Tag Archives: research

Solomon Northup: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Last year, a patron named Clayton Adams showed me an amazing story that taught me a lot about injustice, resiliency, and hope. It began with trust, followed by deception and injustice, and ends with justice and reunion. And the fact that this story happened at all and that we can go out and read or watch it (I encourage you to do both) is what ultimately gives me hope that we will progress. This story is called Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.

Northup, a black man born free, was kidnapped from his family in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He is threatened into silence by his abductors, being told to never reveal his true identity. For twelve years, Solomon Northup is a Georgia-runaway slave named “Platt” who works for many different owners at different plantations. In 1852, Northup and a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass managed to send a letter to Northup’s friends & family in his home state of New York, leading to his freedom on January 3rd, 1853.

Solomon Northup, after regaining his freedom, wasted no time. He wrote and published a memoir called Twelve Years a Slave (1853) detailing his experience. The memoir contains settings and characters also featured in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was released the previous year. At first, his story took off after 30,000 copies were sold. He went around the North, from city to city, to talk about his experience as a slave. But then in 1857, Solomon disappeared. The location and nature of his death are still unknown. The book also went into obscurity and was not published again until 1968 when Sue Eakin (Louisiana State University at Alexandria) and Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans) republished an annotated version.

In 1998, a group of students from Union College set out to learn more about Solomon Northup by tracing his descendants. Based on what they had to go on, tracking any living descendants was next to impossible… until the family of Clayton Adams reached out to Union College and explained their heritage.

Clayton Adams is the great-great-great grandson of Solomon Northup on his mother’s side. He’s also a patron at CLP- West End who first told me about this story. His mother, Carla Adams-Sally, first told him about his family history when he was a junior in high school. At the time, “it just kind of went in one ear and out the other”, Clayton said. It wasn’t until he went to college and took a black literature class that Clayton began to wonder more about Solomon and his story.

His mother had once owned an original copy of Twelve Years a Slave, given to her by her mother (Clayton’s grandmother), Victoria, along with her other siblings. Victoria’s grandfather was Alonzo Northup, son of Solomon Northup. In 1990, while he was at college, Clayton enrolled in a black literature course. Hearing mention of Solomon’s name and who he was started to pique his interest. He went to his mother with a newfound curiosity and became familiar with a trilogy of slave narratives called Puttin’ on Ole’ Massa featuring stories by Henry Bibbs, William Henry Brown, and Solomon Northup. He then read Twelve Years a Slave.

Photo from the Twelve Years a Slave companion website blog - click through to read a post by Clayton Adams

Photo from the Twelve Years a Slave companion website blog – click through to read a post by Clayton Adams

The film by Steve McQueen (which is available for check-out or request at the Library) is an excellent reenactment of the story. There were “important aspects from the book in the movie that wasn’t held back”, says Clayton. Every scene is faithfully executed with a kind of no-holds-barred approach. “[Steve McQueen] is not trying to sugar coat it, and that’s the thing I like.” What makes the story the most interesting is the situation itself: a black man who was born free gets kidnapped from his family, sold into slavery, and owned by slave owners for twelve years before he proves his freedom. Between these points in the story is a brutally honest portrayal of what life as a slave was like. Clayton thinks “it’s about time that it’s been boldly put into the forefront.”

To this day, Clayton is committed to preserving the story and legacy of his great-great-great grandfather. “We’re still learning”, he says. The whereabouts of Solomon are still unknown and the events leading to and trailing his disappearance are still murky. But so much has already been accomplished in piecing together the life of Solomon Northup. His story almost vanished completely and had been rediscovered and preserved by people who see values and lessons-to-be-learned from these kinds of stories. But why are these stories precious? What do we take away from them? I think Clayton’s mom says it best:

“His courage and perseverance should be an inspiration to all humans who face life’s obstacles and tragedies. We are all proud of him and Anne and hope that others will benefit from knowing his story.”
                             -Carol Adams-Sally

If you want to know more about Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, and more, check out the book companion website, where you’ll find a blog featuring a post by Clayton Adams, reviews from 1853 of the book including reviews by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglas, and so much more!


