Monday, March 28, 2011

Pay For News and Information? The Audacity!

Ya know, I'm actually beginning to think that "The Onion" may, in fact, really be the "America's Finest News Source", as their banner head suggests.  It's at least as good as some of the stuff on cable.

Here's their take on the New York Times paywall, which went up last week.

Last week, I addressed the issue of the shaky ground that newspapers were standing on these days, especially since the number of people who actually care about what's going on around them seems to be declining precipitously.

Bottom line: running a newspaper costs money.

A few other newspapers have found some creative ways to generate revenue in an era where folks think that hard-copy "ink on paper" newspapers are dead and that reporters, publishers and web designers should work for free (i.e., click through ads) on the internet.

Stay tuned later this week for a post about one of them.  It solves an immediate "quest for cash" problem but introduces some other issues of a long-term archival nature down the road.

End of the World After NERGC? Bummer!

Chances are, you’ve never been to or even heard of Low Hampton, New York. 

It’s not very big – just a stop in the road, really – across the state line from Fair Haven, Vermont and one of several similarly sized hamlets in the Washington County  town of Hampton – a town of 23 square miles with fewer than 900 people. It’s one of those “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” places that you find all over upstate New York.

Its claim to fame is William Miller’s chapel, erected in 1848.  William Miller was a Pittsfield, Massachusetts-born farmer who moved to Low Hampton after the War of 1812.  His uncle Elisha Miller was the Baptist preacher in Low Hampton.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of William Miller, either.  If not, you’re probably also not familiar with the “Great Disappointment.” 

The “Great Disappointment” came about all because William Miller (pictured left), formerly a farmer from Washington County, had been studying the Bible, and specifically the Old Testament prophecies. 

But the trouble with prophecies and with angel’s voices, which Miller and many of his followers heard, is that the message contained therein  is not always crystal-clear.  Especially when  it comes to terrestrial dates.

October 23, 18 44 was a particularly bad day, truly a day of “Great Disappointment.”   

You see, Miller and his followers had determined – based upon careful Bible study – that Jesus was going to return to earth on October 22, 1844. 

At least, that’s what they were sure the Bible said.

Many of Miller’s followers sold everything they had and, dressed in white robes, waited for the inevitable End Of The World.  (Cue the drums and trumpets)

Problem is, October 22, 1844 came and went.   

No Jesus. Bummer! 

Hence, the “Great Disappointment.”, sending Miller and his followers – thousands of them – back to the drawing board. 

(Hint: Ancient Hebrew calendars are really very, very difficult to figure out…)

There’s a lot more to the William Miller story, but that’s not the point of today’s post.  Rather, I want to give you fair warning that Miller’s spirit is alive and well, and is currently touring the country by bus.

Then, if you’ve made any firm plans for May 21st, 2011, you might want to see if you can cancel and get your deposit back so you can spend it all on your big blast of a party on May 20th.

If you're concerned and want to learn directly from the prophetic source himself, here’s the direct link to Harold Camping’s (the modern day William Miller) website:

And you thought those Mayan prophecies were something to worry about?   

Silly you!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Today, The Bells Remember; Do You?

It's 4:45 in the afternoon here in Upstate New York.  The bells just started to ring in New York City. 

Today, the bells remember, down to the very hour and minute when it started.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the disastrous Triangle Waist Company fire in New York City that took the lives of 146 garment workers.  They died behind the locked doors of their stitching workroom. The door was locked because the company owners wanted to reduce theft. The foreman who had the only key escaped, probably via the elevator that was working for a short time, then shut down. All the other exits were blocked by the fire itself.  

The public outrage sparked by the fire resulted in significant fire safety reforms and in some gradual improvement in factory working conditions nationwide.  Of course, those reforms came too late for the dead workers, most of whom were immigrant women.

One of the other results of the Triangle fire was that the New York State Legislature authorized the creation of the nine- member State Factory Investigating Commission.  The Commission was chaired by State Senator (and later NY City Mayor) Robert F. Wagner, with Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith (later NY State Governor and Presidential candidate) as Vice-Chair.

