A letter signed by 745 scholars, writers, artists and others issued a letter Wednesday denouncing the planned changes at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. The letter says that efforts to "democratize" the library will not do so, but will damage the library's scholarly role. “More space, more computers, a café and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution," the letter says. "In fact, the absence of expert staff will diminish the accessibility of the collections to those who aren’t already experienced researchers, narrowing the constituency who can profitably use the library.” Signatories include the Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa; Pulitzer Prize winners Frances FitzGerald, Margo Jefferson, David Levering-Lewis, Edmund Morris, Art Spiegelman and Annalyn Swan; and the writers Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Amitav Ghosh, and Luc Sante.
Two recent Intellectual Affairs columns in Inside Higher Ed detailed the concerns of many scholars about the planned changes at the library. The president of the library wrote a column here last month defending the changes.
For a week now, friends have been sending me links from a heated exchange over the status and value of black studies. It started among bloggers, then spilled over into Twitter, which always makes things better. I'm not going to rehash the debate, which, after all, is always the same. As with any other field, black studies (or African-American studies, or, in the most cosmopolitan variant, Africana studies) could only benefit from serious, tough-minded, and ruthlessly intelligent critique. I would be glad to live to see that happen.
But maybe the rancor will create some new readers for a book published five years ago, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (Johns Hopkins University Press) by Fabio Rojas, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. Someone glancing at the cover in a bookstore might take the subtitle to mean it's another one of those denunciations of academia as a vast liberal-fascist indoctrination camp for recruits to the New World Order Gestapo. I don't know whether that was the sales department's idea; if so, it was worth a shot. Anyway, there the resemblance ends. Rojas wrote an intelligent, informed treatment of black studies, looking at it through the lens of sociological analysis of organizational development, and with luck the anti-black-studies diatribalists will read it by mistake and accidentally learn something about the field they are so keen to destroy. (Spell-check insists that “diatribalists” is not a word, but it ought to be.)
Black studies was undeniably a product of radical activism in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Administrators established courses only as a concession to student protesters who had a strongly politicized notion of the field’s purpose. “From 1969 to 1974,” Rojas writes, “approximately 120 degree programs were created,” along with “dozens of other black studies units, such as research centers and nondegree programs,” plus professional organizations and journals devoted to the field.
But to regard black studies as a matter of academe becoming politicized (as though the earlier state of comprehensive neglect wasn’t politicized) misses the other side of the process: “The growth of black studies,” Rojas suggests, “can be fruitfully viewed as a bureaucratic response to a social movement.” By the late 1970s, the African-American sociologist St. Clair Drake (co-author of Black Metropolis, a classic study of Chicago to which Richard Wright contributed an introduction) was writing that black studies had become institutionalized “in the sense that it had moved from the conflict phase into adjustment to the existing educational system, with some of its values accepted by that system…. A trade-off was involved. Black studies became depoliticized and deradicalized.”
That, too, is something of an overstatement -- but it is far closer to the truth than denunciations of black-studies programs, which treat them as politically volatile, yet also as well-entrenched bastions of power and privilege. As of 2007, only about 9 percent of four-year colleges and universities had a black studies unit, few of them with a graduate program. Rojas estimates that “the average black studies program employs only seven professors, many of whom are courtesy or joint appointments with limited involvement in the program” -- while in some cases a program is run by “a single professor who organizes cross-listed courses taught by professors with appointments in other departments.”
The field “has extremely porous boundaries,” with scholars who have been trained in fields “from history to religious studies to food science.” Rojas found from a survey that 88 percent of black studies instructors had doctoral degrees. Those who didn’t “are often writers, artists, and musicians who have secured a position teaching their art within a department of black studies.”
As for faculty working primarily or exclusively in black studies, Rojas writes that “the entire population of tenured and tenure-track black studies professors -- 855 individuals -- is smaller than the full-time faculty of my own institution.” In short, black studies is both a small part of higher education in the United States and a field connected by countless threads to other forms of scholarship. The impetus for its creation came from African-American social and political movements. But its continued existence and development has meant adaptation to, and hybridization with, modes of enquiry from long-established disciplines.
Such interdisciplinary research and teaching is necessary and justified because (what I am about to say will be very bold and very controversial, and you may wish to sit down before reading further) it is impossible to understand American life, or modernity itself, without a deep engagement with African-American history, music, literature, institutions, folklore, political movements, etc.
