Arcadian Visions of the Past Mark Rice
A couple of years ago, my wife gave me a book about my childhood hometown of Richland, Washington, a small desert city where I haven't lived for more than twenty years. The book, a pleasantly slim volume simply titled Richland, is one in a series of photographic histories of communities around the United States published by Arcadia Publishing. Like all of Arcadia's books, Richland is packed full of photographs, and its pages showed many of the buildings, neighborhoods, and desert landscapes that I had known intimately as a child but had mostly forgotten about after so many years. I was surprised, when I sat down to look at the book for the first time, to find myself filled with an intense nostalgia for a place I was always yearning to leave as a child. For hours that day I flipped through the pages, moving backward and forward, letting the visual cues spark memories from my childhood. I simply couldn't put the book down. When we went to visit my brother, he too was quickly charmed by what he saw and we embarked on a lengthy remembrance of our shared past.
The pleasure I derive from looking at Richland is shared by many thousands of people who page through similar books all around the United States, each of us caught up in one of the biggest success stories of the publishing industry in the recent years: Arcadia Publishing, specifically its signature "Images of America" series of books. In 2000, Publishers Weekly named Arcadia Publishing one of the nation's fastest growing publishers (Milliot, "Small"), and a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle called Arcadia Publishing the "biggest thing in the history book business these days" (Nolte). The attractively designed, sepia-toned covers are instantly recognizable in bookstores, gift shops, and libraries throughout the United States, bearing titles such as Italians in Albuquerque and Around Cooperstown. Drawing from local photographic archives and written by community history-minded authors, the books are visual feasts that can be quite fun to look at, and they generally receive positive local press. Over 3000 titles have been published in the series since 1993; on average, there are sixty "Images of America" books for each state. With each book containing more than 200 images, it is easy to see how significant a resource for historical photographs "Images of America" has become.
Arcadia Publishing was founded in 1993 as the American subsidiary of UK-based Tempus Publishing. It was a good time for such a venture because, in the words of the historian Mike Wallace, the United States was "on a heritage binge" (x) in the 1990s. The so-called "culture wars" were in full swing. A conservative backlash had emerged, reacting against trends in historical scholarship that highlighted stories of struggle, conflict and compromise over stories of consensus. Debates roared about how the past should be represented in high school history curricula, museum exhibitions, and Hollywood films. However, for many Americans, the past was an uncomplicated place that they could vicariously experience through weekend visits to historical sites or antique stores. Corporate America was attuned to this trend, with articles bearing titles such as "Age, Sex, and Attitude Toward the Past as Predictors of Consumers' Aesthetic Tastes for Cultural Products" (Holbrook and Schindler), and "Nostalgia and Consumption Preferences: Some Emerging Patterns of Consumer Tastes" (Holbrook) published in a variety of marketing journals.
A business venture tucked inside the heritage market that flourished at century's end, Arcadia Publishing carefully shapes the story of its ascent to read like a straightforward story of capitalist success, and the company takes pride in its Horatio Alger-like struggle to achieve respectability. A 2003 promotional flyer celebrating the company's 10th anniversary reads, in part:As with most new ideas, we were told that it wouldn't work, and we set out to prove that it would. As it turned out, the sales of Arcadia's first titles outshone our wildest dreams. We presented the new sepia-colored photographic histories to bookstores and during that first holiday season we simply could not get books to stores quickly enough. We have some very fond memories of delivering boxes on Christmas Eve, and some fonder memories of celebrating the fact that our hard work had paid off. ("10 Years")
The company presents itself as a model of American individualism and initiative, telling readers that it started as a "one-woman operation" and that they "had no idea how the concept might be received" ("10 Years"). In this way, they underscore their own participation in the kind of risk-taking capitalistic venture that is frequently celebrated in the books the company publishes. That the series began as part of an international collaborative with a focus on local history goes unmentioned in this telling.
