Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Alternative Facts

ASU's Lawler Library is a small but mighty collection of antique books and manuscripts, plus some special-interest collections.EXPAND
ASU's Lawler Library is a small but mighty collection of antique books and manuscripts, plus some special-interest collections.
Randi Lynn Beach

“Where’ve you been?” my former co-worker asks.

He is a tall, ruddy, smart-ass Irishman who happens to be the head of security at the big public library where I used to work. I was a library assistant. Our banter, back then, usually centered around our shared belief that we could write a killer television show called The Library. Think about the cast of characters; on the one hand you have “the librarians” — some of whom are the most resourceful, socially awkward, creative people you are likely to meet. Then you have a wide-range of “regulars” — people who reflect the ways in which libraries have become the ad hoc container for many of our country’s gaps in social services.

In a nutshell, you have socially awkward people dealing with the extremes of social behavior, and with shrinking funds. Then, of course, you have “the guards,” who are the intermediaries and observers of it all.

I’ve been thinking about our television show recently because there are mornings when I wake up, scan the headlines, and feel like I’m living in Bizarro World, the fictional planet referenced in DC Comics where everything is flipped on its head or opposite of one’s expectations. The Bizarro Code states, “Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate Beauty! Us love Ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!”

We are living in a time when a foreign government has attempted to interfere with our elections, where the line between fact and opinion has been blurred, where marginalized groups fear greater marginalization, and where we are in the midst of a cultural conversation about what’s real and what’s fake. It’s disorienting. People are concerned. There is a feeling in the air. Real is good, so where do I reliably find it?

I’ve tried to come up with an answer, an antidote, and here’s what I’ve got: I still believe in libraries and archives.

I know I’m not the only one looking to regain my bearings. As Lee Franklin, community-relations manager for the Phoenix Public Library, said to me the other day, “Having information matters; having the right information matters more.”

So, I wonder, can informing ourselves be an act of resistance to the Bizarro Code? I see groups popping up, making New Year’s resolutions, forming book clubs to understand the intersectionality of history and politics. There’s Reading for the Revolution on Facebook; Pantsuit Nation has circulated a reading list; Public Books has published a very thorough Trump Syllabus 2.0 assembled by historians N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain; and Grace Bonney, founder of the design blog Design Sponge — which reaches more than 1 million readers per day — posted a picture of a stack of books on Instagram saying, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which history repeats itself ... I want to listen to and absorb as many first-hand accounts and different points of view as possible.”

On Bonney’s current reading list: Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis, and Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 by Lynne Olsen.

The idea of wanting to hear first-person accounts, understand why others with different life experiences feel as they do, and embed oneself in something “real,” got me wondering. Who better to talk to than information workers, librarians, and archivists? When so many of us are looking for tangible examples of fact that we can hold up and examine, why not ask the people who know how to find things? What issues are they thinking about right now? Could they share some of the gems in their collections, and what might these treasures tell us about the times we’re living in, and where we came from?

And so I headed out into the proverbial stacks. I focused on archival collections in the Phoenix metro area, hoping to learn about materials that could give a broader historical perspective. I tried to keep in mind that the main difference between libraries and archives is, essentially, that library materials are published, and therefore tend to be more widely available, while archival materials are, by and large, unpublished, more unique, and can include documents, letters, objects, organizational records, photographs, ephemera, et cetera.

What I discovered: There are many illuminating, thought-provoking treasures right beneath our noses — some serious, some lighthearted — illustrating our shared human history.

Rob Spindler, university archivist and head of the Archives and Special Collections at Arizona State University Libraries.EXPAND
Rob Spindler, university archivist and head of the Archives and Special Collections at Arizona State University Libraries.
Randi Lynn Beach

“The way people find information is changing rapidly,” says Rob Spindler, university archivist and head of the Archives and Special Collections at Arizona State University Libraries.

ASU’s holdings are vast. We’re talking 28,000 linear feet of archival material, 1.2 million photographs and growing. The Archives and Special Collections department operates six different repositories: the Arizona Collection, the Chicano/a Research Collection, University Archives, Benedict Visual Literacy Collection, Special Collections, and the Child Drama Collection.

“What we do with archives is tell the story behind the headlines,” Spindler says. “Archives give us detailed information about ‘why’ and ‘how’ things came to be the way they are today.”

The main challenge one is likely to find is the sheer volume of material. With a collection as big as this one, “We can’t digitize it all,” says Spindler, “and so what you really want to do is to be able to give exemplars of what can be done in these collections and excite people to come in and actually work with them.” About a third of visitors to the Archives and Special Collections at ASU are members of the general public.

People are still coming in to study Barry Goldwater. “There are a lot of very interesting parallels between this past presidential election and the election of 1964,” says Spindler, given the fact that that election was the last time a major political party produced so polarizing a candidate. There was even a magazine, he adds, that published a poll of psychiatrists who were asked if GOP candidate Barry Goldwater was “psychologically suited to be the President of the United States.”

Spindler’s referring to the legal case in which Goldwater sued Ralph Ginzburg, editor of Fact magazine, for defamation over a 1964 article entitled, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater.” Fascinating stuff, to be sure. News website Slate recently contacted the ASU archives looking for materials related to the case for its podcast Whistlestop. Spindler and his team digitized documents and sent them to Slate for the show last September.

Recently, Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan announced a partnership between the Arizona State Archives and Ancestry.com, making a group of Arizona historical record collections available online and free to residents of the state, including Arizona territorial census records during the years 1864 through 1882.

