Harvard University’s faculty has taken a public stand against commercial journals that sell subscription “bundles” as a way to get libraries to spend more on journal subscriptions than they otherwise might. In a memo, addressed to the campus and posted on the Harvard Library website, the library’s Faculty Advisory Council said the amount the university spends on subscription “bundles” is approaching $3.75 million. “The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.”
The memo did not single out any publishers by name, but said that it was "untenable" for the library to renew its current agreements with "at least two major providers." The faculty council advised researchers to raise the issue of exploitative journal pricing with their professional organizations and with each other and consider submitting to open-access journals instead of those “historically key providers.”
An old rule of etiquette -- still endorsed by Miss Manners, at last report -- says not to talk about politics or religion while in mixed company, or among strangers. Civility demands keeping the passions in check, and nothing inflames them like those two topics. By extension, one should also avoid discussing Thomas Kinkade, who died over the weekend. His paintings of lighthouses, cozy cottages, and nostalgia-tinged city streets inspire adoration or disgust, but very little in between.
Kinkade was the single best-known artist working in the United States over the past two decades, and almost certainly the best-paid. At the peak of his career in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, he was earning more than $7 million per year. Besides paintings and prints, the Kinkade brand (he used the term himself) includes towels, mugs, clocks, calendars, and La-Z-Boy recliners. His claim that one American home in 20 contains some Kinkadean product or other seems inflated, though not altogether impossible.
Even stating these seemingly inoffensive facts will offend some readers -- either for calling Kinkade an artist (which makes people in the art world unhappy) or for failing to say that he dedicated his life to the Lord, not the dollar. I am in no position to judge that claim, but clearly it will be necessary to watch my step from this point on. Expressing a personal opinion of Kinkade in this column is of little interest to me (suffice it to say I’m more of a Gerhard Richter man), but the intensity of response to his work certainly is.
In a culture supersaturated with imagery, we tune much of it out just to get by. Kinkade’s images are exceptional. They elicit not just a verbal but a somatic response: a heartwarming feeling or visceral loathing. Why? How?
There’s no accounting for taste, as another old saw runs. But for a number of contributors to Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall -- edited by Alexis L. Boylan and published last year by Duke University Press -- accounting for the late artist’s appeal is not difficult at all. The Painter of Light (he trademarked the phrase) was, in the title of Micki McElya’s essay, “Painter of the Right.” The world Kinkade portrays is, if not prelapsarian, at least pre-1960s: “unmarked by the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, or the Vietnam War,” writes McElya, “suggesting instead the mythical, simpler youths and ‘Good War’ of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ”
Seth Ferman makes an overlapping argument in “God is in the Retails: Thomas Kinkade and Market Piety.” The paintings and the incredible array of products reproducing them express the desire for a world untouched by corrosive modernity -- but that’s just the half of it. They also serve a kind of sacramental purpose: communion via commodity.
“Kinkade fuses elements of Christian orthodoxy and capitalist ideology into a single faith,” Ferman writes, “what I call market piety, a veritable theology that believes free-market consumerism to be numinous…. Through Kinkade the consumption of art becomes a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life (which ironically includes consumerism), making his hybrid market piety into an inconspicuous yet pervasive cultural identity for many of his collectors.”
His bucolic landscapes, then, are so many battlefields: the sites of culture-war skirmishing between “red” and “blue” sensibilities, fought out in an especially fierce way. A painting called "Hometown Memories I: Walking to Church on a Rainy Sunday Evening," taunts the presumed cultural elite with its very title, and to reliable effect. In her essay “Purchasing Paradise: Nostalgic Longing and the Painter of Light,” Andrea Wolk Rager writes that "Hometown Memories" “does not make demands of the viewer,” as serious art presumably does. “Instead, it lures you, almost imperceptibly, into a world where memory, placid and pleasant, has been supplied for you. The warm glow, the feeling of comfortably enclosing space, and the sense of welcoming solace complete the process of soporific pacification.”
That description stops just short of using the word “pablum,” which reflects Wolk Rager’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgia as a desire to return to the security and bliss of infantile fusion with the mother. The spaces depicted in Kinkade’s work “are often wet and warm, slick with spring rain and soft with diffused light. The images are dominated by curving lines and framing devices that seem to close in around a protected center. One is given the sense of being cushioned and cradled and lulled.”
