A Sword Among Lions

Some books you read. Others, you study.

I’ve spent the past month or so wrapped up in a biography that clocks in at 800 pages, and I’m reading it very slowly to make sure I don’t miss anything important. As I close in on page 300, I’m kind of amazed at just how much American history I wasn’t taught. The text in question is called Ida: A Sword Among Lions, and is written by the noted scholar Paula J. Giddings. Its primary focus is the life and adventures of Ida Barnett-Wells, but it’s also a meticulous portrait of the culture into which she was born. This allows the reader to see how Wells was both a product of her time and a rebel against it.

"Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front." Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records [LC-DIG-ppmsca-23823]. All rights reserved. Click through for source page.

“Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.” Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records [LC-DIG-ppmsca-23823]. All rights reserved. Click through for source page.

It’s a good thing nobody’s going to test me on the material, because while I’m absorbing it quite well, I’m having a hard time talking about it. Mostly I’ve been shoving the book at people and gesticulating wildly while random agitated noises come out of my mouth. This is, of course, because of the book’s focus on the horrors of lynching and Wells’s passionate crusade to both expose and end the practice.

It’s easy to think of the past as a gentle, sepia-toned land whose problems are mere curiosities. Giddings rips the band-aid off this kind of deception with vivid descriptions of murder and torture, descriptions we have mainly because Wells was there to document the crimes and write them up for the various papers for which she worked. She also made two trips to England to spread the word overseas and make the world take notice of what was being done to her people. She was very well-received, and the trip was beneficial to her spirit also. In a piece for The Chicago Inter-Ocean, dated April 9th, 1894, Wells wrote about what it was like to visit Liverpool, a city considerably more enlightened than some of its American counterparts:

[It] is like being born into another world, to be welcomed among persons of the highest intellectual and social culture as if one were one of themselves…Here, a ‘colored person’ can ride in any sort of conveyance in any part of the country without being insulted, stop at any hotel, or be accommodated at any restaurant one wishes without being refused with contempt; wander into any picture gallery, lecture room, concert hall, theater or church and receive the most courteous treatment from officials and fellow sightseers (290).

One imagines this civilized treatment must have sustained her after she returned home, and spurred her on to other projects, including women’s suffrage and fearless participation in Chicago politics. She was passionate about, and dedicated to, so many social justice efforts that even her allies found her occasionally overwhelming; Booker T. Washington’s secretary, Emmett J. Scott, is on record as having said, “Miss Wells is fast making herself so ridiculous that everybody is getting tired of her” (410).  If by “ridiculous” he meant “impossible to ignore,” then he was right.

Lest we put her up on a pedestal, Giddings also gives her readers a peek at Wells’s more human characteristics. She loved having nice clothes, and frequently went into debt over them in the interest of looking fashionable. She very much wished to love and be loved, exchanging courtship letters with a fairly large number of young men, thus opening her up to the 19th-century equivalent of slut-shaming (Wells was accused of immoral conduct multiple times in her young womanhood, and met those accusations with great distress and fury). She frequently beat herself up in her diary for her temper, constantly vowing to be more lady-like, but never quite pulling it off. And she loved the theater, so much so that even though the one she frequented in Memphis maintained segregated seating, she couldn’t bring herself to stop going. Witty, vivacious, flirtatious, and socially active? No wonder she was the object of so much scorn and ridicule.

I could write all day and not adequately explain just how much you’ll learn from this book. Giddings renders the events of Ida and her time in so much detail that it’s almost like being there. If 800 pages sounds daunting to you, it’s really only 659, unless you’re going to pore over the notes and bibliography like I will. And no, there is no digital version in the catalog, so you will have to make room in your bag for a brick of a book. But if you like American history, and want to treat yourself to a reading experience that’s the equivalent of an AP class, consider Ida. You may miss out on a bit of television, and/or a host of lighter reads, but what you will gain in exchange is worth its weight in intellectual gold.

–Leigh Anne


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“You Want to Learn? Come!” – On Volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Did you know that April 12-18 is not only National Library Week, but it’s also National Volunteer Week? This bit of serendipity makes perfect sense to us, because the volunteers who help out in various roles across our system are such a big part of what makes the Library a special place.

One set of amazing volunteers are the folks who dedicate their time to narrating, recording, and editing audio books for the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. We sat down with volunteers Russ Kuba, Sister Jeremy Mahla, and Joe Farinacci to shine a spotlight on the special work they do.

