Susan Mizruchi is the William Arrowsmith Professor in the Humanities, Director of the Center for the Humanities, and Professor of English at Boston University (BU). She has been at BU for her entire academic career – 34 years – and her scholarship and teaching has always crossed disciplines. Her dissertation and first book were about the representation of history in 19th and early 20th century history and historiography; her second book was about the idea and ritual practice of sacrifice in 19th and early 20th century literature, social science, and theology.
She has written books about economy and mass culture in relation to literature, in particular the culture of advertising, which explored how most prominent 19th and early 20th century American writers ‘advertised’ their works by serializing them in major magazines before their publication as books, often beside graphically exquisite and elaborate advertisements that were implicitly ‘in dialogue’ with the literature.
We talked to Susan about her latest projects, her long-standing appreciation for libraries, her book "Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age", published at Springer Nature and the changing role of academic librarians.
Tell us about your most recent projects. What have you been working on?
Most recently, I have written a biography of Marlon Brando that involved locating and organizing an archive of his film scripts, letters, notes on films, and his 4000-plus book library, materials that I tracked down all over the world. That Brando, an actor so long identified with a kind of macho inarticulateness, even had a library (a vast and varied one to which he clearly dedicated much time) and that he was so intellectually curious (his interests were strikingly wide-ranging) was a complete revelation. This discovery, and my years long effort to recover all of Brando’s books, which I did for the most part, is quite a story in its own right.
This new edited collection, “Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age,” is my second edited collection. The first was “Religion and Cultural Studies” published by Princeton University Press in 2001. My first edited book grew out of my "Sacrifice" book. This new “Libraries and Archives” collection is a product of my work as director of BU’s Humanities Center, since the book began as a major Forum on the subject of Libraries, Archives, and Digitization organized by the Humanities Center in the fall of 2017. I have a new book coming out in Spring 2021, a “Very Short Introduction to Henry James” published by Oxford University Press. My teaching tends to ‘follow’ my scholarship, in that I teach subjects inspired by the research projects I’m working on. But I have taught courses over the years on a wide variety of subjects from Renaissance Love and Modern Death to Feminist Theory. Most recently I have begun to teach TV Serials that I consider ‘great,’ which include “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” because I am convinced that they merit serious study.
My next scholarly book will concern the subject of book marginalia. The amazing thing about Brando’s library was how much he covered his books with notes (comments, questions, etc.). Because he was an autodidact, and dyslexic, he was a poor speller. But he had an impressive vocabulary because he was intelligent and read so much. So often when there was ambiguity about whether a marginal note was Brando’s, I could confirm it if the word was sophisticated but misspelled! For instance, beside a poem in his edition of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, one of his favorite poets, Brando wrote “non-conformest.” Classic Brando!
In my own personal library, I have been grateful for the fact that people I love, who have died in recent years, my parents, and my husband, were also great marginalia writers. So when I read my mother’s copy of “As I Lay Dying” I have her responses to this gorgeous novel’s portrait of maternity. My father’s books are also full of his marginal comments. My husband was, like me, an English professor, and he and I sometimes shared books. So the copy of “The Catcher in the Rye,” for example, that I use to teach, has both his marginalia and mine in it. Book marginalia is a means of keeping conversation with the dead, a subject I intend to write about.
You seem to have a great appreciation for libraries (advisory and board member positions. You are, for example, Board Member of The Boston Public Library’s Anti-Slavery Collection), where does this interest come from?
I have always loved books and libraries. I was a nerdy little kid, and spent a great deal of time reading, both in our library at home – my father was a sociologist, my mother taught composition and literature, and our house was filled with books of all kinds – and in the public libraries in Cortland, and then Syracuse, New York where I grew up. My approach to libraries was to sit in the stacks, and go through the shelves systematically, picking out books that I wanted to read in full by reading the first paragraphs to see if they engaged me. As a teacher now, I always spend a lot of time with classes analyzing the openings of books, films, TV serials, perhaps an outgrowth of my own habit of being ‘grabbed’ by the beginnings of works. I would come home with big stacks of books from the public library, that I would read through before returning for more. My tastes were eclectic. I remember reading a lot of literature as a kid, but also social science, history, biography (which I loved especially).
It was perhaps inevitable that I would become a scholar and spend my life in the world of books: reading them, teaching them, and writing them. As a scholar too, when I was doing research at Widener Library at Harvard, where I did a lot of work for my Sacrifice book, or at Mugar Library at BU, I have always benefited from the chance to discover the books around my ‘target’ work. Being able to go into the stacks and locate the book you have the call number for, but then finding all of these glories beside it, that are sometimes more valuable to your analysis than the one you were searching for, this has been one of the great pleasures of being a scholar for me.
