A sidelong look into the world of special collections dealers

First of all, if you’re not listening to This American Life, whether or the radio or in podcast form, you should start. But this past week’s episode, entitled Original Recipe, gives us a sidelong glimpse into the mindset of special collections dealers. As should become very obvious, this is about a unique situation that happens very rarely. But I think that, throughout the course of the story, John Reznikoff says things that give you insight into the mindset of dealers more broadly.

Briefly, Reznikoff is a document expert, handwriting expert, and big money dealer of artifacts and documents. In 1993, he was befriended by a man who told him that he had documents proving that John F. Kennedy paid off Marilyn Monroe and that he had ties to the mafia. These documents were verified as true by other experts and sold. They, of course, turned out to be forgeries.

But the part that interests me is more in the set up to the story, before Reznikoff is duped. When he gets a collection of items, whether it be artifacts or documents, his goal is to make as much money as he can off it. For example, he sold President Obama’s first car, a Jeep, but was allowed to strip many of the original parts out first, which he then sold as well. This mindset, applied to cars, is one thing; but when applied to special collections material, it becomes much more of a problem. The items with which Reznikoff is dealing, the artifacts and documents of the rich and the famous, can be sold as individual items because there are people out there willing to pay thousands of dollars to seem closer to someone famous. But through the power of the Internet, more people think that they can make money by chopping up collections and selling them piece by piece. We, as archivists, need to reach out to amateur dealers and try to get them to at least understand where we are coming from and why keeping collections as a whole can be important.

The other half of the episode of This American Life is about the search for the original recipe for Coca-Cola. They talk, briefly, to Coke’s corporate archivist, asking him questions about the recipe for Coke that was found in their archives. I know that they have trade secrets to protect, but their archivist seemed to be more focused on obfuscating information rather than providing access. That may be a byproduct of the mythology that Coke has built around the original recipe, but it still seemed off coming from an archivist.

If you have listened to the episode, what do you think?

Sorry if I spammed your RSS feed

Hey everybody who’s on my RSS feed (all 4 of you), I’m sorry If I spammed your feed with all of my posts being reposted. I just moved my WordPress to a new server, which should be faster and better. This will also let me get updates from WordPress faster, since I’m now running Debian Testing instead of Ubuntu for my server.

All in all, it should be a better experience for all of us. Thanks!

Abandoned Buildings

Abandoned building in Caswell County, NC

This is a picture of a building in Caswell County, NC.  This house is right on NC-86, between Yanceyville and the Virginia border.  And I wonder how houses can be abandoned and just fall apart like this.  Things like this have been bouncing around in my head ever since high school.  I think that there is going to be an explosion of abandoned subdivisions, strip malls, and suburbs, and it might be happening now with all of the foreclosures due to the economic crisis.  A person who sent in a letter to NPR’s Planet Money podcast/blog said that he would never pay down the principal on his mortage because if diaster struck, he could just walk away and all that would happen would be his bad credit for 7 years.  He’s basically paying rent payments for his house and would be able to walk away without having sunk hundreds of thousands of extra dollars into his house when he feels that he doesn’t need to.

I don’t know whether or not I agree with that notion, but it is interesting to think about.  But going back to an earlier point, how can a house fall apart like this?  I must assume that this building couldn’t have had a mortgage on it, because I doubt that a bank would have let it deteriorate like this.  Perhaps something catastrophic happened to this property, causing the owner to just give up and the bank not try to do anything to it, but for some reason that doesn’t seem likely.

Or if the owner didn’t have a mortgage on the house, the owner may have just walked away and then there is no one who’s responsible for this place after the owner.  In some places a homeowner’s association might have some say over this sort of thing, but are there any laws about abandoned buildings?  Can a local government reposses and auction a house after a determination that its abanonded?  And how would they determine if its abandoned?

All of this makes my head hurt.

Drive through Orange and Caswell Counties

About a week ago, I took a drive through rural Orange County and Caswell County, and took some pictures that I think are interesting on the way.

