An interesting issue that Larry London seeded here re: the value of
older ag publications, many of which, because they predate chemical
intensive methods, contain rich humus for us sustaggies...and anyone
concerned with agricultural practices invented sometime prior to last
year by Corporation X in "university-industry partnership" with Land
A few thoughts.
1) Many land grant college of ag libraries have large holdings of
these old publications; some are being decatalogued and disposed of
at a frightening rate. When I was at UW-Madison, ag library staff
were pressured to make room for new publications, and that often
means that older ones go to Cutter collections...or the dumpster or
But at Madison's ag library--Steenbock--there were a number of folks
with the good sense to know what riches these publications contained,
and to foresee a day when people might once again care about what's
in them. There were several folks engaged in trying to raise money to
get these crumbling old ag publications into electronic format, so
their contents would be preserved in that medium. If I remember
correctly, there was a multi-land-grant initiative on this--and my
notes on this are back in Madison. I'm cc'ing this note to Gretchen
Farwell, the assistant director of Steenbock and a long-time advocate
of sustainable ag information systems. If she replies, I'll post any
helpful info to the group, or she can. Gretchen, thanks in advance.
2) The loss of cultural memory in agriculture, to my view, is no less
important than the loss of, say, a language. I always think of the
National Yiddish Book Center, founded out of the efforts of one man,
Aaron Lansky, who while a student of Yiddish literature in Montreal
realized that countless books in Yiddish were being discarded. These
books--the property and cultural memory of people who had survived
the /pogroms/ of eastern Europe, the Holocaust, and Stalin's
"reforms"--were sometimes discarded by the children or grandchildren
of those people, either because they couldn't read them, or didn't
see the value in them. Lansky made it his life's work to collect
these books, and he recruited other young people to do this also. In
1980 he founded the NYBC (a loft in a building in New York, I seem to
remember), and it grew from this early collection of cast-off books
to a cultural center in Amherst, MA, with holdings of 1.4 million
books in a language that has been revitalized, largely thanks to his
efforts. (In 1980, Yiddish experts believed that there were perhaps
70,000 extant books in the language worldwide; they were off by some
orders of magnitude.) The NYBC has also built Yiddish book
collections at scholarly libraries all over the world, as it has come
across duplicate editions of books. Thus the written cultural memory
of a people in diaspora has been preserved, and allowed to find its
way back into living memory.
Who is doing this for old ag publications? Who is going to farm
auctions to look for old treatises on husbandry, mechanicking,
breeding, etc.? How often does it happen that an elder ag agent
passes away, or surviving widow/er does, and a lifetime collection of
books and periodicals is lost? Or a rural library closes, ditto?
Where are the regional or state or private holdings of these
materials, and who is talking to their collectors? Who is developing
annotated bibliographies of the catalogued and uncatalogued materials?
The luminous and wonderful Walworth Co., WI, ag agent Lee Cunningham
and I have had this discussion several times over the course of the
past 5 or 6 years. He makes it part of his calling to give a home to
old ag publications that he finds, or that people offer him. He said
that people come to him because they try to donate books to their
local libraries and are told that the libraries don't have the
resources of shelf space or cataloguing labor to bring the books into
Of course preference for those resources goes to Danielle Steel or
Tom Clancy best sellers, since libraries now must justify their
existence by stocking what the customers want. And libraries no
longer collect books to preserve them. They are subject to vast
economies of preference, taste, revenues, and technological capacity.
In other words, demand means shelf space--in libraries, as in
So I ask again--who is doing this for pre-high-chemical/high-tech ag
books? Who in sustainable agriculture should assess and speak on
behalf of this loss of cultural memory? I know that the National
Agricultural Library does what it can--but when's the last time those
folks had the resources to publicize NAL's holdings of those
materials, or make them available in more easily replicable media, or
develop user's guides or navigational guides to what's out there?
I have serious concerns that most of sustainable ag's resources--both
at the national and regional level--are being targeted at the
production of new information via research funding. And that very
little, if any, is being targeted at the creation of KNOWLEDGE
COMMUNITIES or that preserve that information, and put it into
context--a context that includes not only the new findings, but the
older ones as well. Or KNOWLEDGE NAVIGATION TOOLS that allow people
to access this information.
Efforts to do this have struggled uphill like a VW Beetle in the
Rocky Mts., running with a hot # 3 cylinder and worn-down points.
Look at the struggles that the Alternative Farming Systems
Information Center at NAL faces--AFSIC's staff for years now have
tried to fill some of this role, doing carefully honed Agricola
searches of NAL holdings to help us seekers of information know
what's available. A service like that, Dan Glickman should be handing
them big foamcore-mounted checks at press conferences, saying thank
you with numbers with many zeroes behind it.
3) Finally, I've said this before (Cramer, you can plug your ears,
because you've heard this rant more than a couple dozen times :^) but
the consolidation of the publishing and telecommunications industry,
coupled with the privatization of Extension, promises DISASTER for
sustainable ag and the cultural memory we are trying to build with
current sustag information products. If public institutions don't
take up this slack, then sustainable ag information and
communications will inevitably go to the highest private or corporate
bidder. Wanna start making some guesses as to who that could be?
Our information products are highly unlikely to able to either
maintain market share *or* exist on a cost-recovery basis. Unless, of
course, sustainable ag is recast as something to sell to the masses
(mainstream farmers) and the cutting-edge nature of it is
Robert Rodale knew this--he was happy to publish /The New Farm/ and
let other publications pay for it. I've heard him blasted as a poor
businessman, but he certainly knew how to build an effective
We in sustag have limited ability, in a fragmented way, to create
information products within our various organizations...but then
these products are so dispersed, and the organizations so poorly
networked, that I see us as the equivalent of mediaeval monastic
libraries in the Dark Ages. A bunch of people scattered across the
world, trying to keep our respective little candles burning in a
howling cultural/economic wind. The Internet has been one of the only
ways we've had to talk to each other, and many of us here on SANET
got here in the good old days, when universal access was still a
principle of Internetworking. (AOL kissed that good bye, for
everyone, in a big way by equating access with how much money they
could make getting as many people as possible "on the Net" to look
The physics of publishing are increasingly moving in the same
direction as everything else in the economy: cheap, mass scale
products or costly, luxury ones. Finding publishers who will produce
and then market a book (never mind a pamphlet or CD or video) with a
limited-at-best readership grows ever more difficult. Niche
publishers struggle along till their well-intentioned people burn out
under the heat of their own efforts.
This is why ATTRA is such an EXPONENTIALLY IMPORTANT INITIATIVE.
Their library of sustainable-farmer-oriented literature could prove
to be one of the most critical cultural resources in the nation
someday. Not to mention the perfect information and knowledge
complement to NAL's holdings of scholarly literature.
This is why the Sustainable Farming Connection Web site was such a
BRILLIANT IDEA (though it never got the resource support it needed to
get it truly off the ground and sustain it as it deserves).
Enough for now. Larry, thanks for seeding the topic. I wish we could
all mosey across the street to The Sand Bar, the little neighborhood
pub that advertises itself as "on the edge of Western civilization,"
and put our feet up, and talk about this stuff till the wee hours.
Lacking the luxury of realtime conversation amongst us all...gods,
I'm grateful for this Internet group. Thanks Andy, Abioli, Jane, and
USDA/NAL. We often neglect to bow in your direction.
And thanks, all, for listening.
Writing from lands end, I wish you all
Center for Integrated Ag Systems, UW-Madison
UW voice mail: 608-262-8018
Home office: 415-504-6474 (504-MISH)
Home office fax: Same as above, phone first for enabling
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