During our five years of travel around the country, my husband Jim and I often found that artists who revealed the perspectives on their hometowns were the people who stopped us in our tracks.
It might be the mural painters in Ajo, Arizona, or Charleston, West Virginia; or the public-art sculptors of Greenville, South Carolina, Rapid City, South Dakota, or Holland, Michigan; or the politically active artists, in San Bernardino, California, or Laramie, Wyoming. Sometimes they brought a sense of the town’s history or a fresh look at its culture. Sometimes they used their trade and artistic gift to make statements and move political action.
Most artists were working at the edge. They seemed somehow different from the rest of us who color inside the lines. That is part of why I wanted to return during the pandemic to artists I have met and known, to see how they are taking in this terrible new life and how they are responding through their craft and work. What were they saying and what were they doing?
I talked first by phone with Richelle Gribble, whom I had first met during her artist-in-residency in Eastport, Maine. Richelle is a serial artist-in-residence, having traveled for weeks or months at a time to places from the Arctic Circle to Wyoming to Berkeley. She is at home near LA now, working out of her kitchen. Her workspace, the counter and a pullout table next to it, competes with normal kitchen activities, and the result, Richelle described, is a mixture of paint tubes and tomatoes.
Richelle works on both big pieces and little pieces, which is convenient now. In Eastport, she had a two-room storefront studio, where she could lay out collections of local flora and fauna, and compose really big pieces. Townspeople strolling the sidewalks would regularly stop by the studio to see what she was up to, which was a feature of her residency. Now the only person who drops into her workspace is her partner, who, she says, spends his days on calls and zooms.
When I first met Richelle, her muse was everything around Eastport: the shoreline, the wildlife, and the nature around her. Now, she says, she is attuned to life closer in. In a project she calls Quarantine Life, she posts online a daily drawing of something she has just noticed, or experienced, or heard about, or felt. You’ll see shopping receipts, a discarded face mask on the sidewalk, sweet potatoes that are growing sprouts, a coronavirus rendering, and the well-organized, color-coded inside of her closet. Her goal is to track the days, she said, and her stack of drawings is growing taller and taller.
She is also participating in a global crowd-sourced project that includes not only artists, but others who are journalists, physicians, ecologists, songwriters, CEOs, astronauts, and more. It’s called Great Pause Project.
The plan is ambitious: Anyone in the world is invited to share written responses and photos on an online platform, to document and archive the pandemic experience. The hope is to learn lessons and gain insights that might otherwise be lost, and to create a tangible, collaborative record to craft the story of this time.
Richelle describes one of the crowd-sourced initiatives, the Window Effect, where people contribute photographs taken from their windows. The impressions evoke everything from weather checks to glimpses through prison bars to effective shields against the virus to daydreaming. And another, the COVID-19 Photo Diary is a photograph collection a bit farther beyond the glass windows, out into the neighborhoods.
Great Pause Project also includes a crowd-sourced written survey, called the echo-location survey, which will build a record about life during the pandemic: People answer questions about how they are feeling, how they have changed, what they notice about their environment, how they see the future, and what lessons they take from living this experience.
Richelle has long explored the idea of interconnectedness in the world through her art. She sees the pandemic era as a chance to have a broader reach by working very collaboratively with others. “If I share art just within my own circle” she says, “my art reaches a few people.” But if it becomes part of something bigger, she explains, “Others will say: Oh yeah, that’s what a global pause felt like or that’s what the COVID experience was.”
I talked with Barbara Liotta, who is an artist in Washington, DC and for the record, a longtime friend. For decades now, she and I have talked about everything: children, husbands, families, her art, my writing, travel, swimming, books, and lots other things. I’ve traipsed around rock quarries with her to source stones for her sculptures, watched her suspend a 57-foot net panel over the side of an 11-story building, and celebrated her openings. She has visited us on our faraway journeys, flown in our little plane, gone to my author events and had parties for them. We prop each other up. So naturally, I turned to Barbara to help me see her artist’s sense of life during this time.
Barbara has a studio behind her house; it used to be a garage, with a concrete floor and high enough ceiling to hang her work. At the beginning, she told me, the lockdown made her feel like a character in a 1940s British movie. We should “buck up and take care of each other and confront this thing by being good community members,” she said. While most of us were cleaning out attics or basements, she was sorting and arranging her enormous collection of formidable, heavy shards, chunks, and slabs. Serendipitously, she came across what she described as “beautiful, gold, sun-drenched granites” and she created a series of warm sun pieces to will in a different mood.
Weeks passed, and as the pandemic with its tragic and awful state came to dominate everything, her work reflected the change. She told me. “As an artist, I can’t not address it, but the immensity of the shift requires that I let it sink in and allow my vision to mature.” The result? “I’ve been drawing and proposing a very dark, dark piece of exploded columns and shattered rock.”
Like for the rest of us, who seek some lightness or humor anywhere these days, one bright moment came on a video call with her son, an emergency room doctor in San Diego, and his new wife, as she was directing them how to install a small hanging sculpture she had shipped them. “A little farther back, off to the right, now left a bit,” she narrated the smart-phone enabled installation process. I saw this as a simple, lighthearted moment. Barbara saw an interpretation: “Art means civilization means hope,” she wrote me, “like an equation.”
