All posts by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D.

International Collections as National Resources

Just a few months before this year’s Fourth of July celebrations, a federal budget agreed upon by Congress and the President set  off a round of fireworks about as spectacular and festive as the  “rockets’ red glare” commemorated in our national anthem (which, as you recall, was composed by Francis Scott Key during the war-time bombardment of Ft. McHenry).

In mid-April, after yet another round of contentious political debate, Congress passed the  Continuing Resolution for the Fiscal Year 2011 Federal Budget, which among other things,  committed the Department of Education to a $50 million reduction in the $110 million line for  International and Foreign Language Education Programs.  This drastic budget cut dropped like a Tomahawk missile from a clear blue sky, stopping this year’s Fulbright- Hays Dissertation Grant dead in its tracks and critically-wounding Title VI, a program that funds the network of National Resource  Centers (NRCs), which for over fifty years have been committed to promoting the interdisciplinary  study of strategically-vital world regions such as the Middle East, Russia/Eastern Europe, and South Asia.

In response to this devastating attack on international education, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute of International Education, and several major research universities (including Duke), have stepped in to provide the needed funds for the  beleaguered programs, if only on a one-time, stop-gap basis. Their rationale is that this bridge-money would let every institution reeling from the Congressional bombshell take a moment to plan for its future, and either to scale back or to shift resources.

This battle in the continuing war over international education in general, and Title VI in particular, has far-reaching implications that affects academic libraries’ ability to support research and teaching in the humanities.  The strength of the university library has always been an important component of the Title VI grant application and, as a result, the library regularly received contributions to its materials  budget from the NRCs.  Because of drastic cuts for basic operations, however, most centers have  quite prudently decided to use the funds allocated for 2011-12 to save staff and teaching positions, rather than invest in library collections.  However, the decision forced on the NRCs by Congress will inevitably impact the individuals who use these very same  collections, namely, the students and researchers (both at Duke and beyond) who depend on the  library and who have come to expect that it will continue to provide the resources they need to  do their work.

If Title VI funding is circumscribed, and no additional funds are forthcoming, then the most likely outcome will be a loss in the diversity and depth of holdings that makes  international collections  truly unique, “special collections.” This outcome would undermine the  very purpose for which Title VI was created.  The terms of the grant from the Department of  Education specifically charge us to think broadly and beyond our own institutional walls and ivory towers. Consequently, a  research library at a university with a NRC is entrusted with more than just supplying course material and basic reference works for matriculating students and faculty.  NRC libraries are “National Resource centers”: we use Title VI funding to build diverse collections that we otherwise could not have afforded, coordinate our purchases so that we do not all buy the same materials, and continually assess and document how our materials are actually used in research and teaching, both locally and nationally. If the Congressmen who proposed slashing funding for International Education programs had first asked the NRCs for this data, we would have gladly provided them with it. But apparently the decision to target  international programs was guided less by evidence than by ideology.

In academic circles, it is a truism to say that the research library is central to the humanistic endeavor, and that it will continue to be so, with or without government funding. But unlike the inalienable rights enumerated in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, this truth is  apparently not self-evident.  So if you have a strong opinion about the importance of international education and the humanities, make your voice  heard on this Fourth of July: let your Congressional  representatives know about the value of Title VI — and drop us a note when you do.  The National  Humanities Alliance has kindly posted on its website Title VI issue and action pages, including a  form letter with optional add-in information, which anyone can use to send a letter to their Representative and two Senators.

The British Monarchy

[This is a guest post by Margaret Brill, Librarian for Britain/Ireland, Canada, Australasia, World History and Medieval/Renaissance Studies]

The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29th has provoked widespread interest in the British Monarchy here in the USA, and even in the Duke community.    A frequent question is “Why doesn’t The Queen step down so Prince Charles can be King?” Some people even wonder why they don’t pass over Prince Charles altogether in favor of Prince William, presumably because Prince William is younger and hunkier.  Then there is the question of Prince Charles’ wife Camilla.  Can she be Queen?  Will he be King if she can’t?   In this blog entry I will attempt to answer these questions and suggest some resources for people who would like to learn more about the monarchy.

The British monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that, while The Sovereign is Head of State, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament.  So Britain (or The United Kingdom as it is officially called) is also a democracy.   The constitutional foundation for the monarchy today is based on the Act of Settlement of 1701, which was designed to secure the Protestant succession to the throne, and to strengthen the guarantees for ensuring a parliamentary system of government.  The Act addressed the dynastic and religious aspects of succession, and it also further restricted the powers and prerogatives of the Crown.  It reinforced the Bill of Rights of 1689 which made monarchy clearly conditional on the will of Parliament and provided a freedom from arbitrary government.   The Act also provided that judges were to hold office on good conduct and not at Royal pleasure – thus establishing judicial independence.