I have had some amazing experiences. When I was writing an article that evolved from my Sacrifice book, that I contributed to my collection, “Religion and Cultural Studies,” I located at Widener Library an original edition of a 1926 book, “The Story of my Sufferings,” a Memoir by Mendel Beilis, a Jewish man persecuted in Tsarist Russia, whose story was fictionalized by Bernard Malamud in his novel, “The Fixer,” and a collection of original yellowed newspaper clippings about Beilis’ Russian trial fell out. After photographing them, I turned them in to a librarian for cataloging. When I worked on the Brando book, I had the great opportunity of working at a state of the art commercial archive in Los Angeles called “Hollywood Vaults,” where the Brando Estate kept Brando’s materials. While working there I decided that if I could ever get the creator and director of Hollywood Vaults, David Wexler, together with Robert Darnton, director of Widener Library, they would have much to talk about. When I became director of BU’s Center for Humanities, and organized the Forum on Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age, that is exactly what I did!
In the chapter Libraries, Books and the Digital Future, Robert Darnton talks about how historically the library has been the center of the university. How do the libraries and librarians maintain/reclaim this position in the Digital Age?
A key way for the library to establish itself as the centerpiece of the university leading to greater recognition of its unifying role on college campuses, is a more vigorous outreach on the part of scholars and practitioners at universities who are devoted to libraries and what they have to offer.
I think libraries on college campuses can enhance their prominence, bringing into focus more clearly and comprehensively what they have already done, by pursuing concerted engagement with various library organizations in the local community, nationally, and internationally.
Such was the purpose of the 2017 Forum that was the starting point of “Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age”: to stage the centrality and vibrancy of BU’s library, and all the scholarship that was taking place through library resources, by engaging with scholars, librarians, archival staff, library professionals of all kinds, from other area universities, and universities across the country, and internationally, as well as from other organizations in town such as the Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenaeum, and nationally such as the national Archive in Washington. The goal of our event was to break down the barriers that divide scholars from librarians (both within the university and beyond it), and also that divide those who work for non-profit organizations from those who work for government or commercial archives, and to identify the invaluable work that library’s do, and the ideals they stand for as unifying across a variety of institutions and professional activities. The common conversation we created and pursued demonstrated just how important and vibrant libraries remain both in the university and in the community at large, and how valuable it is for academic scholars and librarians to partner with a global cast of scholars, practitioners, and professionals who are equally engaged with libraries and the work that the do.
Our 2017 Forum was followed up by a 2018 event, “Report from the Archives,” that featured people from our Forum including Julieanna Richardson, the founder and director of “HistoryMakers” the phenomenal African American Archive, and also a 2018 screening of Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris,” attended by Wiseman himself, who introduced the film and took questions afterward from the audience. Many different kinds of collaborations have followed from the outreach beyond BU to other area library institutions, including standing internship programs for our humanities graduate students at the Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenaeum.
“I think libraries on college campuses can enhance their prominence, bringing into focus more clearly and comprehensively what they have already done, by pursuing concerted engagement with various library organizations in the local community, nationally, and internationally.”
What challenges do librarians face in their efforts to collaborate with humanities and social science scholars in data-driven research?
I think the great challenge for everyone working at universities today is twofold: the extraordinary demands on everyone’s time, so that scholars, staff, administrators find themselves too overwhelmed to engage in the serendipitous, informal sorts of exchanges that can be so intellectually nourishing to us all. The excessive structuring of everyone’s time also tends to keep us more siloed, and less capable of engaging with people outside our respective departments and programs. The other problem is the availability of resources for all the services that libraries and librarians provide, from access to research materials to the state of library buildings, which on most college campuses are desperately in need of renovation. As university budgets tighten, especially during the financial crisis generated by the COVID-19 epidemic, libraries will be especially forced to limit their claims on resources, whether in terms of staff, research materials, or building needs.
In the chapter "On Librarianship and/with Digital Scholarly Practice" of "Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age", Vika Zafrin, makes a case for greater recognition of the labor performed by librarians. How do you think librarians should go about proving their value in the research process?
I don’t think librarians really do need to “prove” their value. Everyone, at least at my university, knows how valuable librarians are to scholars, especially in this era of digital archives, when so many materials and resources are available if you know how to find them. I think the great challenge is convincing upper administrations at universities of the importance of librarians and their contributions to research and how critical it is to institutionalize their research work both by giving them time, and financial resources and compensation, for doing it.
How do you see the role of the academic librarian developing in the near future?
I think that we will increasingly need and depend on the knowledge and skills of academic librarians, and I very much hope that their work will not be compromised by the financial crises at universities catalyzed by COVID-19. If there is ever a time when librarians are essential it is now: a moment when truth and information is ever more necessary, and global intellectual exchange every more invaluable to the vitality of academic life. Librarians stand at the center of pursuits that are foundational to what the university is about.
Susan Mizruchi's book "Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age" is available on SpringerLink. Across several chapters, different authors discuss topics such as the digital future of libraries and books, open access and the use of information in a "Digital Ecosystem".
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