Do Not Go Humble

September 27, 2010

When people hit a certain age, it is said, they turn to newspaper obituary pages first. Well, I didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly on the heels of my 60th birthday but Friday, Saturday, Sunday and today all seem to be pointing to this phenomenon.

On Friday, I got an email from MPM HR putting me in touch with an old friend/colleague from the museum (first time I’ve had a communication with official MPM except for misc. questions in fall of 2005 and my request last month about retiring from their employ and beginning to receive a pension. Floyd tracked me down to see if I might know where Irene Mitkus had lived when she worked on contract as a hand-bookbinder and restorer for the MPM Library and Archives; she had also worked on Floyd’s personal library.

Where some people like to keep Bibles or other inspirational works, or dictionaries and thesauri close at had, I keep my address book. Irene’s address was still in there. She hadn’t moved from the lovely flat cum workshop in the not-so-lovely Concordia neighborhood she’d moved to in the 1980’s. Nearly a decade ago, now, I’d sadly noted deceased next to her name but hadn’t erased or lined out the info. I guess I was thinking that if anybody ever tried to use my address book to notify people of my passing, I didn’t want to mislead them.

On Saturday, I found an example of Irene’s work (see preceding blog entry for photo) and emailed it to Floyd. I know I have several more of these notecards she made and used for a variety of purposes.One of these days I’ll open the right box in storage and find them. Aided by the address from the past, Floyd was able to attend Irene’s memorial service and on Sunday sent me another email about the experience. Irne was too young to die, and very likely, would not have passed away as she did, if she had health care insurance or access to goodbut affordable health care but she worked on contract and had to take the risk.

On Monday, I logged on to Facebook only to be greeted by a note from another MPM colleague about the death over the weekend of Dr. Lazar Brkich who had been born in 1927 and had gathered several lifetimes’ worth of experiences over his 83 years. I never realized Lazar was one year younger than my father. Lazar’s magnificent contribution to civic pride and ethnic heritage in Milwaukee, the European Village exhibit @ MPM, opened a couple of days after I gave birth to my first child — we used to joke about which event would happen first – and my one regret with the timing was that I missed that exhibit opening.

Naturally I had to search for a link to Lazar’s obit to publish on my wall and, while doing so, stumbled across another MPM-connected obituary – for Kenneth MacArthur who had passed away at the age of 97. Ken was in the process of getting ready for his retirement and wrapping things up as Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at MPM when I started working there in July 1974. I am delighted to report than Ken went on to enjoy 36 years of a retirement that sounded like it was fuller and more satisfying than his working years had been. Way to go, Ken!

Irene, I wish you could have been granted a fuller share of years which you would have turned into aesthetic delights via your creative and knowledgeable skills.


Back Again After A Long Absence

September 13, 2010

Apologies, WordPress blog, but I’ve been too busy to post here for a few months. I’ve put a few items on my slightly older blogger site and have been noting fun reading with short reviews on my Facebook page but nothing I’ve read or did
inspired me to come back to WordPress until a book I finished recently which will follow.

Biography on the Distaff Side

July 16, 2010

Writing in The Guardian in June 2008, biographer Kathryn Hughes discusses “The Death of Life Writing.”  Hughes is less than pleased by the current preference for works about people who accomplished little other than celebrity-hood and/or works written by people who are youthful and photogenic.  Hughes prognosticates on the future of the genre in a world where financially proven choices are becoming the norm for publishing. Her article is thought-provoking — read it and see if you agree or not.

Meanwhile, being neither youthful nor photogenic, Hughes’ article reminded me of something that bothered me. Why aren’t there more biographies of the wives and mothers of the biographees? I’m not sure if this would meet with Hughes’ approval, since these women mostly came to notice via the reflected light of their spouses and sons but still, it can provide an enlightening angle on a possibly overworked subject.

Case in point —

In November when I wrote this (but left it as a draft for some reason), I’d just finished reading two biographies/critical studies of Stanley Kubrick (by John Baxter and Vincent LoBrutto respectively), I’d love to read biographies of any of Kubrick’s 3 wives — Toba Metz, Ruth Sobotka or Christiane Harlan. Metz fascinates me because we lived on the same street in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, a few years apart. This was Shakespeare Ave. where Stanley resided briefly during his high school years. Despite the passage of some 30 years since the two divorced and Toba’s 1955 marriage to Jack Adler (a relative of the famed acting clan?), the two women remained close and the senior Mrs. Kubrick left Toba $20,000 and two rings in her will. For that matter, the life story of wife no. 2, Gertrude Perveler, would also make fascinating reading. Kubrick’s parents had moved to Los Angeles in 1965 so she had the opportunity to see all but the last two of her son’s films, and I wonder what she thought of his work?