A womb with a view, then. By this point, any Kinkade enthusiasts still reading will probably consider the book to be an assault, and not just on the painter but on themselves. Interpretation can be an aggressive act. But not all of the essays are interrogations, and I want to recommend one in particular as a counterstatement.
In “Thomas Kinkade’s Heaven on Earth,” the performance artist Jeffrey Vallance writes about curating “the first-ever contemporary art world exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade” in 2004, conducted simultaneously at the gallery of California State University at Fullerton and the Grand Central Arts Center at Santa Ana, nearby. If looking at Kinkade’s paintings through Freudo-Marxian goggles seems perverse to his admirers, showing them in a museum setting horrified the art world.
“Some people will never forgive me,” Vallance writes. “They fear his existence. He threatens everything they stand for, and he makes them nauseous.” There were pickets and black armbands. Someone threatened to slash the paintings. It cannot have helped that the exhibit included one artifact each from the extensive line of tie-in products, including the official Kinkade Visa card, “displayed in a vitrine resting on a velvet pillow.”
Sometimes art is provocative, and sometimes a provocation is an art. “Many erroneously thought that I would do the show in an ironic way,” the curator writes. “For me, irony is far too simplistic and expected. To do the show seriously was the challenge. As I often say, ‘The only irony is there is no irony.’ ”
Kinkade aficionados loved the exhibit, while the art critics were overwhelmed. “Many reviewers of the show followed a similar pattern,” Vallance recalls. “Most writers pretty much admitted that they loathed Kinkade and came expecting to hate the show – like gawkers at a train wreck. But then something happened. When they came to see the actual show, the kitsch was laid on so thick that something snapped in their brains. They experienced transcendence and ended up liking the show.”
And like it or not, any painter who can compel other artists to wear black armbands in protest of his work has already called dibs on posterity.
The goal for the New York Public Library’s new Central Library Plan is ambitious: to ensure NYPL’s position as one the world’s greatest libraries, with unparalleled research collections and a premier circulating library. Of utmost importance is to preserve the integrity and atmosphere of the majestic Rose Main Reading Room, as well as to maintain the special collections at the highest possible levels. We are also making major enhancements to the unique resources we already offer scholars from the world over. All this will be achieved in a plan that increases the long-term funding available to support and enhance the library’s invaluable collections.
Many questions have been raised about the plan since the launch of our public engagement process two months ago. This is a period we have dedicated to soliciting users' and staff members’ suggestions and concerns. As part of a continuing discussion, I would like to address issues — and some misconceptions — raised by those who depend upon the research collections. Our intention is to take into account as many realizable ideas as possible.
The Need for Change
Libraries, as we all know, are facing challenging times during which we must meet patrons' needs in a fast-changing world of information. The one constant is the need to maintain one of the world’s greatest research collections. Yet our book budget has been steadily declining for well over a decade. At the same time, we are facing storage and preservation conditions that put the collections — and their availability for generations to come — at risk. Materials in our current stacks, built over 100 years ago, are in serious jeopardy due to lack of environmental controls.
By selling the buildings currently housing the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) and incorporating their collections and services into the 42nd Street building, we reap a number of advantages. First, by opening up underutilized rooms and outdated stack areas, the new main building will actually have more public space — up to an additional 20,000 square feet — than the three libraries now offer in total. This will result in a sizeable increase in dedicated space for scholars and writers, as well as new browsable stacks. We expect these changes to lead to much greater use of the research collections. A fresh infusion of researchers and writers will help realize our goal of generating even more intellectual energy in this iconic building, a center of scholarly and civic life.
It is critical to increase funding for future acquisitions in order to maintain the breadth and depth of the collections, and for curatorial staff and services. We anticipate that the sale of the two libraries — which will not be possible without the Central Library Plan — will result in an additional $10-15 million a year we can spend on library priorities.
Enhanced Resources for Scholars and Writers
Our patrons — academics, researchers, professional authors, first-time novelists, poets, playwrights, artists, teachers, students, and others — have been working with essentially unchanged facilities for decades. One of the most exciting plans now possible is the creation of a new scholars and writers center on the second floor of the 42nd Street building. This will allow us to accommodate 400 writers (more than double the current number), with the Cullman Center remaining the crown jewel. In addition to work areas with carrels or open tables and desks, scholars and writers will have personal shelves to hold books for extended periods — theirs or ours, including books suggested by our librarians, opening even more research possibilities. We also want those working in the library to be able to stay later — a top user request — to 11 p.m. most evenings. (The latest the 42nd Street building is now open is 8 p.m. two days a week).