Therefore the succession is not a question of choice on the part of the Monarch but is laid down in the British Constitution and as the oldest son of the reigning Monarch Prince Charles will succeed his mother and become King on her death.  There is no precedent or reason why she would abdicate unless she was unable to perform the duties of Head of State.    One of these duties is to be the titular Head of the Church of England, which is an established church.   Since the Church of England still doesn’t recognize the remarriage of divorced persons Camilla cannot be Queen unless Parliament changes the canon law of the Church of England but she could still be the King’s wife with a suitable title.  After all, Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, is not King.  I  do not believe Prince Charles would step down if Camilla were not given the title of Queen.  Whether he is popular or not does not affect the succession. Unless he does something unconstitutional (such as interfere in politics) there would be no reason for Parliament to remove him.  Anyone in line of succession to the throne has to get permission to marry or lose their place in line.   Prince Charles was given permission by the government to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles, whereas King Edward VIII was not allowed to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936, which led to his abdication.  In some ways the Royals have less personal freedom than their subjects.

How relevant is the monarchy today?   As you can see from the above the British constitution depends on the Monarch to be Head of State, as do the countries in the Commonwealth Realm, including Canada and Australia, so it would be very complicated to abolish the monarchy.  Moreover, much of the tradition and ceremonial tourists enjoy so much in Britain is associated with the Monarchy so many feel that the cost is justified.

For more information about the British Monarchy see the official website.
For Duke University Library resources on Britain see the British and Irish Studies Library Guide.

Or take a look at this Reference book: The Kings and Queens of England, by John Ashton Cannon, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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The Historical Roots of “Virtuality”

On March 4-5, 2011, the National Humanities Center in Durham, NC will host a symposium on “The Virtual Nineteenth Century.”

Participating scholars intend to take on the notion of “virtuality,” a buzzword that theorists of new media have used to explain the (supposedly) revolutionary “changes in social interactions and in mental states that our current highly ‘wired’ world has made possible.” The organizers of this symposium dare to ask: “how revolutionary is this new revolution? To what extent do its very premises harken back to an earlier set of assumptions about the nature of modernity?” The symposium on “The Virtual Nineteenth Century” seeks to unearth these earlier assumptions and “to explore the ways in which new thinking about communications, art, and technology developed in the nineteenth century helped put in place a concept of the ‘virtual’ that forecasts many of our contemporary concerns.”

Ironically, it is scholars of the nineteenth-century who have succeeded in creating a pioneering organization “devoted to forging links between the material archive of the nineteenth century and the digital research environment of the twenty-first.” The so-called Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES), is a tagged site that currently allows users to search 952,635 peer-reviewed digital objects from 100 federated sites.  The website “aims to gather the best scholarly resources in the field and make them fully searchable and interoperable; and to provide an online collecting and authoring space in which researchers can create and publish their own work.”  This is a great source for peer-reviewed work about the long 19th-century (1770-1920), primarily in Britain and America; a valuable resource for digital humanities research materials; and a software tool repository for new forms of research and critical analysis.

It’s too bad that the upcoming NEH event will not be streamed on-line, so that those who can not make it to Durham in person, may still participate, dare I say it, virtually.  If you are lucky enough to attend this symposium, send us a description and let us know what you think about the historical roots of “virtuality.”

The Russian Collection at the World’s Largest Medical Library

The History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library, recently announced the completion of a five-year project to catalog its Imperial Russian Era (pre-1917) collection of 5,000 pamphlets and dissertations for degrees in medicine, pharmacy and veterinary science.  The core of the NLM collection is over 3,000 medical dissertations submitted to the Imperial Medical-Chirurgical Academy (later, the Imperial Military Medical Academy) in St. Petersburg. Dating from 1849 to 1915, they comprise the most complete run known to exist outside of Russia.

The newly-cataloged collection of pamphlets and dissertations includes the work of Varvara Kashevarova-Rudneva (1844?-1899), the Academy’s first female graduate; as well as of her more famous males colleagues, such as the Noble laureate Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), who is best remembered for his experiments on conditioning and involuntary reflex actions in dogs.  Images of Pavlov (but not Kashevarova-Rudneva or Pavlov’s dogs) can be found in NLM’s Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) digital collection.