Some background info: The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped loans recorded books and magazines, equipment to play the recordings, large print books, and described videos to patrons with visual or physical impairments. Many of the audio books we loan out are provided by the National Library Service, and are basically the same audio books available in the general Library collection. These volunteers, however, record and edit audio books based on local interest that might not be otherwise available in audio format; all the books they work on have some connection to Western Pennsylvania.

photo of volunteer Russ Kuba

Russ’s favorite thing about volunteering at the Library is learning something new!

What do you do at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped?

Sister Jeremy: I’m mostly an editor and I’ve been doing that for more than four years. I mostly fix up mistakes made in the recording process.

Russ: Mostly editing and monitoring recording, reading in braille. [Because I am visually impaired] I use special editing software that allows me to edit book computer files based on audio cues instead of visual cues. I’m all self-taught on using the software.

Joe:  I started as a narrator, but I do recording monitoring too.  I always say ‘What you need!’. If you need me, I’ll stay here as long as you’ll have me.

Why do you volunteer? What keeps you coming in?

Sister Jeremy: I enjoy it! I especially enjoy working with the people here and working with computers. It’s a very real learning experience. I always tell people ‘You want to learn? Come!’

Russ: I’ve been a patron here my whole life and I wanted to help others. It’s in my genes – my mother was a school librarian and I lived across the street from a library.  Maybe it’s a love of learning, but there’s always something new and interesting. The camaraderie is good and everyone gets along.

Joe:  I knew someone who was volunteering here and I had some experience with sound recording, plus my wife is slightly visually impaired and listens to audio books. I thought I would give it a try, and I loved it. I feel like I’m helping, plus I love the process. It’s an awesome service and a fantastic place to volunteer.

What’s your favorite book you have worked on?

Sister Jeremy:  One thing that’s fun about this work is you get to hear all different stories – all different kinds! I even worked on a book written by someone I went to school with.

Russ: Two great ones were Hatchet and Plow and Steel Ghosts.

Joe:  Hemlock Grove was a good story, and it was a fun challenge to do the different voices. I also liked Behind the Stage Door, which is about concert promoter Rich Engler. There’s all kinds of stories about concerts in Pittsburgh, including Joe Cocker, Paul McCartney, George Carlin, and Jimmy Buffett.

(Note: These special, volunteer-produced audio books are only available to LBPH patrons, so the links in this blog post will go to print copies in the general collection. If you or someone you know might qualify for service through LBPH, please call 412.687.2440.)

After our chat, Joe was kind enough to let us film him for a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process:

As a part of National Volunteer Week, we’re hosting tours and a service project at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Feel free to sign up if you’re interested in learning more about this extraordinary Library!


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Going Backstage with Our American Cousin

I select all of my husband’s reading material.

He’s perfectly capable of choosing a book by himself, of course. It’s just that I happen to work at the Library. And after being together for 25 years, I’ve gotten incredibly good at knowing what his preferences are … um … between the covers.

In the bookish sense, that is.


Backstage at the Lincoln AssassinationOne of the books that I brought home recently for the husband’s consideration was Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar.  Which prompted my beloved to ask me – in the course of his reading and during what passes for two-plus-decades old marital conversation fodder these days  – about some ancestors who are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a well-known Philadelphia resting place steeped in history.

“Your Hess relatives are there,” I answered, mentally dusting off some genealogical research I’d conducted years ago.

“Huh. Well. You won’t believe this and I’m not 100% sure, but I think two of them might have been at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, for God’s sake,” I said. “We have enough problems.”

Now, everyone knows all about the main characters who had a starring role in the first-ever presidential assassination, which occurred exactly 150 years ago. We know about the President and Mary Todd Lincoln and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. We’ve heard of Ford’s Theatre, and some of us might even know that the play being performed that fateful night was Our American Cousin.

But there haven’t been many accolades for the people who were actually onstage and those assisting with the production itself.

Until now.

In Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, theater historian and author Thomas A. Bogar tells his reader about the 46 actors, managers and stagehands who found themselves in the spotlight during one of history’s defining moments.