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Need An Answer? Ask A Librarian: Part I

Last summer I wrote about my early years working at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and how libraries have changed in the 40 years I have worked here. One of the biggest changes that has occurred is in how we provide information services or reference. Access to technology has played an indelible role in that.

Carnegie Library has emphasized reference and information services from its first days. According to Ralph Munn’s History of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh:

The Reference Department was organized in 1895 by Elisa May Willard…by the end of 1905 it contained 66,000 books and 12,000 pamphlets. It was designed as a depository for U.S. government documents. Significant collections of scientific and technical books and journals were begun in 1898. An early report lists (1) members of clubs, (2) men seeking scientific and technical information, and (3) students, in that order, as the principal groups of users.

In the 1930s two telephone booths were added to the General Reference Department so that librarians could take calls from patrons who had questions at work and from home. In the 1950s, newspapers and journals began to be published in microfilm, eliminating the need to keep brittle newsprint or binding them.

Microfilm: it was -- and is - a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library  (all rights reserved).

Microfilm: it was — and is – a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

Special subject divisions were spun off the General Reference Department on the second floor over the years. The Technology Department moved to new space on the third floor at Main in 1909. In the 1930s, Art, Music, and Pennsylvania became separate divisions with only Music and Art also including circulating books with reference materials. Main remained pretty much in this configuration until the 1980s. Central Lending was renamed Popular Library in the 1970s.

For me, after several years on the Bookmobile and a short stint at the Brookline Branch, I was transferred to Main in 1976 as a Library Assistant. I was assigned to the staff of the “Popular Library” where all of Main’s popular circulating books were housed. But half of my time was scheduled to work with the newly established “Telephone Ready Reference Unit.” Because of budget cuts at that time and the loss of about 1/3 of the librarian positions in all Main departments, the thought was to funnel all telephone calls coming to Main for reference assistance to three Library Assistants at the phone line 412-622-3114. Our work area was about 10 ft. x 10 ft. and adjacent to the complete card catalog in the General Reference Department. If we could not answer a question in 3-5 minutes we were instructed to transfer the call to a professional librarian in the subject departments – General Reference, Science & Technology, Music and Art, Pennsylvania, or to the Popular Library.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vicki and Mary in TRRU.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vickie and Mary in TRRU.

Our role was to identify books, authors, titles and CLP ownership of them. We’d look up basic facts in a core reference book collection of about 150 titles. They included basic encyclopedias, the World Almanac, dictionaries (we had several foreign language dictionaries at hand), business directories, and telephone books from all of the major cities across the USA. (We used these just to look up addresses. We were only allowed to look up phone numbers on the occasion of a telephone operator’s strike). We answered many questions about grammar and quotations, government offices, personnel and statistics, movie stars and films, people, popular and world cultures and sports. During the day, we had most calls from companies, news reporters, and secretaries and after school and in the evenings it was students with homework needs. Readers of all ages called at all times if they were looking for books they were interested in.

It was fun work and challenging. To be good at this job you really had to have a broad general knowledge and an interest in popular culture and current events. And you had to love to read – read fiction and non-fiction and love to read about books and reviews. If you already knew the answer, you had a head start in using the print tools in looking up the answer to verify a source quickly and efficiently. Mary, Vickie and I, the intrepid first three LAs, fulfilled this job to a T. And for CLP, by relying on TRRU to answer the easy questions, the subject librarians had time to develop new computer skills like searching commercial, fee-based indexes like the New York Times Database, DIALOG, ORBIT and others. They learned the principles of Boolean searching (the use of the and / or statements). The databases required an in-depth reference interview to refine the query, and while expensive to use database searching was often a big time saver.

When Bob Croneberger became Director in 1986, his feeling was that there was so much information being generated in the world, library customers would be best served by subject specialists rather than generalists.  So we restructured Main and divided the Popular Library and General Reference into the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments.  I had been going to Pitt’s Library School at night to get my Master’s Degree so that I could become a librarian.  I did in 1980, and worked for 6 years at Main as the Young Adult Librarian.  Then, I was honored to be selected the first Head of the Social Sciences Department as we transitioned from General Reference.  And part of that job was supervising Ready Reference!   By the mid 1980’s the Library had its first online public access catalog.  Now, not only could we look up a book to tell if CLP owned it, we could tell if it were at Main, at a branch library, and if it might be out circulating.  This was a boon to the customer because if they needed a book quickly, they could call in advance before driving to a location armed with hope alone.

