Monday, February 21, 2011

The Real Life Value of Research

Today's New York Times reports that the last six unidentified victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire have been named, and at the centennial commemoration on March 25, the names of all 146 who died in the fire will be read aloud for the first time.

A complete list of the 146, mostly female, victims was never created until now. The most thorough list to date was published in 2003 by David Von Drehle in his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, which included 140 names. At the time of the fire, 6 bodies were so badly charred that they could not be recognized; families who believed their loved ones had died in the fire could not positively claim the deceased, and those names were never included on official lists. The six "unknowns" were buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens. As the Times writes,
"the obscurity of their names is evidence of the times, when lives were lived quietly and people were forced by economic and familial circumstances to swiftly move on from tragedies."

Good old-fashioned research is what put the remaining 6 names on the list. Historian Michael Hirsch became interested in the fire because one of the victims had live on his street. Over a period of four years, he dove into primary source research, looking in over 30 newspapers from 1911 (some which had to be translated from Yiddish and Italian) for articles about families still missing relatives who had worked at the factory. Once he had names, he was able to go to census records, marriage licenses, and union charity records (more primary sources) to verify or eliminate those names from his list. He was finally able to contact descendents of three of the six, and found that those families mourn their ancestors as victims of the fire, though their names were not included among the dead.

I first became aware of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (known at the time as the Washington Place fire, for the factory's address) a couple of years ago when a student chose it as her American History research paper topic. It's a crucial turning point in labor laws, building codes and women's history, as outrage about working conditions and the fact that firemen found all the stairwell and exit doors locked, preventing employees from leaving before quitting time (and trapping them in the fatal inferno) mobilized public opinion for change. Another student is researching the same topic this year.

Mr. Hirsch's research will be part of the HBO documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire produced in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy (the DVD, a great secondary source, will be added to our library as soon as it's released).

A reminder that even when your research topic happened 100 years ago, new information is always possible. History often slows down, but it's never quite over.

Read more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by Dave von Drehle

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Sweatshop Reform in American History by Suzanne Lieurance

The Triangle Fire by Leon Stein

Threads and Flames: A Novel
by Esther Freisner

Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire

(website at Cornell's Keel Center for Labor Management)

Articles from the New York Times, March 25-April 3, 1911
(via ProQuest Historical Newspapers; you will need ProQuest ID & password for off-campus access)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to Make a Librarian Smile

Bring your lit classes into the library with laptops, to search for JSTOR articles!

Ryan's Modern American Short Story classes are reading Sherman Alexie's collection Ten Little Indians. Wednesday and Thursday mornings this week, students have been in the library, finding and analyzing scholarly criticism found on JSTOR. Yay for Ryan, yay for the students, yay for JSTOR!

Monday, February 7, 2011

To E- or Not To E- (Read, That Is)

Hamlet must be busy this week -- after I titled this post, I got this update in my trusty Google Reader ("To E(book) or not to E(book)" from the DeKalb Public Library). Seems like lots of libraries are wrestling with the eReader question, and the Paideia Library has just joined in.

Natalie wrote that at least one of our elementary students was getting a Kindle for Hanukkah, and an article in last Friday's NY Times discussed the jump in children's and Young Adult e-books sales right after the holidays. After a recent presentation on pilot eReader programs in a couple of Atlanta-area private schools, I was convinced to order the Library's first Kindle, and have been playing with learning about it since it arrived a few days ago.

What are the potential plusses for having eReaders in the library?
  • Storage space! It's kind of awesome to be able to offer 10, 50 or 100 "print" titles in the shelf space of a single best-selling novel.
  • Instant availability If a student needs a non-fiction book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I can get it in minutes and check it out on the Kindle.
  • Multiple copies from one purchased eBook. Amazon and Barnes & Noble both allow a purchased eBook to be downloaded onto several devices. Right now I am experimenting with this feature by reading a book on the new Kindle, on my iPod Touch (using the Kindle app) and on my MacBook (also using the Kindle app). It works like a dream, very handy.
  • Coolness. I mean really, don't you think it's kind of cool to be able to check out an eReader from your local library?

OK, but what might be some obstacles & drawbacks?
  • Multiple book titles tied up in one device. Great to have 100 books stored in a small device, but when it's out, it's like 100 books are out at one time. Unless all the devices have the same titles (not impossible) it doesn't really increase availability to the community.
  • Expense. A wi-fi Kindle is $139 these days, a 3G model is $189. The Nook is similar, while a NookColor is nearly $250. And then you buy all the books to go on it (not counting free public domain books like Huck Finn or Shakespeare's plays). Our Technology department loans Flip video cameras, MacBook laptops and iPods, so this is not an insurmountable issue, but one worth considering how best to manage.
  • Vendor exclusivity. You buy a Kindle, you buy from Get a Nook, buy from B&N. Or buy one of the other models out there with more flexibility but fewer options & features.
  • Limited lendability. You can't "borrow" & return eBooks from a library on a Kindle, and it's not super easy for the others, though it can be done (audiobooks are easier to 'borrow' from a library, unless you've got a Mac and/or iPod. Sigh.) So to loan the book, you have to loan the device with it.
  • "Ephemeral" ownership. This one is weird, but because eBooks are transferred through wireless always-on connections, they can be erased from a device as easily as installed. It's happened to Kindles at least once -- certain George Orwell books suddenly vanished from Kindles around the world. And though it's nifty, it's also kind of creepy that's service knows how far I've read and can sync that page to another device automatically.

