Vanishing Social Spaces

Recently, I sat in my office preparing a lecture. New slide, copy, paste, insert text. Powerpoint transformed the lives of art historians when it was introduced at colleges and universities circa 2000. It was revolutionary, life-changing, for that discipline in ways unknown to scholars in other fields. Some older art historians even retired earlier than planned, so they didn’t have to grapple with this new-fangled, time-saving invention. It certainly made life appreciably easier for professors. Although it initially requires a significant time investment to assemble a pedagogically rich Powerpoint presentation of 50-75 minutes, for repeated presentations, all that’s needed is a few minutes of updating. A tool of unquestionable convenience.

Powerpoint has also transformed the social life of art historians. In the slide days (a technology discarded by around 2010), one had to ‘pull’ the 30-50 the slides required for a lecture shortly before one delivered it. Afterwards, one had to remove them from the carrousel where they temporarily resided and return them to their drawers. If you worked at an institution large enough to have a slide librarian, that person or their team of hourly workers would replace every slide exactly where you had found it. Otherwise, you had to perform this task yourself (and perhaps also make your own slides from book illustrations).

I recognized the efficiency and limitless possibilities of Powerpoint when it became available, but only recently have I reflected on its profound and detrimental impact on departmental social life. Here in Purgatory, the slide library was for decades one flight down from where the entire faculty had their offices. We all had keys in the event slide-pulling was required outside regular business hours. Faculty and grad students (including those from other departments) wandered in and out, sitting on library stools hunched over open slide drawers or standing and botanizing. One made unexpected discoveries as one does in open-stacks libraries, finding something intriguing while engaged in the search for a specific image. And one learned a lot from the people one randomly encountered there. You never knew whom you might meet.

A large oak library table stood inside the entrance. There, visitors sat and arranged slides, studied their lists, or helped themselves to the sweet nibbles that visitors often brought for public consumption. Several grad students worked there, in addition to the librarian and her assistant. It was a chatty, friendly, relaxing social space. Eileen the Slide Librarian organized events—mask making at Halloween, snowflake cutting during Advent, egg decorating at Easter—that drew people to the space out of the desire for sociability rather than professional necessity.

Some art history departments have created substitutes in the form of lounges, but in these soulless spaces little entices. The pleasant serendipity of chance encounters, the kind one might have at the locally owned grocery or general store—in those places where such things still exist—has vanished, with nothing to replace it. Just as with the first and second, the third Industrial Revolution has made most lives more efficient and more isolated, with selfishness fostered by a lack of social solidarity. Interestingly, when I searched for photos of slide libraries on the Internet, I only found, and with some difficulty, black and white ones. I never photographed my own; like so many things, I figured it’d be there forever…until it vanished. The social spaces of slide libraries are gone forever and will soon be forgotten. How many other such social spaces, as important for a sense of well-being as time spent in nature, have vanished during your lifetime?

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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