Monthly Archives: March 2010

Cesar Chavez: A Life Lived Well

March 31 marks the birthday of labor activist Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993). Chavez played an instrumental role in organizing migrant farm workers with the creation of the National Farm Workers Union in 1962.  Mr. Chavez gave his entire adult life to the cause of equal pay and social justice for migrant workers, and that colorful life has been well detailed in numerous books and other items which we happen to have in our collection.

Check out this great clip for more background on Chavez’s remarkable life.


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Women and the Sciences

Last week the New York Times reported on a study by the National Science Foundation which found that women still face significant bias in the sciences.  In addition to this report, several books on the subject have been written recently, such as The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls, which examines a few different theories about why women remain so underrepresented in the sciences.  One argument asserts that biological gender differences give men and women different abilities in math and science, and the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps- And What We Can Do About It takes a closer look at that theory. Other books, such as Removing Barriers: Women in Academic Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics look at other reasons why there is a gender gap in the sciences, and ways to remove that gap. 

Books like Scientific Pioneers: Women Succeeding in Science look at the women who have already made huge strides in the sciences, and we have many more books on the subject of women in the sciences as well. And of course, we have lots of books for both women and men on different fields of science.


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Eat Your Lawn

Garden Update

Two years ago this spring, I moved into a house with a tidy front yard. Clipped hedges outlined a small lawn intersected by a tulip-skirted walk. Though pretty in the spring sunshine, it seemed more a blank canvas than a living garden. That August I wrote in a blog post, “I’m working on a plan to trade my front grass for nasturtiums and fava beans.”

Julie's garden in progress

Last week I planted favas in the former front lawn. Also the seeds of lettuce, arugula, green onions, swiss chard, spinach, and a mix of mesclun salad greens.

Turning turf to garden requires removing the grass. I once spent a summer digging up my back yard in Seattle, filling five gallon buckets with heavy sod, setting them curbside for the yard waste recyclers to carry away. It was hard, hard work, and not a fool proof method. Hair-thin roots inevitably left behind allowed grass to continue to sprout. There had to be a better way.

This time I turned the heavy work over to winter. Just before the season of rain, snow, sleet, and hail, I flattened cardboard moving boxes, ripped off the packing tape, and covered the lawn. On top of the cardboard, I spread a thick layer of bark mulch. Under its paper and wood blanket, the sod succumbed to frozen darkness. Last spring, I pushed the mulch aside, gathered up any soggy cardboard that had not rotted, and dug the rotted paper into the soil. The weathered bark would mulch new plantings.

One source of inspiration sprang from reports I read about of new Victory Gardens. In the current context, Victory refers to urban sustainability rather than the war efforts of WWI and WWII, but the approach remains the same. Backyards, front yards, window boxes, patios, porches, rooftops, and unused land are employed to grow food.

Growing food isn’t the only reason to reconsider the primacy of lawn. Providing a diverse environment for insects and birds is another. It’s easy to say no to chemical fertilizers and weed killers, and the noise and air pollution of powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, if you don’t have a lawn to maintain.

The following books, not all new, are my current main sources of ideas and instruction.

Your House, Your Garden: A Foolproof Approach to Garden Design “If you live on a small enough property . . . consider taking up all your lawn. Utterly surround your house with plants and a sitting area or two so that your home is literally the center of your garden.”

Starter Vegetable Gardens: 30 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens “Food Gardens can be as pretty as they are productive. Including colorful flowers looks great and attracts butterflies and bees as well as scores of pest-eating beneficial insects such as lady beetles.”

Future Project, Remove or Replace Hedge

The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life “The smallest lot may be partially or completely fenced by fruit trees. Dig up the laurel and privet hedge. In their stead, set out espalier fruit trees, blueberries, and raspberries – or any other kind of berry plant that will thicken into a hedge.”



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Shuttered NYC?

Two things struck me when seeing Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Shutter Island.

