Friday, April 30, 2010

Get your groceries at the library

This NPR story tells of an idea so brilliant it staggers me. In neighborhoods of Baltimore where there are no grocery stores nearby ("food deserts") the city library is filling the gap. Patrons can order their food in the branch library and a supermarket delivers it to the branch the next day. Each order means a family member visits the library twice - often with kids - and I'll bet they become dedicated fans. Talk about thinking outside the box!

The project is paid for by a $60,000 stimulus grant.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Soda Machine

I was listening to Fred Eaglesmith's album Drive-In Movie today and decided to see if there were any videos on Youtube. I'm not a big fan of country, and I guess that's what Eaglesmith does, but wow, what a great album.

You might say it's a theme album and the theme is: love and machines. No, not that kind of machine, wiseguy. The titles include "I Like Trains," "49 Tons (of Diesel Locomotive)," "Here's The Keys," etc. ONe of my favorites is "White Rose," which is about a gas station closing.

But the best song may be "Soda Machine."

Friday, April 16, 2010

In Praise of Gobbledygook

I have been enjoying the Government Printing Office's new blog, Government Book Talk, which I wrote about here. The latest entry concerns the new edition of the GPO Style Manual.

That reminded me of my favorite federal book about language, Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go. It was written by John O'Hayre and published by the Bureau of Land Management in 1966.

It is thoroughly outdated, of course. It assumes all women are secretaries, and I don't mean Secretaries of State. But as a guide to clear language and an antidote to gov-speak, it is hard to beat. Here is one of my favorite passages.

"Here's a pompous memo that rankled F.D.R. so much that he rewrote it and shot it back to the man who pomped it up in the first place. The memo dealt with what Federal workers were to do in case of an air raid:

Such preparations will be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reasons of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by black=out construction or by termination of illumination.

Here's how F.D.R. dignified the memo by giving it simplicity:

Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something over the windows; and, in buildings where they can let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights."

I'll bet the memo writer hated to lose obscuration. It seemed to be his motto.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ancient History

Okay, this cracked me up, even though the main part of the story was tragic....

Most mornings, when I'm checking my email before work, I listen to WUMB, the Boston radio station that plays only folk music. Every morning Dave Palmater announces events from music history that happened on this date. Inevitably, most of them are about rock.

Today he made an announcement that went something like this: "On this day in 1966 Jan Berry of Jan and Dean was almost killed in a car accident near Dead Man's Curve."

There was a pause as he thought about what to say next. Then:

"I'm not going to explain it. If you're under fifty, don't worry about it. It's not important."

Little things amuse little minds.

Homeland Security Digital Library

My university library is a federal depository, which means that the government sends us publications in various forms for us to make available to the public. But it means more than that.
For example, we have access, ONLY because we are a depository, to the Homeland Security Digital Library, which has more than 70,000 government publications on a much wider variety of topics than the name might suggest.

For example, a class is working on response to the earthquake in Haiti. I went to HSDL and searched for Haiti earthquake, limiting to publications where those words appeared in the title or summary. Here are some of the 49 responses, all full-text. Many of them have been updated numerous times.

Haiti Earthquake: Crisis and Response
2010 Haiti Earthquake and Caribbean Earthquake Risk
Guidance for Relief Workers and Others Traveling to Haiti for Earthquake Response
'Build Back Better' in Haiti: Lessons from the Indonesian Tsunami
Council Conclusions on the Earthquake in Haiti: Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council Meeting
2010 Haiti Earthquake Pre-decision Brief: Leptospirosis

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Becoming Common Knowledge

A few days ago I was listening to NPR and I heard Susan Jane Gilman review The Bridge, a biography of Barack Obama by David Remnick. I was listening along peacefully enough until she announced:

In a particularly sobering section, Remnick notes that 12 American presidents owned slaves, eight while in office…

Well, yes, I knew that. In fact, while Gilman got that news from Remnick, almost certainly Remnick had gotten it, directly or otherwise, from me.