The entire collection can be searched via NLM’s online catalogue.

Reclaiming (and Digitizing) America’s Cinematic Patrimony

On Oct. 21, 2010, during the second annual meeting of the Russian-American Working Group on Library Cooperation, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington was presented with digitally preserved copies of 10 American silent movies—considered lost for decades— from the Russian Federation, represented by Vladimir I. Kozhin, Head, Management and Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. A brief description of each of these films can be found in the following Library of Congress press release.

Due to neglect and deterioration over time, America has lost more than half of the films produced before 1950. In addition, more than 80 percent of movies from the silent era (1893-1930) do not exist in the U.S. In the past 20 years, the Library of Congress and others have made great efforts to locate and repatriate missing U.S.-produced movies from foreign archives.

As part of its partnership with the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, the Library of Congress received a gift of 10 movies that constitute the first installment of an ongoing series of “lost” films produced by U.S. movie studios that will be digitally preserved by Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive, and presented, via the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, to the Library of Congress. Preliminary research conducted by the staff of the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation indicates that up to 200 movies produced by U.S. movie studios of the silent and sound eras may survive only in the Gosfilmofond archive. Digital copies of these films will eventually be sent to the Library of Congress.

Erik Zitser, PhD

TRLN was cool long before 2CUL


In September 2010, Columbia and Cornell University Libraries announced an agreement “to collaboratively support the Slavic and East European collection development activities of both institutions” using the services of a single subject specialist, namely Columbia’s own Librarian for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. This agreement tacitly ratifies the decision to eliminate the position of Slavic librarian at Cornell. It also represents “the first in a series of resource-sharing agreements” developed through the so-called 2CUL partnership, a Mellon Foundation-funded initiative to “support the development” of an “innovative partnership” between these two Ivy League schools. According to the press release, the recently-announced deal “promises to enhance the depth and breadth of Slavic and East European library holdings by better coordinating collection development activity,” thereby limiting “collecting overlap” and “allowing the two libraries to acquire significantly more material across the two campuses.”

What many people may not know, however, is that for over 80 years, the Triangle Research Libraries Network has been quietly, but doggedly engaged in precisely just such an endeavor. And by creating, and recently re-filling the position of TRLN Librarian for South Asia, the members of this consortium have even experimented using a single subject specialist, who works across multiple institutions. According to the job ad that was listed on the Duke HR website, the Librarian for South Asia “develops the collections and provides library services in the interdisciplinary field of South Asian studies at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). He/she also coordinates all library activities related to South Asian studies in the Triangle Research Libraries Network (TRLN) with the objective of realizing an organically whole federation of collections and services” – a description that sounds remarkably similar to the responsibilities of 2CUL’s librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European studies.

In the Research Triangle, cooperative collection development in Slavic, Eurasian, and East European studies dates from the end of the 1950s. Over the last 60 years, cooperation between Duke and UNC Slavic librarians has enabled both universities to develop a strong collection in practically all areas of Slavic and East European area studies. By the terms of the existing agreement, for example, Duke University Library is responsible for acquiring and providing access to Polish imprints, while UNC develops a comprehensive collection in Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian. In the case of Russian-language materials, UNC is primarily responsible for Russian history and literature (particularly of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), while Duke collects comprehensively in Soviet and contemporary Russian/Eurasian history, economics, art, and linguistics. Both libraries also hold important special collections that are specific to or include material on Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe, such as UNC’s Andre Savine Collection of materials on the post-1917 Russian emigration; and Duke’s new digital collection, “Americans in the Land of Lenin: Documentary Photographs of Early Soviet Russia, 1919-1930.” The combined TRLN Slavic collection covers nearly the complete spectrum of subjects taught at U.S. universities—a range and depth of resources that few very few North American consortia, and only a handful of individual libraries, can match.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the TRLN consortium must consult the article written by Patricia Dominguez and Luke Swindler, “Cooperative Collection Development in the Research Triangle University Libraries: A Model for the Nation,” College and Research Libraries 54 (November 1993), 470-96; and the bibliography listed on the TRLN website.

Context Matters

Despite the deluge of information available on the web, students and scholars still need to know how to locate a trustworthy source, whether analog or digital. As the following example demonstrates, this is a process that requires at least some basic grasp of the cultural and political contexts in which information is created. One cannot learn about a topic such as Russia’s participation in World War II merely by plugging keywords into a new database on war-time operations, military decorations, and heroic feats. But one can use this database to discuss the meaning of open access, the reliability of government publications, and contemporary attempts to appropriate history for political purposes.

