Information Capsules | Newberry

Information Capsules

It’s one of those cases where I wish the donors would give me notice of their intentions. Some people bring us half their set of encyclopedia one week, and plan all along to bring the rest when next they came Newberry way. Unless they tell us that, however, the first half will be tossed away as incomplete before their siblings turn up. (Remind me to tell you—again—about the time someone sent over volume two of a $10,000 first edition in October and the first volume the following April.)

Last year, a donor gave us about a hundred and fifty volumes from a series. These were sorted by subject and not at all kept together. This year, she sent us another two hundred volumes. If we’d known, we could have stored them all in one place to see if she meant to send us the rest of the set next year. I don’t know how many there should be, but the publisher kept them coming out for fifty years, and a complete set would be an amazing thing.

I can say that because you can put about three hundred of them in one box. The cumulative intellectual content would probably equal what I get in all those sets of the Harvard Classics, even if, like the Great Books, they would include a few volumes of interest primarily as historical relics.

According to their own history (a pamphlet, like the rest of their publications) the Public Affairs Committee was formed late in 1935 by a bunch of people who were worried about political and social issues. The United States was still stuck in the mire of the Depression, and a number of other countries were seeing whether dictators would be an efficient exit from the same. The Committee felt a better answer lay in all the social research that had been done over the past two decades. All they needed was a cheap, simple way to get that information out to people, and people would Do the Right Thing. (A LOT of people around schools and libraries believe this: they seem fairly normal otherwise.)

Income and Economic Progress was the first pamphlet, in March, 1936. The pamphlets which followed covered health, the law, personal relations, political science, sociology, transportation and, really, anything else they thought would help. Titles as diverse as “How To Choose a Nursery School”, “Why Some Women Remain Single”, and “Economic Development and the World Bank” were sent out to subscribers, politicians, journalists, and anyone else the committee thought would benefit. (They figured journalists would use the material as a source for a story, and get the word out that way.)

They tried to clear the air about war reparations, epilepsy, and, for that matter, air pollution. They tackled smoking (bad for you, but, hey, the tobacco companies MIGHT find a safer form of tobacco), world hunger, pornography, juvenile delinquency, and how much you had to agree with the government to be considered a loyal American. This pamphlet was not the FIRST time they got into trouble.

They were accused of being part of an underground conspiracy to overthrow civilization with their pamphlet arguing that the only difference among races was cultural. They were part of the problem with their pamphlet suggesting that juveniles had rights in court. They spoke out for interfaith marriage, were pushing for environmental clean-up well before it became fashionable, and hinted that the average American history textbook was leaving a lot of people out of the story. Many communities banned their output as subversive, and they were bound to provoke a good harrumph from someone in Congress every few months.

They gave up the effort in 1986; so far I have been unable to find out why. Perhaps the pamphlets lost ground in a world of Public Service Announcements, videocassettes, and cable TV. But you can buy ‘em at the Book Fair: we have Hubert Humphrey writing about immigration, Alan Paton commenting on South Africa, John Kenneth Galbraith on the economy, and, yes, Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish with their scandalous pamphlet on race being more a matter of perception than genetic superiority. You’ll have to look for ‘em individually, though. We couldn’t assemble a complete set

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