And among them? Courtland V. Hess, a 25-year-old singer and actor from Philadelphia who was not feeling well on that ill-fated evening and who was scheduled to play the role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin.  Also at the play was William Heiss, who was at the performance to see his brother Courtland (who had, apparently, thought it prudent to drop the pesky family “i” on his quest for fame and glory). William Heiss was somewhat of a Big Deal with the telegraph service; it seems that he was involved with the decision to shut down the commercial telegraphs immediately following Lincoln being shot.

(My husband, who earned a masters degree in American history, is physically cringing that I am writing this post from his memory and without double-checking the actual source for myself. I get that, but … well, I’m on deadline for this column and Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is, as of this writing, currently checked out. To keep a modicum of nerdy peace in the family, my husband is making me promise you, dear Eleventh Stack reader, and especially Mr. Bogar, that I’ll go back and make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.)

Regardless, this intriguing tidbit of information – along with my putzing around on the Internet and my previous findings while climbing our family tree – is more than enough to pique my curiosity about our family’s potential connection to the Lincoln assassination.

And what do you know?  Fortunately, there happens to be a place where I can find out whether Courtland Hess and William Heiss are, in fact, our very own American cousins 150 years removed.

Are you curious to learn if one of your relatives had a front-row seat to history? If so, the Pennsylvania Department of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offers a wealth of genealogical materials, databases and classes for beginner and advanced researchers alike. Contact or visit the Pennsylvania Department at the Main Library of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to find out more.

~ Melissa F.


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Another Part of the Foerster


A Foerster Manuscript – note the correction he added on the bottom right

I recently had the pleasure of doing some preservation work on this beautiful volume of handwritten manuscripts of songs by Adolph M. Foerster. The pages are filled with musical notation set down in fountain pen, some with corrections added later in pencil. It is beautiful calligraphy.

Works dated from the late 19th and early 20th Century

Adolph Martin Foerster (1854 – 1927), an internationally known composer, music teacher, music historian, and conductor, was born and resided most of his life in Pittsburgh. He taught privately at the Pittsburgh Female College. He became the conductor of the Symphonic Society in 1879, and was elected conductor of the Musical Union in 1882. After 1883 he devoted himself to teaching, composition, and writing articles about the music history of Pittsburgh, fellow musicians in Pittsburgh, and other topics. His articles were featured in The Musical Forecast and other national periodicals.

Foerster materials in The William R. Oliver Special Collections Room include 6 scrapbooks, a photograph album, 2 volumes of his manuscripts, and 5 volumes of his published compositions. The library has other examples of Foerster’s published works, some available for circulation.

One scrapbook of particular interest to me is Scrapbook Volume 5, which contain a series of articles from The Pittsburg Dispatch. Written in August and September of 1900 by Mrs. Henry B. Birch, they are titled “Musical Pittsburgh in the Olden Days,” “Growth and History of Music in Pittsburgh,” and “History of the Work of Pittsburgh Musicians.”

Ah, articles written 115 years ago about music in the olden days of Pittsburgh. Bliss.

More photos of the manuscripts:



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To My Friend Sandra


Sandra L. Baker, circa 1970s, Photo Rights JoAnne Quinn- Smith, reproduction of original

A few weeks ago I received the heart-breaking news that a wonderful friend had passed away. I met Sandra Baker on my first day of work at the Heinz History Center, and (dramatic pause) was immediately steam-rolled by her. I was at a place in life where I was barely a novice but she… she was in her element. She was the Director of Volunteer Services and as the Docent Coordinator I would be working with her to identify and train volunteers interested in giving tours. What I didn’t know on that first day was that I had met someone who would leave a profound mark on me.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Sandra is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ people. I know that I will never again meet a woman who was quite like her. She loved her work; engaging volunteers, learning their personal stories, and helping them research and represent the history of Pittsburgh was, as she often said, her dream job. She was brilliant, but she never really let you know exactly how intelligent she was. AND… She. Could. Write. I don’t mean like a PR person or a blogger either. She was in a different league from a different era. It didn’t matter if it was a presentation, an email, or a research paper. She had a way of taking you on a winding journey that could cause tears or belly laughs at the turn of a phrase. For the rest of my life I will miss opening up Sandra’s emails.

The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes by Laruen Kessler

Sandra was a wise and caring counsel to those in need. It wasn’t uncommon to find colleagues in her office when they were stressed or looking for an honest opinion. Over the last few weeks I have heard countless stories from co-workers and friends about Sandra being there for them in their time of need; whether it was during a death, a divorce, or a work-issue she was willing to listen and really absorb their grief and help steady people in their worst moments.