The company's anniversary flyer seems to have been carefully worded so that the image the company promotes about itself is in sync with the image of the past found in its books. The use of the phrase "fond memories" in the context of looking back to the company's first year echoes the nostalgic framing of the past found in the series, while references to the "holiday season," delivering boxes on Christmas Eve, and the celebrations surrounding the success of that first year lend a sense of cheerful gift-giving and goodwill to the endeavor. This Norman Rockwell-like vision of a cottage industry neatly segues into a description of the powerhouse business enterprise that Arcadia has become: "Between 1993 and the new millennium, Arcadia Publishing saw many changes: we recruited, expanded, opened new offices, and added cutting-edge book production technologies. . . . We now have four offices across the country and more than 2,000 titles in 10 different series" ("10 Years"). Currently headquartered in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Arcadia Publishing was "one of South Carolina's fasted growing companies in 2002" ("Arcadia Publishing Moves"). In its creation story, Arcadia Publishing reveals itself as a recapitulation of American industrial history.
While Arcadia's commercial success is undeniable, the stated goal of "publishing a series declaring itself to offer the history of American communities" ("10 Years") invites challenges to its use of historical photographs, as well as the company's creation of a standardized and commodified vision of the past. There is something to admire in these books, which treat small towns as seriously as large cities, and in many cases may be the only historical treatment of a community. Moreover, by allowing non-professional historians access to a publishing opportunity that is not a vanity press, Arcadia Publishing appears to operate in a uniquely democratic vein of historical inquiry. This apparent democratization calls to mind Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that Americans "prefer books which may be easily procured, quickly read, and which require no learned researches to understand. They ask for beauties self-proferred and easily enjoyed; above all, they must have what is unexpected and new" (Tocqueville). On each of these counts, the "Images of America" books hit the mark. Of course, de Tocqueville was somewhat skeptical about democracy, and a correspondingly healthy skepticism about Arcadia Publishing's visions of the past is warranted. My analysis draws from information provided by the company itself, as well as from the books that I have examined.
Ample evidence can be found in Arcadia Publishing's promotional materials that the "Images of America" series is best understood in the context of the recent heritage binge noted by Wallace. The company's website (www.arcadiapublishing.com) proclaims that its mission "is to make history accessible and meaningful through publishing books that celebrate and preserve the heritage of America's people and places." [Note: Aracadia Publishing's website has changed since the above was written.] As was previously suggested, for many Americans an "Images of America" book may be the only source readily available for studying their local history. As a result, Arcadia Publishing is able to play a significant role in shaping contemporary attitudes toward the past, particularly for those readers more interested in their own local history than in wider historical forces. Because an "Images of America" book may be the only historical study published for a given town, it can easily take on the status of the definitive treatment of the subject whether or not the author or publisher intended it to be so. This is quite a role to play for books whose central guiding questions are "What did the town look like in the past?" and "Who lived here?" ("10 Years").
Asking what a place looked like and who lived there can only go so far in terms of illuminating the role that historical events played in shaping contemporary social realities. As Wallace notes, the pasts encountered in heritage sites "remain segregated from the present. We rummage around in them for pleasure or profit, we appropriate them, we consume them, but we do not think it crucial to understand them in order to understand ourselves" (x). It seems to me that a similar dynamic is involved in reading an "Images of America" book. The books work well as entertainment, but they often don't help readers truly understand how the past gave rise to current dynamics of a community. To give one brief example, in the book Richland, careful attention to the faces found in the photographs reveals that "who lived here" — a town of negligible size until its role in the Manhattan Project of World War Two — was almost exclusively Euro-Americans. Not until I moved away from Richland at the age of 18 did I realize how monochromatic my hometown was despite its presence in a part of the country with a large Hispanic population and despite considerably more diverse populations in neighboring towns. Much later, I learned that Richland was a "sundown town" as the sociologist James Loewen notes in his book of the same title. In the case of Richland, at least, "who lived here" was defined largely by who was — and who wasn't — allowed to live there, though the "Images of America" book doesn't reveal anything about that dimension of the town's history. Readers of Richland with no understanding of the city's past as a sundown town would have no way of understanding why only white people lived there, and it is quite possible that the town's racial homogeneity would go largely unnoticed by many readers as they paged through the book.