Even though the State already had a Factory Inspector’s Office that did periodic health and safety inspections, its inspection staff was small and greatly overworked.  Moreover, advance word of the impending arrival of state factory inspectors at a specific factory location often traveled via the factory owner/manager grapevine so that potential violations could be cosmetically tended to before the inspector arrived.

The Factory Investigating Commission, a creature of the Legislature, was not an enforcement agency; mostly, they traveled around the state, holding hearings on factory conditions, worker safety and child labor with an eye toward revamping the state’s labor laws.  Considering the recent tragedy of the Triangle Fire, they were especially concerned with fire safety and were assisted in their investigations by a young woman who headed the New York Committee On Fire Safety.

That young woman was Frances Perkins, a Boston-born graduate of Mount Holyoke who had just received her master’s degree from Columbia University in political science in 1910.  Perkins was a dynamo, writing about fire safety forcefully and testifying boldly before the commission.  

Frances Perkins (1880 - 1965)
Some years later, Gov. Franklin D, Roosevelt named her New York State’s Industrial Commissioner.  When FDR was later elected President, he appointed Perkins as the first female cabinet officer in US history.  She became Secretary of Labor in 1933, a position she held for 12 years.

As the Factory Investigating Commissioners traveled around the state, they interviewed hundreds of factory workers – some as young as seven – and scores of factory owners, managers and foremen.  They investigated the garment and retail clothing industry, vegetable canning plants, paper box factories and much more.

(Several years ago, I wrote an article for the NYS Archives Partnership Trust’s magazine on using the records of the Commission for genealogy.  In the article, called “Candy Factory Girls, Working All the Livelong Day”, I focused on the records that were produced while the Commission was investigating working conditions in  a New York City candy factory.)

What were factory conditions in general like in 1911 – 1912?

The sixty hour work week was the state’s goal, but in some industries, that was just the baseline.  Workers, especially in canning factories, routinely worked 17 hour days for 8 cents an hour.  In some factories, typhoid fever was common, as was tuberculosis. Fingers frequently fell victim to heavy equipment. 

Compensation for a lost finger was about $75.00

Here’s a bit of the testimony from one of the hearings, this one in the Fort Stanwix canning factory in Rome, New York.  This witness had worked there for three years:

John Huchko, called as a witness by the Commission, testified as follows:
Direct examination by Mr. Elkus:
Q. What is your age? A. Ten.
Q. What are you, Polish? A. Yes.
Q. Have you worked here? A. Yes.
Q. Did you work here last year? A. Yes, sir.
Q. Year before that? A. Three years I have worked.
Q. Since you were seven? A. Yes.
Q. What do you do, snip beans? A. Yes.
Q. Anything else? A. I only snip beans and pick peas.
Q. What time do you start to work? A. At seven.
Q. What time do you stop? A. Ten o'clock.
Q. At night? A. Yes, sir.
Q. How much do you make a day? A. About twenty-five or thirty cents.

There are hundreds of these transcripts, many containing important genealogical information, buried in the Commission’s reports.

Of course, that was all a long time ago, right?

Listen carefully to the discussions in the news these days about workers, working conditions, collective bargaining and the like.  Look in your closet, as I did this morning, and then look at the labels in your clothes.  The shirt I’m wearing was made in Bangladesh.  It was hanging next to the red one made in Vietnam.  That was next to a plaid one made in El Salvador.

None of them were made in a place where worker safety is much of a concern.  They were made where workers are cheap. Investment capital has no conscience; it’s not supposed to.  It goes where it can maximize profit.

You want a little bit of conscience, perhaps a little bit of worker safety and human dignity with that new shirt?  Then you should start voting for politicians who actually care about those things, not just some bank’s bottom line.

Frances Perkins died in 1965 and was buried in Newcastle, in her parents’ home state of Maine.  Recently, the Maine governor decided that a new mural in a meeting room in the state’s Department of Labor building needed to be moved.  The mural, he said, seemed “unfriendly to business” since it portrayed things like the Great Lewiston Auburn Shoe Strike of 1937 and child labor.

There’s a “Frances Perkins Room” in the Department of Labor Building as well.  According to news sources, that may also be on the gov’s chopping block.  It's just a bit too "labor-friendly."
The more things change, …

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quick! Who’s the President of Burkina Faso? Too Hard? Well then, How About The U.S. of A?