In a nice bit of paradox, that is why C.L.R. James was so dubious about black studies when it began in the 1960s. As author of The Black Jacobins and The History of Negro Revolt, among other classic works, he was one of the figures students wanted to be made visiting professor when they demanded black studies courses. But when he accepted, it was only with ambivalence. "I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies," he told an audience in 1969. "...I only know, the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social setting, and, particularly, the last two hundred years. It's impossible for me to separate black studies and white studies in any theoretical point of view."
Clearly James's perspective has nothing in common with the usual denunciations of the field. The notion that black studies is just some kind of reverse-racist victimology, rigged up to provide employment for "kill whitey" demagogues, is the product of malice. But it also expresses a certain banality of mind -- not an inability to learn, but a refusal to do so. For some people, pride in knowing nothing about a subject will always suffice as proof that it must be worthless.
After a decade of reading papers and attending panels on the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing (it feels established and official enough now to deserve capital letters) I’m dubious about the prospect of ever writing another column on the topic. It starts to feel like Chevy Chase interrupting with a bulletin that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is, in fact, still dead.
Scholarly publishing isn’t dead, of course -- although at this stage, as with the Generalissimo, a major reversal of fortunes would appear unlikely. Ian Maclean’s Scholarship, Commerce, Religion: The Learned Book in the Age of Confessions, 1560-1630 (Harvard University Press) evokes a publishing world so different from the 21st century’s that visiting it seems like a vacation from today’s too-familiar circumstances.
Maclean, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Oxford, identifies the period covered by his study (which started out as a series of lectures at Oxford) as the late Renaissance. Maybe so. Clearly publishers were catering to a much-expanded audience that had acquired a taste for humane letters. A stable of freelance philologists cranked out new editions of ancient works, as well as translations. The public able to parse a page of Attic text was much smaller than that reading Latin, there was still a demand for books in Greek -- if only as a kind of erudite furniture, or for use as an implied credential. You imagine someone going a doctor or lawyer for the first time and spying the volume of Aristotle open on his desk, then thinking, “Wow, this guy must be good.”
But the big money, it sounds like, was in controversy – in pamphlets and collections of documents from the combat between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and between Protestants and one another. Theological argument in the era of Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus sought to bring the reader to the one true faith, but the now the line between polemic and character assassination had been blurred beyond recognition. If, say, a Calvinist scholar went over to the Vatican’s side, it was fair game for ex-colleagues to embarrass the apostate by publishing a volume of letters he’d written mocking Catholicism.
And -- more to the point – such a book would sell. The fracturing of the public along religious lines divided the publishing world into distinct “confessionalized” sectors -- each demanding its own editions of scripture, of course, but also of patristic and writings, and of historically significant documents backing up its claims to be the one true faith. Technology rendered the mass-production of books possible, while theology made it urgent.
Learned books in this period “fell into two broad classes,” Maclean explains: “textbooks for schools and universities, on the one hand, and more specialized humanist editions, historical, legal, theological, and medical works on the other.” The publishers themselves didn’t fall into corresponding categories; most did some of each.
Nor was the connection between scholarly publishing and academe all that close – least of all geographically. “While it was recognized that printing shops were a sign of the health of a country’s scholarship as much as the institutions of higher learning,” says Maclean, “this does not seem to have weighed much in their location.” Most presses “were based in cities without universities, and a surprising number of university cities were without printers who could compose in ancient languages.” Proximity to a university counted far less than the availability of raw material and skilled labor, not to mention access to trade routes and a strong patron.
Place of publication was also metadata: it signaled what religion confession it reflected, depending on which faith the authorities there favored. But the city indicated on a title page might or might not tell you where it was actually printed. Someone in Geneva publishing an anti-Calvinist pamphlet would have good reason to claim it came from Venice.
Besides textbooks, there was another sort of publishing aimed at the student market: editions of notes taken during the lectures for certain courses. Maclean says that a reputable publisher would clear this with the professor. That suggests, by implication, that shadier operations didn’t. (As far as I know, this practice was still going strong through at least the 19th century. We have information about some of Kant’s lectures thanks to publishers serving the needs of undergraduates who couldn’t make it to class.)
The scholarly publisher of the early 16th century was likely to be something of a Renaissance humanist himself, playing a role of servant to “the new learning.” Drawing on publishers’ catalogues, reports of the Frankfurt book fair (where the number of titles more than doubled between 1593 and 1613) and the records of titles found in scholars’ libraries following their deaths, Maclean recreates something of the prevailing routines and difficulties of scholarly publishing in this era.
