- Some people fetishize librarians. Me, I fetishize the card catalog. It’s a lonely fetish—no pornographer, to my knowledge, has yet written a starring role for a card catalog, or even a cameo. But I think it’s only a matter of time. I mean, look at these catalogs! They’re so big—so full—so … alive with utility. The way a card catalog oozes democratic spirit and well-organized accessibility, it just gets my heart racing. A new book by the Library of Congress, The Card Catalog, is almost titillating in its portrayal of objects in obsolescence. As Michael Lindgren writes, beneath its sumptuous photography, the book mounts a compelling and perhaps depressing case for bygone forms of information technology: “The text provides a concise history of literary compendia from the Pinakes of the fabled Library of Alexandria to the advent of computerized book inventory databases, which began to appear as early as 1976. The illustrations are amazing: luscious reproductions of dozens of cards, lists, covers, title pages and other images guaranteed to bring a wistful gleam to the book nerd’s eye … Now, waxing nostalgic about card catalogs or being an advocate for the importance of libraries is a mug’s game. You can practically feel people glancing up from their iPhones to smile tolerantly at your eccentricity … Although some contemporary readers might consider this book outrageously quaint, the card catalog’s conceptual structure was the underpinning of the Internet; the idea of something being ‘tagged’ by category owes its existence as an organizing principle to the subject headings delineated by the Library of Congress. A national card catalog system was the original ‘search engine’ … The card catalog stands with other great twentieth-century works of civic architecture as testament to the potential of what a society—and a government—can achieve … ”
- Are you an artist over sixty? Are you tired of hot young bucks getting all the fame and glory? Marlena Vaccaro wants to be your gallerist. As James Barron reports, her Chelsea gallery represents only older artists—an attempt to thwart entrenched ageism in the art world: “The gallery began several years ago when Ms. Vaccaro decided that someone should counter an art world problem: Older, lesser-known artists were being passed by just because they were, yes, older. She had heard stories. Ms. Vaccaro was a painter and printmaker who also worked in mixed media. She had owned a gallery in TriBeCa. ‘If, by the time you’re forty, you haven’t demonstrated earning power in terms of sales, it’s hard to get the attention of a big gallery,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it’s only ageism at work. It’s the economy of running a gallery. Sure, there are tons of galleries that show older artists, but they are the high earners. Everyone who was big and famous in the sixties and seventies is older now. They’re still represented if they’re still alive, and their paintings still sell for gigantic dollars.’ ”
Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.
Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape. Read More
A few years ago, when I heard through the grapevine that Grey Gardens was up for rent, I thought it had to be a bizarre joke: What kind of a sick twist would pay to spend time in the notorious cat-and-rot-scented squalor so memorably depicted in the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens? I knew Jackie O had paid to rehabilitate the place after Long Island authorities had nearly condemned it and ousted its inhabitants, Jackie’s aunt Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and cousin Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie). After that embarrassment-driven overhaul, the place seemed briefly, passably pâté-worthy again—but still, it would have to be classified as “for niche tastes only.”
It turned out Grey Gardens had long since been renovated back into a glistening private playground for the intelligentsia A-list. (My ignorance of this fact confirmed me as an intelligentsia C-lister, at best.) After the demise of Big Edie, the Washington journalist and social doyenne Sally Quinn bought the house with her husband, Ben Bradlee, the Watergate-era executive editor at the Washington Post. The capital’s quintessential power couple paid a mere $225,000 for the house and grounds, and lovingly restored the estate to its 1930s glory; there, amid the rose bushes and chintz chaise lounges, they entertained the gods and goddesses of the film and political worlds. More recently, they offered to share Grey Gardens by renting it to those willing to pay $150,000 a month for the privilege. (It’s now on the market for nearly $20 million.) Read More
- In the third century B.C., Alexandria had one hell of a library—the finest center of learning in the ancient world, an iconic metaphor for humanity’s quest for knowledge, et cetera. Then it was burned. After that, the city lacked a decent library for, oh, several centuries … then several more … then a few more after that … until, in 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened, restoring the promise of antiquity. That library sprung from the efforts of Mostafa A. H. el-Abbadi, an Egyptian historian who died last month at eighty-eight. Jonathan Guyer writes, “Professor Abbadi’s dream of a new library—a modern version of the magnificent center of learning of ancient times—could be traced to 1972 … ‘If we want to justify our claim to be connected spiritually with the ancient tradition, we must follow the ancient example by starting a great universal library’ … When Nixon visited Egypt in 1974, he and President Anwar el-Sadat rode by train to Alexandria’s ancient ruins to observe their faded grandeur. When Nixon asked about the ancient library’s location and history, no one in the Egyptian entourage had an answer. [Professor Abbadi realized] how deeply the ancient library resonated, not only with Egyptians but also with many around the world who shared his scholarly thirst.”
- But who needs libraries when we’ve got Wikipedia, right? Yes, the future of knowledge is radically decentralized, completely free … and, now, engaged in a knockdown, drag-out war over the gender identity of a lasagna-loving cartoon cat. Avi Selk and Michael Cavna explain, “Wikipedia had to put Garfield’s page on lockdown last week after a sixty-hour editing war in which the character’s listed gender vacillated back and forth indeterminately like a cartoon version of Schrödinger’s cat: male one minute; not the next. ‘He may have been a boy in 1981, but he’s not now,’ one editor argued … ‘Every character (including Garfield himself!) constantly refers to Garfield unambiguously as male, and always using male pronouns,’ one editor wrote—listing nearly three dozen comic strips across nearly four decades … Garfield’s gender swapped twenty times over two-and-a-half days (during which his religion was briefly listed as Shiite Muslim for some reason) before an administrator was forced to step in.”
Dipping into the thousands of ephemeral films in the Prelinger Archives.
There’s a scene in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic of the director of Glen or Glenda, that has always struck me as profound. The young Wood, played by Johnny Depp, is doing thankless work as a stagehand on a Hollywood-studio lot where he kills time watching stock footage of bomb detonations and rampaging bison. Visibly rapt, he asks what’s to become of these clips, only to be told by the kindly clerk, “Probably file it away and never see it again.” He replies, “If I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what’s causing them, but it’s scaring all the buffalo!”
Since 1982, the archivist, filmmaker, and open-access advocate Rick Prelinger has curated the Prelinger Archives, which comprises upward of sixty thousand sponsored, ephemeral, and industrial films. Some six thousand of these are available for free viewing on the Internet Archive. Like Ed Wood, I can while away hours watching these movies, many of which were originally made to be shown before feature films, as part of expos, or in classrooms. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take a journey by cable car in “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906), which captured downtown San Francisco just before the fire and earthquake reshaped the city; or to observe the industrial constructivism of the Chevrolet-produced “Master Hands,” (1936) where the toil of autoworkers converts the assembly of machine parts into a kind of proletariat ballet. Read More