Accessibility of Books and Materials
Many patrons have expressed apprehension about the removal of the stacks from 42nd Street and what that would mean for access to these volumes. This is a very important area of concern to address for any scholar, and I would like to correct a number of misunderstandings.
Currently, there are approximately three million volumes in the closed stacks under the Rose Main Reading Room. While we are working hard to determine which might be moved — in close consultation with curators, librarians, and a scholars advisory group (including skeptics of the plan) — I want to state unequivocally that there is no scenario in which fewer than two million volumes, about 95 percent of which would be from those closed stacks, will remain on-site at 42nd Street. (The remaining 5 percent or so would be high-use volumes from other collections that we want to keep on-site.) All of this is in addition to the millions of manuscripts, prints, photographs, pamphlets, and maps that are not being moved.
It is important to note that already half of the research collections are stored off-site (a standard, necessary practice of major research libraries) in our state-of-the-art preservation facilities. Every year we acquire tens of thousands of new books, and must send about the same number off-site to make room for the new titles. In deciding which volumes to move, our curators have long taken into account a number of considerations, including usage, rarity, date, condition, and format.
Research materials that will remain on-site in the Central Library Plan will represent at least 90 percent of current research usage. Frequently or even rarely used volumes and materials, all special collections, and items belonging to unique collections — these will stay at 42nd Street. At a minimum, we expect to retain all humanities, social science, and business books from the last two decades; and all core history, literature, area studies, art, genealogy, technology, and business and industry materials that would be difficult to access elsewhere. Whenever possible, we will err on the side of keeping books on-site. Plus, we will leave additional space for unanticipated needs (such as bringing back books requested for the first time). To be clear: if we need to make space for even more books at 42nd Street in order for NYPL to remain one of the best research libraries in the world, then we will do so.
Materials that would be moved off-site might include books that have not been used in many years, and books, journals, and other items that have been digitized. We have received many questions about whether we can really meet a 24-hour retrieval time for these materials. The answer is yes: 24-hour turnaround is made possible by major service enhancements already in the works, most notably by bar-coding every item. (Not having a modern system for tracking has long been the major impediment to efficient delivery.) In addition to the 24-hour guarantee, patrons will be able to place their orders online and receive Saturday delivery. We will also be increasing the number of retrieval staff and instant downloading options so that even more materials, including public domain books and scholarly journals, can be accessed digitally.
The Need for Quiet Space
By moving the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL libraries into the 42nd Street building, foot traffic will increase, but that will not compromise our commitment to research. Rather, the redesigned building — home to a world-class combined research and circulating library — will reinforce synergistic intellectual pursuits while bringing in new energies. This will attract new readers drawn to explore the unique collections. Still, there will be strong and clear delineations of space. The research areas will be on the upper floors of the building, with a business research center having its own separate space. On the ground floor would be the new Mid-Manhattan, with a street-level entrance for circulating library patrons.
We know that researchers come to the library for quiet work spaces, and they will find more of them, in both our historic areas and the inspiring new ones. Those who want to collaborate or attend talks and workshops will find separate spaces for those activities.
Our core mission and lodestar will always be to provide as much access as possible to users who depend upon us to be New York City's leading free educational institution for scholarship and intellectual inspiration. But we know that to achieve this transformation, we need our patrons’ advice. Please share your reactions, comments, and suggestions here.
Anthony Marx is president of the New York Public Library.
If textbook affordability is the Holy Grail, then those of us who work in higher education are careening Monty Python-like as we search for it, stirring up unnecessary obstacles for ourselves all along the way.
Consider the dual paths we are taking. First, there’s the all-encompassing push to “go digital,” as if somehow the output format of a book, whether it is electronic or print, is the sole determinant of cost.
That is the wrong way of thinking. Input – the price of content – is much more important to the total cost of course materials than output – the format in which those materials are ultimately consumed by the student.
Then, there’s the push to “go open.” In recent years, as concern over textbook affordability has grown, this idea has received much attention, with “open educational resources” -- or “OER” materials, as they are often called -- leading the charge.
This too, seems attractive, but we are a long way from having OER content dominate the learning landscape, even if much of it is free. The creation of content by academic publishers is part of our literary and reporting traditions, and any system for delivering content to students should take both “free and open” and commercially produced materials into account.
In fact, the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks is to facilitate the merging of traditional and free content, allowing instructors to include exactly what is necessary, and freeing students from the rigid and expensive traditional offerings from academic publishers. In this model, “book” costs are lowered regardless of output format.