According to Katie Kellet, Arcadia Publishing's director of publishing, the company's goal is to create "a nostalgic view of what life was like in that community in days gone by" (Kellet). This stated attempt at nostalgic images of the past frequently lead Arcadia's books to ignore historical conflicts, further isolating the past from the present. One example from the book Rochester Neighborhoods can illustrate. Like many other American cities in the 1960s, Rochester, New York (where I now teach), was rocked by urban unrest, with the most serious uprising in 1964. In many of the Arcadia books on Rochester, the topic of urban unrest is not addressed at all. In Rochester Neighborhoods, the reality of this unrest is confined to a single photograph of National Guard members in riot gear with Gordon Howe, the Monroe County Manager, inspecting them. All of the men are white; all of them are smiling. The riots seem to present no serious threat to the established social order. In fact, the caption notes that the Guard members were not called into action. As a result, the only photograph that deals with the riot studiously avoids the riot. If this section of the book is meant to show the historical facts of Rochester in the 1960s, the authors could have chosen images that indicated the reasons behind the growing racial tensions in the city or the impact of the riot on the community. However, because the stated goal of Arcadia's books is to provide a nostalgic look at the past, it makes sense that troubling times tend to be ignored or else are shown through comforting images that downplay darker chapters of the community's past. This is one of the more problematic dimensions of the "Images of America" books: the company conveys local history as an experience shared through comforting, nostalgia-driven books that frequently minimize social and economic tensions.
Arcadia Publishing's success is in many ways a measure of its tight control both over the design and production of the books and its skills in marketing them. By providing readers with historical photographs drawn from thousands of archives around the country, Arcadia is able to both create and then satisfy a market for its books. To answer the guiding questions about what a place looked like and who lived there in the past, the editors of Arcadia write: "[O]ne would need to search archives, to quiz the oldest residents of the town, or to seek snippets in books on other subjects. For anyone with a thirst for history or anyone who cared about where they and their ancestors had come from, there was simply not enough out there" ("10 Years"). What the company seems to mean is that there were not enough local history books available to answer these basic questions; that without such books it would take too much effort to seek out the answers to the questions that the company has decided are the most important to ask. Arcadia recognized that there could be a market for snapshot versions of the past that would be created by and for local residents less interested in understanding the complexities of the past than in reading fun, user-friendly picture histories. By developing efficient production and marketing systems, Arcadia was in a good position to become the well-oiled machine it is today.
Explaining the success of the "Images of America" series, Steve Strunsky, a writer for the New York Times writes: "Arcadia is neither a nonprofit nor a vanity press. It picks up all production costs, which are kept down by using a standard format, and pays its authors modest royalties. Because of each book's limited marketability, Arcadia relies on sheer numbers of titles, which can sell several thousand copies each, to add up to a worthwhile sales volume." The company declines to reveal average sales figures, noting that the number of titles sold is partly dependent on the size of the community that the book addresses. In recent years, however, the company has sought to expand from the regional market to begin publishing books with a more national appeal (Milliot, "Arcadia" 115). Kate Everingham, the director of sales for Arcadia Publishing, states that the company sold more than 1.5 million books in 2006, and in the first four months of 2007 sold more than 500,000 copies of the 4,000 titles published from 1993-2006 and the 246 new titles introduced up to that point it 2007 (Everingham). Authors receive an 8% royalty on the $19.99 price that is standard for the "Images of America" books (Dinan 53).
Strunsky's description of Arcadia's model for success is revealing. He notes the company's priorities of keeping down production costs and relying on large sales of low cost goods in order to maximize profits. Arcadia manages all dimensions of its product, from controlling issues of format and content to handling its own distribution and sales. Indeed, in some respects, Arcadia's business approach reflects what George Ritzer calls "the McDonaldization of society." Ritzer lists four key elements that define McDonaldization-efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology (Ritzer 15-17)-all of which are evident in Arcadia's books. Like many franchise businesses in which consumers expect a recognizable, predictable product or service no matter which part of the country or world they are in, readers of Arcadia Publishing's books can expect a very familiar product, whether they are reading The Historic Core of Los Angeles or Davenport: Jewel of the Mississippi.
Mark Rice is Chair of the Department of American Studies at St. John Fisher College.