Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sir Arthur and the Olympic Games

The Sherlock Holmes Collections publishes a quarterly newsletter for Friends of the Holmes Collections. On a regular basis we publish articles focusing on items held in the collection (or found elsewhere in the University Libraries) that bear on Mr. Holmes or his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that were published fifty or one hundred years ago. Once or twice a year I create a new list of books or periodical articles to consider for our “50 Years Ago” and “100 Years Ago” columns and share this list with our volunteer newsletter editor and Friends president. They meet with me nearly every week to plan the next issue of the newsletter or discuss other matters related to the collections. This last Monday, during our weekly meeting, we came across a short piece written by Sir Arthur and published a century ago that was timely and too good to pass up.

In 1914—ten years before the first Winter Olympic Games—Heath, Cranton & Ousely, Ltd. of Fleet Lane, London published a book by Frederick Annesley Michael (F. A. M.) Webster entitled The Evolution of the Olympic Games, 1829 B.C.—1914 A.D. Webster—a javelin champion, Olympic coach, and author—was the honorary secretary of the Amateur Field Events Association. He recruited the President of this same organization, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to write a preface to the book. The introduction was written by His Grace the Duke of Somerset, Chairman of the British Olympic Council. (If this sounds a bit like Chariots of Fire, there is a connection: Webster knew and worked with Evelyn Aubrey Montague who ran steeplechase in the 1924 Paris Olympics—and who was depicted in the movie by actor Nicholas Farrell.)

Webster had a number of motives for writing this book. One senses some frustration and an awareness of the sun possibly setting on the British Empire. It also carries a ring of familiarity to our ears, with concerns about national stature and well-being. In the Author’s Preface Webster stated:

It is only since our dismal failure at Stockholm in 1912 that the Modern Olympic Games have aroused any vital interest in the mind of the “man in the street,” and even then it has been a mere passing feeling of shame that we should fall so low as to be beaten by even the lesser European nations, who for generations past have been our pupils in all sporting pastimes…. My desire, in offering this book to the public, is that a better understanding of the Olympic movement may be acquired and a greater interest in athletics generated in the minds of the rising generation….While our youths prefer to watch rather than to practise the rough old games which first gave us the brave and devil-may-care spirit which has won us possessions the wide world over, it will be a courageous or a very foolish man who will maintain that the bull-dog breed is sound as of yore, in the days of the prize-ring and wrestling-booth.

Sir Arthur, also an athlete of some repute—he played cricket, tended goal for the Portsmouth football (soccer) club, and introduced skiing to the British public—followed Webster’s lead with his own observations on national pride and sport. British athletics historian Peter Lovesey wrote about “Conan Doyle’s Olympic Crusade” and paints this picture of Sir Arthur’s involvement:

In 1910 he [Doyle] accepted the presidency of the English Amateur Field Events Association. Britain’s preoccupation with the more glamorous track events had left the nation far behind the USA and the Nordic countries in jumping and throwing. Britain’s showing in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912, a mere two individual gold medals and five in team sports, came as a shock to a nation that had dominated in the previous century. To quote F.A.M.Webster, “a perfect wave of popular indignation swept over the country, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle . . . had his attention drawn to the position.” Conan Doyle’s own account tells us that in the early summer of 1912 Lord Northcliffe sent him a telegram “which let me in for about as much trouble as any communication which I have ever received.” Northcliffe (who in 1908 had raised nearly £12,000 to bail out the London Olympic Games) said Conan Doyle was the one man in Great Britain who could rally round the discordant parties and achieve a united effort to restore the nation’s Olympic status.

Conan Doyle was a strong patriot. It is often assumed he received his knighthood because of his literary success, but Sherlock Holmes had nothing to do with it. The honour was given mainly in recognition of the writer’s much-translated booklet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, a British response to international criticisms of the nation’s role in the Boer War.