Old abandonded gas station in Yanceyville, NC

This gas station has been closed for so long that there are no pumps there anymore; just this sign remains as a reminder of how cheap gas used to be, even within my own lifetime.

Thrifty Tog Shop, Yanceyville, NC

I enjoyed the Thirfty Tog Shop just because of the awesomeness of its name. When it was actually open, it was probably a regular thrift store or consignment store or something like that, but I commend the people who thought of that name.

There are more pictures, and I’m gonna spread them out over one or two more posts, and actually write some thoughts about how buildings become abandoned.

Thumbs and Weddings

Tire Discounters Sign

My friend Matt and I saw this sign one day in Cincinnati. Its a sign from Tire Discounters, a local tire chain; they always have bizarre signs that are usually related to some sort of ad campaign that they’re running. However, one time, they had this sign up. I have no idea what its talking about or what it means. I mean, thumbs. You know, the things that make us better than most animals, besides our brains.

This weekend, Christi and I went to my friend Alex Mills’ wedding. It was in the Wren Chapel, and it was a short and lovely service. I think that the only time God was mentioned was in the final benediction, which was an old Irish blessing; however, it wasn’t that one that goes “The Lord bless you and keep you…” It was very nice. After the wedding, which only lasted 15 minutes, we went to the reception, which was held at Two Rivers Country Club. It was way out on Route 5 in Williamsburg. We got to hang out with Kate Major and her fiancee Noah, who I haven’t seen in awhile. We drove back today, after staying one night in Williamsburg.

Subways and pathways

Pathway in Hyde Park

This is a little pathway near my house in Cincinnati, Ohio. It connects two parallel streets, cutting through the middle of a large block. Until I looked at Google Maps today, I didn’t notice that it ends up directly in front of a high school, Clark Montessori. But Clark is a magnet school, drawing kids from all over the city. I don’t think too many of them are going to be walking to school. My other thought is that perhaps Clark was a local high school before it became a magnet school… but I haven’t been able to find anything about that yet.

I really like learning about the roads, bridges, and transit history of a city. I feel like it can tell you a lot about what the city was like, what its founders were thinking, what the people who built various roads were thinking. For example, there’s one road in Cincinnati, Duck Creek Road, which is now split into 4 or 5 unconnected parts because of the interstate. But if you drive on some of the chunks, you can get a glimpse of what the city, or at least some of its houses, looked like before the interstate was built. There’s also things like the abandoned subway that was never finished and the inclines that used to take people up the steep ridges that surround downtown.

One of my favorites is the subway. Where the subway was going to be built was originally a canal. When German immigrants moved to Cincinnati in the middle of the 19th century, they weren’t allowed to live in downtown because the Know-Nothings wouldn’t let them. Instead, they had to live on the other side of the canal. It became known as the Rhine River, and all the German immigrants lived over the Rhine, and thats why that neighborhood is called Over the Rhine. But after the canal was emptied, they decided to build a subway in it. But it ran out of money, and so they built a road on top of it. You can still get into the subway (not legally unless you’re on a tour) and you can see all the half built platforms.

I just think its an interesting bit of history about the city.

American Tourists

American tourist satire

This picture is a mannequin from a church in India, telling you that you’re not allowed to take pictures of anything in this area. I found it so funny that I took a picture of the mannequin anyways, and then got yelled at for taking pictures in the place where you’re not supposed to take any pictures. Oh well, I think it was worth it.

But this brings me to thoughts about American tourists around the world. I’ve been abroad without my family twice: once to India on a study abroad summer program, and once to Europe with my roommate from William and Mary, Kenny. And I would like to think that we did not behave like typical American tourists.

It comes down to being respectful. In India, its fairly obvious who is a citizen of India and who is a tourist; the color of your skin is usually a pretty good indicator(although not always). But as long as you are willing to try and learn local customs, like when you need to take off your shoes, what hand you’re supposed to eat with, etc., have an open mind about the things you are doing, and don’t make yourself the most important thing, you’re going to be fine. While we were in Mumbai, we walked through a market and then through a poorer neighborhood. However, we looked like we knew what we were doing, didn’t panic, but more importantly, weren’t taking pictures, making loud comments, etc. And we got through just fine, even though it probably wasn’t our smartest decision. The American professor and his wife who came with us had a much harder time getting out of their typical mindsets. They were expecting more of the conveniences of American life to be present.

