By Edward Rothstein - April 12, 2008 - New York Times
WASHINGTON - “When in the course of human events,” the well-known text begins, “it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained ...” Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. And Thomas Jefferson must have known it too, which is why brackets surround the unfamiliar words. Two lines are drawn through them and, above, with a firm hand, are written the corrections: “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another ...”
Corrections were also made in the next paragraph: “We hold these truths,” it begins, “to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent.” Again, wrong. Men are not really created independent: they are born in a state of complete dependence. Condense and clarify: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
And the world begins to change
I doubt that I would have felt these transformations with the same force had I just tried to read the faded ink on Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, protected behind glass at the Library of Congress. Nor, for that matter, would I have been able to sense the Constitution’s evolution simply by gazing at George Washington’s annotated copy or the other documents in the new exhibition “Creating the United States.” Something else was involved.
That innovation may also be important because the library is rethinking its approach to exhibitions and objects. This includes the opening on Saturday of new shows like “Creating the United States” and a beautiful reconstruction of Jefferson’s library, which once contained 6,487 books and became the foundation for the Library of Congress’s collection in 1815. But the library’s ambitions are far greater.
I’m not keen on the name it has given its project: “The Library of Congress Experience.” The word “experience” seems to promise something disruptive in this context, as if the tumult of an amusement park were about to displace a world of quiet contemplation. And the project, which cost $15 million in private funds (with some $8 million donated in services), is also making its debut on Saturday with elaborate public festivities.
But what is actually happening is different, even if it too has its dangers, not all of them avoided in this early venture. The main feature being celebrated is the introduction of technology, courtesy of Microsoft, that had been available only at the library’s fine show “Exploring the Early Americas.” Now touch-screen kiosks with the power to magnify images of objects, translate text and point to other information sources are found throughout the library’s exhibition spaces.
Two kiosks offer the chance to look more closely at the library’s Gutenberg Bible and examine selected pages; others explain the mythological and literary references in the ornaments of the Italian Renaissance-style Jefferson Building. The exhibition “Thomas Jefferson’s Library” also uses such kiosks to help look inside a few 18th-century books. And yes, these kiosks are what allowed me to see the changes in the Declaration so clearly, even identifying the different handwriting on the document.
These screens are partly meant to attract more visitors, and starting on Saturday their features and information will also be reproduced at the library’s new Web sites (loc.gov/experience and myloc.gov). But they also seem part of a larger attempt to rethink strategy.
One way to treat history in an exhibition is to lay out events and surviving objects and explain their importance: the past is prelude to the present, and we are its heirs. Since the library is, in its very essence, a repository of books and manuscripts, this approach is fundamental. But it demands unusual attentiveness from the visitor.
Another approach is to show that every product of that immutable past was once something contingent, coming into existence because of choices made. A historical document may appear unchanging, but when it was written, it was growing out of a process of revision and debate. In this light history is seen as lived experience.
I think this is what the library is reaching for with its “Experience” idea, which is one reason the new exhibition is about the process of “creating” the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, showing drafts and chronicling the debates about slavery or branches of government that went into their construction. The technology is well suited to that approach, not only in transcribing revisions but also in allowing the user to ask about important themes, “Where did this come from?”
Why, for example, did Jefferson and his colleagues invoke the idea of a natural right to pursue happiness, displacing John Locke’s idea of a right to property? Touch on the link to “pursuit of happiness,” and you are shown other documents in which the concept appears, like the Virginia Declaration of Rights, or where it does not, like Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government.”
In keeping with its larger goal, the exhibition also casts a glance at more recent events, trying to show how the ideas in these foundational documents cast a long shadow: Jefferson’s edited copy of Lafayette’s draft of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 is here. So is a typescript of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he brilliantly reclaimed the founding fathers for the civil rights movement, by speaking of them as having signed a “promissory note.”
But the weaknesses in the library’s new approach are evident in the lumbering and sometimes leaden videos in which clips of protest movements can be seen along with short comments by Supreme Court justices and political activists. While the exhibition’s section about the founding is deep and rigorous, there is something almost scattershot about the attempt to illustrate how relevant the issues are, an eagerness to touch on everything, lest someone think the library has been caught napping.
In all of this the technology could be more helpful if its application were more thorough. The displays should allow different paths for exploration, depending on how deeply the visitor wants to probe. Right now they err on the side of brevity, providing only the most basic information. Instead short quotations could give way to long passages; references could open up on other books and documents; a deeper network - a web - of ideas and texts could be established. Even videos could be integrated. And alternate routes could be designed for schoolchildren.
This need is even greater in the stunning display of Jefferson’s library. The books are arrayed in a spiral, with the viewer standing inside, surrounded by Jefferson’s touchstones. After the Library of Congress’s collection was destroyed in 1814, when the British set fire to the Capitol, Jefferson sold Congress his own library, the largest private holdings in the United States.
The proposed purchase inspired debate because the books were much more wide-ranging than Congress felt necessary, including a study of beekeeping and instructions for harpsichord playing, volumes of Cicero and manuals for architecture. Jefferson catalogued his books using three main categories: Memory, Reason and Imagination.
But in another fire, in 1851, two-thirds of that core collection was destroyed. Recently, in an effort to recreate it, 3,000 volumes matching Jefferson’s were found in the Library of Congress itself. Others came through gifts, and several hundred have been purchased. About 300 more have yet to be found. Jefferson’s originals are marked with green ribbons.
The effect is remarkable, and the promise of the technology even more so. There are three kiosks, each of which surveys a single shelf of books, supplying titles and background; each also offers one book for closer reading. The viewer can seem literally to turn pages on the screen.
But suppose you really want to explore one of these three books, say, “The Builder’s Dictionary: or, Gentleman and Architect’s Companion” (1734). Only a few pages can be read, and none of the other books can even be perused. In fact, on the shelves, titles of older volumes are difficult to discern. (Non-reflective glass would have helped.)
A result is that the technology is being used more to provide a taste of the full experience rather than the real thing; it alludes to what might be possible rather than fulfilling it. The costs of such storage and speed should not be underestimated, but right now “The Library of Congress Experience” is just a glimpse of what could and should evolve, both inside and outside the kiosk.
“The Library of Congress Experience” is an open-ended initiative at the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington; (202) 707-5000, loc.gov.