Writing from his home at Crowborough in Sussex, Doyle congratulated Webster on this determination to raise Olympic awareness.

I sincerely hope that your efforts will bear fruit, and that we shall make a better showing in the future as compared with the best of other countries. We know that we have the material. There is no falling off there. I think the human machine is at its best in these Islands. But we have got into the way of doing things rather less thoroughly than they might be done, and that is the point that wants strengthening.

Conan Doyle also discussed another side to the Olympic movement, one often criticized or ignored: the role of money. He also had his eye on a rising power to the West.

It is a very deplorable thing that we were not able to raise the money which would have made athletics more democratic, and put the means of practising them within the reach of the bulk of the people. We tried hard and failed. The result is that we build on a much narrower base than the United States, which has twenty athletic clubs to our one, and widespread municipal facilities by which every man has a chance of finding out his own capacities. This country is full of great sprinters and shot-putters who never dream of their own powers, and have no possible chance of developing them.

In Doylean fashion, the creator of Holmes laid down some lines of action.

We sorely need also some methodical inspection of our public-school athletes, to put them on the right lines and save wasted or misapplied effort. I know how much you, Flaxman, and others have done in this direction; but no man who has his own work to do can spare the time which is needed for such a task. What you have done is, however, remarkable, and in 1916, when we shall have some national heart-searchings, your conscience at least will be at ease.

Other, more painful heart-searchings would come with World War One; the 1916 Olympics never occurred. The Flaxman Doyle referred to was Alfred Edward Flaxman, British track and field star who competed in the 1908 Olympic games. Flaxman died during the war, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His remains were never recovered. Sir Arthur shared an Olympic moment with Flaxman at the 1908 games: the now legendary contest known as “Dorando’s marathon.” But that is a tale for another time (or you can read Peter Lovesey’s account of the event and Doyle’s connection with it).

As you watch the Winter Olympics, remember Sir Arthur, his interest in skiing, and the support he lent to the Olympic movement.

(This post also appears on "Primary Sourcery," the blog of the Archives and Special Collections Department for the University of Minnesota Libraries.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Retrofit 1: Starting With Pieces

Like Sir Saul Enderby, chief of British intelligence MI6 in le CarrĂ©’s Smiley’s People, I can be “thick.” I sometimes need to plot things out, building a thought or idea step by step as if constructing a Euclidean geometric proof. Such is the case as I consider my contributions to a panel discussion/seminar slated for late June, part of the Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) preconference in Las Vegas. The preliminary description for the seminar — with the title “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?” — reads:

Does the popular image of the special collections librarian match what professionals now find in their jobs? Fundamental changes in librarianship and academia are impacting departments and their staffs. New economic and technological realities are reshaping the demands of the communities we serve – both patron and employer. The reality of the work we do may not resemble our visions of the profession when we started. Today’s professional needs a new understanding of expectations and opportunities in order to succeed. This moderated “fishbowl” discussion will put questions to two library administrators and two professionals in order to clarify their expectations and goals. The seminar will aim to provide strategies for building a successful career in a changing field.

Am I showing my RBMS hand by thinking out loud here, thus diminishing any impact I might have during the seminar itself? I don’t think so. There is a slight risk of showing my ignorance, thinking foolish thoughts, or getting sidetracked along the way. I’ll take the risk. I need to get my thoughts in order and out in the open (or at least partially in the open), in the hope that someone might offer an interesting or useful comment, link me to an article or blog, or correct me along the way. I don’t want to spoil our Las Vegas gathering by disclosing too much. On the other hand, this exercise might plant a few seeds and put colleagues in a prepared and productive mode (or mood) once we arrive in “Sin City.”

I’m not going to attempt to build my entire argument (or statement, or contribution) in a single post. And I might not post all the parts here, as I pick out the various pieces of this puzzle, play with them, and put them in place. I might, after all, need to maintain some sense of suspense or anticipation as to where I finally land and what the puzzle ultimately looks like.