Like many other artists and many of the rest of us, her work has been sidelined from the public. An exhibit at the Gallery at MASS MoCA hangs inside for no one to see it. A symposium was cancelled. Future events are falling by the wayside. While many artists have shifted online—musicians, singers, actors, performing artists—Barbara says that option doesn’t work for her. Her art is three-dimensional, and being present helps experience it. “The trouble with my work now is that it needs a venue,” she concluded, with the pain of the sculptor’s version of If a tree falls in the forest …. “It is my work, but my work is not going anywhere. It doesn’t count if no one sees it.”
I also talked with Andrew Simonet, who cofounded and directed Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for 20 years. He left that role seven years ago and pivoted to write young adult novels. He also founded an incubator called Artists U to help artists take practical steps to create a sustainable life as an artist. When I talked to him, Andrew was in Vermont, where he decamped from Philadelphia with his family.
We talked about the work ethic of artists and how it syncs with this moment of pandemic. He explained something I hadn’t thought about before, but it made perfect sense when I heard him say it. Artists, he said, are “very comfortable with uncertainty. We push away from what we know.” And this way of living and working, Andrew Simonet argued, should be encouraging to artists who may need encouragement right now for how to meet the pandemic and push on to make their art.
As artists, he declared, “This is what we train for.”
Even before librarians closed their doors against the pandemic, they started moving fast to keep their work going. They began shifting regular programming online; distributing stockpiles of mobile technology to the digitally needy; strengthening partnerships with schools and food donation sites; activating their maker-technology to produce PPE; helping prepare the homeless population with alternatives for shelter; and more. I wrote about libraries’ novel response to the novel coronavirus here.
The ideas keep coming. Pick-up and drop-off services are emerging. The Alexandria, Ohio, public library offers curbside pick-ups. The Hillsborough County library in Florida opened a drive-through pickup for reemployment-assistance applications. People can also drop them off when completed, and the library will mail them.
In Arlington, Virginia, the public library has already published several online issues of Quaranzine, a community-sourced collection of artwork, poetry, photos, and stories about life during the pandemic.
The Hartford Public Library in Connecticut has moved their immigrant services online, including providing legal help to complete citizenship applications and prepare for citizenship interviews.
Serendipitous moments spur other ideas. When researching the Raymond M. Blasco Memorial Library’s history for the upcoming annual report, Blane Dessy, the new director of the Erie, Pennsylvania, library, came across the annual report from 1918, documenting that the library had shuttered before—during the influenza pandemic. It inspired Dessy to begin working on an Erie County COVID-19 print and digital archive for future reference. “Here we are again,” he wrote me in an email, “and it strikes me that this pandemic will be an interesting story in the history of libraries in the United States.”
Librarians are also thinking about how they will serve their communities once they open their doors again. Here are some of the comments I’ve heard, from the April 16 program from the Public Library Association’s (PLA’s) series of webinars, from communications with the Urban Libraries Council, and from some of the many librarians I met with over the past seven years during my travels around the U.S. with my husband, Jim, for The Atlantic and ultimately our book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
Looking back to the present and future: The old-school telephone is back. Realizing that many seniors who showed up in person at the libraries aren’t comfortable moving online, Anythink Libraries, a district of seven libraries in Adams County, Colorado, have staffed up their midday hours to man a telephone call center. Users can call to “just say hi” or talk about what’s on their minds. The message the library wants to convey even during the pandemic, according to the director Pam Smith: “We are here for you.”
Many school systems and the libraries that work with them have identified the gaps in how schools deliver their distance learning to their students. Many families lack the hardware or internet access or familiarity with technology to help their children do their schoolwork. Marcellus Turner, the executive director and chief librarian of the public library in the tech mecca of Seattle, talked about starting to fill in all those pieces to put more hardware in the hands of more students, offer more connectivity through Wi-Fi hotspots, and more tech help to guide newbie households through the processes. And in the meantime—there is always a meantime—they are filling the space with actual telephone calls to students who used to show up at the library for homework help to ask how they can help over the phone.
And remember scrapbooks? The Anythink Libraries are moving their summer reading program, called mySummer, out of the libraries and into the houses, treehouses, tents, homemade forts and backyards of its readers. “It is all about inventing your summer which includes reading, thinking and doing,” Director Pam Smith wrote me in an email. The library is distributing notebooks and kits of crayons, chalk, and other items to anyone—young or old—who signs up for the program. They’re encouraging the “authors” to list the books they are reading and describe their summer adventures, to make artwork, take an imaginary trip, write about critters they find in nature, and lots of other ideas to spark creativity and imagination.
Ramping up the virtual: Despite everything horrible about it, the pandemic presents a crisis-driven opportunity for libraries to push their online capabilities farther and faster than ever before. Libraries turned quickly to familiarizing their users with their vast holdings of online content, purchasing and sharing even more content, assembling collections of COVID-19 related links and information, shifting regular events like real-life concerts and group picnics to virtual performances with backyard family-only events.
Kelvin Watson, the director of the Broward County, Florida, libraries, commented in the PLA’s webinar that use of social media on their website has skyrocketed. “Instagram,” he said, “logged 1,000 extra engagements.” The lesson? Watson said they are already purchasing more film equipment. so they’ll have a more professional-looking presence online.
The Anythink Libraries offer online tech help, poetry readings, print-and-mail services, and cooking classes. As Pam Smith put it, they are presenting themselves as “Anythink Everywhere.”