Artifact; use unknown
I lecture a lot about newspapers.  And city directories.  And censuses. 

As you may have noticed when you filled out last year’s form, the information-poor 2010 census questions won’t be of great help to genealogists in 2082.  City directories – like their distant cousins, the hard-copy phone books – are heading toward carrier pigeon fate, meaning that future genealogists will need some other kind of tool.   

The Wayback Machine?  The Veromi archive?

But what about newspapers?

Word on the street is, newspapers are mostly dead.  Well, if not mostly dead, then “in extremis.” And if not “in extremis”, in bed with a very bad (and probably terminal) case of …something or other.

For the past decade or so, print editions of newspapers have folded right and left.  Most papers have gone to some kind of online edition in search of more readers, hoping to monetize their venture through internet click-through ad revenues or by putting premium content behind pay walls.

Re: making money from real news on the ‘net - I’ll get back to you in a few years, once we see how that venture turns out.

Meanwhile, the biggest losers have been the folks who used to be local news reporters covering local events.  Now, the small papers, having laid off huge numbers of their reporters, rely on corporate and government press releases and “citizen reporters” with cell phones for their news content.

Still, it doesn’t much matter anyway, because apparently nobody is reading stuff like this anymore.

Chances are, if you’re under 35, you do not subscribe to the “home” edition of any print newspaper, do not buy a local daily newspaper with any degree of frequency and what little news you consume, you get from some kind of electronic media aggregator – television and the Internet, for example. (Definitional hint: aggregators don’t actually pay reporters to cover stories; they simply buy them from other sources or rely on “free” internet content.)

Still, does it really matter?  After all, knowing who’s who on “American Idol” or on “Dancing With The Stars” is much more important and sure beats knowing about the stuff in newspapers.  

In the most recent Pew US Religious Knowledge Survey,  3,410 Americans of all denominations (and also some who self-identified as belonging to no faith at all) were asked 32 questions to test their knowledge of religion in general and their own faith in particular.  They were also tested on their knowledge of religion in public life. The survey was done between May and June of last year.

So, what does that have to do with newspapers?

Well, interestingly, Pew also asked several “non-religious general knowledge” questions of the same folks.  One of those questions was “Who is the current vice-president of the United States?”  - the answer to which question can be found in pretty much every newspaper in the country almost every day.  It’s not a big secret. The guy tends to get mentioned a lot – probably - over time - even more than Charlie Sheen.  So that should be a no-brainer question, kinda like “What’s the Fourth of July all about?”


Only 59% of 3,410 adult Americans got it right.  Yup, 41% of those surveyed apparently never even heard that Joe Biden was the Veep, having missed tuning into the last general election in 2008.  

Think about it – you’re in the supermarket check-out line.  Look around. Most folks are busily chattering inanities on their cell phones. Four out of the ten people in line with you probably haven’t got a clue about who’s leading their country. 

One of the other questions asked for the name of the famous trial about whether evolution could be taught in schools.  It was a multiple choice question. Only slightly more than 3 out of 10 (31%) got that one right and answered the Scopes Trial. Most people (39%) thought it was “Brown versus the Board of Education.”  And, uh, 3% thought it was the “Salem Witch Trial”. (I wonder if they were the same 2% of folks who, in answer to another question, thought that Stephen King wrote Moby Dick?)

The folks at Pew tabulated the results by religious denomination.  You can read it for yourself by following the link here.  

I won’t comment on that “tabulation” part of the results beyond saying that if you don’t read the newspaper yourself but, after the next general election in 2012, you develop a sudden burning need to know who the new vice president is, you’ll be best off asking someone who’s Jewish or someone who identifies as an agnostic or atheist.  At least, that’s what the Pew survey seems to show.

Of course, those folks might be hard to identify, since recent polling also suggests that all Jews, atheists and agnostics combined equal less than 10% of the population.

They DO seem to keep abreast of the issues, though.  Maybe they’re still reading the papers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What’s In A Name – A Remembrance for St. Patrick’s Day

Mel and Annie
Both of my Irish American grandmothers, one a Redmond, the other an O’Neil, were themselves the grandchildren of Irish immigrants.  I never knew my maternal grandmother; she died three days after Christmas in 1926, long before I was born.