The correspondence between publishers and authors (and the grumbling of each to third parties about delayed manuscripts or shoddy workmanship) are a reminder of the micropolitics of intellectual reputation in the days when getting work into print was considerably more difficult than it would soon become. But scholarly publishing was not at all a matter of academic credentialing. “No one in the late Renaissance obtained professional validation in a university through publication with distinguished publishers or in reputed publications as is done now,” writes Maclean. “The pressure scholars felt to achieve publication, if it did not arise from their desire to promote themselves and their subject, was rhetorically attributed to their patron, whose prestige they enhanced….”
The nobility of scholarship, then, depended on the scholarship of the nobility. But over time the publishing field was overtaken by “a new breed of entrepreneurs who were not so much involved in the production of knowledge as its marketing.” Every book is, after all, something of a gamble: the investment in publishing it involves risk, and the skills required to identify a valuable work of scholarship are distinct from those of keeping the enterprise solvent. More and more publishers entered the field, publishing more and more material; and for a long time things continued more or less profitably, in spite of the wars and plagues and whatnot.
By the 1590s, a satirist was complaining about the flood of shoddy material: Publishers were more interested in best-sellers than in serious scholarship. Volumes went to market as the revised, expanded, corrected edition of some work, even though the only thing new about it was the title page. Hacks were turning out commentaries on commentaries, and worse, people were buying them, just to add them to their collections.
Things were not, in short, like the good old days. On the other hand, neither were they as stable as they appeared for quite a while. The capacity for mass producing books developed more rapidly than market of readers could absorb them (or at least buy them). The bubble started to deflate in various fields in the the early 17th century. In 1610 you’d be be turning out treatises as fast as they could be typeset, which only meant that by 1620 you had a warehouse full of stuff in neo-Latin that nobody wanted to read.
Not to say that the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing has been going on for 400 years. Things bounced back at some point. Maclean does not say when, or how. But whatever happened after 1630 had to be a mutation, rather than just a market correction: a huge restructuring of institutions and of fields knowledge, to say nothing of the changes in what and how people read, and why. The expansion of readership preferring work in the vernacular was undoubtedly a factor, but was it sufficient?
Perhaps Maclean will pursue the matter in another book. On the strength of Scholarship, Commerce, and Religion, I certainly hope so.
Over the past couple of weeks Anthony Marx, the president and CEO of the New York Public Library, has appeared in various public venues to defend the library’s plan to ship much of its research collection off-site, so that the stack space can be used for more computers. I have been among the people suggesting that this is a bad idea. It rests on assumptions that are dubious at best, but ever more widespread; and the damage, once done, won’t be remediable. At very least we need to be lucid about what is happening, and what is at stake.
In the statement he published here at Inside Higher Ed in response to my column, Marx said that he wanted to clear up “some misconceptions” it had spread. I shall certainly try to return the favor. For example, he declared “unequivocally that there is no scenario in which fewer than two million volumes” from the research collections would “remain on-site at 42nd Street.” Perhaps there is no such scenario. But there certainly was one -- and not long ago, either -- in which the figure was 1.5 million. The more pleasingly rounded figure appeared once the public started expressing concern.
The new, improved 42nd Street library will have longer hours, plus work spaces for 400 scholars and writers. An appealing thought. Still, the promises would be far more credible if budget cuts had not already done so much damage to the NYPL system at large, including serious reductions in professional staff. How likely are the improvements to survive if – no, make that when -- the belt is tightened?
Efforts to spin the news are to be expected. Much more of a problem with the proposed changes is the lack of transparency. The actual Central Library Plan itself had not been made public last year, when The Nation published Scott Sherman’s long report on the proposed changes. Four months later, it still isn’t. Nor are officials responsive to serious questions. When the New York writer Caleb Crain was invited to join an advisory panel concerning the Central Library Plan, he assumed it meant the administration would be forthcoming about details. At least he cleared up that misunderstanding pretty quickly. “I don't think anyone should expect this advisory panel to have much investigative authority or capacity,” Crain wrote on his blog two weeks ago. “I've pressed as hard as is consonant with civility, and I'm afraid I don't have much to show for it publicly. I've been given private answers to some of my questions, but I worry that unless the answers are offered to the public, there's no way to recruit outsiders to help fact-check them, and no way to hold the library accountable later for promises implicit in its reassurances.” [See update at end of column.}
The boilerplate is wearing thin. Perhaps the Doctoral Students’ Council at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York can make a dent in it tomorrow (April 26) at a forum from 3 to 5 pm, with Ann Thornton, director of the New York Public Library in attendance. Getting from the Center to the 42nd Street library takes about five minutes on foot -- so the CLP is, in effect, a campus issue. Linda Neiberg, a graduate student in English tells me that a large turnout is likely, since the proposed changes would have an effect on almost everyone.
