Tag Archives: old-school

A Love of Letters

Some of you may be aware that today is Valentine’s Day. Personally, my immediate family and I are not practitioners in the arts of giving greeting cards, flowers, stuffed animals, chocolates and whatever else might come on this particular day. In fact, when I first found out I was scheduled for today’s post, I felt that I had drawn the short straw (have I mentioned I’m not a fan of this “holiday”?), but a recent read and the fact that this month notes the 23rd anniversary of the blind date with the man who eventually became my husband, has given me some fodder for today’s post.

Our partnership which began all those years ago, was way before the age of Skype, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and thus our long distance (he in Pittsburgh, me in Cleveland) relationship’s success relied on land lines, the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes (before EZPASS!) and the US Postal Service. Thanks to the Post Office playing the middle man, I have received some of the best gifts I could ever ask for – letters from a loved one.

I recently finished one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time – To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield. Now, I must admit that over the past two decades I have succumbed to the charms of e-mail, Twitter, and texting, and have become lazy when it comes to picking up the phone or the setting pen to paper and addressing an envelope. But reading Garfield’s work had me reminiscing of the good ‘ole days of sending postcards on vacations, writing to friends who were away for the summer or when I was away at college, and especially of those longed-for letters and cards from that man just a few hours away down Interstate.

Garfield’s work is a fantastic history of letter writing throughout the ages. Military missives, familial correspondences and various letter writing guidelines over centuries are captured in this work. He really seems to shine when focusing on the love letters between couples, some famous and some not so, throughout history – Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, The Millers and Anais Nin, Charles Schultz and his various mistresses – or maybe it’s Garfield allowing those letters to shine for themselves that makes this such a wonderful read. Two of the most captivating couples interspersed throughout Garfield’s book Abelard and Heloise (12th century monk and his student), and Chris and Bessie (WWII British soldier and girlfriend). The latter is a couple whose letters are placed intermittently throughout the book, and the reader follows along as their relationship evolves from friends to fiancés. After following along with all these couples for 400 pages, it would be hard for anyone to come away from the experience without pining for the days before 140 character limitations.

Garfield mentions the emergence of letter writing clubs (knitting clubs, book clubs, cooking clubs, why not letter writing clubs!?) and other ways lovers of letters are trying to rekindle this lost art. Right here in Pittsburgh, our cultural partner and neighbor, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, is hosting letter writing events today and tomorrow for the opening of their new exhibit XOXO: An Exhibit about Love and Forgiveness. I can’t think of a more perfect way to get into the habit of letter writing, renew old practices, fan some flames of love and create some life-long memories.

Maria J.

letter image


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Happy 40th To Me

Last month I celebrated my 40-year anniversary working for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I was hired as a clerk, fresh out of college, at the CLP Bookmobile Center. I was armed with an undergraduate degree in library science, qualified to be a school librarian. Alas, school library positions were hard to come by. It was the 70s, the Vietnam war was going strong, and every other person wanted to be a teacher. To be a public librarian, then and now, a master’s degree in library (information) science was required. I was lucky to find a library-related job.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Like many Pittsburghers, except for college, I had never ventured too far away from my Brighton Heights home. The travel radius around my home was tight. I rarely went beyond the North Hills to shop, or to make a visit to my cousins in Penn Hills. Going downtown was always a special treat. Lunch at Stouffers, then shopping at the three big department stores: Horne’s, Gimbels and Kaufmann’s.Sometimes there would be a stop at the Candy-Rama for some special sweet treats. Movies were a draw to town as well, at the Penn, the Stanley, and the Fulton theaters. But I never went to the downtown library. I took the scary bus trip to Main in Oakland (transfers were involved) for my high school research papers.

However, I was a library brat. I had one maiden aunt who worked at the Allegheny Regional library and another who worked closer to home at the Woods Run branch. Books and libraries were in my blood and a habit from my earliest days.

