Yarn Love: Kicking an Unhealthy Habit and Finding a Passion

by Marlene Kupsch

I am too young for this yarn obsession!

There was a time in my life where I thought that I would never be old enough to use yarn for any purpose. I was the one who made fun of everyone younger than, say, 80, including two of my closest friends for acting like Grandma and Grandpa. There was even a time where I was obnoxious in my taunting, and I may have snorted with laughter a time or two. Surely, only old people did that, or people with nothing better to do. I was too cool for that! Turns out I was completely wrong, and I needed to apologize to my friends.

I had decided to quit smoking, and I needed something to keep my hands busy. I immediately thought of my friends and their hobbies. So I went to the local craft store, and I bought a few skeins of yarn and a 5 mm hook. My idea was to learn to crochet a granny square afghan and drape it across my sofa like I used to see on a TV show growing up. Now, did I run right out to the library and grab some books full of beautiful patterns? No way, José. I did not want anyone to see me with those uncool books. The fun part was, I worked at a library and saw these books everyday. I knew there was an endless supply of beautiful patterns that were FREE and available to me. Pride, people, my pride just would not let me.

So, home now from the craft store, where no one can see me,  I do what everyone does: I Google what I want to know. Well, wouldn’t you know there are thousands of videos to choose from. I felt intimidated and frustrated immediately. I spent an hour trying to find a video that wasn’t too fast or slow, because remember, I was detoxing that nicotine out of my body and was quite irritated that this was not simpler and I couldn’t figure it out. I hated having to pause and rewind, or worse yet,  the person talked really slow and I had to fast forward. I had succeeded in making knots and chains, a few single crochet stitches, but mostly I just kept “frogging” my weird little knotted creation and trying to make the same thing over and over again. I wanted to give up! But oh, I had this beautiful yarn and I had never quit anything before. I know, I was quitting smoking, but hey, there are always exceptions!

The next day on my lunch break, I run off to the nonfiction section and I find the 746s. I pulled book after book after book off the shelf and wanted to take them all home. There were titles like First Time Crochet: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide, Deborah Burger; Crochet : The Complete Step-By-Step Guide, DK Publishing, Inc.; Easy Weekend Crochet Hats: A Ski-Style Collection for the Entire Family, Jennifer J. Cirka; Granny Squares & Shapes : 20 Crochet Projects for You and Your Home, Susan  Pinner… I mean it was endless and so secretly exciting! I imagined myself in a blanket fort in my living room with all of these books, intertwined with yarn and hooks spread out all around me. I was excited and inspired! I was going to make afghans for everyone I knew, and I would have them all done for Christmas! Deflating my happy balloon now… If you have ever tried to crochet, you find out a few things. One being that there is something called time, and that sucker gets in the way. Thankfully, though, the time it took me to learn the basic stitches to crochet a lap size afghan, a few scarves, and one Christmas gift, two and a half months had passed and I was nicotine-free and I had a rewarding hobby that I loved!

It’s been a few years since then, and I have been crocheting away! I love it, and I am nowhere near 80 years old. I offer my humble apologies to anyone whose feelings I have hurt about their yarn love! Through the years I have created many different projects and I am currently hooked on making amigurumi animals. Snuggle and Play Crochet: 40 Amigurumi Patterns for Lovey Security Blankets and Matching Toys  by Carolina Guzman Benitez is one that I borrowed, renewed, and then I didn’t want to give back. I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Mother’s Day! Thanks, Bro!!

P.S. I am still smoke-free!!

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Do you share Marlene’s yarn obsession, or do you want to get into knitting or crocheting? Come to the Smyrna Knitting and Crochet Group or the Yarn Love group at Linebaugh! Check out our events calendar for more details.  

 

Roots, Heritage, and the Antiquarian Way

by James Rucker 

Just a few minutes before I began writing,  I reshelved a total of sixty-eight books in a locked room on the second floor at Linebaugh. Genealogy enthusiasts among you might already know the room in question, though it goes by multiple names. Some call it the Tennessee Room. Others call it the Historical Research room (or HR Room for short). Our more functionalist patrons call it the “Genealogy Room.” I’ve even heard some older patrons refer to it as “the Vault,” which was its nickname, according to one of them, at our former location at 110 W College Street. Way back when, Murfreesboro’s post office had a room with a locked, metal gateway where they stored valuables. When Linebaugh Library moved into the building, they repurposed this “Vault” into an archive of various official records and historical publications. We eventually moved to our current location and now the former post office houses the Murfreesboro Center for the Arts.

