You are the librarian for Medieval Studies, Philosophy, and Political Science. Tell us about your most recent library research project?
There is always something interesting happening in my departments, and sometimes I play a part. Recently in philosophy, Professor Heyd approached me with an idea for a library exhibit of photos of Bauhaus architecture from around the world by a German photographer. For Heyd, the photos were a reminder of the radical departure point of Bauhaus-that beautiful and functional objects might be available to all, not only the wealthy. Applied to current times, he asked himself whether that departure point could be useful when it comes to “designing a livable Anthropocene.” The exhibit (now delayed by our attempts to ensure a safe environment during COVID-19) will be opened at a later date with a colloquium on the question.
You conduct bookbinding workshops in the community and for K-12 students. How did your passion for bookbinding start?
This started as an attempt to “embrace my inner librarian.” By that I mean I was trying to embrace more meaningfully the ethical positions that make libraries attractive to me, even though some aspects of the profession are not within my comfort zone. In particular, the sustained attention to detail and highly procedural nature of bookbinding is a challenge for me, and developing capacity in this area is satisfying. Applying the craft to the classroom opens it up into my more native domains of public presentations and spontaneous interaction while maintaining the core values that books embody around literacy, sharing, and (in this case) DIY.
What does your typical work day look like during the pandemic?
I’m very comfortable staying home most of the time except for a good hike in a nearby park every couple of days. I usually go with my son, who I’ve enjoyed spending extra time with in this period. I’ve saved a lot on gas!
Is there any part of medieval history that you would like to re-write?
It is tempting to think it would have been a lot better if the Church had not been into forging deeds to land it did not rightfully own in the middle ages. By about 1200, the Church “owned” about 60% of the arable land in Europe. But it was one of these forgeries, The Donation of Constantine, that was the subject of some of the earliest documentary detection, and that in turn gave rise to a more evidence-based approach to historical and literary matters. Which then led to other developments in scholarship. So, tough call.
Same kind of situation with the black death. Without the subsequent labour shortages, commoners might not ever have had the clout to begin to upend the manorial system, which was very oppressive. Of course, that didn’t stop our current 1% from arising… so maybe we needed more black death, especially among the wealthy?
Which historical figure impressed you the most and why?
These are fun questions. I always liked Diogenes, who lived in a large ceramic jar in Athens in about 400 BC and believed life was best lived without possessions and in accordance with one’s fundamental character. He had a good sense of humour. He once went looking for an honest man, holding up a lamp in the middle of the day in the crowded market, without success. Classic grumpy old man.
If you could become the number one expert in any field, what would it be?
Agriculture. Then I would be truly “out standing in my field.”
What are the most frequently asked questions on the reference desk?
They are either “how do I cite this?” or great research questions. Recently a student of design was asking about Stilyagi, which I learned are a kind of Russian hipster. They’ve been an object of fun since the 1940s in Russia. In the course of answering this question, I learned that the influence of the Beats extended as far as Russia in those days, via France, of course. I also learned what the Beats meant by Beat, and how it got co-opted into Beatnik, which is well worth knowing.
Interview conducted by Zehra Abrar