My paternal grandmother (pictured above with my grandfather around 1911) was my first family “informant”, regaling me with stories about her family, her Gaelic-speaking grandmother who escaped the Irish famine and her own exciting life as a major league baseball player’s wife.

My two cousins and I called her “Nanny”, but everyone else in her neighborhood called her “Annie.”  When she signed her name, she wrote it with a flourish as “Anna D. Wolfgang.”  Once, when I was about 9 or 10, I asked her what the “D” stood for.  

At first, she didn’t want to tell me.  I kept on asking and finally, she gave in.

 “Dolores”, she said, with some bitterness in her voice.  “It’s Latin. It means 'sorrowful' or ‘full of sadness.’”  The sound in her voice was unmistakable; even I could tell she didn’t like the name.

And thereby hangs today’s St. Patrick’s Day’s Eve tale that begins more than a century ago.

Annie was born at home in Albany NY on 6 September 1889, the daughter of Joseph Redmond, a carpenter, and his wife Mary Horan.  Annie was one of 14 children, only 5 of whom stayed healthy enough to live past infancy or childhood.

In typical Irish Catholic fashion, most of her siblings had been named after a close relative – her sisters Ellen and Margaret were named after each of the grandmothers; her brothers James and Martin were named after each of the grandfathers.  Their parents’ names were echoed in a little Joseph Redmond and a little Mary Redmond.  Of those six siblings, only three –Ellen, Martin and Mary -  lived to be older than 19. 

Actually, there were two little Josephs.  The name “Joseph” seemed to be a singularly unlucky choice for the Redmond children since both of the boys who were given that name died in infancy, one after the other.

Before the bell tower spire was added
The Redmond family church – a great gray stone cathedral-like structure in downtown Albany – was designed by famed Irish immigrant architect Patrick Keely (formerly of Thurles, Tipperary, but then a Brooklyn resident) and sat directly across the street from the opulent mansions of Albany's Yankee lumber merchants. 

Annie’s parents were married there in 1872, and each of the Redmond children was baptized there.  In time, each of them would be buried from there as well. Her father’s funeral took place in the fall of 1901, a few weeks after Annie’s twelfth birthday.  Annie was married to Mel Wolfgang there and attended that church every Sunday and every holy day for the rest of her life, walking the mile and a half each way from her house.  

 She always sat in the same pew near the front of the south side aisle – the one with her mother’s name - "Mrs. Redmond" -  written in ink on a small card in a brass holder at the end of the pew. The faded card was a relic of the “pew rent” days.

About 40 years ago, I decided to verify the information I had been collecting on her family with the official church records.  Naturally, I started with my grandmother Annie.

Her baptismal record did indeed say “Anna Dolores Redmond”; however, the word “Dolores” was written above another, somewhat earlier name that had been crossed out. 

Charles Stewart Parnell
Originally, when she was baptized a few days after her birth, she had been given the grand name of “Anna Parnell Redmond”.  Obviously, she had been named for the great (and then wildly popular) advocate for Irish Home Rule, the Hon. Charles Stewart Parnell.  

 In 1889, Parnell was at the height of his political power in Ireland and England. Called the “uncrowned king of Ireland”, he was the power behind the Irish Land League, a political organization whose slogans were “Fair Rent * Fixed Tenure * Free Sale of Land.”   His political compatriot, who had recently toured the United States and was the talk of the Irish American communities everywhere, was the great orator and parliamentarian John Redmond.  Even though John Redmond was no close relation to the Albany Redmonds, the two names  - Parnell and Redmond joined together -  seemed to be a natural for Joe Redmond’s newborn little daughter Annie. 

Anna Parnell Redmond” was a name that fairly dripped with the bittersweet honey of Irish American pride and longing.

Annie’s glorious name, however, was not destined to be with her for long.  A few months later, in December 1889, word leaked out from Ireland that Parnell – the great hero and patriot – was in disgrace and was likely politically ruined.  A Galway gentleman named Captain William O’Shea had just filed for divorce from his wife Katherine (widely known in Anglo-Irish social circles as “Kitty”) on the grounds of adultery.  In the court proceedings he named Charles Stewart Parnell as the co-respondent.   