If we are cognizant of ways of merging different types of content in order to get the biggest academic bang for the buck, we must also be mindful of methods to access this content; to break it apart, to “disaggregate” it from the traditional bounds of textbooks and to present it to students in an effective manner.
Indeed, the main benefit of new technologies in education should be to provide more choice to instructors, and ultimately to students. If a professor can mix open content with chapters from relevant textbooks, timely journal articles, and up-to-the-minute news reporting, then he or she can truly provide a unique “book” to students, untethered from the rigidity of the traditional offerings from academic publishers.
Textbook affordability has been a hot topic for at least a decade, but it has grown even hotter since the 2008 market meltdown, which greatly affected Americans’ spending power at the same time that the cost of college – already rising – began to skyrocket. Various Band-Aid solutions have emerged in response to textbook costs, with rentals the “in” solution for awhile and even the longstanding “gray market” of purchasing textbooks on international versions of websites, where the cost of some books in Europe can be materially lower than those in the U.S.
More and more students, at least anecdotally, are taking the route of “book sharing,” mixing and matching content among themselves rather than paying the significant freight asked of them by the colleges and universities they attend. That behavior is, in itself, a form of disaggregation, for it is breaking the traditional one-to-one relationship between student and assigned book.
But the disaggregated model I foresee is the one that we have been building for the past year at AcademicPub. It allows the professor to comb for the very best content in his or her discipline, mix and match that content into a consistently presented and compelling narrative or set of chapters, and to deliver the completed product to students in the format that the student prefers -– print or digital, whichever method leads to the best learning result for that student.
By all means let’s aspire to make the materials we assign our students more affordable, but we mustn’t fall victim to any “magic bullet” scenarios. Actions which fail to account for the cost of content will fall short. Failure to account for the value and ubiquity of existing texts from leading scholars through traditional publishers won’t cut it either. Going digital alone won’t lower the cost of textbooks, but disaggregating content just might work.
Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook, Inc., which launched AcademicPub (TM), in April 2011.
Recently, the University of Iowa Press announced a new book series: Humanities and Public Life. Within 58 minutes, we had our first inquiry. In the days after the announcement, we had enthusiastic inquiries from historians, philosophers, architects, museum curators and humanities councils. Our first formal proposal arrived in less than a week.
My co-editor, Anne Valk; the acquisitions editor at the press, Catherine Cocks; and I find ourselves using phrases like "pent-up demand" to explain the outpouring of interest. We are all the more encouraged because neither the term "public" nor "humanities" offers much clarity these days. Not everyone connects the dots among these sometimes overlapping, sometimes alienated cultures. That's what we hope this series will do.
Faculty members and students participate in public life in innumerable ways -- from community clean-up days to Rotary talks -- in activities conventionally referred to as volunteerism and outreach. While we admire what are often called public intellectuals, who weigh in on serious issues, "the world" is their forum. Our series will focus on publicly engaged scholarship — deep, meaningful collaborations in which scholars and artists from institutions of higher learning (which could include cultural organizations such as museums and libraries) are working with rather than for communities.
Such publicly engaged humanities projects grow from reciprocal relationships that can include faculty members, academic staff, students, community leaders, nonprofit organizations, neighborhoods, museums, K-12 schools, and a host of other local, national or global partners. The series will therefore be likely to include books co-authored by project directors, who often form the crucial connection between colleges and universities and the communities in which they are located. That way the series can explore what does and doesn’t work from multiple points of view.
Many engaged projects have come to light in recent years through the organization Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. Our home institutions — the University of Iowa and Brown University — are members, and our two centers are collaborating with the University of Iowa Press on this series. The mission of Imagining America has strongly influenced our objectives for the series. We want to capture the rigorous and radical working relationships that evolve during the reciprocal, mutually beneficial and mutually transformative process that characterizes the best publicly engaged scholarship. The series will also try to embrace the full scope of "projects."
These tend to sprawl across the categories of research, teaching and service and to spill out into public policy, community activities, classes, and documentation, of which published scholarship may be only one of many outcomes. Imagining America's report on engaged scholarship, including advice for tenure committees, richly describes and illustrates such projects, as does the "Engaged Scholarship Toolkit" created by TRUCEN (The Research University Civic Engagement Network), a wing of Campus Compact. Our most challenging objective? We want books in the series to convince skeptical colleagues that scholarship in humanities disciplines can sometimes be made more rigorous, provocative, and insightful through public engagement.
