I've had reason lately to do research in popular culture. I recently wrote a tribute to Charles Schulz and Peanuts. I've also just signed a contract with Information Today to edit a book of the wit and wisdom of Barbara Quint, and my publisher suggested I should get ahold of similar sorts of books, like, for instance, The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Bunker.
As I tried to find copies of Peanuts anthologies and the Archie Bunker book, I was reminded anew how few libraries retain this kind of material, if they ever bought it in the first place.
Mind you, as one whose library was drastically overcrowded, I understand why librarians don't feel they CAN retain things that date so rapidly, or rarely circulate, or are inherently trivial. When our space is limited, we really do have to concentrate on our core collection. At the same time, trivial as some of these things are, they are important as carriers of cultural values and knowledge.
What library, for instance, would make a point of keeping every Harlequin romance? And yet over the years they rather accurately trace the changes in sexual mores, women's views of romance, and ideas about the roles of men and women. (Men's changing ideas about sex and relationships can be traced just as accurately through long runs of men's magazines.) Here's an interesting research question: at what point did most romances stop ending with a kiss and a promise of marriage, and end instead with marriage AFTER passionate sex?
Relatively few libraries collect and keep books of political cartoons, presumably because they become dated so quickly. And yet what better way to trace political history? Because cartoonists only make jokes about things they expect people to understand, they are a gauge of what was commonly understood at any given period. One fetching cartoon book from 1992, called The Cat Who Would Be President (held by few libraries), is a wonderful parody of Clinton's campaign, complete with scandals and feeble defenses.
How many libraries keep old Penney's and Sears' catalogs? Yet they are invaluable guides to how people lived, what they coveted, and what they could reasonably afford at any given time. They're a gold mine of information for theatrical costumers and set designers.
That's the same reason I will be sorry if libraries throw away their archived magazines under the theory that the full text is available online. The full text of the articles may be, but what are you losing? For one thing, the cartoons. In the middle of a Barbara Quint article in Wilson Library Bulletin there was a cartoon showing a male genie coming out of a bottle, saying "I am the genie of tech support, and I will grant you three wishes." Is that cultural zeitgeist or what?
You also lose the ads, again a great source of information on how people live and dress, and what they covet. You lose the letters to the editor, the authentic voices of ordinary people talking back. Maybe the letters will be preserved in other forms, as when Ms published a book of letters to Ms., but then again, maybe not. You would lose the jokes, too -- the filler material like the snide cracks in the New Yorker, or Mary Ann Madden's competitions in New York Magazine or the weird and wonderful real newspaper goofs in Columb ia Journalism Review's "Lower Case" (PROSTATE CANCER MORE COMMON IN MEN).
I wish we could organize ourselves so that we'd each keep a small chunk of that history told in ephemera. Maybe one library could collect all the Harlequin novels by authors whose names start with A, another library the Bs, and so on; other libraries then, could send their discards to the appropriate library, making sure that that bit of history doesn't vanish. Other libraries could cooperate to save cartoon books, or children's books.
Maybe it's a pipe dream, and maybe it's just too much trouble for understaffed libraries and overburdened librarians. Maybe we can just put our faith in the Library of Congress and in places like Bowling Green State University's popular culture library, that deliberately collect comic books, genre fiction, Nancy Drew books, pulp magazines, and Star Trek memorabilia.
But before we throw stuff like this away, we could at least give it a chance to live again by displaying it, and letting people see this little chunk of our past.
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TALES TOLD BY REFERENCE BOOKS
I've been amusing myself browsing through the U.S. Government Manual. I could do this online, but I wouldn't want to -- who would want to browse in an environment so hostile to the eyes? Online reference books are designed for looking something up quickly; you type in what you need and they zap directly to the matching entries. They're unbeatable when you know exactly what you want to know, but not when you simply want to explore.
Why would I want to flip randomly through the pages of the U.S. Government Manual? Because it answers the question, who ARE all these "faceless bureaucrats" and "pencil-pushers" and "bean-counters" living off the public payroll, that our politicians talk about with such contempt. In a casual stroll through the manual, I find that some of the beans being counted are injuries caused by products -- that's how the Consumer Product Safety Commission decides products are dangerous enough to require recalls. The Centers for Disease Control are counting incidences of disease and injury as an early warning system for public health problems. The faceless bureaucrats include national park guides, letter carriers, the "go teams" of the National Transportation Safety Board, librarians and archivists, meat inspectors, hurricane trackers, forest fire fighters -- people performing every conceivable kind of service.
There are lots of stories hiding inside reference books if we look at them that way. Leaf through an atlas of the United States and look at the names on the maps. Notice how in New Mexico, the Spanish names predominate. In all the western states notice how names like Silverton and Golden and Silver Springs trace the passage of men who hoped to strike it rich, and names that begin with Fort mark their origins as military outposts. Trace the path the French explorers and the exiled Acadians took on their way from Canada to Louisiana in the French names along the Mississippi River.
Bill Bryson found stories galore in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. He wondered about all the 400,000 Americans injured every year by their mattresses and pillows, and the 50,000 injured every year by pens, pencils and other desk accessories. How, he wondered, could more people be injured by sound recording equipment than by skateboards? How did 142,000 people manage to be sufficiently injured by their clothing that they needed to be treated in emergency rooms?
You can explore the essence of America in The Encyclopedia of Associations. Here we are, the ultimate believers in the single striving individual fighting for the right against all odds -- and to do it, we form organizations, publish newsletters, hire lobbyists, and set about changing the laws. Ah, America -- the natural home of the John Wayne Fan Club.
You can track the words we have lived by, with all their contradictions, in quote books. The West Law books record the hopes and dreams of millions of people seeking justice in court. Historical atlases, which teach us that our knowledge of the world was always incomplete, could also teach us that it still is. The shifting boundary lines over time conceal stories of wars and famines and royal marriages.
That's why I hope reference books survive in physical form, where we can open them at random and find things we never knew we wanted to know.
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Knowledge: noun. The small part of ignorance that we arrange and classify.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.