Me: Stories of my Life by Katherine Hepburn

Realizing that she did this for everyone I began to wonder where she found these endless wells of inner-strength. But this Friday, at her memorial service at the History Center, I listened to stories about Sandra’s early life. Raising a daughter by herself, working her way through college, dropping out several times when she feared she wouldn’t be able to provide for her family, taking on multiple jobs, working as a burlesque dancer (Wait…What? But then again if you knew Sandra that’s not really that surprising). I realized that Sandra was always a woman to be reckoned with. She was an original, a personality who lived life and didn’t take it for granted. She was a force of nature and I never got the chance to tell her, but I am a better person for knowing her…I want to live life the same way Sandra did, as we all should… do your own thing and to hell with anyone who says different.



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Catching Fire

No, this is not a review of the second book in the Hunger Games series. This is something much closer to home. The place is Pittsburgh. The time is April 10, 1845. Yes. 1845. That was 170 years ago.

Do you know what happened in the Burgh 170 years ago? From the title of this piece you can probably guess. On this date, a fire, hot and horrible, marched through the city. In April, 1845, the city’s population of about 20,000 had seen no rain for several weeks. Black dust and soot from hundreds of coal fires, plus the addition of flour dust and cotton fibers from local industries created an incendiary mix. Add to that a warm wind which gusted out of the west and the stage was set for a disaster.

On April 10th, about noon, a lone fire left unattended sparked and set nearby structures ablaze. The wind carried the flames from one wooden structure to the next and most of the buildings in the city were constructed of wood. Pittsburgh’s ten fire companies were no match for the inferno. Because of the lack of rain, the rivers were low as was the one existing reservoir. The firemen’s leather hoses disintegrated in the heat of the blaze. The wind carried flaming debris up and over the city.

Church bells sounded the alarm as families snatched their valuables and fled to the shoreline of the Monongahela River. But the fire had consumed any boats still moored nearby and escape across the river by that means was now impossible. The only bridge across the water was the covered wooden Monongahela Bridge at Smithfield Street. This served as a conduit to safety until it also caught fire. It burned in fifteen minutes. The residents of Birmingham (now the South Side) fought desperately to keep the flames at bay on their side of the river.

The Monongahela River and what remained of the wooden covered Monongahela Bridge - photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

The Monongahela River and what remained of the wooden covered Monongahela Bridge – photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

The huge warehouses along the shore, filled with bales of cotton, barrels of gun powder, and casks of molasses and coffee, caught fire and exploded. People abandoned their property and fled north toward the Allegheny River and safety. Help arrived from Allegheny City (now our North Side) as many volunteers rowed across the Allegheny River to help. One of those volunteers was Stephen Foster.

The fire crawled east along the streets from Ferry (now Stanwix) to just beyond Ross Street and spread from Fourth Avenue to the Mon River, devouring everything in its path. For over nine hours (from noon until 9 PM) the fire feasted as wood burned, glass melted, and brick and stone cracked under the intense heat.

This sketch shows part of the city and the Monongahela Bridge ablaze. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

This sketch shows part of the city and the Monongahela Bridge ablaze. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Homes, businesses, banks, churches and the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) succumbed to the inferno. The flames destroyed about one third of the city and displaced about 12,000 residents. Surprisingly, only two persons died. Afterwards, the mood of the city was one of shock followed by despair. The desolation was overwhelming as buildings continued to smoke and burn and collapse for days.

Painting by William Coventry Wall entitled "View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh."  Original in color is held by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Painting by William Coventry Wall entitled “View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh.” Original in color is held by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

But rebuilding began soon after. Once the ashes cooled, debris was cleared away and new homes and buildings were erected with better materials. The city renewed itself. Life continued at the confluence of the three rivers. For decades, the city remembered the Great Fire annually by the tolling of a bell on April 10th.

Much has happened since then to erase the memory of this event. But take a moment this year, the 170th anniversary, to remember what was once viewed as Pittsburgh’s greatest catastrophe.

Local author, Gary Link, used the great fire as the setting for his compelling novel, The Burnt District (2003).

To learn more about the Great Fire, visit the Pennsylvania Department where you will find books, articles, and photographs related to this and other significant local events. The staff on the third floor of the Main Library in Oakland looks forward to assisting you.