When our current building was under construction, the head librarian at the time, Briley Adcock, gave a tour to some reporters from the Daily News Journal. The interview ran on May 3rd, 1992.

archive blog 1

Adcock was particularly enthusiastic about the new accommodations to local historians, both professional and casual. As the reporter wrote, “Also on the second floor is Adcock’s favorite room, a new improved version of the Tennessee Room./ ‘It’s about three times larger than what we have now,’ she said. / Stored in the Tennessee Room will be all the library’s geneological [sic] resources, she said, as well a copy machine, microfilm readers and a vault for storing rare volumes. / ‘The people who use this part of the building regularly will be really pleased,’ she said.”

Archival documents say both too much and too little at the same time. It can be overwhelming to think of the volume of material to comb through. Of course, the modern world is riddled with unchecked bureaucracies and their meticulous record-keeping, but we mustn’t mistake the chatter in the archives for a clear voice. In a way, these many words say nothing at all. Documents aren’t self-conscious and can’t interpret themselves. Therefore, the archive cannot speak for itself; the historian must speak for it. If I may repurpose an ironic quip from a 19th-century, German journalist, “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”

For those who don’t know where to begin, I will recommend a book: The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge. Don’t judge the book by its call number (it is miscategorized); it may be shelved with books on the French Revolution (944.04), but it is actually about historical research methods and what to expect when you visit an archive. I found her prose not only instructive but also a pleasure to read. As Natalie Zemon Davis wrote in her introduction, “Arlette Farge takes us into archives and pulls us into the experience of research” (xi-xii). It isn’t a dry instructional manual, but a visceral and tactile read that aquaints you with the textures, discomforts, and pleasures one should expect.

However, more than anything, Farge wants us to prepare to be surprised. For example, when looking into the history of my mother’s family, I consulted census data from Dickson county in the 1800s. Strangely enough, during one decade’s census, the number of people in my family’s household spiked. There were unfamiliar people several different surnames between them. Clearly my family had taken in several, seemingly random, people, only for them to disappear a decade later. Perhaps they were refugees? Or maybe my family had hired some people to help out on the family farm? Had I investigated further, I might have found out more, but  for the time being it is a mystery. To quote Davis again, “Arlette Farge is our guide — for the unexpected, the surprise. We rejoice when we make a find, even though the story or event itself may be sad, troubling, ghastly, baffling; even though it may oblige us to rethink our earlier understanding of our topic and restructure it” (xii).

We must be careful, however. Archives are, of course, products of institutions or governments which have objectives and desires. Therefore, archives, like all institutions, have biases. A census, like the one I consulted above, views its subjects as quantifiable entities, to be counted and categorized so officials can draw districts and collect taxes. The state collects this data in order to govern more easily and effectively. This state-bias is perhaps most clear in Farge’s own case, since she works with the records of arrests and interrogations kept by French police. As she puts it, “most of the dossiers ultimately put forward only one version of the events, that of public order and police authority. The questions that were asked have a policeman’s directness. Above all, the police were looking to identify the culprits” (87). The perspective of the judicial archives has an accusing eye, one that sees the population as a problem to be solved; “in a sense, they catch the city red-handed: craftily maneuvering around the rules, refusing outright to accept the policemen’s vision of order, choosing to acclaim or snub its kings, and rising up whenever it feels threatened. When reading the police records, you can see to what extent resistance, defiance, and even open revolt are social facts to which the city is accustomed. […] Deviance and marginality are powerfully indicative of political authority and of norms, and each type of crime reflects an aspect of the society in which it occurred” (25 & 27). Farge stresses how important it is to overcome this bias of an archive and capture the voices of those common people under their regime. “As historians, we must take into account the reflexes, habits, and weaknesses of the police” (88). As I mentioned above, a census doesn’t see people as concrete individuals but as abstract quantities without any qualities it considers irrelevant. To the eyes of the census, people only exist to be counted. And in the antebellum South, the census counted certain “properties” as only three-fifths of a whole person. I am, of course, referring to slaves.

In many cases, these biases are  most visible where the archive falls silent. The census has nothing to say when it comes to the parts of life we care about most. For those moments, most people have birth and death certificates or records of marriage and divorce, but not everyone has those resources. African American genealogy illustrates this problem quite clearly. Precise records of the births, deaths, marriages, and divorces of slaves were rarely kept in much of the antebellum South. Alex Haley’s Roots and the miniseries of the same name might be the most famous genealogical work to date, but it was a remarkable achievement precisely because of the hurdles my people sometimes have to go through when finding out about our heritage. My father once told me about how hard it was to find information when trying to map out his paternal bloodline.

