Talking About the Library

There are some very common refrains when I meet people and, in the course of conversation, tell them I work in a library. Generally, they express their love for my workplace and its most well known contents; occasionally they express concern for its future. After my most recent experience with this scenario, I silently wondered how many people, upon meeting a plumber at a social gathering, gush (pun intended) about that line of work.

“You’re a plumber? Oh I just love my kitchen sink! It’s so easy to get a drink of water.”

“You drink a lot of water?”

“Oh, yes. I always have a bottle of Poland Spring in my hand!”

The library is as integral to your community as the plumbing is to your house. Yet so many people are unaware of all a public library has to offer, and how easy it is to support.

Like a book written in a foreign language, there could be countless translations of the above conversation from plumbing to librarianship.

“You’re a librarian? Oh I just love the library! There are so many great books.”

“You read a lot?”

“Oh, yes. I order from Amazon all the time!”

I don’t know enough about plumbing to carry this analogy much farther, but I do know that plumbing isn’t simply about one type of pipe, in one location. Similarly, public libraries are far more than just books on shelves.

On an average day at the library where I work, an adult can study for their GED. A recent immigrant can enroll in English lessons, and find help applying for citizenship. Life long learners can watch a film together, and have a discussion about its relation to current events. While parents ask questions about navigating the public school choices, their children may participate in multicultural events. A social worker has a place to bring children for supervised visits with their parents. Anyone can print, scan, or fax a document. Computers and the internet are available for (almost) anything you may need to use them for. Your card will also provide you with access to an array of databases and downloadable material, much of which may be accessed from anywhere you have an internet connection.

You can support this sort of activity at your library just by maintaining your library card. Libraries with active users (as determined by the number of card holders) will get more funding from existing pools of money. These days we all seem to be in the shallow end, but if your library can prove usage, the finances have a better chance of flowing their way. So to make a splash for your library, walk in every couple of years and renew your card. That’s it; it won’t take a single extra penny out of your wallet.

If you want to take it to the next step, come in and borrow material more frequently. Circulation numbers reflect how well we are choosing material, and in turn, promoting literacy in the community. Little Free Libraries have sprung up because so many people have books they read once, and no longer want in their homes. The “big free library” buys the books (CDs, DVDs, garden tools, etc.) so you don’t have to. We acquire and shelve them, and you may take them out as frequently as you like (ok, there are some restrictions). Our checkout and renewal numbers, and your available shelving space, both rise; and everyone is still reading. It’s a winning formula (and if that money you are not spending at Amazon is burning a hole in your pocket, I can make some recommendations as to where to direct your funds).

I admit that until I entered this field, I was unaware how much is available. These days, when I relate the offerings to someone, their next comment is, “libraries have changed so much.” Yes, gone are the days of the shushing librarian, physical card catalogs, and paper copies of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. At their core, though, public libraries have not changed. They are still providing resources and services to improve people’s lives. In Hartford we are still doing the same work Caroline Hewins did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (these diaries are my favorite examples of this work).

While I do expect libraries (and plumbing) to continue meeting the needs of the public and evolving, I am under no delusion this post will change the course of cocktail party banter or coffee talk. I also realize that libraries, being run by human beings, are not perfect. Hopefully, though, you will at least be moved to make sure your library card is up to date.

Oh, and at my library, you can get a cookie.

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Summer fun

Lately I have felt like writing, but haven’t had a topic I felt like sharing with the entire internet. So I came up with a project for the summer, thirteen book reviews. It’s going to be on a separate page because, well, I feel like doing it that way.

Over the past few months I have taken on new responsibilities at work, including purchasing all the non-fiction for Downtown. I am also paying far more attention to the new fiction entering the building (in part because the new books cart rests against my cubicle wall). Together, these factors have me reading more than I have for some time.

So, follow along if you like! I am also open to suggestions (it’s fine to leave comments here or on the other site). Whether your goal is to read, to bike, or to do anything else, I hope you enjoy the warmth and daylight this season!

