Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Essense of Good Teaching

Here is a little food for thought --

“In our age of PowerPoints, listservs, and computer Blackboards, let us not forget that great teaching derives from a human voice and personality talking passionately and clearly about a subject that she or he knows a great deal about and wants to share with others. . . . We need to cultivate intellectual curiosity – one of the great gifts teachers can share with our students. . . .” Daniel R. Schwarz, In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), p. 127

Stealing Books

Freelance writer Alison Hoover Bartlett has given us another detailed account of a book thief in her The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).. She examines the sordid career of John Charles Gilkey who has stolen hundreds of thousands of books from dealers and libraries (from 1999 through 2003 Gilkey stole about $100,000 worth of books) and, apparently, who continues, when out of prison, to pilfer books. Bartlett’s book also focuses on book dealer Ken Sanders, who also works as an amateur detective tracking down book thieves. Her book reports on a lot of familiar matters about book collecting and book stealing. Individuals who know anything about the business of books or the anatomy of book theft won’t find much that is new in this publication, except for additional evidence about what prompts someone to become a compulsive book thief, but her analysis of why people, even thieves like Gilkey, develop such strong relationships to books is fascinating. Her book reads like a novel, with good character development, great dialogue, and a lot of scene setting (all built around lengthy interviews with Gilkey). Anyone who reads this book will find them self thinking of Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (New York: Random House, 2000), another analysis of a book thief and the nature of collecting. Personally, I still favor the Harvey tome, but I very much enjoyed Bartlett’s entertaining and informative volume.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Debating the Value and Meaning of Looting Cultural Heritage

One of the great pleasures of designing courses is to set up class sessions with assigned readings written from the opposite perspectives. Occasionally, such readings – such as James Cuno, ed., Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) and Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) – appear at the same time. The Cuno (James Cuno is President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago) edited book includes essays by individuals supporting the notion of the encyclopedic museum, that “museums have value as repositories of objects dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge and the dissolution of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to others without prejudice,” with justification for museums to acquire even objects looted from archaeological sites as a means of building major research collections. Lawrence Rothfield, the former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago and an associate professor of English and comparative literature, gives us an excellent, if disturbing, account of the April 2003 looting of the museum in Baghdad, and offers no justification for such acquisition practices (especially as he presents evidence of the connection of such looting to the illicit trade in antiquities). From my vantage it seems that Rothfield’s account is the convincing, even if most disturbing, one. The Cuno volume, despite a few highlights, seems to be a justification for the ill-behavior of museums, past and present. The fact that I can admire a beautiful ancient statue in New York City or fawn over the artistry of a clay tablet in London just doesn’t seem to justify how those objects got there, the losses they may have inflicted on the cultural memory of a people, and the provenance information that may have been destroyed. I have a much longer analysis of these books coming out in the American Archivist in the future.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Beach Reading for Provenance Researchers

Jonathan Lopez. The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.

Investigations into the authenticity of paintings and digital documents begin in the same place – by establishing context. Provenance researchers and forensic archivists ask the same questions – where did the object come from, where has it been, and what authority has authenticated it. Jonathan Lopez’s account of the career of the art forger Han van Meegeren, perhaps best known for being the man who swindled Hermann Goering, is well-researched and draws on trial testimony, state and regional archives, and interviews with dealers and collectors who worked with Van Meegeren. Lopez replaces the false image of Van Meegeren as a misunderstood genius and popular hero of the Dutch Resistance, with a truer portrait of a successful society painter and war profiteer. The sensation over Van Meegeren’s admission of guilt that he had indeed painted the faux Vermeer, “Christ and the Adulteress,” which had been purchased by Reichmarshall Goering at a huge sum, diverted public attention from his collaboration with the Nazis. This skill at managing diversions was the key to his success as a forger.

What particularly struck me in this account was how well Van Meegeren understood the expectations of the art historians – in subject matter, technique, and materials - and then produced just what they were looking for. The forger added to the oeuvre of Vermeer, the recently rediscovered Dutch master, by producing the “biblical Vermeers,” filling the gap in a transition period in the artist’s career for which no previously authenticated paintings existed. His use of gelatin glue and Bakelite in the paints produced results that responded appropriately to the technical analysis of the time, and this further supported the claims of authenticity. However, as Lopez noted, then as now, sales of forgeries were more often made on the basis of connoisseurship, not science.

“Today’s high-tech machinery has made it considerably easier to prove a picture fake, but generally speaking, by the time a forgery has raised enough questions to prompt scientific analysis, it has already been bought and paid for. In order to make a living, a professional forger seldom has to fool the people with the spectrometers and the X-ray machines, just the starry-eyed optimist with the checkbook.” (p.242)

Adroit use of a succession of respectable middlemen, serving the interests of mythical distinguished, but now impoverished Dutch families, who introduced the forged paintings to the attention of dealers and connoisseurs, further distanced Van Meegeren from the forgeries.

Another of the reasons that Van Meegeren choose to fake Vermeers was that he knew that the Dutch art and museum community were anxious that the country’s art treasures, particularly the work of the Dutch Masters, not fall into the hands of the enemy, although Lopez presents evidence that there were certainly some Dutch dealers who were prepared to sell out Holland’s cultural heritage. However, this need for haste and secrecy led to improvident decisions on the part of dealers and museum acquisition committees.