Daniel, my great-great-grandfather, was the last man in that part of my family to be born a slave; therefore, he had no birth certificate. The earliest record of him was when he was mentioned in a court case. When a plantation owner with our last name died, there was a lawsuit to determine who would inherit the estate. In court, they had to list every piece of property, slaves included. Among them, there was a single child of the correct age named Daniel who we assume must be our ancestor. But there is no way to be sure. This court case is as far back as our paternal bloodline goes. My paternal grandmother’s line, by contrast, can be traced all the way back to the auction block, where my ancestor and her mother were sold separately, cutting that tie forever. But it isn’t state documents that let us trace our family that far, but an oral tradition that was passed down every generation to us (similar to the one in Alex Haley’s family).  Examples like those above show how creative a researcher has to be with archival evidence, since it is not always obvious where to find the needed information. They also show the importance of oral tradition for filling in gaps in the documentary record.

For those interested in researching their own families, now is the perfect time. October is Family History Month in the United States, and upstairs at Linebaugh is a book display by our own Lisa Ramsay, showing some of our available materials on genealogical research.

arhive blog graphic

After that you can take a look at the HR room to your left, or walk down the non-fiction stacks to “929” where you can check out a book on genealogy to take home. If Linebaugh doesn’t have what you need, we also have an HR room at our Smyrna branch, and the Rutherford County Archives are at 423 Rice Street, northwest of the Murfreesboro town square. Perhaps you’ll find some answers, or even better, some questions. And next month, at the Thanksgiving table, you might be able to ask them of your grandparents (or whoever your oldest living relatives are). If all else fails, you can ask them to tell you about their own grandparents.

And when you get the chance, check out Allure of the Archives for yourself. I’ll close with another quote from Davis’s introduction: “Newcomers to historical studies will welcome Arlette Farge’s introduction to archival research. Amateur history enthusiasts will be fascinated by her insider’s account of how historians practice their craft. But old-timer’s like me will have their memories enriched and their understanding deepened by this book” (xiii).

On Unicycles, Bicycles, and Tricycles

by James Rucker

When you want the answer to a question, where do you start? I, for one, am unashamed to admit that I check Wikipedia first when I’m unfamiliar with the topic. However, when I am familiar, I check more specialized sources. Perhaps I’ll know of a historian who has written about it, or maybe of a relevant news article or or memoir. Either way, we can recognize these as different kinds of information sources. But how are they different, exactly? And how does this inform our reading of them? To answer these questions, today we’ll discuss the central distinction employed by historians, between primary, secondary, and tertiary source documents.

A good rule of thumb for classifying a document as a primary, secondary, or tertiary source is to consider how many steps removed from the topic the source is. Let’s pretend that on June 22, 1902, Teddy Roosevelt rode a unicycle along the streets of New Orleans. Many people saw him do it. If someone were to interview any of these witnesses, that interview would be a primary source (since it is a single step removed from the alleged unicycling). If a historian were to read several such interviews and write an article describing how they think it took place, this would be a secondary source document (since it is two steps removed). If yet another historian reads many such secondary source articles and books, which themselves were written in response to primary sources, and then synthesizes that knowledge into a textbook or encyclopedia entry then we would refer to that as a tertiary source document for the event (since it is three steps removed).

At this point, I want to direct your attention to three titles we have at Linebaugh which capture this distinction: Reporting the Revolutionary War, edited by Todd Andrlik, a selection of primary source newspaper snippets from the revolution; 1776, written by David McCullough, a secondary-source monograph on the Revolutionary War itself; and Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, edited by Harold E. Selesky, a tertiary source.

Right on the cover of Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, we have a tagline that seems to say it all: “Before it was History, it was NEWS.” Most people would categorize a newspaper article as a primary source (even though many reporters are not eyewitnesses to events they describe), and the tagline makes the important point that history is usually written retrospectively. Historians know how the events in question turned out, which gives them an advantage when deciding what events are significant. Journalists can be blind at times to whether current affairs will be of any consequence. For example, on August 13th, 1776, the London Chronicle announced the Declaration of Independence, merely saying, “Advice is received that the Congress resolved upon independence the 4th of July; and, it is said, have declared war against Great Britain in form” (Andrlik 197). It is buried in a page of unrelated stories, less than an inch or two from announcements of local marriages and bankruptcies.