The online explosion is heady, but it comes with cautions. As Dessy of the Blasco Library emailed me: There is “a little backstory,” which is cost. “Each time a library user accesses our streaming services at no cost (to the user), there is actually a charge to the library. Nothing is free. Our streaming services usage has gone up dramatically, which impacts our materials budget, which impacts how much we spend on actual books.” He’s currently conducting a survey about how the users feel about the trade-off.
Librarians are wondering what kind of expectations their users will have once they are up and running again. Will people want all the virtual offerings and the extra help, hardware, and services to continue? Will they want more? How will libraries support all expansions?
Shoring up and expanding collaborations: Libraries have always been great collaborators. For example, the community librarians at the Deschutes County libraries in Bend, Oregon, who are master collaborators, work with dozens of organizations around town to augment each others’ work, from resume writing to tax counseling to small-business advice.
Libraries are shoring up some of their traditional partnerships, like with schools. They are also expanding into some new and surprising partnerships.
In Erie, a number of Dessy’s staff have been reassigned to the county Health Department as part of the COVID-19 response team for public communications, public-health research, and health equity.
In Colorado, the Poudre River business librarians have been helping the State Office of Economic Development and International Trade answer calls from small-business owners about a myriad of issues around the pandemic.
In San Francisco, some public librarians have become part of the city’s response team for contact tracing.
The American Libraries magazine documents an extensive list of where and how librarians are being deployed to other tasks within the library and in collaborations with outside organizations.
Reopening: In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education is working on a framework to help local libraries plan their re-openings. There will be mandatory health and safety guidelines, recommendations on how to secure COVID-19-related supplies, and lists of resources for federal and state guidelines from the CDC for community organizations and businesses. In Erie, Dessy is already working on a 60-day reopening plan. “COVID-19 is not an existential question for libraries,” he wrote me, “ but it will cause us to look at our vision, mission, and plans. That, in turn, will cause us to alter our methods.”
Anticipating what the public will expect, Marcellus Turner, of the Seattle library, described how his pandemic-era trips to Target and grocery stores have become research trips. He notes the plexiglass, and he observes the processes and standards for health and safety for what that means for the future of the Seattle libraries. What can they model?
And all librarians have to worry through other logistics: How will they clean the books? How will they open—phasing in with shorter hours, fewer locations, more contact-free drive-throughs?
Kelvin Watson of Broward County expects that they’ll include a virtual aspect to every program they do in the future. And he thinks about the future needs of his community in a cascade of considerations that involves: More people will be looking for jobs, meaning there’s a need for more computers and workstations where people can conduct those searches. And how to rearrange the seating?
For high-altitude planning, the Urban Libraries Council executive council announced that it is launching members’ working groups to address pandemic-related crises, and among those is one to look ahead and redefine the library’s role with the public, schools, businesses, and government.
Pam Smith—director of Anythink Libraries—summed it up, and I bet she speaks for many: “I’ve never been prouder to be a librarian.”
America’s public libraries have led the ranks of “second responders,” stepping up for their communities in times of natural or manmade disasters, like hurricanes, floods, shootings, fires, and big downturns in individual lives.
Throughout all these events, libraries have stayed open, filling in for the kids when their schools closed; offering therapeutic sessions in art or conversation or writing after losses of life; bringing in nurses or social workers when services were unavailable to people; and hiring life-counselors for the homeless, whom they offer shelter and safety during the day.
Today, interventions like those have a ring of simpler days. But libraries have learned from their experience and attention to these previous, pre-pandemic efforts. They are pivoting quickly to new ways of offering services to the public—the core of their mission. When libraries closed their doors abruptly, they immediately opened their digital communications, collaborations, and creative activity to reach their public in ways as novel as the virus that forced them into it.
You can be sure that this is just the beginning. Today libraries are already acting and improvising. Later, they’ll be figuring out what the experience means to their future operations and their role in American communities.
Here are some of the things libraries are doing now. These are a few examples of many:
Feeding the hungry: While schools have traditionally supplied lunches and breakfasts for American schoolchildren who economically qualify for them, libraries have always stepped in for after-school snacks and summertime food programs.
With schools now closed, more libraries have become drive-through or pick-up locations for grab-and-go meals. This is happening in St. Louis County, for example, which is collaborating with Operation Food Search, a nonprofit that distributes free drive-through food pickups in nine of their libraries.
In Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Metropolitan Library closed so quickly that they were left with nearly 3,000 prepared meals on hand. They collaborated with the Children’s Hunger Alliance, which had supplied the meals, to recover, repurpose, and distribute the packets at three library locations.
In Ohio, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, together with the United Methodist Church food ministry are offering ready-to-eat meals to all children 18 years old and under.
3-D printing of PPEs and PPE collections: Many libraries are putting the 3-D printers from their makerspaces into use.
In Maryland, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has sent two of its 3-D printers home with a staff person to soon begin printing shields for health workers’ masks. The library is donating labor and materials for this effort, and like other organizations around the state, is working with Open Works, Baltimore’s biggest makerspace community, to make sure everyone is compliant with specs for the production of the shields.
Internationally, the Milton Public Library in Ontario, Canada, has partnered with Inksmith, an education technology company, to print face shield headbands for PPE masks.
The Billings, Montana, public library is 3-D printing face masks for health care workers.
The McMillan Memorial Library in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, is 3-D printing masks for the community. The Cedarburg Public Library in Wisconsin is 3-D printing masks for the fire department.
The Oakland, California, library has repurposed bookdrops to collect new, packaged masks.