IMO, Eslanda (“Essie”) Goode Robeson (December 12, 1896 – December 13, 1965), who was married to and at time managed the business affairs of Paul Robeson deserves a biography in her own right. After completing a B.S. degree in biology at Columbia University, Miss Goode worked at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, becoming the head histological chemist in the Surgical Pathology Dept. After her marriage she blended careers in journalism, acting and anthropology. Her career as a political activist stands on its own, not just as a reflection of her husband’s activism. Much of Martin Bauml Duberman’s magnificent biography of Paul Robeson relies on material written by or collected and preserved by Essie. Duberman credits her for her contribution but, at times, writes as though Essie kept Paul from relating things in his own words. I’d love to read a biography where Essie was the focus.

Weather and Street Construction Woes

October 15, 2009

Here’s hoping I can transfer gardening time to blogging time now that nighttime temperatures have been dropping below freezing and daytime highs are barely making 40 degrees F.  No, this isn’t Alaska or the shores of Hudson Bay — it’s Milwaukee County, WI.  After a cool and dry summer, we’re having an early snap of cold weather and lots of rain. 

Sadly, the work being done to reset catch basins and sewer lines on Oakland Ave. is limping along after a brilliant start.  This is part of a long-planned streetscaping project that’s supposed to slow the traffic down making it safer for pedestrians, dog-walkers and bicyclists to cross.  Getting out of the driveway is quite a challenge and walking around the corner an impossibiliy — curbs and gutters, passable street,  sidewalk portions and a good chunk of lawn are no more on the east and south sides of the house.  There’s even a porta-potty set up now — this crew must be here for the duration because we’ve had road work going on since April and no porta-potties in view before. 

Maybe we can get the construction crews to help us shovel the driveway apron and remaining sidewalk this winter (?).  Maybe the village will exempt us from shoveling while everything is torn up (not likely and the fines for non-compliance within 24 hours of the last flake flying are steep.)

Writers on Writing

September 21, 2009

Writing fascinates authors.  Why not – it’s their stock in trade. Just as those of us who toil  in the information vineyard spend a lot of time exchanging ideas about how to do our jobs better, writers do too. And when they do a particularly good job of thinking about writing and its impact on themselves and their readers, they might go ahead and write an interesting book about the process.  Here are several I’ve read lately.

Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop.  Cincinnati : Writer’s Digest Books, c1988. 319 p.

Leonard Bishop co-taught the 1st “team-teaching” creative writing class at Columbia University. He’s also taught at NYU and the University of California.  In the 1950 and 60’s Bishop was a best-selling novelist and a successful magazine writer.   He has 2 credits on imdb, one for a 1969 made-for-tv film based on his novel, Against Heaven’s Hand and one for an episode of  a terrific classic television show,  Naked City.

“The Tragic Success of Alfred Tiloff”  was based on a story he wrote and was first broadcast  in 1961.  I’m not certain that snatching children off busy streets and holding them for ransom was a very common crime in the early 1960’s, so in a way this foreshadows a situation that became a major issue in the following decades leading to pictures of missing children on milk cartons and mailers and Amber Alerts.  A fellow NC fan and I exchanged quite a few emails about this episode – especially the performances of Jack Klugman, Jan Sterling and Ruth White, the characteristic street scenes of a poor NYC neighborhood that probably became a Yuppie magnet a few decades later, the major goof that the investigating detectives made after the hotel fire (a real NCY hotel is credited at the end – not exactly the best publicity for most hotels, imo) and, of course, the melodramatic story of a kidnapping of a child.

Out of curiosity I checked Countycat and the only Bishop title that turned up was Dare to Be a Great Writer.  I couldn’t resist it.  First off, this book is organized idiosyncratically to say the least.  It’s almost as if  Bishop tossed his index cards for a semester’s worth of lectures into the air and let his publisher take it from there.  There are examples galore (many pretty outrageous and most noir-influenced), an interesting topically organized index, a warning to readers against reading the book straight through (which of course I did), generous dollops of advice for beginning writers, and wonderful suggestions for the temporarily stymied writer (Bishop doesn’t believe in writer’s block.)  While the book would benefit from an updating that reflects changes in publishing and book-selling brought about by the Internet, there’s still plenty of practical and sensible information for any would-be writer.

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon.   San Francisco, McSweeney’s Books, c2008. 222 p.

