Evocative objects

What does our collection tell us? This is the question I’ve been asking myself, and it is a problem we have returned to again and again, if only abstractly, since we began working with the various objects and categories of our collection. After reading Emily’s recent post, I was reminded of the value of open-ended questions, as opposed to definite answers, both in conceptualizing and contributing to progress toward our goals. This recurring question, I think, alongside certain related ones (Do these items speak for us, or are we trying to speak for them? What can we do to tell their story, if there is a story to tell? How do we negotiate between an archive of things and an archive of memories?), has and will continue to drive our conversations toward assembling, organizing, and, eventually, understanding the collection and our larger objectives with this project.

bless our mess

Working with our collection’s realia has necessitated a very physical engagement with these questions. What did we think when we first began working with these objects? We expected to have fun, admittedlyand how nice not to have to sift through more paperwork, for a changeand so we felt relieved and vindicated in our decision. But there’s a gravity to these objects; literally, of course, but also in their pull upon our imagination. It wouldn’t be difficult, beyond the initial sense of validation, to see these static, unresponsive objects as a sentence, to view any attempt to engage with their presence in our collection as a sort of prison. Luckily, though, there is creativity to be found in ostensible constraints. And, as I mentioned in our brief introductions, the solidity of these items has forced us to imagine, or begin seeing, the story they could tell us.

bound series catalog cards
bound series catalog cards

The realia comprise a regular hodge-podge of sometimes seemingly unrelated items, beyond their donation from Lou and librarian context and use. They vary widely in capacity and condition, from unopened circulation cards to inoperable automatic erasers. Not being particularly gifted in psychometry, we’ve understandably been left with more questions than answers. Although some of our objects are more straightforward in nature, and more forthcoming in providing answers, most have required us to make certain imaginative leaps in building narrative cohesion among them. It’s elementary to see the connection between an automatic eraser and several boxes of 7″ eraser refills, but something else entirely to interpret smudges on an index card as impressions of their association.

type cleaner gum

Sometimes it’s almost as if we can read their histories through a combination of observation, tactile experience, and regular head-scratching uncertainty (ie. we make a lot of guesses). Anything we can’t infer from basic condition and a little knowledge about function is relegated to this latter category, but even when we know, as we often can, what they do or what they were for, we are still left with questions about the kinds of “lives” they led or about how to weave a story from that information. What can we do with or extrapolate from what we have in front of us? What do our attempts to answer this question suggest about our understanding of the various faces and demands of an archive, and how will this structure our deliverables? I like to think of these inevitable questions, as new beginnings, as opportunities rather than obstacles. 

adding machine
automatic adding machine

Ultimately, we found that play and the potential within making imaginative leaps to be the best approaches to this sub-collection. Pressing buttons may only get us so far, but it is illuminating, and we are lucky in that many of our items betray themselves, and their stories, through a considered combination of form, function, and condition. A counting machine is a counting machine is a counting machine, but ours was clearly heavily used, and yet remarkably well-preserved. Whether we can hope to understand the numbers left behind from its last use (00010467), we can loosely infer not only that this machine was an integral part of some operation or service within the library at a time before personal computing or digital calculators, but that it was conscientiously cared for by someone as well. That’s at least a start.

And honestly, sometimes it’s all about trial-and-error… emphasis on the error:

Obviously I had a great deal of fun exploring this collection, but our process suggests something more expansive: are we willing to remain open-minded, and to be surprised? This question arises out of my interaction with the realia items, but it applies, I think, to the goals of the project itself. The Scholars’ Commons will be a place where a variety of services and resources are offered, but it will also be one that provides a space and framework for collaboration, relationship-building, and ongoing learning. If the realia have taught me anything, it is that we must maintain a reparative attitude and an expansive approach to possibilities.

So I end as I began, with a question: What’s next?




I checked out a book from the IUB Libraries:  The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Edward Huth.  This is part of the review in Amazon:

Long before GPS, Google Earth, and global transit, humans traveled vast distances using only environmental clues and simple instruments. John Huth asks what is lost when modern technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way. Encyclopedic in breadth, weaving together astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and ethnography, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way puts us in the shoes, ships, and sleds of early navigators for whom paying close attention to the environment around them was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Even today, careful observation of the sun and moon, tides and ocean currents, weather and atmospheric effects can be all we need to find our way.

Lavishly illustrated with nearly 200 specially prepared drawings, Huth’s compelling account of the cultures of navigation will engross readers in a narrative that is part scientific treatise, part personal travelogue, and part vivid re-creation of navigational history. Seeing through the eyes of past voyagers, we bring our own world into sharper view.


And here’s an example of Huth’s writing  style:

In a way, we can create our own meanings: our own private frameworks to link events. Too often in the modern era, we rely on guardians to interpret events for us, and they’re too happy to step in and tell us what something “means.” But when we do this, we surrender the more primal empiricism that our ancestors surely possessed.

Huth, John Edward. Losing Our Way in the World.  New York Times Sunday Review.  20 July, 2013.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/opinion/sunday/losing-our-way-in-the-world.html?pagewanted=all.  Accessed 18 Feb. 2014.

Very accessible, it seemed, when I picked the book out and took it to the circulation desk.  And the first chapters pulled me right in.  Social Science, Humanities.  I got it.  But TWO renewals later I am completely bogged down.  Plowing my way through SCIENCE, MATH, charts and graphs that make no sense to me.  Where the sun is at noon, if you are in Rio as opposed to Boston, on a given day.  But no, not where the sun IS, where the sun APPEARS TO BE.  And what that means in terms of where you are.  Or why.  I want to understand this stuff!  It’s fascinating.  I keep reading.  But I don’t understand it at all.  It seems important.  What if all the GPSs in the world stopped working and I had to find my way to Rio following the stars or the sun or… I keep reading.  I finish a whole chapter.  Might as well have been written in Sanskrit.  Still can’t navigate like the ancient Polynesians or the Vikings.  I know I’m going to finish the book, I know I’ll have learned SOMETHING.  I’m hoping I get the gist of it.  I’m probably going to make it mean something very different than the author intended.

What does any of the above have to do with Research Now?  Well.  Sometimes I sit in our Tuesday sessions listening and getting ideas, but much of the time I listen and think, “Hmmm.  What?  What does that mean?  That sounds really neat, I wonder if that’s like LCSH subject headings?  Isn’t that like the fields in a record?  The way we used to describe databases?  Can Content Mapping be applied to people?  Is everything a cycle?  Is this librarianship?  This isn’t your mother’s librarianship! Thanks goodness.”

I am pretty good at living in a state of perpetual discombobulation.  I really don’t expect to understand.  But I do expect to figure it out just enough to ask the right questions and to take the next step in the right direction.  And I think we are, at least, headed in the right direction.

What I’ve learned in all my years as a reference librarian is that we need to pay attention, be optimistic, and ask the right, the real, questions and be able to evaluate and pick out the “right” or “real” answer so that we can go off in the direction that will take us where we [think we] want to go.

Then, of course, you have to ask the next question and take off again.  For old-time reference librarians, it is as much about the journey as it is the destination.  It’s the searching that we get off on.  It’s the stuff we learn along the way.  Getting the answer is the secondary reward.  The REAL reward is discovering the next question.  And I feel like that’s what I’m in the midst of right now, finding new meaning and discovering the next question.