Around this time we introduced CD-ROM databases. In addition to paying to have access remote research databases online, we purchased reference databases that were updated monthly as new CD-ROM was sent. Initially these databases were just indexes to journal articles, but gradually over the next 10 years full text articles were included for each search. Students could now come, spend some minutes entering search terms and get complete article print-outs as a result, instead in spending hours poring over the Readers’ Guide, Essays & General Literature Index, and the Applied Science and Technology index to identify articles that met their research needs, then sending requests for journal titles to the closed stacks or Microfilm, reading the articles and taking notes on 3” X 5” index cards or photocopying articles to read at home. Boom – what had taken 3-4 hours at the library to do, now took one hour or less. The convenience was amazing.

Over the next ten years library resources continued to change.  In 1995, in time for the 100th anniversary of CLP,  Social Sciences and the Music & Art departments were at long last renovated.  At this time we introduced public access workstations to access the catalog and the internet for the public and the staff.  The life of the reference librarian was transformed overnight. Web based searching was available and individuals, companies, organizations, government, universities and libraries, and publishers of all types began to put free content up on their hastily produced websites.  By 2000, things were changing again.

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center


Main Library department’s reference statistics counts peaked at 1,145,567.  More individuals had access to personal computers at work and at home.  During that question bubble we answered many questions that instructed folks on how to find information on the World Wide Web by themselves. Richard and Melissa taught classes on searching the Web.  And soon users were finding their own answers to the easy questions.

That’s a lot to ponder, and there is more to come. In “Ask A Librarian – Part II” I will describe the reference revolution from 2000 to today.



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Because Poetry

Happy National Poetry Month!

Spotted at Jennifer Grassman's blog - click through for a 2014 poetry writing challenge.

Spotted at Jennifer Grassman’s blog – click through for a 2014 poetry writing challenge.

Occasionally I wonder if we should call poetry something else, like lexicography gymnastics or maybe the grand sensual buffet. Something sexier, peppier, less likely to make people break out in hives. People who love poetry see the word quite differently of course. It even sounds different: all those uninhibited vowels floating around (broad o, bridge of eh, musical tweet of ee), anchored solely by p and t, with the r kind of gliding by, like the tail of a kite. Just enough consonants to hang on to, sturdy fence posts in a windstorm.

Hm. Maybe we should stick with “poetry” a little longer: like a bracing spring gale, it has hopeful possibilities.

Every year or so I make a case for exploring poetry. This year, though, I’m taking the next step and writing my way through the exercises in The Poet’s Companion. It’s messy, joyful, splendid work, and if you’re ready too, there are a whole lot of other books to guide and inspire you. If you’re not quite there yet (never say never),  the Academy of American Poets has other suggestions for celebrating National Poetry Month, including celebrating “Poem in Your Pocket Day” (April 18) and playing Exquisite Corpse, which not only sounds edgy and dangerous, but is also guaranteed to rescue any meeting stretching into its third hour, provided you can find some co-conspirators.

Here are some other ways you can explore poetry in April, and all year ’round:

  • 3 Poems By… is a great opportunity to be social with other poetry-curious folks, and try a poet on for size with small chunks of her/his work. This month’s discussion spotlights Edna St. Vincent Millay, the “First Fig” fraulein; e-mail newandfeatured at carnegielibrary dot org to get the scoop, and the poems.
  • Curious about how poetry intersects with the mundane world? Don’t forget Sam Hazo’s presentation, Poetry and Public Speech, on April 7th, 2014, 6-8 p.m.
  • Consult the Pittsburgh Literary Calendar to find a reading that’s convenient for you. You’ll be surprised and pleased at how much diversity and range there is on the local poetry scene.
  • Pressed for time, but have your phone with you? Download some poetry from our Overdrive digital collection. Busy Apple users can also download the Poem Flow app and share the communal reading experience of a new poem every day.
  • Countless options for streaming and recorded poetry online abound, both on the free web and via the Library’s subscription to Naxos Spoken Word Library (valid card number required for login). Bonus: NPR’s Music and Metaphor has just kicked off its 2014 Poetry Month programming.
  • Shake up your perceptions of what poetry is by flirting with cowboy poetry! You know you want to. We’ll never tell.
  • Like videos? You can watch everyday people reading their favorite poems at the Favorite Poem Project.
  • More of the research and facts type? Check out this report on the state of poetry in America.