Every Chabon book is different and this one is a meditation on the types of writing that influenced him with significant autobiographical detail included for Chabon fans of which I am one. His thoughts on the boundary between actual life and fictionalized life take up a couple of chapters near the end and absolutely must be read.  The dust jacket is a thing of beauty.

I learned about a half-dozen different writers that I now want to read which is not really what how I need to spend my time at the moment since it’s gardening weather around here.  In any case I’ve resolved to try the graphic novel form again and read Kavalier & Clay. Growing up I relished comic books  and hid them from my mother;  later I graduated to teen-oriented movie magazines which also had to be hid.  Wish I knew what happened to all those magazines; probably my younger siblings found them when I went away to college or grad school and eventually they were tossed when the house was sold.

Tolkien & the Silmarillion by Clyde S. Kilby.  Wheaton, Ill. : H. Shaw, c1976. 89 p.

My good friend of nearly 20 years acquaintance (argh, but it’s so), Bob Shuster, who’s Director of the Archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois suggested I read this book since I’ve always been a bit amazed that C.S. Lewis’ papers and some Tolkien material wound up at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Protestant foundation.  Last week, Bob was kind enough to edit some informal comments he’s sent me early.  Here’s his account of Prof. Kilby’s work:

“Dr. Clyde Kilby was the literature professor who had the connection with C. S. Lewis and he really deserves a statue in the archivist hall of fame (where is that, by the way?)  His connection with Lewis was that they corresponded over the years, nothing much more than that.  But after Lewis died, Kilby thought this was a major figure in modern Church history and in literature and somebody should preserve his manuscripts and other papers.  (The English at the time and today for that matter were much, much more restrained about Lewis than the Americans.)  So he started collecting Lewis papers and eventually began to collect the papers of others who were contemporaries and/or influences on Lewis approach to apologetics and literature: J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald, and Owen Barfield.  Kilby got no support at the beginning and more or less ran the collection out of his own back pocket with much effort and frustration and expense.  Eventually, he got a gift from Servicemaster Industries to endow the Marion E. Wade Center (Wade was the founder of Servicemaster.)  So that is why the collection of Lewis papers is named after an American businessman.  The Wade Center had quarters here and there on campus until a few years back an anonymous donor gave a couple of million dollars for a beautiful building in the English style which houses the collections and has a small exhibit too (including the desk on which Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and the Lewis family wardrobe that his grandfather handmade and is supposed to be the model for a wardrobe in some book he wrote. 🙂 ) Anyway, it was Kilby’s truly heroic efforts that pretty much singlehanded brought the Wade Center into being.  He would never have called himself an archivist, but perhaps he would have accepted the honorable title of curator.

One other Kilby story.  He also kept up a correspondence with Tolkien and did all he could to encourage him to publish The Silmarillion.  But Tolkien as always delayed and delayed and delayed and finally in the 1960s, Kilby went to England for the several months to labor as an unpaid assistant to Tolkien to help him get The Silmarillion published.  (Kilby was a tenured full professor at the time, so you can see how much this meant to him.)  When he arrived, Tolkien said he a number of projects he wanted Kilby’s help on, but one was primary: there was a scholarly journal that had asked him for an article about ten years before and he still hadn’t finished it (that is, had it in a shape Tolkien thought acceptable.)  Tolkien told Kilby, “Whatever you do, make sure I finish that article.”  Then, at the end of his stay, when Kilby had to go back to America, Tolkien shook hands with him and thanked him for all his help and friendship, and then said with a big smile, almost proudly, “Well, I still haven’t finished that article!”  (The Silmarillion also was not published in Tolkien’s lifetime.  The story is that Lewis had to actually take the manuscript of Lord of the Rings out of Tolkien’s hands to get it to the publisher. Not actual true perhaps, but deserves to be.)   Kilby told about his adventures with Tolkien that summer in a wonderful little book called Tolkien and the Silmarillion.”

Aaargh, originally this post included some words about Frank McCourt’s 2005(?) memoir, Teacher Man, which I wrote shortly after Mr. McCourt passed away last month.  Somehow in the course of revising this, I deleted those paragraphs.  Mostly, I remember writing that I hoped, hidden away in a cubby somewhere, there was at least one more McCourt memoir.  I enjoyed his two earlier memoirs very much but I want one that deals with his experiences writing.  What was it like getting published around the age most people are retiring and how did it feel becoming everybody’s “go-to guy” on matters Irish?  That would be a book for the ages.

A Whale to Remember

July 21, 2009

This story arrived via Roger Smith’s Global Museum, a terrific weekly compendium of newspaper articles about museums worldwide.  I hope the link to the Daily Mail stays usable because it’s worth reading the article for the interesting selection of museums and the magnificent photos that accompany it. 