Providing round-the-clock Wi-Fi access and hotspots: Aware that many of their customers rely on the library as their only point of Wi-Fi access, libraries in many communities leave their Wi-Fi open after closing hours. Those numbers are increasing. Also, many libraries have loaned out the entire supply of their portable hotspots to school children who need internet connection to do at-home school work. Others have purchased more hotspots to begin filling the gaps.
The Brightwood Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library made sure all the hotspots they possessed through a Grow with Google partnership were checked out before their closed their doors.
Taking care of the homeless: In Washington State, the downtown Spokane Public Library has opened as a temporary homeless shelter.
In San Luis Obispo, California, the parking lot of the Los Osos Library remains open as a designated safe and clean space for homeless people who live in their cars to camp overnight.
The Richland County Library system in South Carolina, working with the United Way, collected and delivered their 40 standing hand-sanitizing stations to local homeless shelters. They also bought and placed porta-potties outside their downtown libraries.
Keeping people productive, safe, healthy, informed, and connected to each other: Many libraries have ramped up their online presence. There are lists and lists of resources for children’s activities; plans for improving adult job skills and dealing with job loss; hobby ideas; reading lists; ways to sleep better, meditate, and stay calm; ways to exercise; and ideas for virtual, social interaction.
Also, libraries have always been trusted sources of information. Many are revising their websites and scaling up their social media for multiple purposes: bringing in more users and broadcasting the message of their diverse, digitally-available holdings; posting timely, accurate, curated information; and offering up-to-date public-service information on local efforts and issues like city services, public advisories, health directives and requests, tax and unemployment issues, and of course, COVID-19 resources.
From the Anythink libraries in Colorado, Erica Grossman wrote to me in an email: “We’re working swiftly to become a virtual town square—a place of information and connection.”
Here is a grab-bag of examples of the trend she is discussing:
- In San Francisco, libraries and rec centers are becoming emergency childcare centers for workers on the front lines of emergency work.
- In Ohio, the Toledo Lucas County Public Library system has offered its vehicles to those delivering food supplies.
- The Birmingham Public Library in Alabama has a list of valuable links, including one that shows exactly where to get tested and includes details of hours, location, and necessity for call-ahead appointments.
- The Columbus, Ohio, library informs the community about blood drives by one of their partners, the American Red Cross.
- Before they closed, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System had placed a dedicated computer in each branch to help people complete their 2020 census forms online. Now, the library’s Nick Brown described to me how they have pivoted to virtual programming to keep the interest strong and the completion rates high—this in a county that was determined to be undercounted by 30 percent in the 2010 census.
- In Anchorage, Alaska, the city’s emergency operations system has moved into the Loussac Library building, with its ample space and robust Wi-Fi connectivity.
These are the early days of both COVID-19 and the creative ways that libraries will respond to it.
More from this series
The theme in this “Our Towns” space has been, and remains, the sources of vitality, practicality, generosity, and renewal in local-level America, despite bitter polarization in national-level politics.
The series began almost seven years ago, when smaller communities across the United States were still trying to rebuild their economies after the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond.
Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the very people and groups that led the way in local recovery—small businesses, innovative start-up organizations, locally oriented restaurants and bookshops and bars and civic spaces—are exposed to a sharper, more sudden, and potentially more devastating shock than the one they endured a dozen years ago.
National-level and international responses obviously will determine much of our collective public-health and economic future. But in the past two weeks, Americans have already seen governors and mayors, schools and hospitals, religious organizations and foundations and nonprofit groups taking the lead while the national government has faltered.
The upcoming theme in this space will be on-the-ground reports on the way the economic, civic, and medical dramas are playing out. Part of America’s future is being determined right now in the U.S. Senate, at the Centers for Disease Control, and in the White House. But what is happening in the rest of the country matters at least as much, and probably more.
Let me start with a reader’s note that directly addresses this point, and then a few resources from people who have been thinking about equalizing opportunity around the country, before the current cataclysm. The reader’s note is below.
From an author’s point of view, the most important quality of any book is its done-ness. Once you accept that a book is as good as it is going to be, and as finished as you can stand to make it, the miasma lifts and you can move on—to the next writing project!
From a reader’s point of view, the most important qualities of a certain kind of non-fiction book are brevity, specificity, and humor. I’m talking about “theme”or “argument” books that address a current issue—as opposed to, say, biographies, which can be at their best when long and meandering, or narratives or histories, which are designed to immerse you in the details of another time and place.
When the purpose of a book is to advance a new or different way of thinking about a topic, it should be: as short as possible (so the reader gets the point efficiently); as specific as possible (so the reader can test the argument, and perhaps change future ideas or behavior); and as droll as possible (because, obviously).
American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves, a new book by Bob Garfield, passes these tests. It is short, specific, and droll. It is very much worth reading, for ideas about the next stage in the world’s recovery from failed, weak, and in other ways troubled media systems.
Garfield is known to most of the world as co-host, with Brooke Gladstone, of the public radio show On the Media, from WNYC in New York. I’ve known him in that way, from listening to the show regularly and being an occasional guest on it. But I’ve also followed Garfield’s work through the years on the topic of this book—actual programs and systems to improve the media, both financially and substantively. In American Manifesto he pulls together many of the themes he has developed. The result is something that’s neither, on one extreme, a detailed, step-by-step “white paper”-style report on media improvement—nor, on the other, just an op-ed-scale lament.