One, the soundtrack is full of 20th century classical music like Ligeti, Penderecki, Cage, etc.  My favorite music in the film was an ominous recurring theme that begins with cellos and double basses playing one note (a low D) in a slow pattern of 3-pause-3-pause-4-pause-3-pause-5-pause-etc.  It’s from the fourth movement of Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3.   (Also, an early work of Gustav Mahler, one movement of a piano quartet composed when he was a teenager in 1876, figures into the plot, but that’s a story for another day.)

Two, both Scorsese and Woody Allen have seemingly abandoned New York City as their go-to urban muse.  Allen, the quintessential nebbish New Yorker, has set recent movies like Scoop and Match Point in London.  Scorsese, who gave us a gritty NY in such flicks as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Gangs of New York, now seems to be enjoying the toughness and argot of Boston.  The Departed, while adapted from a movie set in Hong Kong, is thoroughly Bostonian in its setting and sound.  Shutter Island takes place in Boston Harbor, though the setting is a computerized combination of locations in Maine and Massachusetts.  The change in scenery has done Scorsese well; I’m curious to see where his next story will unfold.

— Tim

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Most Dangerous Women in the Library

Jan Maher, author of Most Dangerous Women (a readers’ theater play), creates a work that is both a book, a play, and a teaching tool that engages audiences by having readers of the work act out roles of important women of the peace movement. Notable, but perhaps obscure or forgotten, figures include Emily Greene Balch, Barbara Lee, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Jeannette Rankin.

Title from data provided by the Bain News Service on the negative. Photo shows men and women on strike outside the Botany Worsted Mills in Passaic, NJ. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2008, and New York Times articles, 1912)

This Saturday, March 27, recount the forgotten history of the women who worked for labor rights, peace and justice over the past century. This is a recorded performance of Most Dangerous Women, featuring members of the Pittsburgh branch of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and Raging Grannies. A question and answer session will follow the screening.

Most Dangerous Women (film screening)
Saturday, March 27
3:00 – 5:00 pm
Classroom A

– Lisa

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“Your Dark Dust Will Know”: Leonora Speyer

I know that there are lots of people who suspect that folks who work in the library have some of the best jobs in the world.  Frequently, people will inquire to that effect and, sometimes, I simply demur with a knowing smile and at other times, I’m ebullient.

Be forewarned: this is one of the latter times.

When you are surrounded by over 3 million items, it is a rare day, indeed, when something entirely new doesn’t present itself for your inspection and approval.  If you don’t allow yourself to glaze over and you pay close attention, you can learn more by osmosis in a week than you might in a month of concentrated study in your field of choice.

About a week ago, a book came my way, as do many of its mates, because of its poor condition.  When this happens, a decision needs to be  made and a number of factors considered to arrive at a satisfactory outcome.   Is the item of any value, is it of interest, is it outdated, is it readily available elsewhere, particularly locally?  If it has no intrinsic value and/or is of no interest or is outdated (i.e. bad medical info, superseded legal info etc.), it’s sayonara.  Often, however, a little legwork needs to be done to determine if any of these factors apply.  An item may, in fact, be either valuable, relevant, timeless, or unavailable anywhere, particularly locally.

The book that presented itself to me that particular morning was a slim volume of poetry from the 1920s entitled Fiddler’s Farewell, by Leonora SpeyerI had heard of neither the book nor the author.  That’s not particularly surprising; though I’ve been in the book business, in one form or another, for well over 30 years, and poetry is my specialty, my base of knowledge is not nearly as overwhelming as it might be.  See 3 million items above.

Did I mention that librarianship can be a very humbling profession?

The very first bit of information I found on Leonora Speyer set me back on my heels mightily.  It was a painting:

Lady Speyer by John Singer Sargent

After I caught my breath, I quickly began to read that Leonora Speyer was a renowned violinist (hence the John Singer Sargent portrait) who studied music in Europe, attended the Brussels Conservatory (where she won first prize at the young age of 16) and debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1890, later appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.