A People’s Feat, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s “freely-accessible, electronic repository of documents” about the Soviet Union’s participation in “Great Patriotic War” (aka World War II) is, at least potentially, a useful tool for research and teaching. This searchable, Russian-language database currently includes 310,127 historical documents and 787,534 records of decoration (which covers the first year of the war and constitutes only 2.6% of all decorations). The Defense Ministry expects to complete loading the remaining records by 2012.

But does the ideological agenda behind this new digital project belie its claims of free and easy access? What exactly does “free access” mean if a small, hand-picked, committee of political appointees is charged with making decisions about what to include (or exclude) from an official government website?

One of the Russian Defense Ministry’s acknowledged goals in launching this website was the need “to create the documental basement [sic] for counteraction to attempts of falsification [sic] of World War II history.” This clumsily-translated statement of purpose reflects President Dmitrii Medvedev’s controversial decision to set up a “Commission to Counteract Attempts at Falsifying History to Damage the Interests of Russia.” This so-called “Truth Commission” was formed in May 2009, a year before the celebration of the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. It was felt necessary to create such a commission because some of the former Soviet republics (particularly Ukraine and the Baltic states) no longer celebrate Victory Day and often try to give what Russian critics have described as “extremely loose interpretations of history” – interpretations that not only question the motives of Soviet “liberators” but even seek to criminalize the actions of the Red Army.

Coming in the wake of post-Soviet Russia’s apparent retreat from press freedom, Medvedev’s move has elicited angry letters of protest from scholarly associations from around the world, including the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). It has been even more sharply criticized by bloggers, who have suggested that “the true goal of this operation” is “tapping into Russian nationalism, not actually promoting historical truth.”

Despite the controversy, and the selective nature of all government publications, the question remains: is “A People’s Feat” still a useful resource for students of World War II? Or is it so tainted by the regime’s ideological agenda as to make it virtually worthless? Perhaps only those who actually use the online database for research and teaching will be able to answer this question with any degree of certainty. So if you have used this resource, we’d like to hear your opinion.

Dead Souls

Can librarians crack jokes about the “death of libraries” and still be taken seriously in the age of digitization and globalization? I believe that the answer is Yes. Especially if we approach the so-called crisis in the humanities with the same dark sense of humor as Monty Python and Nikolai Gogol.

“Bring out your dead!”

To me the generalized anxiety that humanists and librarians sometimes exhibit when talking about the future of their professions cannot help but recall the opening words of the Ukrainian national anthem, Shche ne vmerla Ukraina (“Ukraine has not perished…”): a patriotic hymn that for over 2 centuries has expressed the mixture of hope and desperation felt by Ukrainian nationalists in their struggle for independence from Russia.

To most people, on the other hand, the title for the Duke University Libraries’ Digital Humanities blog immediately brings to mind the famous “Bring out your dead!” scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Slavophiles and Python fans, however, actually share an elective affinity that goes beyond an appreciation for gallows humor. For as the following TMC movie clip suggests, one of the sources of inspiration for Monty Python’s “Bring out your dead!” skit was a scene from a little-known Hollywood epic called Taras Bulba (1962), starring Yul Brynner as the eponymous Ukrainian Cossack leader and Tony Curtis as his rebellious son, Andrei.

This Hollywood movie was, in turn, adapted from a historical novella of the same name by Nikolai Gogol (Mykola Hohol’-Ianovs’kyi, 1809-1852), the Ukrainian-born, Russian short story writer, novelist, playwright and essayist, who is best known for the comic masterpiece Dead Souls.

Gogol vs. Google?

How exactly is Monty Python’s brilliant spoof of Arthurian romance and Hollywood epics related to the national strivings of a Russified, 19th-century, Ukrainian intellectual burdened by memories of an imagined heroic past and doubts about a utopian future? And what does this have to do with Duke Libraries’ Digital Humanities blog? Can it be as simple as the fact that the humanities, like Ukraine, are not yet dead? And that like Dead Souls or Taras Bul’ba, they might yet inform the production and dissemination of knowledge, identity, and humor in whatever medium it might be created?

I have no answers to these weighty questions. What I do know is that there is now a blog, supposedly based somewhere in Norway, “a land rich in fjords,” whose sole purpose is to create a Ukrainian-language translation of all 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Ще не вымерли літаючі циркачі Монті Пайтон!