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  • Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity by Rebecca Lemov
  • David A. Varel (bio)
Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity. By Rebecca Lemov. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. 368. Handcover $35.

This book tells the fascinating story of social scientist Bert Kaplan's long-forgotten mid-twentieth-century effort to build a "total archive" that could house essentially all data from the social and behavioral sciences. Lemov dubs this archive the "database of dreams," evoking both the nature of the data being collected and the grandiosity (and perhaps ultimate failure) of Kaplan's plan. Kaplan was a Harvard Ph.D. who worked under Henry Murray, Talcott Parsons, and especially Clyde Kluckhohn. Like many anthropologists at the time, he first studied Native Americans in the Southwest. Yet by the early 1950s, as an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, his consuming interest became creating the database of dreams. Heading up the Committee on Primary Records in Culture and Personality for the National Research Council, he reached out to scores of social scientists, asking them to donate their research data to his database. In doing so, Lemov maintains, Kaplan was a visionary. Before others, he recognized the problem of social science data disappearing from a lack of preservation. He also understood that the lack of access to other researchers' data—and hence the lack of sharing and comparing of that information—impoverished science. Although his efforts to create a total archive foundered by the mid-1960s, the Committee did succeed in compiling the Microcard Publications of Primary Records in Culture and Personality, which remains accessible in many libraries today. It houses an unprecedented collection of culture-and-personality research, including tens of thousands of one-of-a-kind documents that researchers today should not ignore.

Although Bert Kaplan is the book's central character, the story in fact is about much more than him. Over the course of ten richly-packed chapters, Lemov develops a broad arc that encompasses much of mid-twentieth-century social science and technology. She begins by providing a history of projective testing, particularly the Rorschach Test and Thematic Apperception Test, which were responsible for yielding a great deal of the "subjective" (read: ambiguous, controversial) data that Kaplan collected. Lemov's third chapter provides a lengthy history of microtechnology, which culminated in the Microcard.

Shifting back to the history of science, Chapter 4 explains how Kaplan's graduate research on the Zuni Indians of the American Southwest was part of a long research tradition in anthropology that targeted Native groups in that region. Lemov reports the striking fact that fully one-half to two-thirds of all the data that Kaplan ultimately collected came from Native American subjects, despite the project's much larger pretensions. The next couple of chapters track Kaplan's rise to modest academic stardom, first at Harvard, [End Page 498] then more broadly through relationships with leading figures such as Margaret Mead, Otto Klineberg, and Ralph Linton.

In addition to the Rorschach and the TAT, Dorothy Eggan's collection of Hopi Indians' dreams and George and Louise Spindler's life-history research on the Menominee Indians were key parts of Kaplan's database. Chapters 7 and 8 provide captivating accounts of the relationships not only between these researchers (with histories of the Chicago School of Sociology and Yale social science sprinkled in), but also those between the Native subjects and white researchers. The tensions, power imbalances, and sheer ignorance that characterized these interactions comprise one of the most compelling parts of the book. By detailing this, Lemov hints at one major reason why later scholars were not especially interested in the reams of data Kaplan had collected: they found it fatally flawed.

The final parts of the book return to the Lemov's foremost concern: technology and data. Kaplan succeeded in compiling an unprecedented amount of social-science data in the Microcard, and he enjoyed significant, if brief, success by the early 1960s. Then a series of controversies, technological difficulties, and fading enthusiasms relegated his database of dreams to the forgotten shelves of libraries—and to the dustbins of history. By recovering this...


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pp. 498-499
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