Hartford Outside the Box: The first six months

Back in June I started a series on my professional blog about archival materials available for research in Hartford. I have reached the halfway point (yay!) and decided I would share the posts over here.

Introduction – An explanation of why I am doing this, and some of the thoughts I had as to how I would be going about it.

July: Music in Bushnell Park

August: Eliza Read Sunderland

August/September Extra

September: H[amilton] Outside the Box – Eliza Eaton

(I had to concentrate on a post I was asked to write for an archives group, so there was no entry for October.)

November: Harriet Jacobs

December: Caroline Hewins

I have an idea for January, but February – June are completely open at this point. I hope you enjoy these, and Happy New Year!

Your floor, sir.

At work today we had a group of fourth graders visiting from one of Hartford’s elementary schools. We had half an hour in which to introduce them to primary source materials. My supervisor, Brenda, and I created an exercise that included using city directories from the early 1900s.

If you are not familiar with city directories, you should be. They are awesome and we really need to bring them back. Similar to a phone book, they list residents of the city during a given year, along with their job, work location, and home address. The format of the directories would change from time to time, but the ones we were using today also have a street index, listing the head of household at each house number on the street.

The kids were supposed to look up a street, find the names of three residents, and then look up the residents in the main portion of the directory to learn more about them. One of the groups I was assisting looked up a man who was an “elev. op.” Uncertain what this stood for, they asked me for help. Although there are some definitions explained in the directory, this one was not. When I told them the man was an elevator operator, I received a bunch of puzzled looks. I continued to tell them that there used to be people who would press the elevator buttons for you. A boy in the group turned to me and said, “That sounds like a minimum wage job.” I had never thought about it that way.

G. Fox Elevator Crew, ca. 1945, Connecticut Historical Society collections (Gift of Henry Board).

Another fun moment was when Brenda introduced me as an archivist and asked if anyone knew what an archivist does. One very enthusiastic girl raised her hand, and when called upon, said that an archivist is someone who researches arcs. Have to give her points for trying!

 

Up, Down, and All Around

The first time I climbed the Traveler’s Tower I was in second grade. My memory of the field trip does not actually include the observation deck, however. I remember scratching my wristwatch on a street-level wall. And I believe one of the other classes got ice cream later on at Elizabeth Park (they had the cool teacher). The funny thing is that now, over 29 years later, I’m realizing that the way I remember the watch scratching incident, it couldn’t have happened. I wear my watch on my left wrist, and as I remember the wall, it was on the right.

Yesterday I inadvertently left my current watch at home, and it was more of a hot beverage day than cold ice cream. However, I found out the tower was going to be open for tours, and was intent on being in line when they started.

The tower was open as part of downtown Hartford’s EnvisionFest. I had some fun getting there. As I biked along Capitol Ave., a well intentioned pedestrian I encountered at the intersection with Laurel St. informed me I wanted to turn right, not continue straight. As the light turned green, I tried to quickly explain that I was not riding the Discover Hartford route. I’m not sure he understood.

I locked up my bike and walked toward Travelers. After circling the block and not finding anything indicating where the tours would begin, I decided to ask at an information booth. One girl tried to tell me the Travelers building was in the direction of Bushnell Park. She did not believe me when I pointed directly at it and basically told her she was wrong. My cycling attire (helmet and fluorescent jacket) caused some confusion as well. A guy at the same booth suggested I wanted to be in Bushnell Park because that’s where the bicycling was taking place. I had a very hard time convincing him the tower tour had nothing to do with bicycles.

Eventually I found the entrance (which had not been open when I first passed by and was not the one they had originally intended to use) and was in the first group to ascend 24 flights in the elevator and 70 additional steps (someone asked, I didn’t count). Despite the clouds, it was still a great view.

View of Hartford, North, from the Traveler’s Tower

When the leaves are off the trees in the winter, I can see the light at the top of the tower (an additional 147 steps up) from my back window. My house is somewhere in this direction:

View of Hartford, West, from the Traveler’s Tower

If you have ever wondered just how much of Hartford is covered with highway and pavement, this view to the South should answer that question.