The whispered secret then became public – Parnell had been living in grave sin with the very much married-to-somebody-else Mrs. O’Shea.  To make things even worse, he was also the father of two of her daughters. 

In Irish American Catholic circles, this was unforgivable.  His American Catholic supporters had always overlooked the fact that Parnell was a Protestant landed aristocrat since he actively campaigned for home rule for Ireland.  When he toured the United States to raise funds, Irish Americans opened both their hearts and wallets.  Plus, Parnell was in favor of land reform.  Most Irish Americans alive in 1889 grew up hearing first hand from their parents and grandparents about the Great Starvation - An Gorta Mór -  and the year called “Black 47” when the blight now known to scientists as “Phytophthora infestans”  turned the potatoes black and sent the fleets of "coffin ships" heading westward.

And all the while, as people were starving, carts laden with the produce from the often-absentee Irish landlords’ great estates headed for Irish ports to be exported to England and beyond. Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party he founded wanted land reform. Land reform would go a long way toward guaranteeing that Irish farmers would have enough land to support themselves.

But Parnell was now an adulterer…and with two illegitimate children?  That was just too much.

It was apparently too much for Joe and Mary Redmond and the priests of St. Joseph’s.  Little Annie’s middle name – “Parnell” – was crossed out in her church baptismal record and, in a different hand and different ink, the name “Dolores” was written above it.

Charles Stewart Parnell had cast the great shadow of sorrow across Irish American communities everywhere.  Annie Redmond’s middle name – “Dolores -  full of sorrow” – was her own constant reminder of Parnell’s fall from grace.

No wonder she preferred the simple letter “D” instead.

Annie died suddenly of a heart attack on 8 December 1956 after walking home from Mass at St. Joseph's Church, it being a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  

As they still say in the Gaeltaecht districts of Ireland today, "Ar dheisgo raibh a anam." In English, we simply say, “May her soul rest in peace.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Where Have All The Letters Gone, Long Time Passing?

Assuming that all things go according to current plan, I’ll be heading to rural Virginia on a short business/ research trip in a few months.  There are a number of loose ends on several of family lines that I work on (one of them newly discovered just a few months ago) that need some hands-on, on-site exploration. 

Believe it or not, there are actually records out there that are not all neatly digitized and searchable on the Internet. Or even microfilmed…

Before I head off, I’ll need to review my research notes on these families, organize stuff and make a research plan. Part of all that is reviewing things in files from very long ago.

Interestingly, I started working on some of these families way back in the Dark Ages of the early 1970s.  Back then in the “pre-Net” days, long distance genealogy was considerably different.    You either went to where the records were, or you wrote lots of letters requesting information.  Seriously – I mean LOTS of letters.

If you were really bitten by the bug, you placed ads in “The Genealogical Helper” as bait for distant cousins and waited not-so-patiently for responses which would come in the form of letters to your mail box, if you were extremely lucky.  Of course, more often than not, the letters that showed up from strangers did not contain any new information – just requests for you to send THEM letters and to share the stuff YOU had.

You wrote to distant relatives you may have never even met, asking if they could send you copies of any family pictures they might have.  You wrote to churches and county clerks. You checked your mailbox daily for envelopes with their return addresses, hoping that the envelope would be thick with pictures or documents, not paper-thin, with “sorry” responses.

You knew what a SASE was, and kept them on hand.  You knew the mail carrier’s first name.

Then, one day, the letters stopped.  “The Genealogical Helper” folded.  People (including genealogists) discovered the joys of nearly instantaneous communication once listservs and email popped into existence.  O brave new world!

Letters became obsolete.

Still, there are folks like me, who save stuff.  I have files with letters and boxes with letters. There are letters I received from my mother while I was at university when JFK was still President.  There are letters from old girlfriends and letters from my wife.  There are letters I received while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. There are letters from friends around the world, each containing a tidbit or two of shared personal information . . . the kind of detail that’s otherwise easily forgotten.  

