The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The Quilt Research Rabbit Hole:
Thinking Cap (and Money) Required
We need it. We give it. Thanks to the internet, we receive a good deal more of it today than any other group of humans ever have before. Some information is confirmed and helpful; some information we receive is useless, inaccurate, or just plain confusing, and that’s true if you get the information from the web or your next door neighbor.
But there’s a different aspect of information that has been on my mind recently. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about access to information — and here, I mean the good kind of information, the kind of information you’d want if you were trying to write a book with facts in it, for example.
I’ve been thinking about who owns information and who has access to that information if they want it. Who creates the information in the first place, and where does that information live? It’s no surprise that my questions about have surfaced as a result of me nerding out about quilt culture and quilt history, once again proving that when you decide to specialize in a topic, the world doesn’t get smaller, but much, much bigger and more interesting.
It just looks expensive and intimidating, doesn’t it? They could’ve used a picture of a puppy. Image: Wikipedia.There is a website I use a lot. It’s called JSTOR, short for “Journal Storage”. The site was created in 1995 to be a place where libraries and universities could digitally store the zillions of articles and papers they had in academic journals and reviews, as well as students’ theses, some of which can top 600 pages or more. The creators figured out early that they could upload all those pages and make more space for, say, a coffee maker in the breakroom, or a chair for the poor librarian. What’s more, this newfangled internet would make it possible for people to access these journals and papers from anywhere. We don’t think anything about that now, but in ‘95, this was sort of like the invention of the lightbulb. Forget interlibrary loan, this was internet-library loan. Pretty cool.
Today, there is a galaxy of academic articles, journals, books, book reviews, papers, etc., on any topic you can think of, provided someone has studied it in a college or university and written about it. Guess what a lot of people have studied and written about?
Douglas Copeland’s Hubcap Quilt, 2003, would be a fascinating jump-off point for an investigation into art quilts of the 21st century, or male art quilters, or quilts with metal on them! Good luck! Image: Google Cultural Institute.
A search on JSTOR for “quilts” or “quilting” or “quilters” or “america, quilters” or “quilters, folklore” or “patchwork” or “gee’s bend quilt”, etc., turns up thousands of hits. Some of the listings have no relevance to a person researching quilts; I found a paper in a journal of sociology that happened to use “patchwork” in the title, for example. But most of what’s listed on the website is pure gold for a quilt nerd.
Here are a few of the gems you can find and read on JSTOR:
North Dakota's centennial quilt by Marian Small. Teaching Children Mathematics, Vol. 16, No. 7 (March 2010), pp. 386-389.
Regional Style in Quilt Design by Yvonne J. Milspaw. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 110, No. 438 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 363-390.
Pattern of a Journey: Quilts of the Oregon Trail by Irene Zenev. History News, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January/February 1994), pp. 15-16.
Doesn’t that all look so interesting?? How about we both read one of those articles then get some tea and talk about it! See, I’ve been thinking I’d like to write a paper of my own about Oregon quilts, and that Irene Zenev article would be so helpful! Gee, I could look up the contact information for Irene and see what university she’s affiliated with and get in touch with her. Maybe my paper could build on the body of work that has been done on the story of quilts of the Oregon Trail and then other peoples’ understanding would be even more accurate and illuminating for generations to come!
Oh, wait: It costs $49 to read the article. Forty-nine dollars?? Just to read it?? Gosh, I don’t have that. Well, it says here you can get a subscription for a year … Wow. Two hundred dollars a year. That’s a lot of money for access to this information. Guess I’ll just go play Sudoku.
The world of quilt scholarship research is a pay-to-play situation. Yes, a person can absolutely can do serious, scholarly research on, say, the evolution of the quilt documentation projects of the 1980s and 90s without being a professor at a university. (I’m of the opinion we need a lot more non-academics to do this, by the way.) But you can’t do it without reading the materials you will find on sites like JSTOR. You need access to that information — and that access is expensive.
Good ol’ Library of Congress. It still works! Airfare to Washington, D.C. approx. $300. Image: Wikipedia.
“Mary!” you cry, “go to the library! They’ll get you anything you want!”
This is true. Libraries have JSTOR accounts, and old-fashioned interlibrary loan still works. You can access all the information you could possibly want on quilt documentation projects of the 1980s and 90s through the beauty that is your local library. But you can’t just log into these JSTOR sites with your laptop and library card ID and go wild in there.
The JSTOR people put research articles behind a paywall for a reason: It’s their business model. If you pay for a subscription, you can have what you like. If you don’t pay, you gotta work a lot harder for it. For people in the academic world who essentially live in the library, not having a personal account isn’t that big of a problem, and you’re likely given a personal account through your institution. But you’re interested in a little quilt research moonlighting because you work a job or have kids that need things from you, it’s harder to go through the library for everything. It would be a lot easier to access your research on your laptop, at night, after the kids have gone to bed, or on a Saturday afternoon when you don’t have to go into the office. That’s how the JSTOR people get’cha. Or they don’t.
What’s the solution for this ivory tower information access problem? I’m not sure, honestly. Because it’s not just a matter of saying, “All quilt research papers should be free for everyone!” The website has to have money to upload all that stuff, doesn’t it? And most students have to pay to go to the universities where they write their papers, and that’s expensive, too — and more expensive every year, it seems. It’s obvious the moment you start looking at the ivory tower problem that exists in any serious research, quilt or otherwise, it’s a tangled thread, indeed.
Fun fact: Marie Curie was a quilt scholar in her spare time! (Just kidding, but she should’ve have been.) Image: Wikipedia.
But it’s not my nature to leave you with a bleak outlook on things or to throw up my hands and say, “Good luck, nerds.” Therefore, I have three suggestions for all my fellow harried-but-ambitious amateur quilt scholars out there who want access to all the academic research on quilts the world has to offer:
*If you’re into that second suggestion…call me.