Instead it’s part diagnosis, part prescription. As he puts it in the early pages, in a passage that gives an idea of his writing tone:
This book is a cry for help in three parts. The dry way of describing it: “An examination of the tragic confluence of the American preoccupation with identity and the catastrophic disintegration of mass media, yielding a society that may be irretrievably fractured, unless we act now.” A less dry way of putting it: “Run for your life. We’re being Dumptied.” As in Humpty, the self-satisfied jumbo egg that once sat atop a big, beautiful wall and wound up in countless irreparable pieces.
Take note: I am not speaking of Trumpty Dumpty. The greatest threat we face is not from a rogue president, but from ourselves.
The three parts that follow are about, first, social and political division; and second, the collapsing economics of traditional media. (“Media have been ‘disrupted’ like the Hindenburg was ‘disrupted.’ A three-century-old mass-media model has been blown to smithereens, and the surviving journalistic fragments are not only too poor to adequately watchdog the government, but also algorithmically segregated from huge swaths of the electorate. O, the humanity.”) The concluding third section is a six-point action plan for individual, corporate, and political remedies.
For most people who have followed the future-of-media debate, the book’s greatest value will be in part three, the recommendations. I won’t give away all of Bob Garfield’s action plan. But I will say that one of its main public-policy proposals involves modernizing antitrust laws and enforcement, to catch up with the technological, financial, and social realities of this age.
The title of that chapter is “No, Really, Trust Busting.” The term “trust-busting” comes of course from the original Gilded Age era, when new and maturing technologies (railroads, automobiles, mass production, mass communication, industrialized agriculture) created new fortunes and new inequalities. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting efforts of the early 1900s, the rise of the labor movement, the state-by-state spread of reform laws—these were all responses. For democracy and civil society to survive after our Second Gilded Age, something comparable is necessary now. So Bob Garfield argues, and so I agree.
(By the way, one of the best political speeches I’ve heard on this topic was by a U.S. senator, back in 2016. You can read about the event where the senator spoke, which I happen to have attended, here, and get a PDF of the speech text here. Spoiler: The senator was Elizabeth Warren, and the speech was given long before she launched her presidential run. The event was titled “America’s Monopoly Problem: What Should the Next President Do About It?” It took place when most of the political world assumed that the “Next President” in question would be Hillary Clinton, because of her then-enormous lead over Donald Trump in the polls.)
I was glad to have read American Manifesto, and I think most media- or politics-minded people will be too. Congratulations to Bob Garfield on its done-ness, and good news for the rest of us in its brevity, specificity, and wit.
Continuing the photo essay about public libraries, which showed many examples of children’s rooms and adult spaces, this collection shows some of the multitude of activities happening at public libraries. It also includes some of the kinds of collections besides books, and some of the public places where books are available to borrow besides at traditional libraries.
Makerspaces are becoming popular in libraries around the country. Some are sophisticated, others modest. Makerspaces harken back to Benjamin Franklin’s early days in the Philadelphia subscription library, where he conducted some of his early experiments in electricity. Ben Franklin was the founder, in a way, of modern makerspaces in libraries.
The southmost public library near the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas, has an observatory that is used occasionally. The library also hosts movie-and-popcorn events for children who are incarcerated in detention centers alone after having crossed the border from Mexico to Texas.
The modest makerspace inside the Dodge City, Kansas, library. It was put together by a young librarian who grew up across the street from the library. He has gathered mostly people’s cast off items, like sewing machines and audio recording equipment.
Learning the ropes in the maker space at the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library is currently under renovation.
Kids’ activities are held after a summer science program in the Dodge City, Kansas, library. The library invited a traveling program from Wichita. Middle schoolers helped herd the littler kids around the “challenges” after the program. There were hundreds of people participating.
Here’s an entry from an art competition at the Greenville, South Carolina, public library. This was sponsored by the local Michelin company, and the requirement was to use old tires in the creation.
Attention Walmart shoppers: This building is now home to the McAllen, Texas, public library. The internal space is vast, enough for exhibitions and receptions. The external space boasts plenty of parking and room for concerts, catered by local food trucks.
Libraries catalog much more than books. When some people are looking for somewhere to donate their treasures, or others can’t bear to simply trash their memorabilia, they think of the library. At the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California, archivist Nathan Gonzalez addresses some of the vast holdings donated by residents of Redlands. The town is in the process of building the first Museum of Redlands, populated largely from the outgrown archives of the library, and which the library will oversee. The library already oversees the Lincoln Shrine, an entire building of a nationally-renowned collection of Lincolniana, just across the lawn from the Smiley library.
Since Jim Fallows and I began traveling the country for American Futures and Our Towns nearly seven years ago, there has been one beat that began as a surprise to me and grew into the most heartening story I’ve witnessed of American resilience. That is the story of public libraries and how they have responded to the challenges facing American towns.
If you haven’t been in a public library lately, you probably wouldn’t recognize where you were if you entered one tomorrow. This is no longer, as I wrote early on, your mother’s library. The books are still there; the readers are still there; the librarians are still there. But sharing the same space are children busy with all kinds of active—and sometimes noisy—programs, inventors in maker-spaces, historians and amateurs researching genealogy, job-seekers scouring the internet, homeless people settling in quietly for the day, women and a few men heading to the yoga space, others watching movies, young entrepreneurs grabbing lattes, people considering the art exhibits, librarians helping others research a medical issue or housing issue or how to earn a GED, tutors helping school kids with math, people checking out hiking backpacks, fishing poles, wireless hotspots, snow shovels, and seeds for vegetable gardens.