Many of those friends and relatives are now dead, but their letters form a physical bond across time and space in a way that their emails never could.  After all, their letters – each one of them crafted by hand and with care – took time, thought and some actual physical effort to produce.

As I said, I save stuff.  I have nearly every personal or genealogically related letter that I’ve ever received since the early 1960s.  Whenever I plan a research trip that involves a family line about which I’ve corresponded with other researchers, I dig out those old letter files and re-read the letters. 

Was there something I missed the first time, when I was less experienced?  Will I see something that will help me on the next field research trip?

But most of all, I just like the feel and the look of those letters, most of which are hand-written and still in their original envelopes, now brittle with age.  And, unlike today’s emails, each letter has a different “look”.  A quick instant glance at just a word or two of the handwriting tells me who sent it, even 45 years later.

Email is great and is essential in my personal and business life.  Still, I can’t say that I’ve saved every email I've ever received.   Letters, though . . .

For me, it’s still about paper and ink.

Monday, March 7, 2011

If You’re Feeling A Bit Droggy, Perhaps Some Duck Coffee Might Help…

Today, I finished the “first draft” of one of the new NERGC talks. There will, of course, be several more revisions and "improvements."

So . . . I think I'm feeling a bit droggy.  

 There’s still tweaking to do, but I’ll be doing that right up to the hour before the talk.  

Maybe some duck coffee will help.

Droggy?  Duck coffee?  Whassup widdat?

Several weeks ago, I observed that I had been doing this conference “speaking thing” for a very long time.  A few days ago, as I was rummaging on the shelves of a bookcase for a reference for one of the new talks, I stumbled upon a stack of cassette tapes.  One of the tapes was  from a lecture I did in Michigan in 1982, nearly 30 years ago. Yikes!

Today, I uncovered an advertisement for a genealogical conference in June 1987 at which I was one of the featured speakers.   

June 1987 was rather a while ago. Ronald Reagan was President then and had ordered air strikes on Muammar Qaddafi in Libya only 14 months earlier.  The Berlin Wall still stood, and Germany was a divided nation.

And I had been on the "speaker circuit" long enough to be a "featured speaker" some distance from home.

The conference, sponsored by the Indiana Historical Society, took place in South Bend and focused thematically on the 200th anniversary of the Northwest Ordinance and its implications for genealogists.  Even after nearly a quarter century, most of the speaker names will be familiar to today’s genealogists.
Here the advertisement - 

As you can see, the speakers (in addition to me) included: 

James Dent Walker (1928 – 1993), founder of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, worked at the National Archives, was the Supervisor of Military Records there and was the fourteenth person elected to the National Genealogical Society’s Genealogy Hall of Fame.   Jimmy introduced me to Alex Haley (author of Roots) in the mid-1980s. 
Elizabeth Shown Mills, FASG, former editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and author extraordinaire (Evidence, Evidence Explained, Quick Sheets, etc.), who needs no introduction to today’s genealogists.  

James L. Hansen, now also a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, has been a fixture at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Reference Library for a large number of years and is still a prolific author and a sought-after speaker of note.

But . . . Frederic G. Cassidy of Madison, Wisconsin?  His name is highlighted above. Who was/is Frederic G. Cassidy and why was he speaking at a genealogy conference nearly 25 years ago?  

The answer to those questions is the tale for today. Here’s the scoop:

I arrived in South Bend on Wednesday afternoon, June 3, 1987.  I had dinner with the conference organizers that evening and then reviewed my lecture notes for my next day’s presentation and went promptly to bed. 

The next morning, I went to the Century Center for my late-morning lecture on using maps in genealogical research.  After the talk, I returned to the adjoining Marriott, went to the restaurant area for lunch and was joined by a white-haired elderly gentleman who had also been at the Century Center that morning.   

That gentleman was Frederic Gomes Cassidy, who was approaching 80 but acted like he was 35.

Cassidy, born in Jamaica (the West Indies, not Long Island) was an English professor at the University of Wisconsin.  However, that’s not why he was at the Old Northwest conference.  He was there to speak about his monumental project: the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the first volume of which had been released just a few years earlier (1985). It was more than a thousand pages long and covered only the first three letters of the alphabet. 