Looking Toward the Point After the Fire,  from a painting by William Coventry Wall. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Looking toward the Point after the fire from a painting by William Coventry Wall. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

~ Audrey ~


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Director’s Cut: Fatih Akin

A band on the banks of the Bosphurus. Image from Head On: sudeepshukla.wordpress.com

This is the second post in an ongoing series. I plan to blog once a month about a different director whose films are featured in our collection.

I didn’t become aware of the films of Fatih Akin until after spending a month in Berlin a few years back. While his films were readily available here in the United States, they just hadn’t quite landed on my radar. Akin, a German native born to Turkish immigrant parents, often builds his stories around characters of Turkish ancestry living in Germany (or vice-versa in some cases). Since the two countries are not exactly adjacent to each-other, I wasn’t aware how much influence Turkish culture had/has on modern German culture until visiting the country. Afterwards, I felt the need to seek out Akin’s films.

The happy newlyweds. Image from: worldfilm.about.com

The happy newlyweds. Image from Head On: worldfilm.about.com

The first film of his I saw was Head On (2004), which also happens to be one of his most difficult films. Don’t get me wrong – I love this movie, and recommend it to anyone who I get the sense might enjoy it. It’s not a film I would recommend to everyone though, but if you’re looking for a love story with some rough edges this film is for you (think of it as a Turkish-German Sid & Nancy with a less tragic ending). The film begins with our protagonists, Sibel and Cahit, meeting in a hospital after both have attempted to hurt (possibly kill) themselves. We quickly learn that Sibel is in need of a Turkish husband to appease her strict family, and Cahit agrees to marry her because he is a drunken mess living in squalor and has nothing to lose. They each get something out of this bargain – Sibel finally gets her freedom, and Cahit gets a live-in roommate who will help with rent and keep his apartment clean(ish). Of course, we know that eventually these two crazy kids are probably going to fall in love, but in the end the story takes a turn into far more challenging territory.

For Akin’s next film, he headed into the documentary field with Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005). In some ways it is almost a follow-up to Head On, a film

Image from: http://tinyurl.com/me7owml

Image from Crossing the Bridge: http://tinyurl.com/me7owml


Image from Crossing the Bridge: http://tinyurl.com/me7owml

filled with a wide range of music, from angry punk to traditional Turkish wedding interludes. The director solicits his friend Alexander Hacke, the bassist from the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, to act as guide to the Turkish musical landscape as we check in with genres as diverse as the fast rap of Istanbul, to soulful Romany instrumentals, to haunting Kurdish dirges. This documentary is recommended for anyone with a passing interest in Eastern European music, or really, for music lovers in general.

His following film, Edge of Heaven (2007), is probably his most satisfying film to date. It’s a hard movie to describe, but I’ll do my best without giving too much away. The movie takes place in three separate segments that eventually come together. Half of the story takes place in Germany, half in Turkey, with almost all of the

Image from Edge of Heaven: nytimes.com

Image from Edge of Heaven: seismopolite.com

central six characters spending time in both countries while either searching for each other or trying to redeem themselves. Daughters search for their mothers (and vice versa) and one character’s actions will eventually bring everything more-or-less full circle. The film is as much about the characters though as it is about the cultural exchange happening between the two countries. If you have even a passing interest in films from this part of the world, I recommend giving this one a try.

Image from Soul Kitchen: canalplus.pl

Next up Akin went in a totally different direction with Soul Kitchen (2009) a delightfully screwy comedy about a guy and his struggling bar (of the title). The film is full of food, music, dancing, romance, and crazy coincidences. Our hero, Zinos, has just be abandoned by his girlfriend. On top of that his bar is struggling, he’s recently thrown his back out, he desperately needs to find a new chef, and his shady brother has just come to the Soul Kitchen looking for a job after being let out of

Image from Soul Kitchen: flicks.co.nz

jail on “partial parole.” Will it all work out in the end? Of course it will! This film is a lot lighter than Akin’s previous features, but maybe after all those challenging pictures he just felt the need to have a good time, which this film definitely delivers.

I have yet to check out one of the director’s first films In July, but look forward to it in the future, along with anything else he chooses to direct.

What about you, fellow movie watchers, what directors do you like? Do you have any favorite foreign films or directors?

Happy viewing,






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