On the other hand, a memoir (say of Teddy Roosevelt recalling his unicyclical antics years later) does have the benefit of hindsight, but it still isn’t a secondary source because it is limited to his personal perspective on the event. Taking these two examples together will highlight an important trait of primary sources: They are limited in scope, either by perspective or by time.

Primary sources like these do provide an important advantage to the curious and critical reader: They present a perspective in a more or less pure form. With secondary or tertiary works, you not only have the perspectives of the witnesses, but those of the historian as well, and, of course, with a perspective comes its biases and assumptions. It is important to say that bias does not make a source useless. In fact, once harnessed, an identified bias makes a source incredibly useful. Historians don’t merely want to know what people did, they want to know why. Uncovering a person’s bias can help immensely when pinning down their motivations.

If primary sources provide pure perspectives, why read secondary or tertiary sources at all? Well, because sometimes an eyewitness is mistaken about what happened, and perhaps another witness can provide a more accurate account, or at least cast some much needed doubt on our first interviewee. Cross-referencing different perspectives on the same event is important work not only because it helps to identify who is mistaken about events in question, but also because it can show how the perspectives exist in conflict or consensus. In an ideal universe, someone could consult only primary sources, but there simply is not enough time to read them, let alone learn all the languages necessary. Historians must rely on each other to provide context for the events they study in depth. How do we understand the significance of Roosevelt’s speculative unicycle ride? Was his presidency popular at the time and so his unicycling was done with a light heart? Or did he just declare war and such frivolity was in poor taste?

This is where secondary sources like McCullough’s 1776 come into play. Rather than merely quote primary sources, the historian attempts to synthesize them into a single account. Central to the work of historians is the distinction between testimony and evidence. Testimony is the set of claims a primary source makes, while evidence is any information that can be inferred from the document, even if it is information the source’s testimony disagrees with. As in everyday life, where we can choose not to believe someone because their testimony is too inconsistent, incoherent, or fragmentary, historians can do the same to their sources. Any source can be dishonest or misinformed, so no particular source’s testimony is given absolute authority. Therefore the bulk of the work is in source criticism, where you read “against the grain” and “between the lines” of the text to glean information which it doesn’t wish to divulge. Rules and regulations are an excellent place to see divergence between testimony and evidence. For example, if New Orleans in 1905 passed a law banning unicycle use in the streets, we would not want to believe that unicycles were therefore never used there. Quite the contrary, we would instead have to infer that people rode their unicycles in the street so often that it became a problem, otherwise, such a law would not exist. So while the testimony of the rule is that unicycling through the streets is illegal, punishable, and therefore something the authorities are putting a stop to, the rule is itself a piece of evidence of the opposite. Even though secondary source documents do not typically represent direct experience of what they describe, they do tend to represent the professional authority that comes from having been trained to read texts critically in this way.

As I said at the beginning, I’m unashamed to consult a tertiary source like Wikipedia when approaching a topic which is foreign to me, but I wouldn’t dream of citing one in a paper of my own. Note that this isn’t exclusive to Wikipedia. The problem with Wikipedia isn’t so much that it is edited by the general public; the problem is that it is a tertiary source. No tertiary source is acceptable to cite as an authority in a formal setting. A tertiary source, like an encyclopedia, may frequently be compiled by a professional historian; however, they will tend to have less familiarity with a given topic in the book than another historian would who has focused more exclusively on it. A tertiary source, therefore, is a more general information source. It does not tend to represent cutting edge research, nor can it be expected to provide detailed information.

Now that I have established the difference between these three sorts of sources, I need to qualify it. Whether a document is primary, secondary, or tertiary is not intrinsic to the document itself, but is entirely relative to what questions the historian chooses to ask it. For example, Titus Livius (also known simply as Livy) wrote a massive history of Rome called From the Founding of the City. It is a secondary source (and probably not a very accurate one at that) for studying the early Roman Republic. However, it is just as much a primary source as Virgil’s Aeneid when studying the literary culture in the court of Emperor Augustus. In fact, every secondary source document for a time in the past is a primary source document for the time in which it was written. A book like Livy’s demonstrates that the distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary is not between exclusive categories, but regions along a spectrum. Some sources are more primary than others, some less. Roosevelt’s memoirs of his fictional frivolities would be more primary than an article in the New Orleans Bee which happens to recount the tale, too. On the other hand, Wikipedia and the World Book are more tertiary than our Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.