And, of course, we’d be thrilled if you’d consider stopping by the library to meet the poets in person, as it were. Introduce yourself to Yona Harvey, Nikky Finney, David Whyte, Rumi, Sonia Sanchez, anybody whose cover art looks interesting, or whose titles grab you. Go for an anthology, so you can meet a whole lot of poets at one time. Keep throwing things against your heart to see what sticks. Borrow then as audiobooks, Playaways, or DVDs, and don’t forget that musicians can be poets too.

Just don’t let National Poetry month go by without giving it a teensy bit of a whirl. Because poetry is for kidsadults, and teens, working people and retirees. Because poetry covers every single point on the erotic spectrum, and is produced by as many different kinds of people as there are in the world (and, sometimes, their cats). Because…well, why not?

Because poetry.

–Leigh Anne

who promises she won’t corner you in the elevator and ask your opinion on drafts


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Curiosity/Satisfaction: Notes From A Reading Life

‘curiosity killed the cat.’ A very familiar proverb that seems to have been recorded only as far back as the early 1900s. Perhaps it derived somehow from the much older (late 16th century) care killed the cat, but there is no proof of this thus far.” — The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 4th ed.


I am a mediocre poet who lives in a city of very good poets, some of whom sit next to me at the reference desk on a regular basis.  Despite my inability to craft a suitable sonnet or a voluptuous villanelle, I find myself drawn again and again to the poetry section; if I cannot create this particular brand of magic, I can, at least, drown myself in it, hoping I will gain something from repeated dunks.  Gills, maybe.  A mermaid’s tail.

So, too, I devour David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless.  It’s a guidebook for the uninitiated, everybody who fears that s/he’s just not cool enough for poetry.  Orr’s essays soothe me, make me snicker; who knew the New York Times‘s poetry critic could be so darned frank and funny?  I want to give this book to everyone who has ever felt they weren’t smart enough to read or write poetry, so we can tear down our misconceptions and misgivings together, start all over again.

“As everyone knows, all the best poets eat at Taco Bell,” Orr assures me. I smile, and believe him.


Vampires are sooooo ’97 (by which, of course, I mean 1897).  It is, however, hot, and a little fluffy fiction would not be amiss.   I pick up By Blood We Live and fall into a plush, posh, well-written collection of short stories culled from masters of the horror genre.  Neil Gaiman and Stephen King are here, and rightly so.  There are, however, many new-to-me authors, such as Barbara Roden, Nancy Holder, Carrie Vaughn.  Gleefully I scribble authors and titles into my to-read notebook, marveling at how one good short story anthology can lead to hours of further entertainment and discovery.


Because I’m usually reading multiple books at once, serendipitous moments frequently pop up.  I learn, for example, that both Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City contain tiger symbolism.  One is telegraphed, the other covert; both are delightful surprises.  It is, however, Obreht’s interweave of medicine and magic, nested as it is in a narrative reminiscent of those cunning Russian dolls-within-dolls, that keeps my attention.  As much as I pity Lethem’s tiger, I have far less sympathy for his wealthy, indolent characters, and I cannot wait a few hundred pages for their redemption, no matter how well-written and charming they are.

I parcel out Obreht’s novel slowly, in paragraphs, to make it last longer.  The delicious suspense is killing me, but I do not want this book to end.  I will probably stay up late to finish it the night before it is due, imagining the impatient toe-tapping of everyone else on the waiting list.  “Relax,” I want to tell them.  “It’s worth it.  You’ll love this.”  Like a mother reassuring her children that the long night’s sleep before Santa will, most assuredly, be worth it in the morning.


