by Dan Cohen
Carrie Ferrin, the first female bicyclist in Nobles County, Minnesota. Photograph by E. F. Buchan, c. 1880. (From the Nobles County Historical Society, via Minnesota Reflections/Digital Public Library of America.)
My life has become a series of meetings on "reopening," a word I don't much like. We need to be more precise with our words during this crisis, and open/closed is a poor and false dichotomy, just as "social distancing" is horrible branding for temporary physical separation.
My library is open, it's just the building that's closed. The vast majority of what we do, from providing resources for learning and scholarship to helping with the processes of research and analysis, can be done remotely. We've been doing it successfully for a while now. In my view, libraries are a fusion of collections and expertise, which can be achieved in multiple ways and in multiple media.
Anyway, we can begin to make out in the misty future a time in which the building may be unlocked, and some on-premises activities will re-commence once again. What will this look like?
To prepare, I have been avidly reading Tales of Libraries in Countries that Have Handled the Virus Better than Us, my imagined title for a compendium of library re-whateverings from IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. These experiences of remaking the library for the Covid era present a strange alien landscape populated by high tech—presenting your ID/health QR code and a precisely booked time of entry—and low tech—lots of yellow tape and gloves and shields and propped-open doors so the handles aren't touched. It's half science fiction, half medieval. It would be more fascinating if it wasn't also rather stressful.
Newly digitized images from a German manuscript of Latin fables, from the British Library. Above, "The Palm Tree and the Gourd"; below, "The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth." Nearly impossible to believe these were made circa 1430 rather than 1930.
It's clear at this point that we're in this new abnormal for many, many months, perhaps years. So I'm looking for ways to recast our normally caffeinated, fast-paced time frames into longer time horizons. (As a runner, this reframing is what you do to distance make a long run more conceivable and palatable.)
One way to lengthen our time frame is to think about how people in the past had to deal with a much slower rate of travel and communication. To wit: According to Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World (a/k/a Ancient Google Maps), I've now been at home for the number of days (70) it took to travel by donkey and a series of coastline-hugging civilian boats from London to Constantinople 2,000 years ago, in the springtime. In another month's time, I could have walked a fairly direct but honestly pretty tiring route from London to Constantinople instead (including a quick raft across the English Channel, of course), which Orbis helpfully notes would have cost fewer denarii. Or I could have taken a swanky river boat through what is now France, stopped in Rome for some nice food, wine, and perhaps a gladiator show at the Colosseum, and still gotten to my destination last week. But oh, the denarii I'd have to spend for that joyous route.
So in September, remember: it took six months to walk from Cordoba to Jerusalem, but you would have seen some beautiful scenery along the way.
In HI22, I discussed the creative reuse of art, encouraged by cultural heritage institutions, and enabled by digitization and open access. A related model for humane ingenuity I would like to cover in this issue is that of a more active partnership between a community seeking the curation, dissemination, and preservation of its culture, and an institution that has the technology, personnel, and means to serve the community in that way.
You already know this, but we don't reflect on it enough: too much of our current cultural production relies on platforms that are not in the long-run business, nor in the caring-about-local-communities business. They are purely interested in scale and the here-and-now. This is not a radical destroy-Silicon-Valley thing to say; it's just an objective fact, one with serious implications, however, for our culture. Writers, musicians, artists...almost any form of culture you can think of now primarily uses a big commercial platform as a host and gateway to the world—only to realize, too often and often too late, that they have been co-opted or abandoned for other imperatives.
An alternative model that has been underexplored is the role nonprofit institutions can play as ideal partners to local cultural groups. Take regional music. Ever since Alan Lomax collected folk music during the Great Depression, a collection that has been preserved by the Library of Congress, the opportunity for a symbiotic relationship has existed.
More recently, libraries and archives have partnered with musicians and the music scene near them to ensure that in the long run local artists aren't lost in the maw of a Spotify, and that in the case of fragile and often ephemeral digital files, their music is saved for future listening. Some good examples:
The Denver Public Library hosts Volume, a local music website that allows Denver Public Library card holders to download and stream music from local bands and musicians, DRM-free.
Music Rising at Tulane preserves and promotes the musical cultures of the Gulf South region, including the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Tulane works with other community organizations and institutions, like the Amistad Research Center, to capture related oral histories and store original music files.
There are other good examples outside the United States. In New Zealand, the University of Auckland maintains an archive of Māori and Pacific music.
And DigitalNZ, the national digital library project of New Zealand, catalogs the yearly sets of songwriting winners from across the country, Play It Strange.
Instead of creating your own art during quarantine, maybe you could surf the web for local culture worth saving, and give your nearby cultural heritage institution a ring about partnering. They are in the long-run business.
E. F. Buchan, who took that striking photo of Carrie Ferrin, would have been an in-demand rock photographer a century later. Just look at this shot after an ice storm in Nobles County—nothing less than a nineteenth-century U2 album cover: