How do we shuffle our cards?

Over the past few months I’ve had a quote, more of an idea really, rattling around in my head. The artist James C. Christensen wrote about how he thinks about creativity and new ideas using the metaphor of a library’s card catalog.

I never knew card catalogs, so in time the cards in the metaphor have gone from being library catalogs to the index cards I was taught to use to organize quotes and ideas when writing research papers. What follows is the first and last parts of the section where Christensen uses the metaphor (the whole discussion spreads out over two pages).

Card catalog drawer pulled out displaying card stack in profile
“Library of Congress Reading Room Open House 14” by Ted Eytan

“The way I see creativity and imagination is something like a library’s card catalog, except that the cards are made up of concepts, ideas, visions, pictures, all the faces of one’s personal life experiences …. The exercise comes about when one practices combining the cards and putting them together in new ways. All the Edisons, Einsteins, and da Vincis of the world were building upon stored information (cards they already had in their files), but they combined the cards in new ways. Their astonishing inspirations came about because they took what was known and saw it in a new light.” – James C. Christensen. A Journey of the Imagination: the art of James C. Christensen. With Renwick St. James. (Shelton, Connecticut: The Greenwich Workshop, 1994), 40-41.

Christensen means his metaphor to apply across fields, using the names of an inventor, a physicist, and an inventor-artist to describe the sorts of people who combine and rearrange their cards.

When I think about this metaphor in terms of the study and practice of history, the cards are facts or sources. Some of us rearrange the cards in new ways, to look at history from a previously unexplored perspective. Sometimes people try introducing new cards (race, gender, furniture, clothing, editorial cartoons) to change the way history is seen.

And sometimes we use the cards in completely new and different ways. We lay them out in a grid instead of in a stack, or build castles and houses, or make a long snake of cards overlapping. Digital history isn’t necessarily something completely new and different. We still have the old cards, but we’ve added new ones to the stack and we’re shuffling them in ways no one thought possible thirty, forty years ago. With so many people rearranging their cards, who knows what “astounding inspirations” will be brought to light.

A Bit of Dickens’ Christmas

I do have more coming about the history of the celebration of Christmas, but this weekend my time was taken up with the actual activities of the season (decorating, a party, attending church, writing Christmas cards). So, in lieu of a proper post, here’s a quote from one of the stories I read every year at this time: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Prose

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me I”

Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.1

I love this because it is so very British. This pre-dates Nast’s image of Santa Claus, and is much more in the vein of Father Christmas, the Bishop Saint Nicholas, and idealized concepts of British paganism.  Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was aware of Saint Nicholas the bishop and historical figure in addition to the American Santa Claus; on top of that, my father lived in England when a boy and so we also had images of Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Present encompasses all these things for me: the bishop, the gift-bringer, and the joy and generosity of spirit which warms us at Christmastime and, in the words of the Muppet Ghost of Christmas Present, hopefully lasts all year.

A Christmas Quote

(possibly the first of a few)

One of the fun aspects of working with historic documents is seeing annual events through other people’s eyes.  I initially found this quote from an 1834 Christmastime letter to be entertaining in a macabre way (I first read it shortly after Halloween). On reflection, it seems to parallel a little our situation with the various flus. Perhaps it is also a reminder that even in the midst of despair, there can still be joy. Or, more cynically, it is a lesson in the relationship between social/economic standing and health. At any rate, I give you Christmas in Richmond, 1834.

“the Cholera has been threatening us, and given some very severe intimations of what it can do, it has not, however, yet invaded the higher ranks of society, and we go on feasting—dancing & making merry as tho’ the Enemy were not at the Gate” – Sarah (Sally) Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 24 December 1834,

Original at the Library of Virginia. Transcription from The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004.

Quote on History

“Human nature is the same in every age if we make allowance for the difference of customs & Education, so that we learn to know ourselves by studying the opinions and passions of others”
-William Bradford (paraphrasing Hume) in a letter to James Madison, October [1772], original in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Transcription from William T. Hutchinson & William M. E. Rachal, eds. Papers of James Madison, vol 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press , 1962), 73.