Fred Cassidy had been working on DARE since he began the project in 1965 and continued as its driving force until his death at 92 in June of 2000.  He lived to see four of its five massive volumes published.

Since its inception, the DARE project has employed hundreds of field workers armed with questionnaires who traversed the country to capture the rich variety of regionalisms that make American English what it is.    For example, you might call it “cottage cheese”, but other folks call it “pot cheese” or “smear cheese”.  In fact, there will be people who will argue loudly that “pot cheese” is definitely NOT “smear cheese”.  But, as Cassidy showed, it all depends on where you’re from. 

That thing you sit on (in your living room...or parlor...or front room) might be a “sofa” where you live, but my grandmother absolutely knew it was called a “davenport” and yours might have called it a “settee” or a “couch”.  Then there are “spiders” and “frying pans”, “pokes” and “sacks” and, of course, “front porches” and “stoops”.  

Don’t get me started on “soda”, “pop” and “soda pop” … not to mention “floats”, "frappes", “egg creams” and “coffee milk”.

Fred and I had a great lunch comparing notes.  I was speaking about using maps to track ancestral migrations; he was using maps and isoglosses (which look like pressure zones on weather maps) to illustrate the regional migration of words.  He was collecting and classifying regional word usage and word origins; I had written – (as a consultant to the US Peace Corps Training Program in Uganda way back in 1970) – a monograph entitled “English in Uganda – What To Expect”, wherein I explained to the newly arrived Peace Corps Volunteers the many subtle differences between spoken and written Ugandan, British, and American English, with a few Canadianisms thrown in for variety. 

Needless to say, it turned into a great “working lunch.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had long used his 1947 classic “Place Names of Dane County, Wisconsin” in one of my talks as an example of the kinds of scholarly works that genealogists need to learn more about.

Cassidy’s multi-volume Dictionary of American Regional English deserves to be much better known by family historians.  After all, if an ancestor’s letter mentions someone having the “mulligrubs” or if you’ve ever wondered what a “mourner’s bench” or “pussytoes” were, you’ll need to consult DARE. 

To learn more about Fred Cassidy and the DARE project, check out the DARE/ University of Wisconsin website here.

Also, this copy of the 2002 newsletter of the DARE project contains a wonderful biographical tribute to Fred Cassidy written by his daughter. Read it and the other newsletter articles to learn even more about this great scholar and the DARE project.

The fifth and final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English is scheduled for publication sometime later this year. Check with your favorite reference librarian for it and for the earlier volumes. 

You’ll be glad you did.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bibliogra-what? Why bother? Books is Books, Right? Physical, Digital… One’s as Good as the Next…

Last night, I took an hour or so off from PowerPointing to watch Michael F. Suarez’s webcast presentation on “The Ecosystems of Book History: Acting Locally, Thinking Globally”.  Suarez’s presentation was a part of last year’s Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair and his presentation is now hosted online on the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA).  You can see it for yourself here.  

Suarez, a bibliographer par excellence and expert on the history of the 17th and 18th century book in all its manifestations, is the Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  He is the co-author of “The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010), a million-word reference work on the history of books and manuscripts from the invention of writing to the present day. “  In short, he is an expert.  

In his spare time, he is a professor at Fordham University and also at Oxford University in England (commuting between the two locations).  He is also a Jesuit priest and the co-general editor of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins (8 volumes, Oxford University Press, 2005–13).

Suarez, with two Bachelor’s degrees, four Master’s degrees and a Ph.D., is no slouch. He is, as we say, a pretty busy guy.  Plus, when he speaks, he’s both entertaining and worth listening to.

What was the “take away” from his presentation? 

That books themselves – those physical objects made up of paper, ink and glue - have unique value as artifacts, not just as containers of information.  And that booksellers, bibliographers and book collectors (especially those who catalogue and collect the rare and ephemeral publications of earlier times) add, by their very work, important value to the universe of information through “contextualization” and “resonance”.

