". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Wondrous Database

"This Book Is 119 Years Overdue

The wondrous database that reveals what Americans checked out of the library a century ago."

The long article describing the database and its place in a the long sociological study of Middletown, U.S.A (Muncie, Indiana), and the author's personal engagement with what Louis Bloom, a particular patron's checkouts might mean is in Slate today:

Ever since the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a pathbreaking pair of books about the city (Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937) the place has been awash in social scientists studying its every move; this database is in fact part of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies
Each part of it is fascinating, even though the author's goal, to use it as time travel failed.  In this part anyone who reads / or  writes history or historical fiction can't fail but to be interested.

Stuart’s point about the gap between what you read and who you are got me thinking. Maybe the way Louis receded as I chased after him was not my problem but my answer. In the books Louis checked out he found, as readers everywhere always do, more than just a perfect mirror of his own life (as if “what Middletown read” told us “what Middletown really was”). He also found a way out: a glimpse of the Italy where scientists experimented with frog’s legs, or the state of Mississippi back when killing a slave was a simple property crime. The books he read might even have helped him catch a glimpse of what he wanted his own future to be working in the world of mechanics and of physics, far from Muncie (“Go West, young man”—yes, until you hit the Philippines). Thanks to those books, he too had a telescope. Like mine, it was small and imperfect, with no guarantees about the accuracy of what he glimpsed through it. Still, coming from the sort of Muncie life that he did (his mom had moved them in with in-laws, had even been threatened with having to send the kids off to various relatives) I bet that glimpse at a distant world loomed fairly large for him.

The database, What Middletown Read, can be accessed here.


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