And in their offices are the librarians and staff figuring out how to fill all these wants and needs of their communities and to anticipate what can possibly be coming to their town next, like a hurricane or, God forbid, a shooting. I saw many backroom views of libraries, from the depths of their groaning archives to their automated transport and delivery systems of books among libraries. I also ran into many pop-up versions of libraries in odd places from front yards to public parks to the middle of a lake.
After telling so many of their stories one by one, I wanted to show you what some of the libraries look like. These are my amateur photos of some of the libraries I’ve seen around the U.S., and even a few others I’ve visited around the world.
The libraries were in cities as small as Eastport, Maine, population 1,300, and as big as Columbus, Ohio, population 890,000. Most cities were in between in size, largely ranging from 10,000 to 65,000. I also visited public libraries in Shanghai, population 24 million, and across Australia.
Here are some images that stay in my mind about libraries. This first of two collections features the children’s areas and the adult spaces. Coming up next will be what’s in the library beyond books, and alternative public libraries.
The first photo here is inside the Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine.
Children’s rooms: Whenever I asked directors or librarians about the most important efforts in their libraries, or their top dreams and aspirations yet to come, they invariably answered some version of: “It’s the children; it’s all about the children.” And they homed in on reading readiness or school readiness or child development, particularly for the kids who need it most. Attracting children, and their parents, into libraries is a prime mission.
Brownsville, Texas, built a wonderland of a children’s room and have newly gone all out into the ultra-modern space for teenagers.
A former Walmart has been transformed into the new and spacious McAllen Texas public library:
In my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, the children’s area is built on the nautical themes familiar to the kids who grow up there. (I spent many a summer day in this library, but it didn’t look like this.)
The San Bernardino Public Library’s central location has poured precious resources into the children’s room, hoping to attract many parents as well through their children and the offerings there. The collaborative mural featured world-renowned artist Phil Yeh.
The Hughes Main Library in Greenville South Carolina:
The Demopolis, Alabama, public library was formerly home to a furniture store and warehouse. The children’s area is part of its pride and joy.
The Deschutes Public Library in Bend, Oregon, changes the look of their children’s space from time to time. This one was all about superheroes.
The small Highland Park Texas Harvey R. “Bum” Bright Library has a very cozy children’s room and a librarian who always directs children to the right books.
The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library in the Flatiron district, has a children’s braille collection.
Adult Spaces: The adult spaces in public libraries show an entirely different and often contrasting side of a public library. They range from extraordinarily elegant to cozy and welcoming, to dramatic, to waiting for that upgrade. Here is a sampling:
The mezzanine level of the public library in Demopolis, Alabama, in the former furniture store and warehouse, overlooks the California-craftsman style main reading room. Bill and Melinda Gates visited some 20 years ago as a kick-off to their philanthropic donations of computers to public libraries.
Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library of the Birmingham Alabama’s Central Library, the walls are painted with murals by Ezra Winter. They are some of the historic showpieces of the Birmingham library.
The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia:
The reading room in the New South Wales public library in Sydney, Australia:
The reading room in Raymond M. Blasco MD Memorial Library, in Erie, Pennsylvania, overlooks the waterfront where the Tall Ships dock.
The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, has moved into the building of a former Walmart. The space for books is vast.
The Brownsville, Texas, public library creates much of their own artwork. These are the end panels on the shelves in the reading area.
Overlooking the atrium in the stately Shanghai Public Library, where I watched hundreds of people working on laptops and drinking tea, in the foreign-periodicals section:
The small Elk Rapids District Library in Michigan provides a room with a view for its readers.
Here are news items and developments related to trends we’ve been covering in the recent “Our Towns” series, and elsewhere:
- The furniture business returns, and is looking for furniture-makers. In a series of dispatches from Danville, Virginia, and its environs, Deb Fallows and I talked about this region’s reaction after the three previous pillars of its manufacturing economy collapsed more or less at the same time, over the past generation.
Those pillars were tobacco-growing and related activities, which for obvious public-health reasons have been in long-term decline; textile mills and clothing-makers, also shrinking over the past generation due to competition from the Caribbean, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere (we wrote about effects of this shift in South Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and Mississippi); and furniture-making, again mainly due to lower-cost competition from China.
This week The Wall Street Journal reports on the return of furniture-making jobs in North Carolina—not to the levels of the late 1990s, but steadily increasing through the past decade. What’s the main limit on the expansion? For now it is the supply of skilled trades workers for these jobs. This is connected to two other trends we’ve seen and written about across the country in the past few years: the continued growth in relatively well-paying skilled trade jobs across the country—in construction, advanced-manufacturing, health services, repair-and-maintenance, wind- and solar-power projects, and so on. See a report from NPR here, and from a trades group here.
The other trend is the crucial role of community colleges, and “career technical” programs in K-12 schools, in equipping students who need opportunities for the opportunities that now exist. I keep arguing (for instance, here) that community colleges are the institutions-of-the-moment, in increasing the chances for really inclusive economic growth. Soon I’ll give another example, from Dayton, Ohio. It’s one more reason to reading this WSJ piece by Ruth Simon.