Ms. Gordon’s suggestion that museums allow us to do the impossible – travel back in time in places far, far away – got me to read the piece because, for me, that’s the real appeal of  natural history museums, not big screen theaters or flashy multi-media labels and guides.  

The world’s top ten museums
By Sarah Gordon
Last updated at 12:55 PM on 14th July 2009
Museums are the closest we will ever get to time travel. Only within the hallowed walls of a museum can we trace the history of a civilisation and have an idea of how it worked.
Every town and city throughout the world seems to document its past in some way or other, but several museums have become so famous that they are destinations in themselves attracting millions of visitors who flock from across the world to view their exhibits.
After much discussion, TravelMail has selected our ultimate list of world-class museums that everyone should visit in their lifetime…
Read more: 

My favorite is the photo of the 94-foot-long blue whale model suspended in the Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  I’m not sure if this is the same whale I recall from visits as a child back in the 1950’s and 60’s.  I think not — I’ve a vague memory that AMNH commissioned a new whale when the  exhibit hall was refurbished more recently. A slightly firmer memory – from one of my more recent visits  is that MY WHALE  is suspended from the ceiling of a restaurant at the museum, delighting visitors of all ages. 

No visit to my grandparent’s home in Highbridge in the Bronx was complete without a subway ride downtown and a visit to AMNH.  Naturally, we could not leave the museum without stopping in the old Hall of Ocean Life and a wave and a kiss blown to the gallery’s cavernous upper reaches for the whale.  Now I realize the whale is the creation of skilled artists and designers guided by the knowledge and special insights of scientists.  I don’t remember whether I understood this in 1957 or not but there’s still something about that whale that throws an enchantment over its space.

Newsprint and lamination

July 5, 2009

There were several good messages about Vinegar Syndrome and sources for additional information have been posted on Museum-L in response to a query about scanning laminated newspaper clippings in late June.

I agree that scanning is a good option to preserve the intellectual content of the clippings and to prevent further deterioration due to handling and light exposure. If this were may project, I would want to do test scans to determine if the laminate interferes with the quality of scanned images. If it is a problem, remove as much of the laminate as possible before proceeding should help. If removal is difficult, consulting a paper conservator is the next step. Adhesives don’t always stay put and it’s possible that the newsprint has transferred to the inside surface of laminate. All of this depends to a significant degree on what the storage conditions have been like – heat and humidity increase the likelihood of transfer as well as the deterioration of the paper and plastic that are already causing problems.

If scanning isn’t possible at present, a low cost and low tech alternative is photocopying the newspaper clippings. They may photocopy better through the laminate than they will scan. Modern photocopy paper is generally acid free, if not slightly buffered, and the toner is nonreactive. A photocopy has a good chance of lasting longer than the scans and has the advantage of being readable with the naked eye.

The question was posed because the Museum-L’er needs to make a case for scanning to the powers-that-be. This suggests a couple of possible internal problems — too many higher priorty jobs in the queue or lack of experience or staff or equipment to scan. Realistically, if an organization is already scanning vital documents, collections data, original photos and dealing with born-digital material, I’d expect them to be pre-disposed to this project so the problem is building a case to get into the queue.

Any or all of the following points should be incorporated in the proposal to scan — the increasing rate of deterioration, the high demand to use the clippings and
the importance of the documents to other collections within the institution.

For an organization just heading into the brave new world of digitization, though, I’m not certain a newspaper clipping file, no matter how deteriorated is going to have the same priority as original documents, photos, organizational records and other unique materials. Chances are, somebody holds copyright to the newspaper clippings so your scans could only be made available to users on site. While clipping files provide contextual data, most major newspapers and many smaller ones have been microfilmed courtesy of the Library of Congress and various State newspaper projects.

In any case, before embarking on the project, make certain the IT staff can backup, periodically refresh and migrate these images to new server platforms and operating systems. Otherwise the project could have a short useful lifespan which negates the effort this project requires.

Shortly after reading Nicholson Baker on the tragedy of microfilming projects of the post-WW2 era, I experienced a similar problem myself when trying to find a turn of the century ad in a medical journal. Most library binders followed routine library instructions and eliminated those ad sections that appeared in the back of scholarly journals to reduce the amount of space a stored journal would require. When these journals were microfilmed, or more recently scanned, to preserve the intellectual content, the ads were long gone. Luckily, I found a copy with ads in the fourth library I checked and was able to arrange to borrow it long enough for our photographer to photograph the ad in question which was then blown up and used to illustrate how survivors of a 19th century epidemic were housed in tents manufactured locally. It was a great local addition to a national travelling exhibit and very nearly did not happen because back in the day saving space and reducing binding costs trumped the perceived value of the ads.