Oh, and in 1926, she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for that slim little volume entitled Fiddler’s Farewell.

It is appropriate that this forgotten book should resurface, particularly during the month we celebrate Women’s History.   It is difficult to imagine some of the obstacles she must have encountered in the late 19th century worlds of music and literature.  Though a woman of independent means, still, the challenges must have been formidable and the battles, it would seem, hard fought.

I looked to the poetry to see if it still spoke to the modern reader; after all, today’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry doesn’t much resemble your great-grandmother’s Pulitzer Prize.  And though it is decidedly tougher to measure relevance in art as one does in medical and legal subjects, still, I wondered, would there be any relevance at all?

Indeed, there is; here’s a glimpse at the poet and the woman and, if you listen closely, the musician: Leonora Speyer.

Lordly amid the rotting houses of the street,
It lifts a marble scorn, while at its carven feet
They crowd in ancient filth. It does not look at them,
These crumbling beggars catching at its stone hem.

Here, the poet captures a moment in contrast: she sees and highlights what many a tourist chooses to ignore. In fact the famed Palace of Naples itself, in the poem, chooses not to look upon beggars clutching at “its stone hem.”

Next is a poem of transcendence:

Of Mountains
. . . Then I rose up
And swept the dust of planets from my eyes,
And wandered shouting down that shouting hour,
Pausing to pluck a mountain like a flower
That grew against the skies.

This reminded me of something very modern, indeed.  Such a cosmic perspective certainly was not an everyday occurrence in early 20th century poetry, particularly early women’s 20th century poetry.

And here is one final poem, which also seems very modern in tone and approach:

I’ll be your Epitaph
Over your dear dead heart I’ll lift
As blithely as a bough,
Saying, “Here lies the cruel song,
Cruelly quiet now.”

I’ll say, “Here lies the lying sword,
Still dripping with my truth;
Here lies the woven sheath I made,
Embroidered with my youth.”

I’ll sing, “Here lies, here lies, here lies-”
Ah, rust in peace below!
Passers will wonder at my words,
But your dark dust will know.

The modern book I thought of was the first book of poetry I remember ever buying for myself, the book that started me on a 40 year pursuit of lyrical truth. Here is the title poem and foreword from that volume, ever so sweetly entitled Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch (selections from which may be found in this book).

It would seem that sisters, over the span of half a century, are like-minded, indeed.

– Don


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Love the Library?

If you haven’t already heard, the Governor’s proposed budget for 2010-2011 includes another reduction to library funding, so the “Pittsburgh Protect Your Library” campaign is still entirely relevant. Writing to your legislators is essential; they need to hear that the library matters to you and why. 

If you’d like to take the next step and really get involved in your Main Library, this is your opportunity. Tomorrow evening is the initial meeting of the Friends of the Main Library. We will be talking about what you, an individual in the community, can do to work together to help the Library. So if you love the Main Library in Oakland, you can join other like-minded folks to see how a strong Library Friends group can make a difference.

Wondering what the group is going to do? Well, it’s up to you! Libraries all over the country have Friends organizations that work in a variety of creative ways to support their local libraries. To learn more about Friends groups and what they do, visit the Friends of Libraries, U.S.A. website.

You may be wondering, “Doesn’t the Library already have a Friends organization?” Good question. Several of our branches have individual Friends groups, and the Library system as a whole had one that hasn’t been active in a few years.  If you’re interested in getting involved in your neighborhood location’s Friends, check with them to see when the next meeting is. If you used to be a member of the overall Friends group, we would love to have you back!

When:  Wednesday, March 24, 2010, 6:00 PM
Where:  Director’s Conference Room, First Floor
                 Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main
                 4400 Forbes Ave.
Contact:  412-622-3151 or

We hope to see you there!!


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You are here.

found postcards

In our effort to stay abreast of constantly evolving technology–e-books and e-book readers, digitization projects, and the  possibilities of online research–it can be easy to get lost in a screen, pursuing increasingly deeper layers of information without even speaking to anyone or leaving your chair. It can be easy to forget the value of a library as a physical space, where you make yourself available to the serendipity of running into someone you hadn’t planned to meet or stumbling across a book you didn’t know you wanted.

