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The Persistence of Cultural Institutions

I spent a good part of the summer reading, thinking, and ultimately writing about law and the persistence of cultural institutions.  What gives a thing heft over the long term, and what causes us to accept it as the thing it is and reject efforts to change it — or at least to change it too radically?  Some of the answer has to with where the thing comes from; some of it has to do with how we react to it; some it has to do with its internal mechanics.   I wasn’t thinking in such broad terms, most of the time.  Most of the time I was thinking about little copyright problems.  But I kept tripping over much more interesting and challenging examples.  Here are a few, all below the jump.

The University of Wisconsin Law Library maintains a list of the law librarians’ blogs in this country, all 129 of them.  The library is one of the oldest institutions in the history of humankind, and like most institutions of such long standing, one of the most rooted in specific places and specific buildings.  Libraries’ and librarians’ struggles to deal with the cultural and economic implications of digitized collections are well-known even in the popular press.  Far less well known popularly is the transformation of librarianship as a discipline.  Why are these people blogging?  If they are blogging — and they’re blogging at a furious pace — in what sense are they still librarians?  Does it make sense even to conceive of the 21st century information conservation and distribution enterprise as librarianship?  Of course it does.  Librarian blogging is a great thing.  But why haven’t the forces of disintemediation and reintermediation done to libraries what they have so clearly begun to do traditional professional journalism?  That is, destroy it?

From the sublime to the ridiculous: 

In early August, I spent several days with my family in the land of my youth, the suburban idyll formerly known as Menlo Park, California and now one of the most grotesquely overbuilt and overpriced little towns on the West Coast.  Still, some of the old songs still play, and among them is the Guild Theater, where all four of us watched — and participated in — a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as enacted in front of the screen by the fabulous Bawdy Caste.  The theater was nearly full, and both the film and the performance have lost none of their perverse camp silliness in the 30 years since I saw them the first time.  But 30 years?  Rocky Horror still captures the imaginations of horny teenagers — and their parents (!) — thirty years on?  Some of the jokes, like the toast, are a little stale, but Rocky Horror is improv, and lots of the one-liners had a contemporary feel.  I can think of two other 70s phenomena that have evolved and endured this way despite the likelihood that no one asked about durable culture in 1978 would have picked them:  Monty Python (surely destined to go the way of Cheech and Chong — but instantly recognizable by almost any adolescent today), and the Y-M-C-A arm thing (that one just creeps me out).  With Rocky Horror and Monty Python, moreover, I’m confident that most people still get the essential joke inside the thing.  (With the Y-M-C-A I’m pretty sure that they don’t.)

Back to somewhere in the middle:

A couple of weeks after the Transylvanian Time Warp, my family was on Cape Cod, vacationing with friends and listening one pleasant Friday evening to the Chatham Band, a little, different time warp of a town band if there ever was one.  We heard the band play Sousa, standards, and family singalongs with a thousand or so other people sitting on blankets arrayed around an old bandstand.  Daughters waltzed in the dust with their dads, as they have done in Chatham on Friday nights for 70 years, and everyone sang God Bless America.  Chatham is a beautiful but precious little exception to most of America; it’s hard to imagine Rocky Horror playing at midnight at the local playhouse.  But even for all of Chatham’s exceptionalism, the entertainment world has evolved quite a bit since the 1930s.  Most town bands have gone the way of the Village People.  Yet this one plays on.   Like generations before us, we had a great time.

And a wrap up:

My daughter heads off to college in a little more than a week, and in our occasional stops at home in Pittsburgh we’ve been running a little “off to college” home-based film festival:  Risky Business.  Breaking Away.  American Graffiti.  Animal House.  Your canon might differ a bit from ours, but these films stick with me and when I was compiling the list, they had stuck with my friend and neighbors as well.  Why?  I saw Superbad last night, which is an off-to-college coming of age movie of a sort.  It’s a very funny movie in places, but it won’t stick.   No one has danced the Y-M-C-A in decades.

1 thought on “The Persistence of Cultural Institutions”

  1. Thanks for the link to my list of law librarian blogs. Interesting thoughts about the transformation of librarianship. I agree that it definitely is a profession in transition. As you say, it’s not only the question of how to handle digital media that is forcing change, but also the ability of librarians to generate content of their own via blogs and RSS feeds.

    Unlike traditional journalism, which is also in transition because of blogs, libraries have been bolstered by the new content. We’re all about the free exchange of information. One of the big reasons that I blog for my library (UW Law Library) is to share all of that great information with the community. And it’s also a great marketing tool for the library – a way to promote the value that libraries offer.

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