Originally published at Stillwater Historians, March 26, 2012.
On the weekend I received a package by mail from a great friend back in the USA. It was a book. I was struck by this for a handful of reasons, not least because it came from a guy I don’t get to see or talk to near enough. It was also a book that, but for getting it in the mail with his endorsement, I never would have thought of, looked for, or otherwise considered, let alone actually read. But as it happened, I opened the package at about 12:15 and had finished the book by 3 o’clock, setting aside other objectives for the afternoon. What also occurred to me, though, was that he could very easily have sent me a link to the book on Amazon, perhaps even a Google book, where I could have read the entire text on screen, or simply texted me the title and author and sent me off to the library—where naturally I go almost every day anyway. But then I think of the dozens, probably hundreds, of links that come before me every day that I let pass unclicked, or the floodplain of good intentions that is my life–littered with books to read, errands to run, and personal communications to send, all just waiting to be buried under a layer of more important, half-forgotten stuff. He actually sent me the book itself. Even though at a used book store, the aging little paperback would not have commanded half the $3.45 in postage he spent to get it here. But there was also a personal element here that I find interesting. I read the book right away because in addition to wanting to know what the author had to tell me, I also wanted to know what it was my friend had to tell me—what was it that he thought would speak to me about this book? He actually made the reading of a book a more substantive intellectual experience without actually saying anything about it.
Certainly there are some things I could say about the nature of technology and our rapidly shifting relationships to media and an intellectual culture that is increasingly like a racquetball game played with four balls. But what I have been thinking about more of late is the idea of publication exchange. I’ve had the good fortune twice in recent years to see David Hackett Fischer speak—both times about his now less recent book on Champlain. A note that he sounded on both occasions was the need for the historian to “go there” and “do it.” If memory serves these may have even been words of wisdom he had repurposed from a mentor of his own. Even though looking at a modern landscape can never give us a complete picture of what it might have looked like to the historical actors that we write about, it does help us to gather more of the morsels of understanding we use to construct narratives. I’ve been struggling mightily of late with the portion of my work that deals with nineteenth century science. I have a much easier time writing about wardens and fishermen because even though I have never been one of them either, somehow I feel my reading and research has brought me a vivid, though naturally incomplete, picture of their experience. Not so with the scientist. I’ve had considerably more trouble seeing the world through their eyes, as we all try, in some small way, to do.
Central to the scientific component of my research is the Smithsonian Institute. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian brought about a new era in the relationship between science and government—which has been the subject of numerous fascinating books all by itself. Looking as I do at the development of policy, the connections between scientific communities and governmental affairs is a critical one. But the Smithsonian also became key to my story because its leadership was a small collection of politically skilled generalist scientists—and ones who took a keen interest in fisheries and marine science in particular. Their numerous memberships, be they corresponding members, honorary members, or what have you, in the learned and scientific societies throughout the country and around the world, enabled them to wield great influence. Joseph Henry, the great physicist, was the first secretary of the Smithsonian, and in 1852 he appointed Spencer Fullerton Baird to be his primary assistant. Because the budget for the neonatal institution was modest, Henry and Baird had to be resourceful in getting as much value out of every dollar as possible. They made agreements with merchants and shipping companies to transport publications and specimens for free, and they placed great emphasis on building networks across the world that could foster the exchange of publications. Often early scientific volumes received a print run just big enough to issue one copy to each of the libraries and learned societies in the author’s network. Scientists put as much effort into learning foreign languages that would enable them to maintain correspondence with scientific men overseas as they put into studies in their particular fields of research. By the 1860s the speed with which Darwin’s ideas could penetrate the scientific community, despite the primitive communications technology available, is perhaps as interesting as the implications of what he actually wrote. Such rapid dissemination was made possible by these robust intellectual networks, built very largely on the theory and practice of publication exchange. Of thoughtful people sending each other books.
Of course we continue to participate in the dissemination of knowledge. We create networks and seek to grow our influence and the impact of what we have to say. I suppose I’m doing it right now. And we’ve been witness to a number of very interesting efforts to grapple with the present and future of knowledge creation and dissemination. It was a hot topic at this year’s AHA meeting, and we’ve seen it crop up in some of Bill Cronon’s editorials in Perspectives as well—which leads me to believe that if these are the things I’m thinking about, I’m pretty well in line with the current state of the profession! I can imagine that when men like Henry and Baird and Alexander Dallas Bache and others gathered in Washington to socialize after a long day of cataloguing new volumes and writing the untold dozens of letters they penned each day, requesting and coordinating the delivery of more, they might have bandied about similar topics.
So to my friend who sent me In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan…while I wouldn’t place it among my all-time favorites, I appreciate some things this book is doing with notions of the past, of things remembered and things forgotten. And it’s interesting to me that the one character in the book who likes to go looking through the past—through the forgotten things—is the one tragic character, who ultimately cannot live in this odd little world. A rather grim message to the historian to be sure! But mostly I appreciate that in a very small way you’ve helped me to relate to my subjects and think in a more nuanced way about the cultural aspects of one of the key components of nineteenth century generation and circulation of knowledge. I’m already scheming a suitable title to send in return. I’d say we should get out our letter books and talk about this book some more…but honestly, let’s just do it on Skype!