Whatever questions we’re clicking away at or flipping pages towards, it’s uniquely clear in a library that there are just as many stories behind every question and search as there are in the millions of books in the stacks. As we go from place to place, our lives overlap, and we leave traces of ourselves in each other’s days: snatches of overheard conversation, directions asked or given, smiles, eye contact. The marks and evidence we make on these books we share is no exception: fingerprints on covers, dog-eared pages, receipts and photographs bookmarking where you left off, grains of sand from the beach you were laying on trapped between mylar and dust jacket. A few people, like the folks who wrote the Post-It notes pictures below, even leave these things intentionally, along the lines of the PostSecret collections or Found Magazine.

Some of us collect these bits of strangers’ ephemera. Here are samples of some of the things you left here, tucked between pages and left on shelves: little notes and clues of your story, signs that you were here.


found photo1

found recipe

found vintage ads

found pink letterfound photo2

found ticketsfound letter1found lettersfound cardfound drawingfound comicfound photo

found post-it secrets

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Paean to a literary hero

The inspiration behind this post is a gentleman of about sixty, who, when checking out a book by graphic memoirist Jeffrey Brown at the Circulation Desk told me, “This guy tells it like it is. Life is like this – he’s my hero.”

I informed the patron that I too was a fan of Brown’s new work and he was beyond delighted. As he left, his words struck me. A hero? I suppose a hero can take many forms. I have a hero too: Dave Eggers.

Eggers is very popular and is often regarded as a critical darling. For these reasons I snobbishly struggle with liking him as much as I do. But I can’t argue with his body of work.  Memoir, short stories, a novelization of a true story, a major motion picture screenplay and creative nonfiction – Eggers’ refusal to remain static is reason enough to inspire. As an avid reader, I appreciate an author who isn’t giving me the same book in different packaging every time ( I’m looking at you, Palahniuk). And as a casual scrawler, well, let’s just say Eggers gives you reason to hone your craft – it isn’t easy being a writer and the good ones should remind you of that.

Because Eggers is much more than a writer, he is heroic. Look at his trophy case – National Book Foundation, The Heinz Awards, and a TED Grant are noteworthy accolades, but especially so when not given for his work in literature. Instead, it’s as a philanthropist that Eggers has thrived and won my starry gaze. In the work of 826 Valencia, a writing center for students ages 6 to 18 – with chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Ann Arbor, and Boston – for starters. In publications like McSweeney’s, The Believer, and Wholphin that he had a part in founding. In the Best American Nonrequired Reading series he edits with high schoolers in the San Francisco area. I’ve had trouble finding whether the man even collects a profit. Just as an example of his generosity, What is the What aided refugees from Sudan, the construction of a schoolhouse, and the “Lost Boys” (the subject matter of the book) themselves.  Zeitoun benefits go to Hurricane Katrina disaster relief. This collection goes entirely to Valencia. Book tours and other profits fund cancer research, literacy programs, or another noteworthy cause.

Authors shouldn’t remind you of Rich Uncle Pennybags – and instead should put their money, and their words, where they count the most. It’s heroic.



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Something about Nothing

It’s a quiet Saturday, I’m at the reference desk for another hour, and I need a small project to fill my time. How about my upcoming blog post? Great! That will round out the day nicely.


Except that at the moment, I have nothing to blog about. Sooo…I guess I’ll write about nothing. Poking around our catalog, I found that:

  • There’s a song called “Nothing” in the score to A Chorus Line.
  • There’s a Danish book in Teen called Nothing that apparently involves sitting in plum trees.
  • This collection of short stories features one named “Nothing,” though I know nothing of the plot.
  • And the philosophically minded can always turn to The Book of Nothing.


And there you have it, a little something about nothing (and another blog post completed on time).

– Amy

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