Thursday, August 16, 2007


I've had a couple of interesting conversations over the past two days about physicality: that certain something about objects that simply cannot be captured in virtual worlds or electronic files. What is it about the physical thing, my companions and I asked ourselves, that makes us smile? Why is it that the paper copy of Science or Dental Cosmos is so much more satisfying, so much more gratifying, than the digital surrogate? The touch? The smell? The colors, whether vivid or faded; the knowledge that great thinkers long dead touched the same pages?

When patrons see that some of our volumes (which appraisers would generously call "working copies") have been repaired with duct tape, or surgical sutures, they almost invariably smile. And it's not just condescension, or bemusement. I think it's partly empathy, maybe admiration, some bit of wonder at the practitioner who so carefully maintained the "workability" of his treasured trove of information.

What about photographs? They seem good candidates for digitization, and indeed they are. But isn't there some small additional joy at seeing a print, holding a glass lantern slide to the light? On a screen, the resolution is limited (or amplified) by the technology--the view is never unmediated. The view seems untrue in some way, does it not?--with all the photo software available out there and all the reported cases of image manipulation, whether malicious or well intended (a la O.J. on the cover of Time).

Certainly, photos and beautiful books often make us smile because they are works of art in and of themselves. But do we smile at great art, or is "art" anything that makes us smile? Given the prominence accorded to "found art," or art installations that are essentially interior plumbing, I sort of wonder at the chicken-and-egg aspect of the question "what is art?"

Philosophy of art is clearly not my forte, and I'm sure there are learned scholars out there who could explain to me exactly what art is. What I do know is that the collections we have here in Historical Collections & Archives make people smile, for whatever reasons; both form and content make them smile; and we like it when people connect with the past in such a visceral way. So, we need to make sure we continue to provide access to those materials, to foster that small joy.

And it has been one of those whirlwind days, collections being processed, collections being accessed, calls from patrons, calls from colleagues--the kind that makes us feel reassuringly loved and needed. So, our clean well-lighted corner remains for tonight. And we'll get up tomorrow and make sure it stays that way.

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