Before I conclude, I’d like to take a moment to step back and talk about the purpose of my blog entries more generally. I want to write about how to get the most out of both history books and news articles (primary sources of the present). Hopefully interested readers will find my posts helpful when cultivating their critical reading skills. Of course, the blog is mainly intended to point people to various resources that the library provides, so I intend to inform the readers about various materials and services that RCLS has available. However, I also want my entries to feel like a resource in themselves. I am drafting one more entry right now about the Historical Research Rooms at Linebaugh and Smyrna. After that, each month I will discuss a different types of history writing, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of their methods. Different kinds of historians utilize different sources or utilize the same sources in different ways. They ask different kinds of questions and expect different kinds of answers. After all, historians, just like the people they write about, have motivations. Knowing why they write and what they think is important will hopefully help my readers better understand an author’s argument and be able to evaluate it more thoroughly.

How to Survive a Book Hangover

by Brittney Reed-Saltz

Book hangover. Noun. Definition: The state that occurs when one finishes a book that is so good that one cannot stop thinking about it, often resulting in the inability to enjoy another book. Duration and intensity vary. 

I know that I’m not the only person who experiences book hangovers. If you read a lot, and if you know your tastes well enough to pick good books, then book hangovers are an unavoidable part of life. Just like real hangovers, they have their silver lining: They mean that you recently were having a great time. But also just like real hangovers, they’re painful to endure.

While you can alleviate a real hangover with a greasy breakfast and some ibuprofen, the same tactics don’t work for book hangovers. Here are my suggestions for things to try, instead.

Read something completely different.
You’re not going to find a book better than the one you just finished, at least not for a little while, so it’s pure folly to read something too similar to it. The new book is not going to be able to compete, and the similarities–in genre, for example–are only going to make its perceived shortcomings all the more glaring. Instead, try reading something that’s a complete 180, in format, genre, or both.

Read something that you have to read.
It’s so easy, in the midst of a book hangover, to browse your shelves, picking up book after book, only to cast each one aside after a handful of pages. When nothing is really grabbing your attention, it’s nearly impossible to commit. However, if you have a book that you don’t have the option of putting off–it’s a piece of assigned reading for a class, your best friend loaned it to you and wants it back, or it’s a high-demand library checkout–the external pressure can force you to keep reading long enough to really get into the material.

Read something by the same author.
If a book has just devastated your life and the author has published multiple books, it might be the perfect time to binge some or all of their oeuvre. Why make yourself immediately defect and read someone else when you’re flush with infatuation for a particular author? This works well for writers with large bodies of work, but beware if they’ve only published a few. You might read yourself out of new material too quickly and waiting years for their next release.

Reread an old favorite.
When you’ve discovered a new favorite, the only book that might hold up is an old favorite. Pull out a book that you’ve loved for years and revisit its unique magic. It will remind you that you’ve gotten through book hangovers before. Besides, rereading books can be illuminating: You are likely to pick up on nuances and details that seemed less significant to you in the past.

Take a break.
This might be controversial advice to offer on a library blog, but I’m doing it: Maybe you should take a break from reading. A short one, mind you, but a break, nonetheless. All the books in the world still be there, waiting for you, after a day or two, or a week, or even longer. When you’re ready, they will be, too. And in the meantime, take a walk, have a meandering conversation with a good friend, work on a hobby, heck, even tear through a few seasons of a reality TV show. It might be exactly what your mind needs to prepare to absorb your next great read.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dewey Decimal System

by James Rucker 

Thus far, we haven’t focused on non-fiction in our blog. So, broad though it may be, our topic today is the Dewey Decimal System (DDS). As the subtitle of this entry suggests, I spent some time griping about it. I actually still do, for a variety of reasons. The DDS reinforces the unhelpful belief that practical skills and projects (600s) are fundamentally separate from artistic (700s) or scientific (500s) endeavours. (For example, vegetable gardening is 635, while decorative gardening is 712, and botany is the 580s.) It gives overwhelming space to Christianity (220-289.x) when compared to the space given to every other religion in all of human existence (290-299.x). It gives a lot more space to the United states (973-979.x) when compared to Mexico (972.x), Canada (971.x), or the various indigenous groups of North America (some fraction of 970.x).

