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 quote, a book, a whole discipline!

One of the books I received this year for Christmas* was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, a book of essays on women in history. The title is her most-quoted soundbite, taken from an essay on gravestones which forms part of her first book, Good Wives.

The quote, with “rarely” used in place of “seldom”, shows up on t-shirts, bumperstickers, signature lines, and who knows where else. It is generally meant to convey that women shouldn’t be “well-behaved”, a rallying cry to speak up and be heard. Which, in a way, is missing the point.

Disclaimer: I’ve only read about 3 pages of Ulrich’s book of essays so far, so I don’t quite know how she feels about the wide-spread use of the quote. I also feel I should point out that I do consider myself a feminist, and believe that women and men should have an equal voice in their communities.

However, the thrust of the quote isn’t about the present, at least in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I read Good Wives as an undergraduate, and so have a vague memory of the context of the quote. I hear the quote as a reminder that the ordinary, lawful people of the past have very often been left out of History. National narratives tend towards the warriors and activists, the rulers and rebels. It is only recently (broadly speaking) that the well-behaved people became the subject of historical interest.

Thus, where many might read “make history” to mean “make historical change”, I read “make history” as “make it into the historical record”.¬† What many people might not understand is that historical events often would not happen without those well-behaved, ordinary people. Individually they might not have made an impact, but collectively they can. Millions of ordinary, well-behaved citizens made history by performing their civic duty: they voted, and in voting helped elect the first African-American President of the United States.¬† It’s not that I object to people thinking of the quote in one light, but I would love to help people see the social history interpretation.

That’s all for now. I will try to remember to post again when I’ve finished reading the introduction (and the rest of the book).

* I also received Georgette Heyer’s Pistols for Two – hooray for historical fiction!