View of Hartford, South, from the Traveler’s Tower

To the East is the Connecticut Science Center and more highway.

View of Hartford, East, from the Traveler’s Tower

While I was admiring the view, I kept thinking about a blog entry I wrote for work a little over a year ago, about the Hartford Public Library’s Caroline Hewins taking students to see the view from the Travelers building. Coincidentally, I left Travelers and immediately headed over to Hartford Public Library to work the multi-touch table, on display as part of EnvisionFest. The table is essentially an oversized iPad connected to a big screen tv. It is programmed with highlights of Hartford history, including the story of the Charter Oak, radio personality Bob Steele, actress Katharine Hepburn, scans of postcards and glass negatives.

During the morning my concentration had been on seeing Hartford from above. The most enjoyable moments of the afternoon, however, focused on what is below ground in Hartford. When selecting to view the glass negatives on the table, an 1898 map of the city displays along with thumbnails for three of the negatives in the collection. My favorite of the three is the stepping stone bridge in Bushnell Park:

Stepping Stone Bridge, Bushnell Park. Image property of the Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

Many of the people with whom I spoke knew that the river now runs underground. But for those who were not aware, it was a great story to tell (you can read more about it in a New York Times article, a piece in the Hog River Journal, and listen to Catie Talarski’s recent trip through the conduit). Not only were these people surprised to learn about the river, they were equally astonished when I told them the library building now stands directly above a portion. The Whitehead Highway runs over the covered river. Creating a tunnel over the highway, is the Hartford Public Library.

I got to see the city from above in the morning, and teach with archives in the afternoon. How much better can a day get?

“Rediscovering Old North” at Hartford Public Library

Among my favorite things about Hartford are the parks. I walk through portions of Elizabeth Park on an almost daily basis. When biking downtown, I often ride through Bushnell Park (it is perfectly fine to ride on these sidewalks, it’s part of the East Coast Greenway). I don’t have too many opportunities to visit the others, but they are all beautifully designed.

Lately, at my “other job,” I’ve been working on a finding aid for the Hartford Parks collection. For this reason, I was quite interested when I learned the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library would be presenting a program on the city’s Old North Cemetery and one of its most famous inhabitants, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822. Yes, 190 years ago yesterday, the day of the program. This year (perhaps every year, I haven’t done the research) his birthday fell during National Parks Week. Neither Old North nor any of the parks in Hartford is a National Park, but they are all worthy of a celebration.

The program was to include three speakers: Norma Williams, Philip Barlow, and Andrew Walsh. Unfortunately, part way through her presentation, Williams, a landscape architect and President of the Connecticut Olmsted Heritage Alliance, became ill and was unable to continue. She gave us a brief overview of the history of cemeteries in New England, but did not get to the history of Old North. Brenda Miller, Curator of the Hartford History Center, and Andrew Walsh did go through the remainder of Williams’ PowerPoint slides, so we were able to pick up a few nuggets of information. What follows are my notes from the program. Please excuse anything I may have remembered incorrectly!

Cemeteries went through three stages of growth, all of which are visible in Hartford. The first style can be seen at the Ancient Burying Ground. The oldest cemetery in town, the Ancient Burying Ground holds the remains of Hartford’s original settlers. By 1806 there was a need for a new cemetery, and Old North was begun. Among those buried at Old North are Rev. Horace Bushnell, Olmsted and many members of his family, and members of the 29th Connecticut, Connecticut’s African-American regiment in the Civil War. As attitudes toward death and dying changed in the nineteenth century, so did cemeteries. The third style is evident in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Old North has been neglected over the years and now Philip Barlow and his firm, TO Design, are in the process of rehabilitating the cemetery. Among their tasks is restoring the iron work, including a seven foot high fence on the perimeter and ornate fences around family plots. Barlow was saddened to have to take down trees, but they were rotten and it was necessary. Nineteen trees were cut down and they plan to replace all of them.