More precisely, we want to document projects that show how scholars in architecture and design, classics, history, law, languages, literatures, museum studies, philosophy, religious studies, visual and performing arts, humanistic social sciences like anthropology and archaeology, hybrid fields like law and literature or the medical humanities, and more are working with public partners and, in the process, enriching both our communities and their disciplines. The artists and scholars who share their work at Imagining America’s annual conference believe that their knowledge about lives represented in art, literature, history, and ethics is enlivened by the experience of community partners — shelter directors, neighborhood school teachers, human rights and health care workers, librarians, environmentalists. Furthermore, they believe these collaborations nudge us toward a more just and generous public culture. We know. We know. That sounds outrageously idealistic. It is. We are. Yet every year at Imagining America we learn of another innovative project that edges participants not only toward empathy but also action.
Evidence suggests that many colleagues inside and outside the academic world share our vision. At the University of Iowa, political science professor David Redlawsk and I co-founded the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy six years ago. More than 75 competitively selected graduate students have participated. Those from the humanities are especially eager to use their passion for literature, art, and a reflective, interpretive approach to address the larger world's complexities.
They develop oral history projects with local neighborhood centers, mural collaborations that link troubled teenagers in Iowa and Burundi, ways to negotiate social conflict through literature. One student recruited an entire Iowa town to help map cancer and track family stories about the disease for what became an award-winning dissertation that traversed geography and public health. Another student developed a film cooperative with the senior center. The result? The partnership has fueled documentaries, theories of visualization, and an intergenerational art scene for almost a decade.
We’re not alone. Our institute was inspired by similar activities at the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities that have evolved into a certificate program. I am struck by how many of the affiliated faculty mentors are assistant professors. Like many graduate students, a significant number of junior faculty members long for more collaborative, connected forms of scholarship in the humanities.
Encouragement to expand the ways we conduct and "count" work in the humanities is also coming from professional associations. While the individual, text-based, finely argued analysis in monograph form that has long been the hallmark of the humanities remains central to our disciplines, our associations also see value in extending the reach of academic humanities through experimental, engaged practices. The Public Philosophy Network has almost 750 members. That group and the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy encourage philosophers to find ways to "use" philosophy, for example by working with public policy organizations.
The president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, urged historians to avoid the threat of "professional boredom" by "not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history." Organizations like Campus Compact and the Campus-Community Partnerships for Health provide resources and support for partnerships among individuals, schools and communities.
We want our series to make clear that engaged scholarship does not "dumb down" the disciplines. Discussing concepts, practices, and difficult texts in accessible terms certainly pressures the humanities. If that pressure pushes scholars and students in new, more public directions, their work as cultural interpreters is likely to be intensified, not diminished.
When students in a traditional class write analytical essays about Charles Dickens' Bleak House or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, I urge them to answer the question "so what?" — why should this topic matter and to whom? — and to advocate for their answer in every line. Publicly engaged scholars and teachers are driven by that question to seek sites and partners who turn out to value the resources of the humanities in ways we humanities scholars sometimes forget to do.
We know from our own experience that public projects are alive, ongoing, and constantly evolving. We want the series to offer authors and readers a way to wrestle with and make sense of the intellectual, scholarly, ethical, methodological, pedagogical and political complications that challenge and enrich public humanities work. We picture the books as hybrid texts — part exhibition, part analysis, part documentation. We anticipate working with authors, the press, and colleagues in the digital humanities to create books rich with images and archives that live past publication through an interactive companion Web presence.
Many engaged artists and scholars are so committed to developing projects with their communities that they do so even when their institutions dismiss complex, intellectually rich, sustained versions of the public humanities as "service." The University of Iowa Press can illuminate projects that produce innovative humanities scholarship while also connecting scholars and students to communities through collaborative work. Our hope is that the series will help tenure committees as well as fellow engaged scholars and community partners understand and evaluate arts and humanities scholarship.
Finally, like all series editors, we seek authors and collaborators with intelligence and vision. For the Humanities and Public Life series we also look forward to working with colleagues whose wisdom, daring, and civic commitment have inspired them to reach across the boundaries of disciplines, campuses, organizations and communities in shared pursuit of intellectual and civic knowledge and change.
Teresa Mangum is the director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and associate professor of English at the University of Iowa.