My Kindle experience so far
(or why I prefer the iPod)

The Kindle is kind of cool, but as yet I'm not quite in love. The e-Ink technology make the reading easy on the eye, and they say it is far superior when trying to read in sunlight, but I haven't gotten over the blinking screen when changing pages. Getting a book in seconds is extra nice. There are a few 'experimental' extras on the Kindle that could develop into really useful features, like playing mp3 files for background music audiobooks, and reading PDF files, but they're very rudimentary now.

I've been spoiled by my iPod Touch. When I started reading on the Kindle, I wanted to poke the screen to make it do things, and it seems to me that had better jump on the touchscreen bandwagon or be left behind. Even though the screen is smaller, I much prefer reading the Kindle book with the Kindle app on my iTouch. Color pictures are in color (the Kindle is b&w only) and can be enlarged and moved around, I can "turn" the pages with a finger swipe, and no annoying blink from one page to the next. Hyperlinks (I'm reading non-fiction, with footnotes and references to illustrations) can be accessed with a touch, where on the Kindle you have to navigate around with the "5-way controller" to get to the link. All the Kindle functions (make the type bigger, bookmarking, searching) work on the Kindle app too. I assume the same is true for the Kindle iPad app, with a larger screen.

Personally, as a reader and dedicated library user, "paying for a book is a verrrrrry hard idea to get my head around," (quoting the DeKalb Library blog writer), and there's not much way around that for eReader owners. That's ok with a lot of folks, but it limits the accessibility of books to all and the ability of libraries (a major American institution) to provide that access. Discussion of rights of first purchase and fair use, and rights of creators, and the new digital media would be another long post in itself.

If it were something that most folks have to buy anyway (Social Studies textbooks, for instance) -- wow, awesome, yippee!!! Early textbook experiments in college didn't work out so well, but I think if the publishing companies and the touchscreen reader developers could get together, there could be market viability and real utility in electronic textbooks. The current eReaders aren't quite there yet.

For now, I'm sticking with my iPod (which also holds my beloved podcasts for easy listening) and the Kindle app. Unless you're headed to a tropical island to do a lot of beach reading, I'd recommend you try it out that way too.

But what about the Paideia Library's Kindle?????

Still working on it, trying to figure it out. I've had a few days to try it, and next it goes to an English teacher who's eager to try it out. After that, a student guinea pig. And then I may get a couple more for a bigger tryout. I'll let you know when a "rollout" happens.

Do you have a Kindle or a Nook or other eReader? Have you tried the Kindle app for phones, computers or iPad? What do you love and/or hate about it?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bites of Atlanta History

Here's something about me -- I'm not much of a non-fiction reader. When I read narrative (as opposed to reference) I almost always read fiction. When I do read non-fiction, more times than not it's in the form of memoir, which often reads like a fictional novel. This is not to say that I don't learn substantial, real and true facts about history, events and places from reading novels and memoirs.

Before moving to Atlanta, I read Anne Rivers Siddons' novel Peachtree Road. I don't remember the characters or the melodrama from the book, but I do remember the incident at Orly, the burials at Oakland Cemetery, and the aftereffects on Atlanta society. In 1962, an Air France plane crashed at takeoff from Paris' Orly Airport, killing 130 of the 132 passengers and crew. Among them were 106 Atlanta Art Association patrons on their way home from a European art tour, and the loss of so many prominent movers and shakers dramatically affected Atlanta's arts world. Woodruff Arts Center, home of the High Museum, Symphony Hall and Paideia's annual high school graduation ceremony, was originally called Memorial Arts Center and was founded in 1968 in memory of those who died at Orly. I'm now inspired to read Explosion at Orly: The Disaster that Transformed Atlanta.

I started thinking about Atlanta history when one of our fabulous library parents returned The Winecoff Fire, raving about how interesting a read it had been. It's the story of a disastrous fire at the Winecoff Hotel on Peachtree Street, in December 1946, that most Atlantans have likely never heard of, yet remains the deadliest hotel fire in American history -- 119 people died, and numerous national safety codes were established or changed as a result.

Did you know that the new Pencil Factory Lofts, on Decatur Street as you drive downtown along the train tracks, is the old National Pencil Factory site**, where the murder of Mary Phagan sparked the notorious lynching of factory manager Leo Frank? Or that Grady Hospital was known as "The Gradys" during segregation because its two towers served as two separate hospitals for black and white patients?

Right now I'm reading a fabulous memoir, No Place Safe: A Family Memoir by Kim Reid, who was 13 when the first of "Atlanta's Child Murders" was found in the summer of 1979. Kim's mother was first black female investigator for the Georgia's DA's office, and while her mom became obsessed with finding the killer of Atlanta's black children, Kim was commuting from SW Atlanta to the northside, trying to be herself and still fit in as one of a handful of black students at Catholic Marist School.

If you'd like to experience Atlanta's history one bite at a time, check out one of the several books in our library that explore events in our city's past. Bites add up to meals, and varied, balanced meals add up to some serious mental nutrition.

And a little sampling of fiction for good measure:

** note -- as it turns out, the Pencil Factory Apartments are NOT at the site of the National Pencil Factory in 1913. The factory was actually on Forsythe Street near Five Points, near the current location of the Sam Nunn Federal Building.