- People who leave small-town America, and people who return. This week, the PBS News Hour had a report by Jeffrey Brown on Millennial-generation Americans who have a choice of where to work and live—and are choosing to live in small towns or rural areas. Obviously this is just in sync with what Deb Fallows and I have been observing from coast to coast.
Of course this development does not mean that the pressure on very small areas has abated—the steady disappearance of rural-health facilities is one of the biggest challenges for small and rural areas trying to remain viable. And of course it does not mean that New York, Seattle, and San Francisco will lose their roles. But it’s an important complicating reality: the re-peopling of some parts of “left-behind” America, with people who are looking for ways to bring new life to these areas.
- A “revenue lab” for local journalism. The 10-year-old nonprofit The Texas Tribune has been one of the most important state-scale models of how journalism can re-establish itself, with a new financial model (as discussed here and here). This week it announced a new “revenue and training lab,” to systematize, improve, and share models for sustainable local journalism.
As Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the The Texas Tribune, wrote in an announcement: “We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab—a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers …. The RevLab, as we’ve already started to shorthand it … [will be devoted to] this noble pursuit of sustainability strategies for our industry.”
- Examples of smaller-town functionality. As part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series, kicked off by Ken Burns, Deb Fallows has a piece today on cases she’s seen of communities trying to heal rather than intensify national divides. It starts in our favorite southern-Arizona community of Ajo and moves to Sioux Falls and elsewhere. It also includes a photo of a very powerful piece of civically important public art: the monument erected in Duluth, Minnesota, site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, to the three men unjustly killed there.
Here is one more dip into the waters of ancient Rome. For those joining us late:
- In a “thought experiment” article in the new issue of the print magazine, I ask: What can troubled citizens of today’s America learn from the history of Rome? But the question concerned not the much-publicized lead up to “Decline and Fall.” Rather it was about the “After the Fall” era, known to the scholars at “Late Antiquity.”
- In a first round of responses, academic historians and others pushed back (mainly) against the headline of the article. The headline said, “The Fall of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” The academics replied, “Oh yes it was!”
- Next, a governance expert drew parallels between the “Late Antiquity” era and the tension between centralized efforts, and dispersed local innovations, that have been part of the American saga from the very start.
- Then, other readers suggested other ways of making connections, contrasts, and implications.
That brings us to what will probably be the wrap-up—but who knows. Here are several more messages, starting with a long one, about further extracting Rome-and-America comparisons and contrasts:
1) “The empire made the emperors.” In my article, I said that since World War II the United States has run an “empire without the name.” A historically minded reader draws out the implications:
First, it’s entirely appropriate, as you do, to compare the Roman and American empires—even though the US rules its empire as Romans of the republican (not imperial) era did.
In other words, the US empire is an “empire of obedience.” It uses all manner of tools to persuade semi-independent states and other groups to do its bidding, rather than directly governing territories within formal borders. Direct governance and a formalization of borders occurred under the Roman princeps (emperors).
Second, while it’s convenient to date the “fall” of the western Roman empire, it’s not especially useful from an analytic perspective. The western empire had been decentralizing for quite some time, while “barbarians” had been effectively ruling parts of it, directly and indirectly.
It’s critical to note these groups did not conceive of themselves as “invading” or seeking to “overthrow” Roman rule. By and large, they were forced to enter Roman territory by other attackers. Their rulers were also, by and large, Romanized. They largely ruled in cooperation with local Roman elites and using Roman techniques. Odoacer positioned himself as a local Roman ruler formally subservient to the emperor in Constantinople.
What happened in the West was very different from what happened in the East, when the truly “foreign” armies of Islam invaded and conquered territory ….
Third, it’s a bit of a stretch to say decentralization that happened in the 4th and 5th centuries was necessary for developments that came into their own 1,000 years later. There were guild-like groups in 1st century Rome. The Romans appear to have developed fairly sophisticated credit systems and engaged in long-range trade. Monasteries flourished in the eastern empire, which remained quite centralized and even more heavily militarized. And so on.
Could all of this had developed in something like the direction it took if the Roman state had not succumbed, over many years, to internal and external pressures? It’s impossible to say. But I also think it’s impossible to say it wouldn’t have.
In my mind, here’s the most relevant lesson from Rome for current US developments: The emperors didn’t make the empire. The empire made the emperors.
The US has had an emperor for decades, both through the taking of power and, more importantly (and in Roman fashion), through Congress delegating its powers to him. Trump’s willingness to use those powers has revealed what has been the case for some time.
2) “Last Bastion of Democracy.” The message below represents many I’ve received to similar effect, about what America’s fate might mean for China’s influence.
I’ll bet that the majority of people who lived under Roman rule and were not rich by their historic standards would argue that after Rome’s fall most of everything went to the crapper. Although the Romans were brutal at times, those under their rule were largely protected by Rome’s legions at the request of the local governor ….
Suggesting that America’s fall might not be so bad based on Rome’s fall and what occurred afterwards ignores the presence of Russia and China in the world today ………..
imagine a world without one of the last bastions of democracy, the one that feeds innovation and who has fed a large part of the world for decades. A world run by Putin and Xi, yea right, that would be pretty.
3) “Goths were very popular.” A reader who is conducting historical research, and who prefaces his note with an (unnecessary) apology for errors in English he might make as a non-native speaker, writes about why “barbarian” cultures spread so rapidly in Rome’s absence:
I just read Ammianus Marcellinus’ account (among many others) of the accelerated decline of the Empire in the second half of the 4th century and how it lead to its fall a century later.
