The goal of Finding North Jersey—both the book and the program—is to determine what people love about the region, what they are most proud of. Then, following considerable discussion, to set forth a vision of the future they want to realize, and third, to brand that vital essence of the region to guide the creation of that future with purposeful action involving the people, businesses, associations, and organizations by pursuing that vision.
Coming to some agreement regarding a regional vision is extremely challenging. Considering the long and rich history and enormous diversity of the region, that challenge will be doubly difficult. How should such a vision be pursued? Let’s consider a few possibilities.
VISION: Networks of Memory and History
Carlyle defined history as “the essence of innumerable biographies.” But the problem is that most of those biographies were never written. That need not remain true in the future. Information technology makes the dissemination of the information and networking of development activities readily and widely available. As one of this country’s legendary politicians, Tip O’Neill taught us, “all politics is local,” and the work of capturing the American experience must be grounded in the local experience.
Capturing that experience for North Jersey must be comprehensive, involving the creation and recording of the stories of people, towns, clubs, institutions, and governments. It is not the servers, databases, libraries, and web pages alone that render this work important, but the ability to locate, access, and use the information. Thus it is the bibliographic, organizational, and information literacy work of librarians and information specialists that make this vision realizable by assuring that the information is available for easy access and use. Since much of the story can be captured visually and digitized, it requires “cataloging” by means of metadata, or information about the information. The development of this comprehensive collection of data and stories requires the disciplined work of many people and organizations, particularly the region’s libraries.
The advanced educational levels of the area, the capability of technology to capture and manage information, the dissemination of information made possible by telecommunications, and the rich internetworking of our society make possible a mind-bending vision: capturing the personal, social, political, and economic life of the region. The vision also encompasses the collaborative development of access to the storehouses of knowledge already developed in addition to steady support for the ongoing discovery of new knowledge. Explanation of the vision involves several perspectives.
Engaging People to Tell Their Story:
Engagement can be defined as involved learning in a social context. Life history, or autobiography, is a great starting place. Writing one’s own life history is invariably engaging; the biographical method enhances the development of one’s identity in a given social and cultural setting. Life history provides a differentiated approach for a diverse population that can still consider a general issue, such as the challenges and shared experiences of living in a given city or circumstance. Such methods require grounding in information resources, making the library the ideal venue for such activities. Libraries are geared both to informal and formal learning, by individually and groups, as the popularity of genealogical studies attests.
The role of memory is a critical; two points are pertinent. The first is to recognize the power of story in assisting memory; people remember stories better than logical explanations. When knowledge is encoded as story rather than logic it becomes readily available, useful, and transferable. Memory, thus, can be considered a synonym for knowledge (Schank and Abelson 1995). This provides another rationale for stressing the “life story” approach to knowledge creation. Memory facilitates engagement and learning
Biography and history are, of course, only two available approaches to engaging people in learning. It is important to determine interest and find ways to pique that interest in a manner that fosters serious engagement.
VISION 2: Growing a Learning Community
A community is characterized as a group with a common purpose. The term is used loosely for a village or identifiable section of a city. But the term is flexible and can be used in many contexts. The reality of community today is in question. Robert Putnam (2000) chronicles the decline of community in America, citing the loss of membership of churches, unions, service clubs and fraternal orders. Many fear that the solitary surfing that characterizes the internet will shatter community even further, but others cite the virtual communities of interest and the interactive gaming of the cyber domain as evidence of the potential of new forms of dispersed, but networked communities. It is notable that Putnam later found a viable counterforce to the loss of community in the branch libraries of Chicago. The role of neighborhood libraries in reviving community with extensive volunteerism and championing, for example, the practical wisdom of the “experience corps” of “old hands” to tutor the young in schools has done much to revive the spirit of community across the city. By providing access to the internet, meeting rooms for community activity, displays of local art, and collections geared to local needs (such as materials in the language of recent immigrant populations) the Chicago public libraries have done much to reverse the prior loss of community (Putnam and Feldstein 2003).
An ancient concept warrants revival. As the brilliant classical Athenian polis emerged it developed an inspirational model of citizen involvement. The Greek paideia ideal envisioned personal and social learning to enable a life of artistic creativity and personal discovery amidst public discourse and decision. The material well-being of an admittedly exclusive and prosperous slave-owning society allowed such an ideal to flourish. A world based on the richness of knowledge and the displacement of matter and energy with information allows a glimpse of such a society as a potential reality rather than either a utopia or a society based on exploitation. If information and knowledge are truly the new source of wealth then—unlike the role land, capital, and natural resources in the past—a community can nurture and develop that wealth through its own efforts and thereby take control of its own destiny.
Other themes for this project include social change and valuing business.
A big theme of the North Jersey story is social change and transformation. The shifts from an agricultural to an industrial to a post-industrial society occurred here earlier than in most states. One recent example of social change is the “rise of the creative class” described by Richard Florida (2002). Educated, talented, and driven by goals of openness, collaboration, inclusiveness, and self-realization rather than materialism and competitiveness, the “creative” contingent appears to be less fully captured by the prevailing social-economic paradigm and more open to alternatives. This interpretation is compatible with David Brooks’ (2000) perceived “bourgeois bohemians,” the highly educated but mannerless new class of the children of the baby boomers. Testing these theories in the attitudes and reality of North Jersey will be illustrative.
In times like the post-2008 financial meltdown era, it is corporate misdeeds that influence public perception. Business is necessary for a good society; our society is healthy and prosperous and dynamic in good part because it encourages and rewards enterprise and hard work. And yet business is not honored and recognized as well as it might be. Non-financial research and information is not as readily available to the business community as it might be. And guidance in gathering the records, preserving the archives, and writing the “life history” of a given enterprise is nowhere nearly as available as it should be. Opportunities for networking, discussing books and ideas and films, and making connections among people in different professions, disciplines, and domains who willingly share problems and perspectives can be facilitated through brainstorming or focus group activities. These are neglected areas of opportunity and service which the library as an institution can address. And such activities open doors to friendships and partnerships that can benefit society enormously. There are preservation leagues to protect historic buildings; are not long-lived businesses that provide jobs and tax revenues and services to communities over decades equally worthy of attention, documentation, and recognition?
Simply put, Finding North Jersey envisions a cross-organizational endeavor—in partnership with libraries, historical societies, museums, public agencies, schools, associations, and corporations—to engage the people of North Jersey in writing their stories. Books, videos, and other media will be utilized. The project develops and relies on trained volunteers to attract and involve as many people as possible. Certain themes would be emphasized in the beginning; other themes will emerge from the process. Life story writing and organizational narrative and presentation in various formats including print, graphic, video, and dramaturgical media are the basic approach. The method is adaptable to communities and associations as well. As the project develops partnerships, subscriptions, and sponsorships will be explored to assure sustainability.
Brooks, D. (2000). Bobos in Paradise : The New Upper Class and How They Got There.
New York: Simon and Schuster.
Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster.
________., and Feldstein, L. W. (2003). Better Together: Restoring the American
Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Schank, R. C., and Abelson, R. P. (1995). Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story.”
In Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story, ed. Wyer, R. S., Jr. Vol III in
Advances in Social Cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1-85.