Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Who Is the Man on the Wire? Philippe Petit: A Librarian’s Perspective

by Courtney Walsh (cwalsh1@stevens.edu)
As an academic librarian, I spend more than an average amount of time thinking about information. I attend meetings, webinars, workshops and conferences about information. I read and write about information. I think about where information comes from, how to determine whether it is reliable, and when and if I should share it with others.
One of the biggest challenges for a teaching librarian is making the process of learning about information fun and interesting. One of the most important things a person can do when developing a research topic is to choose a topic that genuinely interests them. The research process is much more pleasant when the topic is one that generates enthusiasm and excitement.
Let Your Passion Led the Way
A couple of years ago, my then 4-year old son, Matan, began to request that I read him the same picture book at bedtime many nights in a row: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein.

Winner of the prestigious 2004 Caldecott Medal, this gorgeously illustrated book depicts the highly compelling story of Philippe Petit, a French high-wire artist who became famous for many of his aerial stunts, most notably his shocking and successful walk between the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.
Given that the story has been recently made into a major motion picture, The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (opening October 9, 2015), a new generation will become aware of Philippe Petit. The fact that the World Trade Center Towers that he so bravely walked and danced between were destroyed during the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 adds another layer of meaning and significance to his act.

I decided to use my son’s curiosity as a springboard to further explore the topic using resources available via the Library. Using the Library catalog, OneSearch and several of our research databases, I’d like to share a little more of Philippe Petit’s story. In doing so, I hope to inspire you to undertake your own journey of research and discovery that begins with a passion of your own.
Library Catalog
What kinds of books have been written about Philippe Petit and his feats of aerial artistry?

The Library catalog is the quickest way to search for books and ebooks on any given topic. Our catalog is set to search Libraries Worldwide (with Stevens holdings sorted to appear first) and can easily be reconfigured to show only those items that Stevens holds. Books that Stevens does not own can generally (with the exception of ebooks and textbooks) be requested by students, staff and faculty via Interlibrary Loan.
A search for “Petit, Philippe” yields 101 results, including several by Petit himself:
On the High Wire (Random House, 1985)
Man on Wire (Skyhorse, 2008)
Creativity: the Perfect Crime (Riverhead Books, 2014)
Taking a closer look at the descriptions within each record will show other important information, such as a summary of the book and Library of Congress Subject Headings.
Below is a partial list of subjects applied to Philippe Petit’s books:

Petit, Philippe, 1949- (the inclusion of his birth date distinguishes him from other authors by the same name)
Tightrope walking
Creative ability
Knots and splices
What else is out there about Philippe Petit beyond books and ebooks?

OneSearch is a discovery tool that allows you to search the library catalog and many research databases simultaneously. It is the next logical to take after searching the catalog, since the catalog is limited to books and ebooks.
An initial search for “Petit, Philippe” yields over 12,000 results, many of which are not relevant. Using the Advanced Search option allows the searcher to select ‘subject’ from a dropdown menu. A search for “Subject: Petit, Philippe” yields 595 much more relevant results. Scanning the options available on the left side of the screen, we can see that the results include articles from magazines, newspapers and journals, as well as DVD videos and music, in addition to books.
Narrowing to DVD videos we can see that Petit’s 2008 book is also available as a documentary titled by the same name: Man On Wire. (Note: This outstanding film is available on Netflix.)
Narrowing to articles, we can see a great deal have been written on Philippe Petit throughout the past 40 years. Sorting these by date allows us to see many reviews of ‘The Walk’ (in theaters beginning October 9, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as well as articles related to other aerial stunts he conducted after the WTC walk in 1974, such as this: Philippe Petit (New York Times, 10/4/85).
When we click “View Online” to view an article found via OneSearch, it becomes apparent that OneSearch itself is NOT a database. All electronic resources available at Stevens that appear in OneSearch will be viewed in the database that contains the publication (ProQuest for The New York Times, The Sun, Library Journal, EBSCO for Entertainment Weekly, etc.).
Research Databases
It is important to remember that OneSearch does not have the capacity to search 100% of the resources available via the Library. For this reason, additional research on a given topic should be conducted using appropriate Library databases in addition to utilizing OneSearch. I decided to search our EBSCOhost databases (excellent for a broad variety of topics), in addition to the New York Times Historical database (part of the ProQuest package that the Library subscribes to).
A search for “Petit, Philippe” in the EBSCOhost databases yields 320 records, including a primary source, a short Associated Press video of Petit crossing Great Falls in Paterson, NJ from September, 1974 (only one month after being arrested for his WTC feat).
Of these 320 articles, 38 were published in academic journals, such as Journal of American Culture, Performance Research and Comparative American Studies, and demonstrate the variety of ways that scholars have looked Petit throughout the decades.
Hundreds of other articles come from a wealth of popular sources such as Sports Illustrated (an article quoting Petit that was published September 24, 2001, less than two weeks after the towers fell). In this article in Smithsonian (November, 2001), the author recounts his experience with Petit as he persuaded him to return to the top of the towers only two weeks before September 11th, 2001.
New York Times Historical
We are lucky to have access to the New York Times Historical database at Stevens. It allows us to search the NY Times as far back as 1851. Once I began to explore the story of Philippe Petit in depth, I realized that New York Times Historical would be the perfect place to search for primary source material about the events leading up to and including August 7, 1974. A search for “Petit, Philippe” on the date of August 8, 1974 results in this brilliant article: Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers.

Here, I was able to learn what Petit’s punishment was (charges were dropped by the Manhattan D.A. in return for Petit agreeing to give a free aerial performance in the park for the children of New York City). In addition, I was finally able to see black and white photographs: one photo of Petit walking the wire between the towers and another of him being taken away by police, which really brought the event into perspective.
A search between the dates of August 8 and September 30, 1974 yield nine more articles about two follow-up performances that Petit gave around the area, including the mandated performance that took place across Belvedere Lake in Central Park on August 29th, 1974, and a Labor Day walk across Great Falls in Paterson, NJ.
In writing this blog post, I hope I’ve made a case for how using the Library’s tools and resources can enhance even the most basic research on any topic of interest. Although one can find a wealth of information on Philippe Petit using the Internet, much of this information would have been difficult or impossible to uncover using a typical Google search. Whether you are researching for fun, for your thesis, dissertation or senior design project, please be sure to use the valuable resources of the Samuel C. Williams Library as your starting point. If you need help, librarians are here for you in person at the Reference Desk and by appointment and also via chat, email, text and phone.

I hope to see you at the Reference Desk!

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