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When you’re an historian conducting research, you just never know what you’re going to discover. Archival finding aids and previously published citations guide your hand and point you in the right direction, but now and again you happen upon something completely unexpected -- a juicy bit of gossip, a clever turn of phrase, a little known event -- that deepens your understanding of the past and lifts your spirits. Serendipity can often be the historian’s best friend.

Archives. Flickr/Marino González

But these days, with the wholesale digitization of newspapers and archival matter, chance encounters occur less and less frequently. You type in a keyword and the relevant text or passage appears. How wondrous! How efficient! Yet, something gets lost along the way: your eye zeroes in rather than roams freely. This is precisely why I encourage my students to consult the original text rather than rely on an electronic version.

I practice what I preach. Earlier this week, while at the New York Public Library, I was gingerly making my way through the fragile pages of the Occident and Jewish Advocate of 1860 in search of information about a specific event when, lo and behold, I stumbled across a deliciously nasty comment penned by the journal’s editor, Isaac Leeser, about his bête noire, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati.

I knew the two men didn’t get on, but this was something else again -- a whopper of a putdown, and in public, no less. Wrote Leeser: “I.M.W. may continue, for all I care, to be the greatest man living in his own estimation, but this much I will maintain, that if I need any information I shall never go to Cincinnati to obtain it from the man who has caused more disturbance and heart-burning than any other Hebrew within the limits between the Atlantic and Pacific.”

This particular passage had absolutely nothing to do with my project, but it made my day all the same, bringing mid-19th century mudslinging to life. The passage in question makes my point, too, for the odds of it appearing in a digital database are rather slender. Under what rubric or keyword would it show up? Animus? Bruised feelings? Competition? Heartburn?


Remember the plaintive Pete Seeger song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? In the wake of a recent research trip to the New York Public Library, I’m inclined to sing a similar song of lament about the fate of the book and call it Where Have All the Books Gone?

New York Public Library by Justin Brown
New York Public Library. Flickr/Justin Brown
The much-bruited about renovation of this storied library has been in the news a lot lately, generating considerable controversy along the way. Its champions insist that relocating millions of volumes to an off-site storage facility will result in a new and improved library, one that meets the challenges of the digital age head-on. Its detractors insist that’s a lot of hooey or, worse still, that the library’s plan sounds the death knell for serious scholarship.

Until now, I found myself in the middle of these two camps, cautiously adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But no more. So dreary, alienating and downright disheartening was this week’s visit to the New York Public Library that I now cast my lot with the naysayers.

It wasn’t that this grand institution was forlorn and abandoned. On the contrary. Throngs –- and I mean throngs –- of people walked its glorious halls, giving adjacent Times Square a run for its money. And the place, bedecked with lights, ribbons and greenery galore, was an absolute delight to behold.

Alas, the business at hand –- conducting research -– was something else again. In one division of the library, the distance between the reading room and the stacks is now so great that it takes an inordinately long amount of time just to obtain a book, let alone read it. In another division of the library –- the reference room, no less –- the shelves that once contained the standard reference tools I now needed were glaringly empty. Where did they go? When it came to their whereabouts, even the generally knowledgeable reference librarians had no clue; a digital search also came up empty-handed.

As did I. Having spent the better part of an afternoon at the New York Public Library, I didn't have much to show for my efforts and left its precincts feeling churlish rather than uplifted. What a contrast with the experience of earlier generations of patrons who, heartened by their encounter with the “wonder-world of books,” penned expressions of gratitude. One, from 1903, exuberantly put it this way: “I send you as many kisses as there are pennies in the world.”

I wish I could say that in 2013.

Lunch is one of the great institutions of modern America.   We may eat it on the run and at our desks but there’s no denying that lunch deserves its place in the sun.

As a stalwart member of GW’s Urban Food Task Force which, among other things, encourages our students to eat good, healthy noontime meals, I think about lunch a lot.  The food trucks that clog the campus of late give me pause, as do the limited options available for undergrads who keep kosher or observe halal.  And don’t get me started on the crowds that pour into Whole Foods or any of the other neighborhood food establishments, transforming the prospect of a nice lunch into a waiting game.

Flickr / La Petite Vie.

Though my concerns are present-day ones, it turns out they have a history.  As “Lunch Hour NYC,” a brand new exhibition at the New York Public Library, makes vividly clear, street foods, crowds and informality have been with us ever since lunch was first invented in and by an industrializing America.

Bound up with the rhythms of the workaday world, the lunch hour took off, generating a wealth of paraphernalia and foodstuffs:  carts, fast foods, luncheonettes and lunchrooms, metal lunch boxes and shiny Horn & Hardart Automats; pretzels, hot dogs, pizza, knishes and the soon-to-be ubiquitous tuna sandwich.

After taking stock of this exhibition, I venture to say that we’ll no longer take lunch for granted.

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