The New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP) is a case of long-term planning at its most shortsighted. It will affect scholars and writers in both the United States and abroad, and will have a particular impact on some fields of study in which the library has especially important collections, such as Russian literature. And the plan embodies an unreflective approach to the trade-offs between print and digital media that is problematic in the best of cases, but intolerable when it involves a research library.
In short, the CLP needs to be stopped. The stakes are not just local, and I hope readers of this column will do their part in spreading the word, whether they live in the city or on the other side of the planet.
The CLP calls for transferring 3 million volumes from the New York Public Library building on 42nd Street (the one with the lions) to storage facilities in New Jersey so that the space they now occupy can be redesigned to accommodate computers for public use. Not that books will disappear from the 42nd Street branch altogether. It will become a lending library, rather than a research collection that is available to the public but restricted to use within the building.
While a quarter of the size of the Library of Congress, the 42nd Street collection contains a good deal of material not available in the country's largest public research library. So I have learned while trying to track things down over the years. If CLP goes into effect, the three million volumes will remain available – but not within a couple of hours, as has been the norm in the past. You will place a request for a book on 42nd Street and the book will then have to cross state lines, which, as the surly expression goes, will take as long as it takes. You might want to go see a Broadway show or something. For scholars living elsewhere, traveling to do research there will be a bit of a gamble.
The gutting… er, the transformation of the library will be complete by 2015, provided that the board of directors raises another $150-$200 million beyond the $150 million made available by the city. And where would that money come from? According to Scott Sherman’s investigative reporting for The Nation, “The NYPL expects to raise another $100–$200 million by selling off two prominent libraries in its system: the busy (but decrepit) Mid-Manhattan branch library on 40th Street, and the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th Street, a research library that opened in 1996 to considerable fanfare.”
But hey, at least you’ll be able to check your email while on 42nd Street.
So far, the CLP has generated alarmingly little concern among scholars -- who, after all, will be on the losing end of it. The major exception has been a couple of blog posts by Caleb Crain (here and here) which make a thoughtful and worried assessment of the CLP's likely damage to the 42nd Street Library's cultural role. And in a comment appearing at Library Journal's website, Hal Grossman, a reference librarian at Hunter College, describes the pedagogical stakes:
“I regularly refer students to the New York Public Library's research collection when they are doing advanced research,” he writes. “This great collection gives our students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, access to recorded knowledge that's on a par with what Columbia or NYU students have.… Many of our students work while studying, and they often cannot wait for material to be shipped to New York for them to use. Offsite storage also creates another barrier between our students, who often lack the self-assurance of affluent students at private universities, and the world of ideas.”
Grossman ends with a point of principle applying well beyond the five boroughs: “It's wrong to say that the closed stacks at NYPL are not public space. True, we can't walk around there, but they exist to serve the public's research needs. They are unique. Seven floors of computers are not. This is a poor tradeoff.”
Now, I am by no means hostile to e-reading, which certainly has its place. But that place is wherever you happen to be doing it, at the time. The reading possible at the 42nd Street library is far more location-specific. It is a distinct kind of public-intellectual space, where a reader coming from anywhere in the world can sit down with the very copy of a book that Alfred Kazin or M.N. Roy studied there decades ago, and that may never have been removed from the shelf in the meantime.
The links so created are not hyperlinks. And what makes the CLP worrying -- beyond its consequences for one research library, however important -- is the massive devaluation of “offline reading” it represents. Obviously this is not just a New York problem. A campaign to oppose this tendency is well overdue, and we might as well start now.
Please take the time to read and mull over Scott Sherman’s article and Caleb Crain’s blog posts, cited above -- and circulate them to others as well. There is a Facebook page against the CLP, created by an ad hoc committee of scholars and writers now in formation. Beyond that, initiative is encouraged. Bloggers can blog, Twitterers can twitter, and scholarly organizations can issue polite but firmly worded statements of concern.
You might also write to Anthony Marx, former president of Amherst College and currently CEO of the New York Public Library, to ask why a collection of three million volumes gathered over more than a century is being treated as a distraction, rather than as the institution’s entire claim to cultural significance. His public email address is: email@example.com.
To be fair, let's keep in mind that the library did respond to Sherman's exposé with a statement. It reads as follows: "The NYPL is enthusiastically pursuing a systemwide major transformation plan, including the Central Library project announced in 2008, which will house the biggest circulating library in the country and continue to serve our existing users with even better facilities. Any transformation requires difficult choices. Thus we are working to ensure that we receive the advice, input, and reactions of all the library's constituents, staff, users and trustees." I suspect this was written not just on a computer, but by one, running the software preferred by rogue investment bankers and politicians facing scandal, though not currently under indictment.