However, such problems are relatively minor compared to our topic for today: the DDS does not know where to classify history books.

Actually, I should say that the DDS doesn’t know how to categorize any books at all. History books simply show the problem in sharp relief. Of course, this isn’t just a problem with the DDS. No categorization system is ever going to be perfect, or even objective; they will always require subjective judgement for one simple reason: books can be about more than one thing at once, and this problem will persist for as long as books continue to insist on containing more than one word.

For the uninitiated, the DDS is a set of 1000 digits, each associated with a different topic. (They continue to divide past the decimal place, but we’ll get into that later.) It is first divided into ten different areas, with 100 points each:

dewey 1

“Now wait a minute!” my esteemed readers all shout at once. They then proceed to object, somewhat hyperbolically, “Are you mad? Or are you simply oblivious? You said it didn’t know where to categorize History books, yet right there, as plain as day, it says ‘900-999: History and geography’. How could you have missed something so obvious?”

I did notice, actually, but the word Geography should really be first, because, as you’ll see below, the ten sets of 10 are assigned (mostly) to more specific geographical regions. (Make a mental note that the 920s, for the most part, have fallen into disuse.):

dewey 2

To emphasize my point, we should look at how the 940s divide:

dewey 3

How would one categorize history that crosses borders? Where do we put the history of the Atlantic slave trade for example? *Searches RCLSTN catalog for “slavery” and “atlantic slave trade”* Apparently, 306 (mostly). Not in the 900s at all! What about history of art, history of science, history of sports? For a clue, let’s look at the 90x.x region:

dewey 4

Note how 901 is “philosophy and theory of history” while philosophy in general, as we saw earlier, is the 100s. Could it be? Does philosophy have this problem too? (Spoiler warning: Yes, it does.) The important clue is that they are both making use of the digit 1. On further investigation, you’ll find out 501 is philosophy of science and 701 is philosophy of art. In fact, 301 is philosophy of sociology, 401 is philosophy of language, 801 is philosophy of literature… yeah, and 101 is philosophy of philosophy (because that’s an actual thing, believe it or not). Well,  909 is world history… Which, in a way, is the history of all history. This pattern holds for other subjects: history of philosophy is 109, history of science is 509, history of art is 709, and so on.

This is because Melvil Dewey gave his system a recursive structure, where the patterns of classification echo into one another. In other words, if you take one classification number and attach it at the end of another, you might (just maybe) have a working classification that somehow combines the two topics in some way. History is the most obvious example of this. If you look under a subject’s call number, and you see either “9” or “09” tacked on the end, you are probably looking at the history of that subject. For example, 629.4  is space engineering, and Deborah Cadbury’s 2006 book, Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space, is shelved at Linebaugh under 629.409.

Biographies receive a similar treatment. As I pointed out above, the 920s used to be where biographies were categorized (actually, at Linebaugh, we still have a fair number of older biographies there). But if the 920s are generally unused, where did the books go? Well… in a way, they went everywhere. If you know what such-and-such a person is known for you’ll frequently (though not always) find biographies of that person under that topic with either “92” or “092” tacked on the end. For example, 520 is Astronomy, and so David Wootton’s 2010 book, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, is shelved under 520.92. Similarly, 780 is music, so 780.922 is where you’d find The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.

You can use the same method for Geographical locations:

These examples have mostly been art history, but as Galileo’s biography shows, it applies to other disciplines as well. Initially, I found this quite frustrating. After all, this speaks to an ideological assumption that I’ll revisit in future posts concerning what counts as historical and what does not. From the Dewey Decimal System, one would conclude that history is all about nations, geographical regions, borders, and the wars fought to change them. And if you look at the history of the U.S. in the DDS, you’ll see that it is organized according to presidential terms. Are we then to conclude that presidents are the only important Americans? Are the only important dates those when power changed between them? I’d like to exclaim, “Of course not! History isn’t just names and dates!” But that is exactly what many people assume it is.

The causes for this popular opinion are themselves historical. When academic history began in the 1800s, nations, borders, names, dates, and (last but not least) wars were the only topics historians tended to emphasize. Mainstream historians didn’t begin exploring other areas of life in much depth until after World War II. Melvil Dewey first published the DDS in 1876 and so his system reflects the assumptions of his time. The non-academic press still lives under this assumption, and the popularly-consumed history books they publish reflect this. In addition, the political interests who dictate school curricula carry this attitude as well, and high school history classes reflect this. The general view that history is mostly the memorization of names and dates is the unfortunate result. My hope is that my blog entries, in time, will convince some hearts and minds otherwise.