The firm has also been reestablishing the historic driveways of the cemetery. Maps have provided some of the details, but they are also able to determine the paths based on the locations of markers and trees. Tree roots and water have proven to be obstacles. An arborist has been onsite to ensure no damage is done to trees as the roads are restored.

The original entryway into the cemetery contains two brick columns. Unlike columns today, which are made with a concrete (I think) core, these columns are completely made of brick. Old mortar is being removed and replaced. Broken bricks are being replaced with the most similar bricks they could find.

Roads in the cemetery are constructed of asphalt pavers. Authenticity being key to the entire project, Barlow and his crew requested that replacement pavers be “tumbled” (think clothes dryer!) to look older.

Three kinds of low mow, low maintenance grass are being tried at Old North. They plan to monitor the patches, and whichever works best will be used in the rest of the park system.

Next on the task list is the restoration of 87 monuments this summer. Barlow stated that this is a small percentage of those that need it.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College, provided background on Frederick Law Olmsted and his vision for parks. Olmsted’s Hartford was much different than 21st century Hartford. The families had all been there from the time of the city’s founding (Olmsted was the 8th generation of his family) and, more or less, had spent the previous 150+ years trying to transform the wilderness into farm land.

The key to understanding Olmsted, Walsh told us, is that he believed people shape landscapes. The land reflect peoples values. To that effect, Walsh related, when Olmsted was asked what a proper epitaph for New York’s Central Park might be, he replied, “See what our fathers have done for us.”

For Olmsted, exposure to nature was the essence of life. He had spent his childhood wandering around the Connecticut River valley. Park designs, both Olmsted’s and other designers, would ultimately reflect this.

Around the time of Olmsted’s birth, Hartford residents began to head west to the Connecticut Western Reserve (now Ohio). The city at this point was leaning toward manufacturing and was in need of workers. The labor shortage was filled by immigrants from Ireland.

There was a great amount of contention between Irish and Yankees. Hartford’s wealthy, well-established residents looked down upon the poor new arrivals. Rev. Horace Bushnell decided this needed to be changed, and set about to create a park where the newcomers would be able to see and emulate their more proper neighbors. Olmsted would ultimately be influenced by Bushnell, but was much more open to change.

Walsh continued by discussing images of the Connecticut landscape, as it might have appeared to Rev. Thomas Hooker and his followers when they first arrived. Unfortunately, at this point I had to stop tweeting (my source of note taking), and the details from that point on are fuzzy. The evening ended with a question and answer session.

The two books Walsh referenced during his talk were Changes in the Land by William Cronon and A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski.

Hope it works, Harvard

The hashtag #hlth kept popping up on Twitter this afternoon. I, along with many others, soon found out this was in reference to a restructuring announcement by the Harvard University Libraries.

Though no one actually lost their job today, layoffs are pretty much imminent. Most staff will have to re-apply for their jobs. As you might imagine, the news was not well received.

If you read the Vision and Overview on the transition site set up by the library, what they have in mind makes sense.

Ultimately, the University seeks to build the hallmark library of the 21st century, a cutting-edge, nimble organization that is collaborative both internally and externally. We want our patrons to be able to find anything at Harvard, whether it’s a book, a digital copy of a journal, or an object in one of our museums. And we want them to be able to access it regardless of their location.

In effect, we did the same thing at my workplace four or five years ago. Whether you want to see textiles, a typewriter, a manuscript collection, or a Connecticut imprint, you head straight to the Research Center and someone will help you. We have done our best to make connections among all of our materials in order to provide the best research experience possible. Additionally, we continue to work on making our resources available online.

It seems that the biggest problem today was that there were many questions, and few answers. In the short run, the announcement was unsettling to current Harvard employees. It had many of us wondering how this will effect both our profession and society.

When it comes to change, I am not generally the most enthusiastic. However, I really hope this works, and without hurting too many people in the process.