The belief that every pre-existing cultural and intellectual expression must be digitized or else downgraded is destructive. The time has come to challenge it clearly. More on this campaign in a later column, as it develops.
The Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) produced two sets of images that remain as powerful now as when he created them -- although they were produced for newspapers, and the muse of journalism seldom looks a century ahead. The first group is explicitly political. It includes caricatures and street scenes, drawn for opposition tabloids during the era of Porfiro Diaz. The Diaz dictatorship was overthrown in the 1910 revolution, which Posada also depicted in his work.
The other series by Posada is less topical -- or, more precisely, it is timeless: a panorama of everyday life with skeletons acting out the human comedy. A skeleton man courts his skeleton beloved. An upper-class lady poses with an elegant and stylish hat atop her grinning skull. Skeletons drink in a bar, and dance to the tunes plucked out by bony musicians. There is nothing grim about any of this. Posada's images are always spirited, their humor canceling out any trace of morbidity.
“Death is a mirror which reflects the vain gesticulations of the living,” wrote Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude, his classic interpretation of Mexican history and culture. “The whole motley confusion of acts, omissions, regrets, and hopes which is the life of each of us finds in death, not meaning or explanation, but an end…. A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.”
Paz does not explicitly refer to Posada’s work, but he captures its essence too precisely not to have been thinking of it. And both came to mind repeatedly as I read R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press).
Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, set out some years ago to write a book on the Virgin of Guadalupe, only to find his enthusiasm fading after a while. He writes that he was fighting “research malaise” when, by chance, he learned of Santa Muerte, a Mexican “folk saint” known to her devotees by nicknames such as the Bony Lady, the Godmother, and the Angel of Death. She is, in effect the Virgin of Guadalupe’s dark cousin, if not her evil twin.
Santa Muerte’s history and role are complex and, in some ways, distinctly Mexican. But her power -- like that of Posada’s artwork – is too great to contain within national borders.
She began to make the news in the 1990s -- always (at least in the U.S. media) with reference to the Mexican drug cartels. When the police would raid a gangster’s home, they often found altars to a grim-reaper-like figure, presumably satanic in nature. By 2010, Santa Muerte entered norteamericano popular culture through "Breaking Bad," a TV series that is about methamphetamine production in roughly the sense that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about having a bug problem.
In the opening sequence of Breaking Bad's third season, a couple of well-dressed hit men arrive in a small southwestern town. They take a quick look around and then, inexplicably, drop to the ground on their bellies and begin to crawl through the dust, joining dozens of other people making their way to a shrine. Once inside, they find an altar holding a skeletal figure and light a candle to it. They also bring to her a drawing of the show's central character, who has made the mistake of coming to the attention of a Mexican drug cartel. And then, having paid honor to the personification of death, they head north to address certain business problems.
Santa Muerte: the patron saint of drug traffickers and gun thugs. That’s her reputation among gringos, anyway -- to the extent that she has any reputation at all, which is just barely. And it is utterly, deeply, hopelessly misguided, as Chesnut establishes in no uncertain terms. For most of her career, the Pretty Girl (the list of her monikers seems endless) specialized in helping women with unfaithful boyfriends or husbands. “For he who cheats me in love,” runs one prayer to Santa Muerte, “I ask that you make him come back to me, and if he ignores your strange voice, Good Spirit of Death, let him feel the force of your scythe.”
No doubt some petitioners were more specific about just where she might aim it.
We are not in the realm of orthodox Christian theology here, by a large margin. The White Sister is a confluence of pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs. She combines elements of New World mythology (Aztec and otherwise) with European iconography of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Grim Reaper. Chesnut notes that this syncretism continues among contemporary followers, who sometimes put Hindu or Buddhist statues upon her altars.
The first document to mention her by name is a report to the Inquisition from 1797, although it's certainly possible she'd developed a following long before that. The memo indicated that one group of Indians was using a statue of a skeleton they called Santa Muerte in peyote rituals. This was the sort of thing the Inquisition discouraged, and it could be very persuasive when making that point.