So, working on the bookmobile was an adventure for me. I really loved it! We traveled weekly routes all over the bridges, hills, and valleys of Allegheny County to deliver books to customers from our 3,000 volume mobile libraries. We went and parked at shopping centers and municipal buildings large and small, in mill towns and suburbia. I made friends there that I will always have, though many are now retired.

Bookmobile service was a very personalized, almost boutique service. You really got to know the regular borrowers and often chose books for them based on what you knew they liked to read…without them even asking. The bookmobile was a great training ground. There was no card catalog on board. Staff had to memorize b0th the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress call numbers (CLP switched classification systems in 1972), so you could find the subjects people wanted on the orderly shelves, for both kids and adults.

The bookmobile customers were voracious readers, especially of all kinds of fiction. You really learned all the genres and authors–popular, classic, and literary. We were allowed to read as we drove to and from our stops so it was not uncommon to read a few books each week. This was like feeding steak to a lion.

All of the work was done manually. Registering customers for library cards, taking requests and filling holds–all were done with pen and paper and we kept the information in cardboard shoe boxes. For checking items in and out we used a camera system. Book requests were searched for and laboriously sorted into bins for placement on each of five bookmobiles. Services were very transaction-oriented. We even called the date due cards we put in pockets in the books “trasaction” or “T-cards.” The T-cards had holes along the side like early computer data punch cards and staff used long, thin rods which you skewered into the holes systematically to sort for adjacency of dates. All of the returned T-cards were matched up against the photo logs of check-outs to see if all T-cards had been returned. If not, well, that’s the way we identified if someone had materials overdue, and if they had fines. We kept long lists of names and folks with fines so we could send them overdue notices in the mail.

The world of libraries has changed dramatically over these past 40 years. Computers were introduced in the mid-1970s and have since changed almost every aspect of our library work, our collections, and our services, both behind the scenes and for public service. Our work then and now has been focused on developing a community of readers of all ages. What the public wants from the library is still somewhat the same, but also very different, too. I will talk about these changes from time to time in this blog in future months. People think of the library as a very quiet, traditional place. We anchor our neighborhood, we help everyone. But scratch the surface and you will discover a dynamic, vibrant institution that has constantly changed over time, and is still changing.



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Old School

How many of you remember the 1980s Smith Barney ad with John Houseman“We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it.” I thought about that slogan after mixing my media one weekend.

Several weeks ago I found myself  in Squirrel Hill, so I satisfied my inner hedonist and went to Dunkin Donuts.  They keep a collection of books around to help nurse the coffee, so I perused their pickings.  I settled on Ken Follett’s Triple – with its ingredients of Uranium, the Mossad, the KGB, and Egyptian Intelligence – written in 1979.  I read far enough into the story that I couldn’t just stop, so I took it home to finish (it has since gone back to DD.)  During the course of the weekend I also happened to watch one of the Bourne movies with Matt Damon.  Both my book and movie were immensely enjoyable and intriguing, keeping me entertained, drawing me in and making me think ahead 2-3 steps as the events and action unfolded.

After comparing them a little, I can’t decide who had it harder:  Follett’s KGB and Mossad spies, or Ludlum’s (via Hollywood) amnesic regular Joe with a dark secret.  Even though Ludlum wrote back in technologically Neolithic days, Hollywood’s Bourne is our contemporary; everything is on the Internet, he can hack CIA networks without breaking a sweat using his iPhone between lattes, conjure up multiple passports and find empty space on the 50th floor of a midtown Manhattan high-rise bereft of other tenants. 

Follett’s people, in contrast,  have to work harder to earn their pay. Day’s long stakeouts in Ford Cortinas, Plymouth Furys, or Trabants; surreptitious dead drops, and clandestine meetings with embittered nicotine sucking controllers in the cellars of Bulgarian or East German versions of PHI in the wee hours.  If they have to make a call, they’ll need a dime, kopek or shilling and a pay-phone that’s always two blocks away in the cold rain and being used.  These are blue-collar guys, no Q to outfit them with jet-paks and tricked out Aston Martin DB5s, though I’ll give Ian Fleming points because the literary 007 is more like the rest of us than the cinema Bond.