One fact seldom mentioned about Romanity and Greco-Roman culture is how the people that lived under it seemed to deeply hate it.
A reoccurring fact of the era is how local populations defected to the barbarian tribes massively. People joined the Goths, the Lombards, the Franks and even the Huns in their wars against their own country! Goths were very popular among the population, even when then besieged Rome, we hear about the Roman plebs joining forces with their attackers.
Whole provinces that had been deeply Romanised, even colonized by Romans adopted Barbarian customs so quickly it looks like they were not conquered but liberated. Gaul, Italy, Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria) went over the Barbarians in some cases as fast as a generation. By the 6th century, Italians—Italians!—were proud to call themselves Lombards. …
There are many reasons for that; the institution of slavery, the degradation and corruption of civic institutions and services, the turbulent switch from a multireligious Empire to a monotheist and rigidly orthodox quasi-Theocracy.
From reading A. Marcellinus, I was surprised to learn that in fact, Roman civilisation at that point was only working were the emperor was currently residing. As soon as the emperor moved, law, order and good administration collapsed. This is probably why the Emperors in the 4th century were constantly on the move ….
4) Wrapping it up. From a reader in the Midwest:
1) My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so. If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses. The trend among historians I read in graduate school was to push the Renaissance back earlier and earlier, but not to deny that there were losses requiring a renaissance.
Then again, who knows, maybe they were wrong, and/or current revisionism has shrunk the dark age (rightly or questionably) to nothing.
2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital. …
5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation [JF note: eg, Puerto Rico, D.C., court packing]. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.
6. The Pax Romana was also real (or was it?), and the end of Pax Americana may prove very dangerous.
7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.
I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.
But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for [the end of] a functioning federal government.
Thanks once again to all who have weighed in.
More from this series
The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article, by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman empire. (As I point out, this concerned the Western empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)
In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation had ever occurred.
Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:
1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials have no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics is more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.
A career official at a national-level agency replies:
In November, I will mark 32 years of federal service.
My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides; my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.
That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful, and feel a responsibility to give back.
Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline, strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.
I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.
I’m not tossing in the towel yet.
2) “Optimates” vs. “Populares”: The battle goes on. From a history professor of my own Boomer generation:
I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.
I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the republic in the first century B.C.E.
At that time, the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.
The society broke into two warring parties: Optimates and Populares (the “Best” and the “People”). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end, the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.
I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.
Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy—but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways; call them national populism and social populism …
We are seeing the breakdown of liberal democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.
One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the empire to loot and pillage. Mainly, they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people, and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well; many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies, and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …
In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the U.S. in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.
Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor, of course, is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria), and Western support of brutal governments (Central America).
But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.
There were many reasons for this, including intertribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to “build the wall” (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger, which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.
As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for a while in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away, and instability increased.
One could imagine some parts of the U.S. doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the U.S.
No one knew that “Rome had fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …
Several hundred years after the fall of Rome, new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century, western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.
The long-term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.
3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-versus-national tensions within the United States:
One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into seven regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up … The merits to such a reorganization are to unify many basic services: Do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that get repeated state by state? This could enhance basic services at the subnational level … On the other hand, it may create the equivalent of seven proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire …
What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society …
Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders, our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid for by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out of service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.
Finally, on the question of if this time is different compared with other times due to change! change! change! Yes and no. I believe that in past periods, starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity versus Wi-Fi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios versus watching reality TV on your cellphone, etc., etc.
But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation, but who has the time to read, let alone write … ?
What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?
It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.
He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.
Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:
I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.
I think of these being less the local aspect, and more the large-scale global future …
It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.
However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.
Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …
The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:
- the rediscovery of the lost knowledge of Greece and Rome (not to mention the Islamic world) that kindled the Renaissance and Enlightenment;
- the reemergence of something resembling “globalization”; and
- the end of the horrific destructiveness of the Middle Ages—due largely to the institution of local fiefdoms that your piece celebrates as a sort of Brandeisian laboratory—thanks to their replacement by the modern nation-state and the European state system, which represented a recentralization of authority and stability, not a devolution.
What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.
Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.
This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-
era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.
I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.
This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.
Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.
There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.
Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.
This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”
The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive …
Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.
My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!
I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …
The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …
Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”
I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.
Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …
I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …
And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.
And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.
Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?
More from this series
The new issue of the print magazine contains a story by me called “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.”
The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.
For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?
You can read the whole thing yourself—and it isn’t even very long.
Readers have weighed in with a range of views.
In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re
giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.
- Not “transition” but “collapse.” From a reader in an academic post:
Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”
A few things to keep in mind—and on these no one debates:
- Population fell. That is a vaguely neutral sounding term, but that is shorthand for murder, rape, starvation, and disease.
- Literacy diminished dramatically or was largely lost.
- Material possessions diminished in quality and quantity. People were poorer.
I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.
Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.
- “The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.” From another reader, who in his day job is a successful software designer. (This is Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate, designer of the program Tinderbox and long-ago guest blogger on this site, when “guest blogging” was a thing.)
The indispensable book on the end of Rome in the West is Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall Of Rome and the End of Civilization. It’s a very short book, it’s important, and it’s fun to read.
One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.
In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size. It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy. And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.
A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.
To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.
I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://
These wall-stones are wondrous—
calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants corrupted.
The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.