My best friend and I are getting pedicures; I have never had one, so I’m a little embarrassed about my feet.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that they are the ugliest feet ever seen in North America, so to hide my embarrassment over what I’m convinced will be inevitable ridicule and banishment from the spa, I turn to the table next to me, grab a random book and hide behind it, mortified.

Said book turns out to be I Love Your Style by Amanda Brooks.  It’s a how-to-dress guide for those of us who could use a little help, fashion-wise, and  unlike other books in this oeuvre I’ve furtively glanced at, the author actually appears to be on my side.  Rather than foisting a list of dos and don’ts on the hapless reader, Brooks gently makes suggestions about how you can create your own signature look based on what makes you feel pretty.  My reservations about this whole girlie-girl thing lift somewhat.

As I flip through the pages, I read random tidbits to my more stylish friend, who listens indulgently.  “Look, minimalism is TOO a style,” I crow, pointing to pictures of the black-clad, no-nonsense Sofia Coppola.  An hour later, purple polish drying, I teeter home on flip-flops and verify that I can indeed check this book out of the library.  Haute couture, for the win.


Curiosity killed the cat; satisfaction, they say, brought that cat back.  However, I am still sifting through the murky backwaters of the internet–and kicking up heaps of dust in print resources–trying to find a derivation for this phrase that will satisfy the librarian part of my brain.  This chunk of grey matter insists, despite our brave new content-creation world, that there are still certain standards for what is true in any given situation.  A bunch of people on the web saying something is true does not necessarily make it so.

[And yet, I have, as of right now, nothing better to go on, and precious little time to devote to what is currently a matter of interest to me and me alone.  Then again, if somebody should call the reference department tomorrow and want to know “the truth” about the origin of this phrase, I would have a reason to go on.  Hint hint.]

On a grander scale, curiosity is what brings us to the written word, and satisfaction is what brings us back. We read for all sorts of reasons: to lose ourselves, to learn new things, to kill boredom or its variants, which include “time in airports” and “waiting in line at the coffee shop.”  We read to satiate our hunger to know, even if it kills us, the things we do not know.  We come back, again and again, because the only thing knowledge truly kills is ignorance, and the satisfaction we feel–learning the facts, exploring the new subject, discovering the unfamiliar genre–is more than enough to counterbalance any pain that takes place during the process.

What are you curious about today?  What brings you back to the library, again and again?

–Leigh Anne


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If Google Vanished

Hypothetical speculation is a fun sport most people like to indulge in from time to time.  Some of us, for example, like to argue about who would win in a fight between a grizzly bear and a wolverine (or, Wolverine, or The Wolverine Brigade).  Others debate the comparative greatness of various sports heroes, dead presidents, or Mexican artists.  The only limits to the game are your creativity and imagination.

Library workers, being a special kind of nerdy, often consider scenarios like this one:

Google buys every major search tool and is then shut down as a monopoly, and in the same week Wikipedia goes bankrupt. Choose three freely available websites as the best starting points for the widest possible range of inquiries.

–Joseph Janes in I’m Sorry, You’re Out

Never ones to resist a challenge,  your crack team of information mavens here at Main Library pondered the question, then came up with the following list of web resources we would use to help answer your questions, in the event of Googlepedia apocalypse.

Short introductions to every topic under the sun.

An all-purpose music, movies and gaming portal.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Research Databases
Free to you, because we paid for it!

A searchable collection of popular links people like you found useful.

Encyclopedia Britannica
A notable name in encyclopedias opens up its treasury of goodness.

The Internet Movie Database
Titles, actors, roles and more, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Visual and verbal guides for doing and making just about anything.

The Internet Public Library married The Librarians’ Index to the Internet! This is their baby.

Medline Plus
The National Library of Medicine tackles all your health dilemmas.

The QuestionPoint Ready Reference Wiki
Jam-packed with useful links, assembled by librarians.

A useful, diverse, all-purpose search portal.