The Anti-Jefferson

Back in 2001 I read an article by Andrew Levy in The American Scholar. “The Anti-Jefferson” was about Robert Carter III, a neighbor of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who decided it was wrong to own people. Over time he freed about five hundred slaves, more than any other individual in U.S. history. (Levy later wrote a wonderful book about Carter, The First Emancipator.)

The article fascinated me and made we wonder how many presidents owned slaves. It wasn’t easy to find out. I tried paper and web sources and got conflicting and partial information. Part of the problem was confusion between how many owned slaves during their lifetimes versus how many owned them during the presidency.

Since I’m a librarian I knew what to do next. I spent a lot of lunch hours going through the history books and concluded, as you already guessed, that the numbers were twelve and eight.

Then I created a website: Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves? It includes 4 pages of bibliography to back up my views, and every relevant quotation I could find from our first eighteen presidents (number 18, Ulysses S. Grant, was the last who owned slaves in his lifetime).

Crossing The Bridge

So, I was excited to see if Remnick had cited me. It would be fun to appear in the endnotes of what sounded like might be a bestseller.

My website has been cited before. One author was kind enough to send me a copy of his book. It has also been noted in a doctorate dissertation, a newspaper article, and at least one scholarly paper.

And there is another sign that I have become, so to speak, the authority in the field. Search Google for which presidents owned slaves. My website comes up first. Of the other nine sites that come up on the first Google page, five link to mine. (And I am just malicious enough to note that at least one of the four sites that doesn’t link to mine got the number wrong.)

Of course, I knew Remnick’s book was a popular, rather than an academic volume, so it might not have endnotes at all. As it turns out, The Bridge does. Almost 600 endnotes, in fact, and a bibliography. But my name appears in neither place. The exact quotation, on page 562, says

Twelve Presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office.

But there is no endnote explaining where Remnick got his information.

At first I was quite annoyed. Then it occurred to me: Maybe my declaration has become common knowledge.

Missing a sale

You don’t have to cite things everybody knows. Do you want to mention that Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter about slavery to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855? You had better cite your source. But if you want to say that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president, hey, no endnote needed. Because everybody knows that.

And I suppose that would be Remnick’s take on it. The conclusion I dug out over so many lunch hours ten years ago is now something everybody knows.

You can’t copyright a fact, of course, only the expression of it. And it is kind of cool to have become a bearer of common knowledge, if that is what happened here. Still, if my name appeared in the book, Remnick’s sales would have increased by one.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Just another day in Bellingham, Washington

Went to the Farmers Market downtown. Since it was the first Saturday in April I made sure to get there for the opening.

Later I ran into G., a friend who moved to town last year. "Were you here for the cabbage toss?" I asked.

"What cabbage toss?"

I explained that, to officially open the new market season, the mayor of Bellingham ceremonially throws out the first cabbage at 10 AM on the first day.

G. gave me a look that said "SURE he does."

Well, it's true. That's life in Bellingham.

Later I went over to Kulshan Cycles to pick up my bike which was in for a tune-up. The wheel wonders at Kulshan have set my vehicle up for another year on the trails and commuting routes.

I pedaled over to the Upfront Theatre. When Ryan Stiles (of The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?) moved to Whatcom County he founded the Upfront to indulge his love for improv comedy. This was the day of the annual Improvathon where a group of young actors do 27 hours of comedy, just for the hell of it. For ten bucks I watched two hours of it. The highlight, for me, was a lengthy story of a quest, which involved a knight having to defeat several monsters at Yahtzee.

After that I wheeled over to the Public Library where I ran into my friend E, who was looking for some new female novelists to try out. I recommended THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT, my favorite novel by Diane Chamberlain, who happens to be my sister. Keep it in the family.

After a hurried dinner I went over to the Mount Baker Theatre, our city's big house, built in the 1920s, and caught the national touring company production of Cabaret. I lost track of people saying "The plot of the movie was completely different." Yup, and much better. But the music is great.

Then it was home to bed. Just another day in the City of Subdued Excitement.

Photo by Layna Bennehoff, taken on a much warmer and sunnier Saturday than yesterday.