So who else earns their pay the old fashioned way and brings you along without logins and passwords?  In no particular order, each of these writers and their works stand the tests of time and effort.  The selections are mine, the annotations are Novelist’s.

Alistair MacLean –

  • Guns of Navarone – Five selected men, experts in their particular fields, have been brought together to destroy the Germans’ heavy guns on the island of Navarone, accessible only after scaling a 400 foot sheer cliff. 1200 Tommies depend on them.
  • Where Eagles Dare – Major Smith, leading seven agents, parachutes into Bavaria to rescue an American general who has fallen into the hands of the Gestapo.  He is now held in the Schloss Adler, an inaccessible castle above a snow covered valley.

Ken Follett –

  • Triple – With the KGB and Egyptian Intelligence on his trail, Nat Dickstein, former British soldier, camp survivor and Israeli intelligence agent, penetrates Euratom  and is forced to put his faith in an attractive woman whom he last met as a child.
  • Key to Rebecca – Alex Wolff is sent to Cairo to gather secrets from the British and broadcast them to Rommel in the desert, using pages of du Maurier’s Rebecca for a code.  How is he to be caught?
  • Eye of the Needle – A German agent – Die Nadel – finds out that D-Day will be at Normandy, not Calais as the Allies would like Hitler to believe. A chase and battle of wits follows between the German agent, fleeing across England, and a British Military Intelligence officer who has come out of retirement to catch him.

Jack Higgins  –

  • The Eagle Has Landed – “The eagle has landed” was the message received by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, on November 6, 1943, telling him that a small force of German paratroopers had landed in England and were poised to snatch Prime Minister Winston Churchill. For the first time, meet Liam Devlin, an IRA gunman, poet, scholar, and one of the most celebrated anti-heroes of fiction.
  • Touch the Devil – Retired agent Liam Devlin is forced to undertake a deadly mission that involves British and Soviet intelligence, hired killer Martin Brosnan, and combat photographer Anne-Marie Audin. They need to find Ulster-born psychopath and super-terrorist Frank Barry, a KGB hireling who kills socialists as well as capitalists.

Robert Ludlum –

  • The Bourne Identity – Amid a storm at sea, a man is shot in the head and washes overboard–but he grabs onto a piece of wood, and eventually is picked up by Greek fishermen. Suffering from amnesia, he finds himself with a Swiss bank account in the name of Jason Bourne, a professional assassin being manipulated by a top-secret American government organization to kill his arch rival, the dreaded Carlos.
  • The Chancellor Manuscript – A secret group of Washington’s most powerful men – “Inver Brass,” – have FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover killed in order to reach his secret files only to discover there is someone else capable of using these personal dossiers for blackmail and extortion.
  • The Holcroft Covenant – Noel Holcroft is shown a thirty-year-old document, drawn up by his Nazi father and other high Third Reich officials – a document which, upon Noel’s signature, will supposedly release eight hundred million dollars to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. It isn’t in everyone’s best interests for this to happen.

Frederick Forsyth –

  • Day of the Jackal – A detailed account of the meticulous plans to assassinate the French President, and the equally meticulous search for the assassin when the authorities are alerted. The President is DeGaulle; the time, shortly after the withdrawal of France from Algeria; the instigators, the dissident French OAS; the assassin, an Englishman, master marksman and master of disguise. The chief counteragent, an unassuming little police detective called in by the French security.
  • The Odessa File – Peter Miller, a German freelance feature writer, acquires the diary of a Jewish survivor who has just killed himself. While reading the diary he comes across the name of the man who once was the Butcher of Riga, a concentration camp commandant, and now is the head of a prominent industrial concern. Miller decides to bring him in; to do so he must infiltrate the organization of former SS members.
  • The Devil’s Alternative – The rescue of an unconscious man from the Black Sea, sometime in 1982, sets off a sequence of events that takes officials in Washington, Moscow, London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and Rotterdam to the brink of global catastrophe.



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