Dictionaries, thesauri, quotations, and a translator. Mighty!

TV Tropes
Specialized wiki for TV themes and concepts.

An excellent starting point for credible info on U.S. Government services.

Find books in libraries all over the world, or close to home.

Most of the sites mentioned here can already be found via the library’s Ready Reference Links Page, so feel free to bookmark it, or save it as a “favorite” in your browser — it contains a number of other neat and useful sources, too, like Weather Underground and GetHuman.

When do Google and Wikipedia work for you?  Where do they fall short?  What are your favorite free web resources?  Nerdy information herders want to know!

–Leigh Anne


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Research Databases Are No Trivial Thing

Last week, some library staff got together for a pub quiz.  We spend much of our work day helping you find information and we also like to spend our leisure time answering questions.

In previous years of the trivia contest, I’ve been a competitor, studying almanacs, atlases, encyclopedias and the books of Ken Jennings, beforehand.  This year, I helped create questions and fact-check for the quiz.

Did I use Wikipedia?  No.  Did I do random Google searches?  No.  Did I ask Yahoo Answers?  No.

A reputable source from days gone by. Much of this sort of information, old and new, is online now and the library is still the best way to get to it.

I used the library’s research databases because that is where accurate, reliable information resides.

Library databases contain information that you can’t access with Google or other search engines because it is proprietary and the publishers don’t make it freely available on the web.  This is where journal articles that are peer-reviewed can be found.  This is where specialty encyclopedias with expert, editorial oversight can be found.  This is where scholarship in almost any subject can be found.  This is where you can avoid personal rants and commercial sites.

Libraries pay for database subscriptions so you and I can freely get to quality information for serious research.  Or, sometimes, just for trivia.

— Tim

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Every Month Could Be Black History Month…

LAV has declared that 2010 is “The Year of the Database.”  This is the first in a series of posts about the extensive suite of electronic resources available to Carnegie Library cardholders.  We hope the resources explored in this series will enrich and enhance your library experience.

Did you know that your library card grants you an all-access, year-round pass to information about black history and culture?  Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh users can read, print, or e-mail materials from The African American Experience, one of the many subscription databases we offer for your recreational and research needs.

Why a subscription database, you ask?  Good question.  The free web does have many credible resources, and it’s getting better all the time.  However, subscription databases contain information a Google search won’t turn up, written and published by companies with high standards for accuracy.  And when you’re trying to learn–especially when you’re pressed for time–do you really want to sacrifice quality for quantity?

Not that The African American Experience skimps on either aspect:  you could spend days browsing the subject headings, which include:

  • Arts and Media
  • Civil Rights
  • Children and Families
  • Literature
  • Religion and Spirituality
  • Slavery
  • War and Military Service
  • Women

The database also bundles information into monthly featured topics like “Jazz Music” and “The Great Migration.”  These spotlight bundles include slideshows, timelines, key works, and links to other resources, so that you can explore a new topic every month with ease.

Other treasures in The African American Experience include:

  • Audio samples of historical African American music
  • Interviews with key historical figures
  • More than 5,000 primary sources, including full-text speeches
  • 4,000+ WPA interviews with former slaves
  • Over 2,500 photographs, illustrations and maps
  • Lesson plans and classroom guides
  • A writing/research skills center for students

The very best part of The African American Experience is, however, the fact that you can use it from any computer that has internet access, provided you have your Carnegie Library card handy.  Whenever possible, we provide 24/7/365 access to our digital resources, so that even when the physical library is closed, you still have access to the very best information.

Think outside the month.  Take a look at The African American Experience and consider making 2010 your own personal Black History Year.

–Leigh Anne

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Library Reflections

“Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library.  The only entrance requirement is interest.”

Lady Bird Johnson

With all the attention libraries have received in recent months, I have been thinking back on decades behind the reference desk.  I arrived at a time when paper books were the norm.  Many of the books we used to answer people’s questions didn’t even have indexes, so we perused their contents page by page.  Experienced staff laboriously created and maintained homemade records, clipping, indexing, and filing, while passing on wisdom orally to younger generations. Smaller libraries, with limited collections, had to call even to find out if we had a particular title on the shelf.