Curiously, documentation was always required as part of the transfer of ownership to the Reichsmarshall and the payment for the painting, “Christ and the Adulteress” was delayed until he received a letter from Van Meegeren giving the name of the previous owner. “Goering had no qualms about buying or receiving property of dubious origins… but in proper Nazi fashion, he always demanded that there be some kind of documentation to give his acquisitions a veneer of legality.” (pp. 183-184) The letter that Van Meegeren wrote in February 1944, at the insistence of the dealer managing the transaction, made an agreement that he would reveal the name of the painting’s owner within two years of the purchase date. Lopez notes that everyone else except Van Meegeren suspected that the painting had been looted and that this letter would allow them to place the blame on someone else. Moreover, “while Goering remained focused on whitewashing his latest questionable acquisition, the fact that the picture was a fraud escaped notice entirely.” (p. 185).

Van Meegeren’s story remains an excellent case study for both provenance researchers and museum archivists, as it illustrates the way in which documentation can be used and misused to establish the authenticity of an art work. Provenance research into the transfer of works during the Nazi era is greatly assisted by access to records such as those maintained by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), captured by the Allies and now available at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The value of The Man Who Made Vermeers is that it supplies the data that allows us to look behind the fa├žade of the elaborate invention that was the life and works of that “genial forger” Han van Meegeren.
Check out http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0717/p09s01-coop.html

This essay, which appeared in the onlineChristian Science Monitor, is entitled "Restore the noble purpose of libraries" ....

Here [as a teaser!] are the opening paragraphs: "Libraries were once a sacred secular space of silence and reverence – a place where one automatically lowered one's voice. As a direct heir to the Enlightenment, the establishment of libraries was a testament to the self-evident integrity of mankind, the belief that we all desire to find the truth through knowledge. Librarians once framed our mission in those terms – before libraries became the noisy computer labs they now are, with their jingle of ringtones, clattering keyboards, and unquenchable printers. And we reference librarians had a higher, more dignified calling than merely changing the printer paper. In some libraries today it is actually impossible to find any place quiet enough to simply read and study undisturbed. What I call the postmodern library – the library plus technology – deconstructs itself. Modern librarians who prioritize information over knowledge perpetuate a distraction from the real purpose of a library.

Still Writing

Here is an interesting observation by William Zinsser (author of On Writing Well), in the last paragraph of his memoir published at age 87: “And yet, stuck with my traditional skills, I’m not feeling obsolete. Language is still king, writing still the supreme conveyor of thoughts and ideas and memories and emotions. Somebody will still have to write all those Web sites and blogs and video scripts and audio scripts; nobody wants to consult a Web site that’s not clear and coherent. Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon. That can make an interesting life.” William Zinsser, Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and a Teacher (New York: Harper, 2009), p. 191.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

20 Tips to Define and Manage Your Social Networks

Pasele, Mahendra. (July 7, 2009). 20 Tips to Define and Manage Your Social Networks, Part I. MakeUseOf.com.

Are you suffering from "social networking fatique"? Apropos to Palfrey and Gasser's call for a greater awareness of and control over our digital identities (see Dr. Cox's posting for the book Born Digital, July 1), this site offers some practical tips to help you "stay afloat and in control" in the Web 2.0 world. Some interesting services, such as a tools for visualizing your social network and tracking your comments in blogs, sites, and networks.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth

Atwood, Margaret. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (CBC Massey Lectures). House of Anansi Press, 2009.

The Massey Lecture Series is a national event in Canada. Each year since 1961 a scholar presents a week-long series of lectures on a pertinent topic, traveling from coast to coast. The lectures are then collected and published in book form by Anansi Press. Past lecturers have included Northrup Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Luther King, and Noam Chomsky. The 2008 lecture, presented by novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, was about debt, admittedly not a topic particular to LIS nor the academy but one that is on the minds of many in these days of recession.

Atwood writes that the inspiration for her lecture series on debt were the ads for debt services that she saw while riding on public transport. Why, she asked, are there so many of these ads? With this question in mind she explores debt (and its co-dependent relationship with credit), looking at its source and how it is embedded throughout our culture. Although Payback is about debt, it is not a book about the practical side of managing money or high finance. What lies at the core of the lecture is the concept of equilibrium. Atwood looks at debt through a surprising array of lenses – human sacrifice and sin, taxation and revolution, technology and the environment, systems of debt and credit as a template hardwired in the human psyche, rules of moral conduct and our sense of justice, fairness, and revenge. Throughout the lecture series Atwood draws on examples from world religions and the canon of western literature – from Dante to Disney - to illustrate how humans keep the ledger for what we owe each other. Its difficult to draw specific lessons for information professionals and the academy from Atwood’s reflection on debt other than to say that it seems to permeate every aspect of life and must be accounted for. A fascinating read!

Pew Internet use data

I found this graph interesting. There are two things that jump out:

  • The most common uses haven't changed all that much over time, despite the recent attention on social networking
  • This looks to have a "power law" shape, as popularized by Chris Anderson in "The Long Tail"

Monday, July 06, 2009

The on-line Codex Sinaiticus

If you like antiquities, sacred texts, or modern technology applied to digital collections, you'll be sure to enjoy the Codex Sinaiticus.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Digitally Born

Given that this was published last year, I am sure everyone else here at SIS has read John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives(New York: Basic Books, 2008). The authors, both lawyers, explore the brave new world of people born after 1980 when social digital technologies came online. They consider how these individuals work and think differently and the implications for their lives of working online. Palfrey and Gasser look at identity, dossiers, privacy, safety, creation and innovation, piracy, quality, information overload, learning, and so forth. Along the way they drop comments that relate to us, such as: "Libraries should serve as a digital heritage center. The works of Digital Natives, and of everyone else living in the digital age, may well be less likely to be preserved than the writins of ninth-century monks on sturdy parchment. Librarians should think in terms of collections that will preserve this digital heritage for future generations" (p. 252). As this quotation probably indicates, this is a popular book with broad strokes. It does make you think a bit more about your increasingly younger students, however, and it is a useful exercise to read it in this light.