Past Imperfect: Essays on History, Libraries, and the Humanities
University of Chicago Press, 1993 M06 15 - 298 pages
Lawrence W. Towner, historian and head of one of the country's largest independent research libraries, was also an eloquent spokesman for the humanities. Throughout his career - first as a historian and then as head of the Newberry Library - he developed and expressed a coherent vision for the role of humanities scholarship in American society, voicing the needs of scholars and research institutions while searching for a balance between the scholar's freedom of research and his or her social responsibility. While at the Newberry Library he built and focused its prestigious collections, in his words "an uncommon collection of uncommon collections". He pioneered in the preservation of books and manuscripts, and created major research centers, establishing the library as a community of scholars with a broad outreach to a variety of publics. He established research centers for cartography, Renaissance Studies, the history of the American Indian, and family and community history; the last two reflected his longstanding interest in utilizing underused library resources to develop neglected aspects of history. The essays and talks gathered in Past Imperfect cover a broad range of topics of continuing relevance to the humanities and to scholarship in general. Part I collects Towner's historical essays on the indentured servants, apprentices, and slaves of colonial New England that are standards of the "new social history". The pieces in Part II express his vision of the library as an institution for research and education; here he discusses the rationale for the creation of research centers, the Newberry's pioneering policies for conservation and preservation, and the ways in which collectionswere built. In Part III Towner writes revealingly of his co-workers and mentors. Part IV assembles his statements as "spokesman for the humanities", addressing questions of national priorities in funding, and of so-called elitist scholarship versus public programs. These essays, talks, internal memoranda, and letters capture "Bill" Towner's personality and span the wide range of his experience and expertise. Expressing Towner's coherent vision of the place of humanities, libraries, and scholarship in American life, Past Imperfect will be of interest to anyone concerned about the future of the humanities in modern society.
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