What is this “contextualization and resonance” stuff?  Simply put, it means that a good cataloguer, be it a bookseller or private collector, who takes the time to investigate the object that is a book or pamphlet and then to accurately describe it – not only physically, but also in terms of importance to its time, its subject area and to other similar works – adds an immense amount to the body of knowledge.  “Contextualization” simply means placing the book, pamphlet or manuscript  in its proper time and place and “resonance” means placing it with other similar objects, thus making it clear that the more “like” objects are assembled in one place, the greater the likelihood that scholars will discover something of value.  Note that we’re talking “objects” here – that is, real books.

This is why, for example, genealogists travel to Salt Lake City, Fort Wayne, Indiana or Washington, D.C. The institutional collections that are found there have both “contextualization” and “resonance”.  

Well, sort of.

While the “resonance” part is pretty apparent – sheer volume can create a kind of resonance - , the “contextualization” part is a bit harder to locate.  Turns out, that while librarians and archivists do a bang-up job of actually cataloguing material, at least bibliographically, they often come up short on the “contextualization” part.  Of course, that’s not surprising, since contextualization is not their job. 

That’s a bookseller/ book collector skill set.

For example, very few – if any – descriptions found in library catalogues look like the detailed well-researched descriptions found in antiquarian book dealer catalogues.  Library catalogues tend to be “bare bones” facts about the book – the title, author and publishing information.  As a result, the researcher – who may come to the library catalogue with very little background knowledge about a particular book - gets very little “value added” and learns very little about the book itself, about why it was written, whether it was considered important or accurate in its time, and whether or not the author was considered a giant in his or her field or a charlatan.

Frankly, you don’t go to a library catalogue to learn what’s considered a “reliable source” any more than you would go to Wikipedia for the definitive information on a medical topic.

Schlock and garbage sit on library shelves – side by side with treasures and high spots.  In fact, since librarians like to remain “neutral” and “intellectually apolitical”, the wheat and the chaff often get shelved pretty close together. That way, nobody gets upset that the librarian is favoring one side over the other.  The “patron”, researcher or visiting scholar is expected to bring his or her own set of skills to bear in sorting out the good stuff from the rest.

However, as Suarez points out, fewer and fewer universities are teaching courses in bibliography, book history or in critical bibliographic thinking skills.  As a result, fewer and fewer people are able to “read” the book as artifact and place it in the proper historical context, and by so doing, develop a keen understanding of the role of the physical book as both icon and totem.

As Suarez also points out, were it not for booksellers and collectors, few historians would be aware of the myriad formats in which Jefferson’s inaugural address appeared.  (Hint: ladies’ silk scarves, for one)

Sadly, as specialist booksellers who delight in researching and critically cataloguing rare books, pamphlets and manuscripts age out, die off and become fewer and fewer, there are, of course, fewer and fewer specialist catalogues being created with detailed, informative historical descriptions. 

Interestingly, most genealogists working today are not familiar with the detailed catalogues issued by Goodspeed’s in the early 20th century or by the earlier bibliographic work of Gilbert Cope.  In fact, the vast majority of today’s researchers would be mystified by a specialist bookseller’s use of cataloguing shorthand if an original edition pamphlet published, say, in 1853 were described as “Not in Purple and not in NUC”.  Or, if a piece of fascinating western Americana had the notation “Not in Howes or Streeter”.

Of course, for many folks, that’s no big deal.  There’s always Amazon and Barnes and Noble (with their “reader reviews”) and, increasingly, Google Books.  Who has room for real books anymore, anyway?  One book, one source, one digital image is as good as the next.  There’s not enough time to be critical, to evaluate, to actually research the source itself. 

This is, for many folks, the age of equality, in which all sources should be treated equally.

Besides, if it’s been digitized, who needs the actual book anymore anyway, right?  Some folks can’t imagine ever needing to look at the actual pages in the front and back of the volume that the folks who did the digitization didn’t bother with, right?  After all, if they were important, they would have digitized them, right?

After all, who’s to say that Gustave Anjou didn’t get it right, anyway? I’ve seen his books in libraries, so they must be right ..., right?

P.S. if you’re not familiar with Gustave Anjou, you’ll benefit greatly by reading this.   

And, by the way, his books are mighty handsome to look at, and a number are “gettable” through Google Books and Amazon.  They wouldn't lead you astray, right?

Books is books, right?