-scale, technology-based agriculture is an unmitigated good.  They hold that the cost to the environment and to the nutritional needs of this nation and the world needs to be factored in.  Some, including Margaret Mellon of Concerned Scientists, hold that use of the term itself is waning.

Mellon welcomes the disenchantment with the term.  The problem with ‘feeding the world,’ she says is that “the phrase conflates the important issues of food production and hunger alleviation.  It implies that producing corn and soybeans is the equivalent of putting food into the mouths of hungry people.  But there is no direct connection between U.S. corn and soy production and ending hunger elsewhere (or for that matter in the US).  In fact, the truth is that high production in the U.S. can depress world grain prices and throw developing country farmers off the land.”

It seems reasonable to me that, just because we have such a huge stake in farming and agribusiness, Minnesotans bear some responsibility to be informed about and involved in thinking about the complexities of food production and distribution.

On the one hand, we Minnesotans are a compassionate people for whom feeding the world seems such a worthy cause; access to food is a basic human right.  Moreover, as Mellon writes, the efforts to feed the world conjure “comfortable memories of preparing, serving and enjoying meals.  To satisfy this basic need for the whole world is a noble endeavor.  And, of course, there are grams of truth here. US farmers can feel good that they are helping to meet the food needs of those who can afford to buy their products.” Minnesotans have good reason to be proud of the education system and the political and economic environment that supports the cause.

As compassionate people Minnesotans also care about our neighbors who are hungry and kids who are reared on junk food at the same time we feed the world.  Complex as the issues are, we even pay attention to trade agreements, GMO’s, distribution and the actual consumption of the massive soybean and corn products our rich farmlands yield.  Lots of us, from University researchers to truck drivers, nutritionists to grocery shopper are active links along the food chain

The more I listen and read, the less I understand the complexities of food production, distribution and consumption.  The only thing of which I am certain is that, for the most part, we are not thinking systemically about food policy at the state, national or global level.

Minnesotans have a huge stake, as consumers, taxpayers, as a body politic.  We all care that our families and neighbors, the environment, the economy and people around the world are economically and physically healthy.  We just don’t think about it a lot and we don’t often exchange opinions with individuals or groups that approach the complexity from different perspectives.

As we take pride in our University research capability and community contributions of those who prosper in our agribusinesses, Minnesotans with different points of view and perspectives need to learn together about the results of the investment and the benefits gained as measured in human as well as financial terms.

 

A day – and a way – to think about the U.S. Constitution

Constitution Day is one of those days we don’t celebrate.  Still, the Constitution is what we retreat to when we want to defend our Constitutional rights whether it’s the right to free speech or to bear arms.  And it’s the same Constitution that more or less holds together this nation.

Though we probably have a surfeit of commemorative days, Constitution Day 2013, Tuesday, September 17, may be one we should flag.  Just about every interest group is quoting the Constitution to justify a controversial position.   We tend to overlook the fact that the grand proclamation reflects the work of human beings (men of substance) living at a time and in a context.  Granted, they did good work that has held the nation together for a couple of centuries. Still, they were humans, they were free men, and their perspective was that of  a select assemblage of individuals who shared an experience that was particular, a vision that transcended their time.

 

It’s a challenge to celebrate the obvious.  Worth it, though, because it is the underpinning of our daily lives in ways we seldom ponder.

The National Archives has created a useful guide, designed for teachers but useful for any caring American, whether fortunate enough to be born here or whether learning as a newcomer about the principles upon which this nation was shaped.

It’s worth the time to think for just a bit about the Constitution, not just our rights but about how those rights were forged by our forbearers.  There are lots of ways to learn about the Constitution, the real thing and interpretations.  National Archives has created some ways to start thinking http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/constitution-day/   This is geared to teachers but it seems to me that  many of us need to go back to school to learn some of these basics.

The Constitution gets quoted, misquoted, used as a shield or a wrap or a raison d-etre for all manner of things the framers could never have anticipated.  Constitution Day is a moment in time to consider that, while  we may be adrift, we are not without a rudder.