The internet, of course, has changed the very nature of the reference process. People are able to do more basic research at home–including students with full-text access to many magazine articles. As in the past, reliability of resources must be considered and librarians are turned to for help in answering more complex problems, or for recommendations.

Today, as more and more experienced librarians retire, we are encouraged that a new generation of energetic, technically-minded and enthusiastic young people are choosing the profession.  One day, in the all-too-near future, I shall walk out the door for the last time to begin the final phase of my life.  When that happens, I shall take with me the memory of many fine co-workers over the decades and an amazement at the human mind’s endless questioning and desire to know.

To quote Samuel Johnson, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.”


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Go away!

Summer is on its way, and for lots of folks, that means it’s time for vacation preparation. Part of the fun of getaways is planning, from deciding where to go to exploring the destination’s restaurants, attractions and culture. When I take a trip, I do most of my research online and through travel guides.  

Travel guides are a great place to start for general information. Unfortunately, they can be a little tricky to find in the catalog. Try this trick: using a keyword search, type in the name of your destination, the word “and,” and the word “guidebooks.” (For example, use “Pittsburgh and guidebooks.”)  This search should retrieve all of the materials listed with the Library of Congress subject heading that includes that location’s travel guides. Another subject heading the LOC commonly designates is “Description and Travel.

McCall Homemaking Cover photo by Nickolas Muray from George Eastman House Collection

"McCall Homemaking Cover" photo by Nickolas Muray from George Eastman House Collection

 Travel guide publishers like Lonely PlanetMoon, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s are also good sites to look for itineraries, lodging, eating, commuting, and activity information. Some even feature interactive message boards where fellow travelers offer personal advice and anecdotes. 

For domestic travel, the US Department of State’s Travel, Transportation, and Recreation page offers a wealth of information on national destinations and links to official state and locality pages.

For international excursions, visit Travel.State.Gov for travel advice and the CIA’s The World Factbook for background information about the country. The CLP website lists more excellent links for country information.

Newspapers frequently include travel sections, like The New York Times’ 36 Hours column, in which reporters travel to various US cities, have as much fun as possible in one weekend, and report back to the rest of us who aren’t lucky enough to vacation for a living.  

If your flavor is more under-the-radar, and you’re visiting a larger city, check the Association of Alternative Weeklies’ directory to find a local rag akin to Seattle’s The Stranger or New York City’s Village Voice that’s loaded with entertainment listings and reviews. 

Of course, one of my favorite travel advisors is the ever-reliable CLP Tools & Research page, in the section dedicated entirely to Travel.  These pages do everything from help you pack to explain how to phone home.  They even offer advice to the armchair traveler.  

We’re happy to help, even if only because we secretly hope you’ll bring us back a souvenir.


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Get it Right

I’m a product of serendipitous timing; this week’s Time Magazine gives me the introduction I was looking for. In reviewing two new true-crime books, Lev Grossman introduces his reviews with the observation that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on a 1959 Kansas farmhouse murder, was the first real “nonfiction novel.” Most of us are familiar with the genre, and for me at least, it’s my preferred choice in fiction reading.

My first real experience with the genre as a young adult was probably from reading Leon Uris and James Michener. Uris’s Battle Cry is fiction, but it’s unmistakably autobiographical and the places and events mentioned are real. Besides, how can you not keep coming back to a book that begins: “They call me Mac…”? Uris’s other early works follow the same pattern, a good yarn based on extensive historical research, but labeled fiction. The better ones that come to mind, and that I’ll re-read every few years are Armageddon (my personal favorite,) Topaz and Exodus.

Battle Cry Mila 18 In Cold Blood Exodus

James Michener did the same thing, creating a fictional narrative based on extensive historic research. Whereas Uris’s works covered the here and now, Michener’s made up the expanse of human time. Where I later had problems with Michener is that his books became SSDP (same story, different place.) While The Source, Poland, Hawaii and The Covenant are obviously different places and people, the formula became too repetitive and apparent after reading the third book. All of them are excellent, but they need to be spaced out. Ten and twenty years later, I had the same complaint about Tom Clancy and anything with Jack Ryan.