For starters, perhaps in a pedantic or pedestrian fashion, let me grab the first thread from the seminar’s description: the popular image of the special collections librarian. Is there such a thing? Certainly there’s the stereotypical image of a librarian—a thing (and topic) I abhor and believe unrealistic. So, right at the start, let's abandon this train of thought and all images, words, etc. associated with the stereotype.

The impression of a special collections librarian is more problematic, so let me attempt to get at such an image through the back door, as it were, by looking at archivists. (I will have more to say about the archival profession as I move through the various steps of my proof. Let me at least put a placeholder here for a thought worth pursuing later, one I may or may not agree with (but have heard uttered by others more than once): archivists—at least in the North American context—engaged in a silent coup as they took over RBMS leadership during the last decade, wresting control from bibliophiles.)

Richard J. Cox, in a blog post from 2006 entitled “What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like?,” asks:

If an archivist were going to write a novel or mystery portraying an archivist or the work of an archives, what would be the difference between what he or she would write and what a professional writer might compose? Mostly, I suppose, the archivist might work hard to avoid the stereotypical features most writers easily resort to in their portrayal. What are those characteristics? They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

As to this stereotype, Cox observes: "Whatever the reasons, archivists are surrounded, buried in, layers of stereotypes, that they can hardly see their way through. But, still the question might be, what is the ideal way, if there is an ideal way that the archivist might be brought to life in a realistic fashion?"

Does Cox offer as a suitable image, something acceptable to the profession? Not really. Only hints, e.g. through the academic novels of David Lodge, but even here we have a problem as Cox adds another stereotypical image into the mix.

Everyone knows that the great university is still home to many who have no hope of making a living in any other part of the world, adding to the amusement evident in the most recent trend in university administrators’ thinking or rhetoric, to reform their institutions into the corporate model. Assuming that a business is intended to make some degree of financial profit, it is wonderful to envision our splendid group of professors contributing to the profit line. Most experienced academics know that to transform their departments into business would be a sure way of killing their programs in a relatively short time – but the rhetoric and posturing along the way would be fun....

Indeed, a thread to work with here is that so many academic archivists are frustrated academics, people who spend years preparing for a teaching career and life of quiet solitude only to discover there were no jobs or they were, despite opportunities, unemployable as academics for some reason.

If Cox leaves us with hints (skewering administrators along the way), Rachel Alexander provides more, at least in terms of stereotypes. In her “Literature review on the image archives and archivists project in popular culture,” Alexander provides another string of images, including: "middle-aged to elderly..., wearing glasses, and dressing sloppily or primly.... a 'fossilized anachronism who should have been put out to pasture long before....'" More images follow, none of them complimentary. I'll spare you the details. I’m sure readers can point to other articles, blogs, books, films, etc. with popular portrayals of archivists and librarians (who are often lumped together in those depictions). Unfortunately, I am still left with the original question in the seminar description: Does the popular image of the special collections librarian match what professionals now find in their jobs?

I think this is the wrong preliminary question to ask. We should scrap or ignore the popular image. We delude ourselves by thinking about or even briefly considering prevalent impressions. It is navel-gazing at its worst. If we got into this segment of the profession because of some quixotic idea of the scholar-bookman and no one in our graduate educational experience disabused us of our fanciful notions, then our professors are to blame for continuing the stereotype; we’re to blame for swallowing it hook, line, and sinker; and our administrators are to blame by leading us by the nose through poorly written or deceptive job postings (assuming such things exist).

Instead, we should deal with the real image, or at least the one we talk about in terms of professional competencies. It is here that we need to begin, to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and see if we like the reflection. With any luck, and perhaps with a bit of skill and guidance from others wiser than ourselves, we’ll see (or are in the process of seeing) “a professional who gradually achieves such general proficiency over the course of his/her career” and “a sense of community and common identity among special collections professionals” that at the same time helps “others to understand our work.”