Happy May Day

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In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions set May 1, 1886, as the date by which an eight-hour work day would become standard.  A strike at the McCormick plant was met with police violence, so several days later a labor demonstration convened to show support for these workers.  An unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd, and the ensuing chaos resulted in the deaths of at least four civilians and seven policemen and numerous injuries.  The trials and executions and commutations dragged on for many years.

More information about this so-called Haymarket Affair can be seen in a digital collection created by the Chicago Historical Society.  The web site includes interesting background about how the source materials were selected and digitized.

But back to May Day.  In 1890, leaders of the American Federation of Labor decided to designate May 1st as the day when workers would once again strike for an eight-hour work day.  Samuel Gompers got the support of international labor leaders in the first congress of the Second International, and May Day was born both as a means to unite international workers in their fight for shorter hours and as a way to honor those who had died at Haymarket and other labor protests.

I recently came across a list of books that was generated by the Department of Labor last year to celebrate its centennial.  They titled the initiative “Books That Shaped Work in America,” and the list itself makes for fascinating reading.  It spans everything from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Mo Willems I’m a Frog.  Visitors to the site can recommend additional volumes to the list, and each book includes a brief description along with the name of its recommender.

We hold these truths

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National Library Week has been celebrated since 1958, but as this year’s celebration comes to a close, my main takeaway is that libraries are still very much trying to define their role in a world of ebooks, online databases, and social media.  The American Library Association sponsors the week, and the theme this year is “Lives change @ your library.”  The focus of the ALA very much seems to be on the Declaration for the Right to Libraries.  It does provide some interesting food for thought:

  • Libraries empower the individual.
  • Libraries support literacy and lifelong learning.
  • Libraries strengthen families.
  • Libraries are the great equalizer.
  • Libraries build communities.
  • Libraries protect our right to know.
  • Libraries strengthen our nation.
  • Libraries advance research and scholarship.
  • Libraries help us to better understand each other.
  • Libraries preserve our nation’s cultural heritage.

Curiously enough, some of the celebrations of National Library Week had nothing to do with libraries.  For instance, Oxford University Press offered free access to a number of its online resources.  ProQuest also had a similar promotion.  Given that many people wonder aloud what electronic resources mean for the long-term viability of libraries, it’s an interesting time for these publishers to choose for these promotions.

Some of the most interesting acknowledgments that I saw about National Library Week came from Parade.  They posted a gallery of nine of America’s most beautiful libraries.  Although libraries are increasingly reaching patrons online, there are still some exquisite architectural specimens out there.  Parade also excerpted an essay by Ann Patchett that’s included in Robert Dawson’s book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).  Patchett offers a simple definition of a library: “a collection of books, however many or few, that are loaned out and gathered back.”  She implicitly comments on one of the assertions in the Declaration for the Right to Libraries — that of libraries as the great equalizer — by calling on those who have more resources (and, therefore, may not need the resources their public libraries) to support libraries as the place where people go to find a better life.  May this better life continue being what libraries deliver, 52 weeks out of the year.

Collections that build connections

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I had the opportunity this week to attend the annual conference of the Society of North Carolina Archivists.  Sarah Koonts, the Director of the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, delivered the keynote address.  She entitled her presentation “Collections That Build Connections,” and she provided a nice succinct overview of trends, tactics, and technologies for archives.  I was interested to hear that the State Archives of North Carolina is reaching the same number of patrons that it was twenty years ago.  Obviously with the increasing availability of resources online, many more of those patrons traveled to the archives twenty years than do today.  While it’s certainly heartening to see that the usefulness of archives has not declined, I could also hope that archives could gain ground with the introduction of new access mechanisms rather than just standing their ground.  Along those lines, Koonts had some interesting suggestions for outreach that could increase the exposure of archives:

  • crowdsourcing (e.g., NARA’s Citizen Archivist Dashboard)
  • offering to be a speaker for local Rotary groups or cultural groups
  • partnering with a state historic site for an exhibit
  • connecting archival resources to National History Day themes as a way to target high school teachers and students

Maybe with this sort of thinking and leadership, archives can keep re-envisioning themselves and find ways to increase the numbers of patrons.

For the love of language

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“If language were liquid

It would be rushing in

Instead here we are

In a silence more eloquent

Than any word could ever be

Words are too solid

They don’t move fast enough

To catch the blur in the brain

That flies by and is gone”

Suzanne Vega, “Language” (1986)

I attended my first North Carolina Literary Festival when I was a student at Duke.  This event is presented on a rotating basis by the Duke University Libraries, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, and the North Carolina State University Libraries.  What I have appreciated about this event since the beginning is its ability to bring together very diverse audiences — university students, retirees, academics, casual readers, families.  I’m not in a position to evaluate whether this attendance is primarily the result of good advertising or more a reflection of the make-up of the Triangle population or solely due to the star power of the authors, but no matter what, this Festival certainly counts as public outreach done well by these libraries.

This year, the theme was The Future of Reading — a challenge to the theory that reading is on the decline and also a recognition that reading is now occurring in different formats.  This afternoon, I got to listen to Tom Brothers talk about his research on Louis Armstrong that led to his book Master of Modernism.  Having long been a fan of the Satchmo, I was interested to learn more about his career in the 1920s and early 1930s, but I was also struck by the language the Brothers employed in his analysis.  I’m trained in history, so I already knew of the awkward line that black musicians walked in this era — often times playing to whites-only crowds — but Brothers spoke of Armstrong’s embracing the African American vernacular in his music played even to these white audiences.  I had never applied to term vernacular to music, but upon hearing Brothers’ use of it, I immediately understood and appreciated his meaning.

I also had the opportunity to hear Wiley Cash and Lee Smith read from their latest books — for Wiley Cash This Dark Road to Mercy and for Lee Smith Guests on Earth.  For me, the readings are always great because I like being able to hear the author’s words in her own voice.  Cash and Smith also prepared questions to ask each other as a means of providing the audience a window into their creative processes.  In speaking about inspirations, Cash explained that he thinks he learned how to write by reading others.  In answering a question about writing from different perspectives, he referenced the notion of Charles Chesnutt that all fiction is the act of rearranging your memory.  Smith had an interesting way to distinguish fiction from other genres, suggesting that “fiction is all about trouble.”  Without conflict, a story can be a form of reporting, but in her opinion, it doesn’t qualify as fiction.  Smith also talked of occasionally being surprised at the choices her characters make.  I one time heard Margaret Maron speak of a similar bafflement caused by her lead character Deborah Knott, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Smith speak in this fashion, but it still amuses me to consider that these characters they create can seemingly take on lives of their own.  Both in their printed prose and in their answers to impromptu questions from the audience, Smith and Cash caused me to marvel at their ability “to catch the blur in the brain” and share with their audiences language and characters whose voices and troubles are so compelling that we keep turning the pages.

Events like this North Carolina Literary Festival obviously require a great deal of planning and fundraising, but it is a worthy service to the community that should continue being supported by these university libraries as well as the sponsors.