On the Writing on Communication Across the Curriculum blog at Baruch College. Neiberg described the importance of having materials on-site and easily available -- particularly for working students and independent scholars who might have one day a week to do research at the library. She also noted “the serendipitous aspect of research,” which probably is not something a hedge-fund manager on the board of directors would lose much time considering.
“While reading a particular text, “ she says, “I have often been guided to additional sources via footnotes and bibliographical entries. I then request those texts and receive them in an hour or so. Threads of thought have the best chance of coming to fruition when they are unbroken, when one can engage with several texts at the same time. Trying to hold on to a thread — before it even becomes an idea — for days before one can consult a needed text is difficult, if not impossible.”
It's easy to anticipate the likely response to this concern. In the words Marx addressed to IHE’s readers: “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.”
Did I mention that 24-hour turnaround comes with a “guarantee”? It's enough to make a cat laugh. Books currently stored offsite are bar-coded, but still take up to two days to a week to reach patrons. How fulfillment time will improve once more books are in New Jersey has never been explained. So forget about serendipity in research. Under the brave-new bar-code system, the only luck patrons will enjoy is luck of the draw.
Smart and not-readily-placed people are paying attention, and the discussion is anything but over. More than 500 scholars, writers, and teachers have signed a letter recently circulated by Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. At least one of the signatories is a Nobel laureate. Plans are under way to make the letter public soon. When it does, the entire board of directors should go on a retreat to study and meditate upon it.
One paragraph struck me as applying to any number of cultural and educational institutions:
“One of the claims made about the CLP is that it will ‘democratize’ the NYPL,” but that seems to be a misunderstanding of what that word means. The NYPL is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind. Anyone can use it; no credentials are needed to gain entry. More space, more computers, a café, and a lending library will not improve an already democratic institution. In fact, the absence of expert staff will diminish the accessibility of the collections to those who aren’t already experienced researchers, narrowing the constituency who can profitably use the library. They will be able to borrow books, to be sure, but they won’t be inducted into the world of archives and collections if staff aren’t there to guide them. Also, in the age of the web, we need, more than ever, skilled, expert librarians who can assist us in navigating the new databases and the back alleys of cyberspace. We understand that it is often easier to raise money by attending to buildings (and naming them), but the real need at the NYPL is for the preservation of a great library and the support of its staff.”
That seems really on the money, in all senses. Using a library involves certain skills; they must be conveyed between human beings, rather than Googled. But the notion of investing in anything so hard to analyze on a spreadsheet is not self-evident. By contrast, once the computer terminals are in, you can quantify usage to the heart's content. For that matter, why keep thinking of the research library as a place defined by the need to preserve and transmit the printed word from one generation to the next? The decision to abandon that idea makes perfect sense if every piece of writing is going to be digitized, sooner or later.
The NYPL board of directors started drawing up its plans in the ‘00s, when the Google Books settlement seemed in the offing, as Charles Petersen, an associate editor of n+1, points out in “Let Them Check Email,” an article that will run at the magazine's website within the next week or so. (As with Joan Scott's letter, I will post a link here when it becomes available.) But even if that Gordian knot were sliced through tomorrow, it would be a decade or two before “the availability of digitized books [would reach] the point where one could be confident of finding what one needed, in a way one can still be confident (albeit decreasingly) upon arriving at the New York Public.”
Even judged by the standards of speed and efficiency, it's hard to see how the Central Library Plan makes sense. The thought that it might inspire, or shore up, similar plans at other institutions is depressing. It's time for the New York Public Library's board of directors to slow down, rethink their assumptions, and start listening to the public, instead of crafting its talking points.
UPDATE: Since writing this column, I've learned that a library official recently informed Caleb Crain that he is no longer a member of the advisory panel.
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.