Clancy is interesting to me for another reason and leads into my real reason for writing here. Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October opened up the market for the techno-thriller. Following Clancy’s lead, writers like Larry Bond and Stephen Coonts could spend half a page describing in the most descriptively arcane terms some piece of machinery, weaponry or vehicle. Their characters (crosses between Indiana Jones and James Bond without the tux) don’t just don or put on their coats, instead they pick up their Jacket, Field M-1943, or they board a 3,800 ton, Westinghouse gas turbine powered Knox class frigate preparing to get under way. That the frigate may or may not be rocking gently at the pier is incidental.

book jacket book jacket book jacket hunt for red october

What happens though, when the story isn’t historical fiction? David Hagberg, a well received author of techno-thrillers, has written a non-fiction work titled Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt for Red October. Hagberg’s co-author is a man named Boris Gindin. The book is an account of a not very well-planned and short-lived mutiny aboard a Soviet naval vessel in 1975 (a 3500 ton Krivak class anti-submarine warfare vessel – see, I can do that techno stuff too.) Gindin was the chief engineering officer aboard the ship at the time, and spent most of the actual mutiny time locked up in a storage space with the other officers who didn’t join the Zampolit (Political Officer) who led the mutiny. So what we have is an historical narrative, told from the memory of a single individual, who wasn’t in a position to actually see or hear what was happening during the real course of events. According to Hagberg’s own acknowledgements, Gindin was the only participant he had access to for the story, and there are no primary source materials available.

I’m OK with that if the author is responsible and doesn’t project too much. Where I really began having problems with this book, and maybe it’s less about this book and more about the non-fiction I’m reading today in general, is the paucity of research or evidence of research. I’m going to the backs of these works and not finding indexes; there are few if any footnotes or endnotes, and in this case a fairly diminutive bibliography.

What made me seriously question this book is a short comment Hagberg made in a chapter devoted to Stalin’s purges, deportations and mass murder of the Kulaks and Ukrainians. At the end of a succession of atrocities perpetrated against them, Hagberg writes:

“The kulaks ate their pets, then bark from the trees, even their boots and belts and harnesses. Finally they began eating one another. Sometimes parents ate their infant children” (266).

Obviously it’s disturbing and I was curious as to his source. That’s when I discovered and burned that there was no index. I then went to look for a bibliography and came across one of 35 citations; books and articles. Oh yeah, 11 of them are from Wikipedia. Truth be told, most of them are innocuous and don’t effect historical accuracy; the performance of a particular aircraft or class of naval vessel. However 3 or 4 of them were about the histories of the Soviet era security services – the Cheka, NKVD, NKGB and the KGB. To me it’s fact-checking lite; it’s taking “good enough” and diminishing the veracity of research. I like Wikipedia, but use it as a test-bed against things I know about, or as a starting point for additional information gathering. Its problem is that user-generated content harbors the danger of reducing historical fact to truth by “democracy”. If 100 people say this didn’t happen, and only 60 say it did, then it didn’t happen.

Why did my red lights go off here? Take a look at the The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes. I was given this book late last year and finally finished it in April or May. It’s over 700 pages of meticulously noted personal accounts of life in the Soviet Union from before the revolution until the end of the Khrushchev years. In and of itself The Whisperers merits its own write-up, but I’ll save that for another day. The book is an ode to ensuring the veracity of personal accounts and their places within historical context. In reading it I may have come across inaccurate detail of events, but those are errors and suppositions of the individual account, not the pronunciations of the author as authority. In reading accounts of 40-50 years of systemic oppression and terror in the old USSR, I never came across accounts of cannibalism in the manner Hagberg suggests. My problem with what Hagberg flippantly tosses out is, his account is so brief that it seems common or expected; it loses its ability to shock and make us question to what levels humans must sometimes reach whether as victim or perpetrator.

To me it reinforces our roles as custodians of the veracity of the information we provide. “Good enough” is usually a quantitative qualifier, it also needs to be a qualitative quantifier, meaning it’s good enough that I’d use it too.


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