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On History, Empathy, Research, and Libraries

This year is only half over, and yet it already contains so many memorable moments. I have lost count of the number of times I've heard that we are living in historic times. While I hope that the immediacy of multiple cosmic battles will improve people's appreciation of history, and its unique ability to teach empathy, I remain cynical. After all, recent work I've done to interpret the data I've collected has demonstrated that the issues we are facing now--a pandemic, widespread mis- and disinformation, injustices toward entire communities, struggles over how to tell our own stories, iconoclasm, economic distress, deep political and religious polarization--are constants in human history.

Among the reasons I say that history has a "unique ability to teach empathy" is that it allows us to enter into the space of another living being: we read the words written by and about those who inhabited the past, and try to see the things they saw and understand the way they saw them. We need the liberal arts and humanities now more than ever. They force us to confront the overwhelming losses of plague years, to imagine the noise and violence of iconoclastic protests, to consider the fear of being "found out" as subscribing to the wrong religion, etc.: they give us the ability to see the "other" as equally human.

Trying to conduct research on 16th-18th century libraries in the midst of this may seem trivial. In some ways, it is: I still have my job. I have the ability to conduct a fair amount of my scholarly activity from the comfort of my home in a small city not overwhelmed by COVID-19. My family and I are in fairly good health. I live in a town where the police chief has worked hard to be a community leader and who is supportive of cries for justice. In other words, I can look away occasionally from the hot mess that is 2020 and bury myself in research work. As a result, I've made a lot of progress in creating the virtual library which is the EJLPP, and because I have student assistants, I've been able to explore some new ideas.

Like the rest of the world, I miss the days when I could meet my classes face to face and talk with my colleagues over coffee or in the hallways. I am concerned about all the unknowns involved in building a new normal. And I am more committed than ever to preserving the stories of the past and to reading between the lines to get the stories of the ordinary person and their ordinary objects. A book isn't just paper and ink. Among other things, it's a way someone has decided to tell, or suppress, a story. It's a way to intimidate, or to edify. It's a ticket to deeper knowledge and compassion, or a trivial entertainment to give one's hard-working brain a break. It's the product of a huge amount of labor and something which will burn in minutes. These contradictions and overlapping attributes mean that books are very much human products. We've all seen the lists of books to read to become anti-racist, to understand the disease we're living with, to survive the economic crisis--as humans have done for centuries, we're compensating for our mistakes and fears by reading. What better time, then, to bury myself in a study of books? I've redesigned the site a bit to highlight things I think had gotten lost in the past, and I've added some interpretive information, including work done by my now-graduated MA assistant, Lauren Della Piazza Hartke. I hope that it's easier to navigate now, and that readers will find it all more useful.


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