In Europe, I think that its easier to be the “typical American tourist” because the culture is more similar to American culture. And when people don’t find what they expect, they get irate. My way of approaching it is to expect things a lot of things to be different but some to be the same and just roll with the punches. As long as you’re willing to adapt quickly and don’t insist on things being the way they are at home, you’re going to be fine. The whole point of going abroad is to enjoy the ways the things are different from the way they are in your country.


Franklin Street

People climbing up the support wires to get on top of the crosswalk lights. This was the scene Monday night at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia Street in Chapel Hill, NC. The UNC men’s basketball team had just won the NCAA tournament, and around 40,000 people took to the streets to celebrate. After going to William and Mary for four years, this was a completely different atmosphere. People were lighting bonfires in the middle of the street, climbing up light poles, tearing street signs off and then crowdsufing on top them of them through the crowd. I saw someone who brought a plastic Santa through it on the fire as well. The student newspaper ran a story about burn victims from the 2005 celebration, and the comments were mostly “jumping over the bonfires is tradition!” Its fun to be a part of a community that cares this much about something. And while it is “just basketball,” it has really brought the campus and the town together.

An old photo that I love

Back Bay, Mumbai

This is an old picture that I love, from when I went to India for 6 weeks for a study abroad over the summer of 2007. It was a great experience, and I would love to go back to India. We took a weekend trip to Mumbai, and this is a picture from the Chowpatty beach over the Back Bay. We actually stayed near the Taj Mahal hotel that was attacked earlier this year. This is also the first picture that I’ve properly set up to be hosted on flickr. I’ve done this for multiple reasons: firstly, because hosting these pictures on my own home webserver would clobber my bandwith if I ever get to even like 5 readers a day. Having flickr take the bandwith hit for all of the images will let me get up to like 10 hits a day before my server dies. I’ve also decided to get into something that a lot of archivists have been into recently. And honestly, I think its a way better photo hosting solution than facebook, especially the flickr pro (which I’m probably going to sign up for something soon.). In flickr, you get to keep copyright control over your images; I’ve decided to make them available under the same license that my written work on this website is under, the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license. This means that you can take the image or my words and use them for whatever you want as long as you don’t make money off of it and as long as you give me credit for having created it. It also has, and this is what makes me more interested from an archival perspective, the folksonomy part. People from all over the world can help you develop your metadata for these objects. If you don’t know where the photo is from, you can put it up and hopefully someone will find it and add information about it. Now, that might not happen much, but whenever it does that makes it worthwhile. The flickr pro account also allows you to have access to the original image size, which makes it a possiblity for the primary interaction patrons have with the object. If you upload a digital image to a flickr pro account, people can look at the same image that the creator took.

Back at William & Mary

Wren Building

The Wren Building at the College of William and Mary. The most famous building on campus and the building where I had a lot of my classes. All of my Religious Studies ones in fact. And I was going to write something about religion, but I’m not going to. Instead I’m going to metablog, because I realized recently that one of my problems with blogging is that I always try to write something that touches on too grand of ideas. I’m always trying to write something that will be Important instead of just talking about regular stuff. Trying always to write something Important just makes me give up trying to write altogether, since I never can think of anything important enough to write about. But then the other side makes me feel like I’m just putting trite banalities up there for my own benefit. And I guess it always is for your own benefit, but it seems like an especially vain exercise to me when I do it. Thats part of the reason behind my photo musings is so that I can try and get past that.

One of the fairly unknown things about the Wren Building (at least something I didn’t know for a long time) is that there are circles in the ceilings of a lot of the rooms; those circles would pop down in case of a fire and reveal that they are actually the sprinkler system. They had to hide it because they don’t look “colonial” enough.