“We’ve seen amazing growth in the number of people digging into our digital collections,” Reagan said in a release. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve prioritized the digitization of historical records and archival material to make them available to people around the state, not just those who live in Phoenix.”

Nancy Liliana Godoy-Powell, archivist and librarian of the Chicano/a Research Collection at ASU, and advocate for underserved communities in libraries and archives. She is the recipient of the 2017 Arizona Humanities Rising Star Award.EXPAND
Nancy Liliana Godoy-Powell, archivist and librarian of the Chicano/a Research Collection at ASU, and advocate for underserved communities in libraries and archives. She is the recipient of the 2017 Arizona Humanities Rising Star Award.
Randi Lynn Beach

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Nancy Liliana Godoy-Powell, archivist and librarian of the Chicano/a Research Collection at ASU, says, “I feel like there is a hunger to hear first-person stories. Especially from communities that have been marginalized for so long, especially in Arizona, seeing that the Latino community makes up almost half of the population in Arizona (which is the sixth-largest population in the United States).”

Rest assured: These stories aren’t going anywhere.

To get a perspective from outside the state, I spoke with Bonnie Gordon of the all-volunteer-run Interference Archive in Brooklyn, New York, who said that documentation is nonerasure. It’s important that their archive, whose mission is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements, is embedded within the community and used by community members, “It’s important to think about the past and what we want today: the stories of grassroots struggles, and linking them to other struggles.” At Interference Archive, they gather cultural ephemera: posters, pamphlets, flyers, photographs, audio recordings, et cetera, to tell the history of people mobilizing for social transformation.

This attitude of openness may seem like an outlier, but I’ve discovered there is a willingness to share and collaborate even among more traditional archival spaces. Technology is making this possible.

“The goal is: If we can clear rights, and we can digitize it, and describe it so people can find it, we’re putting it up in the ASU Digital Repository,” says Spindler. “And I think that represents a huge sea change in the ways archives operated.”

In many ways — some subtle, others more direct — we are engaged in archiving our own lives all the time now anyway through social media, particularly young people, but they haven’t perhaps made the mental shift where they are thinking about that documentation in terms of their family story, or their community story, or their roots.

Libby Coyner, archivist at the Arizona State Archives, and Vice President for the Arizona Archives Alliance.EXPAND
Libby Coyner, archivist at the Arizona State Archives, and Vice President for the Arizona Archives Alliance.
Randi Lynn Beach

But what about the cultural conversation we seem to be having about realness and fakeness? It feels especially important right now to preserve evidence, since there are folks very willing to rewrite the past when it suits them. I asked Arizona State archivist Libby Coyner how she grapples with that.

“That’s a really interesting idea,” says Coyner, “because you know, there’s certainly a lot of discussion about climate change deniers being appointed to, say, key environmental positions. It’s strange to me because we have so much documentation to show that climate change is real, 97 percent of scientists believe it, but then we have other people claiming it’s not. I think that it is just a really dangerous place that we’re in because the way that we’ve established how we document things, how we gather information, how we find sources we trust, I feel like it’s all up in the air right now.”

“It does feel in flux,” I say. “I feel like, also, there’s kind of an undeniability to paper.”

“I know, I know,” says Coyner. “It’s so interesting. People are conditioned, if there’s not a piece of paper to document something, then it didn’t happen.”

And yet, we’re moving away from paper. Could this, in some small way, be contributing to our cultural insecurity?

“I had a professor in graduate school,” says Coyner, “and she said we’re as close to a paperless office as we are to a paperless bathroom.”

In other words, don’t hold your breath.

“But moving forward,” she adds, “the preservation of electronic records [or, born digital records] is very interesting. I think that there’s going to be gaps because permanence doesn’t function the same way in the digital realm. It’s probably the biggest thing facing our profession right now.”

Hollywood doesn’t seem to have figured this one out either. In the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, digital archiving is central to the film’s plot. In a recent blog post, “How Not to Build a Digital Archive: Lessons from the Dark Side of the Force” the minds behind the digital archiving company Preservica point out, “all is not perfect with the Empire’s choice of archiving technology.”

For example, “No metadata to prove the provenance of the plans — how could you be sure you were looking at the right Death Star plans?” This is just one of several flaws listed. The climactic battle of Rogue One takes place over a library, over retrieving a cartridge in an archive containing the plans for the Death Star.

In Arizona’s collaboration with Ancestry.com, other records that residents will now have access to include school census records, marriage records, wills and probate records, and territorial and early state prison records.

“This partnership allows historians, demographers, sociologists, students of Arizona history, and genealogists access to over 3 million names in 10 separate record collections,” says deputy state archivist Dennis Preisler. The records can be accessed here.

Hearing from information workers about an emphasis on collaboration, easier access, and a greater connection to the communities they serve gives me hope for the future; that, along with the promise libraries have always made that people, regardless of their circumstances or backgrounds, could have access to information and a safe space for learning.

So, back to my co-worker and our idea for a television show about librarians. Would The Library make great television? Debatable. (Though according to the Phoenix Public Library’s 2015 annual report, 4.2 million customers visited a Phoenix Public Library branch that year, and library services were accessed a whopping 33.5 million times through the library’s website. Not bad potential viewership.)

But can libraries and archives be used as a social change tool? I think so. Maybe, they just remind us of who we are. If we are what we archive, here is a look at some defining material.

Read on for some of the amazing materials found in Arizona's libraries and archives.



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