James Grossman on the Future of the Print Record

Each of the panelists on our roundtable will present a few opening remarks before we turn to discussion. I’ve asked them each for a teaser, which I’ve posted over the last several days. Wrapping up today, James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.

This session is about the relationship between books, librarians, and scholars in literary studies and history. As an undergraduate and graduate student I learned that librarians were the historian’s best friends –not because a jobs in the library was helping with expenses at both stages – but because someone had to teach me how to navigate the complex and empowering world of bibliographical guides. A slight demotion took place during the course of my dissertation research, as the ability to find materials became as important as the ability to read them. I learned the difference between an archivist and a librarian (after ignorantly referring to an archivist as a “librarian”), and developed an appreciation – or perhaps awe is more accurate – of archivists at the National Archives, Chicago Historical Society, Howard University, and the University of Chicago. So for me, it was all pretty simple: no librarians or archivists (whom I still lumped together for far too long), no first book.

My subsequent publications relied on the work of librarians and archivists more indirectly. Instead I developed an appreciation at the Newberry Library of the enormous potential of collaboration with librarians and archivists in the conceptualization and implementation of undergraduate courses in history and literature.

Why does this matter? In the first instance, I developed an appreciation of the work of librarians and archivists, but not as scholars or collaborators. They were the custodians; we were the users. Good scholarship depended on good librarianship, but I inadequately apprehended what “good librarianship” meant intellectually. Librarians provided services and collections; historians did the intellectual work required to weave sources into scholarship.

At the Newberry I learned that true collaboration between humanities faculty and library staff was a broader partnership. And I worry that this partnership is fraying over a series of issues including the one on the table in this session. “The Future of the Print Record” focuses on an issue that requires librarians and humanities faculty to wrestle with the tension between the realities of budgets and space on the one hand, and ideas about the nature of books as primary sources on the other. These are not necessarily incompatible frames; but they can exist in conflict – especially when one of the issues on the table is the locus of decision-making.

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