“Neither Mexican nor foreign observers recorded her presence again until the 1940s,” writes Chesnut. Anthropologists began reporting prayers and ceremonies to her around the country. Until the late 1980s, her role was strictly that of Cupid’s enforcer. But then the drug gangs began to petition for help in their trade. In either capacity -- romantic or criminal -- calling on her was, until quite recently, an occult practice: “Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely,” Chesnut writes. “Altars were kept in private homes, out of public sight, and medallions and scapulars of the skeleton saint were worn hidden underneath the shirts of devotees, unlike today when many proudly display them, along with T-shirts, tattoos, and even tennis shoes as badges of their belief.” While the Nike Dunk High Santa Muertes don't have the Lady's picture on them, they do bear her name and initials. The author indicates that a Santa Muerte thong is available. At this point two styles are available, both somewhat anxiety-inducing.
Her more visible role in the public square (or the religious marketplace, if you will) came about almost accidentally. In 2002, customers noticed the Santa Muerte altar at the back of a small tortilla shop and asked the owner if they might pay homage. She agreed. Soon the place was full of flowers and candles, and people made pilgrimages to it. Eventually it became necessary to open a separate shrine, because all the veneration was making it hard to cook tortillas, let alone sell them.
In the decade since then, writes Chesnut, “hundreds of thousands of devotees have placed their hands on the glass of the encased altar,” which is reverently wiped down each night. Other entrepreneurs tapped into the Bald Lady’s following. And she has taken on more and more tasks, as signaled by the various colored candles that devotees light in her honor: red to call on her traditional powers in love, gold for help with money, and green for matters involving the law or justice. Purple candles are for faith healing. Criminals light black candles to appeal for help in their work, as do otherwise law-abiding citizens craving vengeance. But the white kind, expressing devotion and gratitude, are much more popular.
The black candle is, Chesnut notes, “among the slowest selling and rarely appears at devotional sites on Mexican roadsides and sidewalks.” The author says he seldom saw black candles even on private altars. The notion that Santa Muerte is a patron saint of the drug cartels is extremely one-sided: her appeal has spread through all sectors of society. Policemen and prison guards call on her protection. Rumor has it that there are even Santa Muertistes within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – extremely discreet ones, presumably, since she has at least one bony toe dipped in spiritual currents that might well be heretical or blasphemous.
“Those looking for a supernatural being who will deliver on petitions considered morally dubious or even sinful in the Christian context need look no further,” writes Chesnut. “The nonjudgmental, often amoral Saint Death of the black candle will grant favors that canonized saints will not consider. And so it’s not surprising that the Grim Reapress proves to be particularly appealing among those who specialize in activities that cause harm to others and also to [those] seeking protection from the specialists in death and destruction.”
Nor has she abandoned her mandate to deliver philanderers “bound hand and foot” to the feet of their women. Or failing that, to answer another prayer: “Most Holy Death, torture him, mortify him.”
Devoted to Death is fascinating, and a continuous revelation. The Skinny Lady may look sinister, and she's certainly not to be trifled with, but something about her is terribly human. As demigods go, she is the salt of the earth. Devotees feel a special intimacy with her because she is, as one of them told Chesnut, “an old battle-axe, like us.” She also has appetites. Lighting a candle will get her attention, but she gets thirsty, and while water is acceptable, she prefers something stronger. She enjoys tobacco, but won’t turn down marijuana.
Two years ago, a Santa Muerte church in Mexico City began performing same-sex marriages. The clergyman speaking on her behalf said: “What we bless is the love these people feel; love isn’t gendered.” Her following has now spread far north of the border -- Chesnut describes finding candles and statues for her cult in a Washington, D.C., botánica. As the culture wars continue, you definitely want the Angel of Death on your side.
Like the Mexican tradition of giving children little skulls made of sugar on the Day of the Dead, this half-pagan demigod comes from someplace far outside the Puritan sensibility. Santa Muerte lurks somewhere in Jose Posada’s etchings, which both mock vanity and celebrate ordinary existence. “Fear makes us turn our backs on death,” wrote Octavio Paz, “and by refusing to contemplate it we shut ourselves off from life, which is a totality that includes it.” Even someone who might not care to have a supernatural being around can love her, if only as a symbol. Give the smiling Lady a strong drink and a good cigar. It’s not like it's going to kill her.
Utah State University Press -- for several years a target of budget cut plans at its home institution -- is merging into the University Press of Colorado. The Utah State press will continue to publish books as an imprint of the Colorado publisher. The Colorado press has been supported by eight colleges and universities in Colorado and will now receive some support from Utah State as well. But Utah State officials said that their overall spending would decrease once the merger is complete.