What Are They Gonna Do to Publib?

July 2, 2009

Well, I’ve waited 30 hours for this message to show up on publib but it’s not there yet, even though a batch of July 2 messages have arrived. Guess it’s stuck in the great spam filter in the sky so I figured I’d put it on this blog.

The combination of messages about how to support publib on a server that can handle 9000+ subscriber, with adequate space for the large archives, and less downtime and messages that never go out prompted an lot of discussion about options. Hopefully the discussion will continue in person during ALA. Since I won’t be there, I thought I’d share my thoughts via this blog.

When I saw messages Re: Customer Service Survey, coming on the heels of the “what to do about publib” discussion, it struck me that a survey of publib subscribers would be in order. Karen, Robert and others who send messages regularly have explained the issues and (some of) the options, perhaps more will emerge in the face-to-face gathering in Chi-town.

Could Web Junction help with a survey? Or perhaps a yahoo group could be set up specifically to get a poll? Trying to gauge the reactions of 9000+ subscribers from a handful of messages that regular responders have sent out going to be misleading at best.

Personally, I don’t think the NPR/PBS model works. Side by side with the appeals to members, corporate sponsorship has been morphing into something closer to advertiser support for years. Put it all together, locally and nationally — a mind-boggling effort goes into raising funds for public radio and tv. If those fund raising costs could only be funneled into programming, just think what we could see and hear.

Back to publib — periodically we get into disagreements about what’s posted here; add to that potential conflicts among different tiers of subscribers and paid moderators will be necessary, imo.

To be brutally honest, I for one could not/would not pay for a subscription. There’s perhaps one in the 10-12 listservs that I follow that I’d be willing to scrape money together for (living on a fixed income about a decade sooner than I’d planned to retire does not accomodate frills.)

Public Records and Privacy

June 20, 2009

This is a personal comment on a publib discussion. Several thoughts occurred to me but circumstances prevented me from posting in a timely fashion there.  Truth be told, I dislike late arriving additions to the thread for the most part unless they are really, really well written.  Otherwise it just seems like somebody is trying to get the last word in.  Blogging is a better way to do that!

Perhaps I’m showing my age now but I clearly remember calling Directory Information (Area Code-555-1212) for phone numbers when a human operator still answered the call.  She (or every now and then, he)  would give the caller a listed phone number but not an unlisted one. Never would the operator divulge an address.  Back in the day this was a service AT&T provided free-of-charge; later these calls became an itemized line on monthly bills.   

Technically,  public records are those collected by government agencies.  In the absence of other guidelines, it’s safest to assume the public agency knows what it is doing when it makes the information available.  Names and addresses are public record but I don’t think the phone number, because of the popularity of cellular phones and unlisted numbers, is considered as such, unless the community uses a reverse 911 system.

Public agencies began gathering these records long before the telephone was invented (the Constitution requires a census be taken every ten years), there was no need to include phone numbers. Phone companies had a business reason to gather addresses — they need the information for billing purposes and to recover their equipment if the customer stopped paying.  Eventually they began printing addresses in directories of phone numbers as a public service, but they shared this information outside of the printed and published directory only in special cases. 

I’m not arguing one way or the other if libraries should give out phone numbers, address and other telephone directory  information since giving out information from published sources they’ve acquired is part of their job. My argument is that justifying it on the basis of public record is incorrect.  It’s a published record.  There’s a difference. 

Being listed in the published directories is part of the service customers pay for from privately held corporations – AT&T or its various successors, local phone companies, Sprint, etc. Non-customers are not listed in those directories, nor are people living at a residence other than the phone company customer and, by extension, his or her spouse.   If a customer wants additional listing – for a spouse or partner with a different last name, for the names of children or others who use the same phone, they have to pay for the extra listings.  The directories themselves are no longer distributed as free of charge as they once were, because of printing and delivery costs.

There’s been an interesting discussion on A&A List (SAA’s Archives and Archivists List) about redacting email addresses when documents are digitized and shared online.  Here’s what Maarja, a most knowledgeable and generous historian/archivist employed by the Federal government contributed to that discussion:   

“The National Archives does redact email addresses.  It’s because some people close hold them, share certain accounts only with certain trusted recipients and use other accounts for a more public presence.  If you look at the Recmgmt-L and other listservs, you can see that email addresses are masked.  See Only subscribers who log in can see them.
Telephone numbers also can be problematic as some people with landlines pay extra for what is called “unpublished unlisted” numbers.”

Hello world!

June 20, 2009

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