Libraries and the mystery of Toynbee tiles

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Toynbee tiles – If you’re in the mood for a real-life mystery that involves imagination, single-mindedness over spans of time, great ingenuity, a fair amount of what many might describe as wackiness and that remains, despite knowing who the person behind the tiles is, at its heart still an enigma, take a look at the documentary film Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.  The film, nicely done, sensitive, funny, punctuated with great drawings and music, captures the fascination of tantalizing clues and a mystery just out of reach.

The library connection comes in because it was the Free Library of Philadelphia making public access to the World Wide Web available in the early 1990s that started at least one of the investigators on his search.  He says in the film that as soon as the library offered public WWW access he went to see what he could find on the tiles (at the time, nothing).  Visits to the library were a recurring feature of their research into the tile phenomenon; you can see in the movie how search engines changed over time.

It’s easy to forget at this remove that libraries were in the forefront of public internet and web access during that period and are still the place where many without a computer or reliable internet connection go to surf the web, look for jobs, send and receive email and the many other online activities most of us take for granted.  They’re also the go-to place for the huge amount of information not on the web.  For a more detailed history of libraries and the World Wide Web, see the 2000 article Libraries and Imagination at the Dawn of the World Wide Web.  Thanks to librarian Polly Perkins for pointing me to the website of Public Libraries & the Internet, cited above.  She and I have never met but are both part of a vast network of librarians and researchers connected via online access.

All photos here are of the one remaining Toynbee tile in St. Louis.  Originally there were four embedded in St. Louis streets (there are tiles in U.S. cities as far west as Kansas City and a few in South America).  Two in St. Louis have been paved over, one was pried up and stolen after this documentary came out.  The remaining tile is, appropriately enough, near downtown’s art and sculpture park Citygarden.  Here’s the text:  Toynbee Idea / In Kubrick’s 2001 / Resurrect Dead / On Planet Jupiter

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