Throughout the 1900s, academic historians expanded their interest from the study of politicians, generals, and diplomats to the study of industry, agriculture and trade, topics that customarily are shelved under the 300s and 600s. In other words, they helped bring historians’ attention to the doings of regular people in their practical lives. Others later broadened history’s scope further to consider the effects and changes in language and culture. It has become clear that, in a very real sense, everything humans do is historical, and therefore everything we do has a history of how we did it. Not just art and science, but gardening, beer,  and religious practice. But all these other topics are shelved apart from what the DDS considers “real history,” and that used to sadden me.

So how did I learn to stop worrying and love the Dewey Decimal System? Because of times like when I was walking through the stacks today, trying to find the books I mentioned above. In my search, I stumbled upon this:

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It was a whole row of books in the 385s, which is where we shelve our books on trains, and I noticed most of them were under 385.09 and its subordinate points. Sure enough, I had discovered a little island of history books. 385.0957 was a history of Siberian railroads. 385.097, 385.0971 and 385.0973 were histories of railroads in North America, Canada, and the U.S. respectively. It was a magical moment. Despite supporting a narrower view of history on its surface, beneath that, the Dewey Decimal System contains the truth that all human endeavours are historical.

What’s the upside? If you’re ever in your little corner of the Dewey Decimal System, let’s say 641.5 (cooking), and you find a section with books under 641.5944 (French food), 641.5952 (Japanese food), or 641.5973 (“American” food), you’ll know you’ve found a little island where you’ll find the history books written just for you.

Hitting the Books: A Memory

by Brittney Reed-Saltz

It will probably surprise no one to learn that I was an incorrigible nerd in school. I mean, I went on to become a librarian, and while our experiences vary, a common thread tends to be that we are incorrigible nerds. And as such, when I look back on my education, I feel a great deal of fondness for assigned reading. This was not always the case.

Throughout elementary and high school, I had a sometimes contentious relationship with assigned reading. Bookish I was, but I also had a rebellious streak and interests that often conflicted with curricula. I knew my own tastes and my own reading level, so why (went my childhood and adolescent logic) would I want to waste my time reading what someone else told me to so I could pass a test? (There were notable exceptions, and I could often be enticed to love a book about which I was initially skeptical: The Outsiders, Fahrenheit 451, Night, The Scarlet Letter.)

That attitude changed somewhat when I entered college and had conferred upon me the heady power of choice. Sure, I had a list of prerequisites and major requirements, but within that list was so much freedom. I could flip through my course catalog and read through the listings for upper-division English and order as though from a menu, each course unique in flavor and theme.

My favorite day of the semester was always the first. I like beginnings, I always have, and I place much stock in making sure that they are auspicious. In college I would pick my outfit to set the tone I wanted, pack up my new notebooks and pens that smelled of potential, and head off to the Humanities building eager to get started.

I loved the well-worn format of the first day, each professor going through the syllabus and revealing their personalities in how they chose to communicate their expectations, in tones either nurturing or apocalyptic. And I loved getting my list of assigned reading. I would have already ordered the books, having the lists in advance, but there was the structure of the order of the assignments, and of course, some surprises. The Norton Anthology is huge; there’s no way to cover it all in a semester, so being told which selections to read for the next class was like being handed a map to guide me through a vast, unfamiliar wild.

It didn’t matter that I was, despite being an ambitious A student, an inveterate procrastinator. It didn’t matter that I would invariably dislike some of my assignments or get overwhelmed by the volume of reading that comes with taking 20 credit hours of literature classes. By November I might be staring wanly into my copy of Julius Caesar wondering how I was ever to discuss it in an original and substantial manner for 10 pages and considering escape plans, but on the first day of the semester, all was new. Hope tinged everything with a rose-gold glow that had yet to fade into the harsh, dark reality of essays finished at 2:00 AM (and prayers that the printer works, oh please, please don’t jam, please let me have added enough money to my printing account, please…).

I miss those days now. Because they were frustrating, and there are some assignments that I detested and still do to this day. (Those authors will retain their dignity in anonymity.) But along with the stress there were moments of transcendence, when I discovered authors I had never read before and who left me changed. Back then, every word had meaning and weight, and even the most confusing poem would be unraveled in class to reveal a core of diamond at its center, clear and pure and precious.

We’ve reached the conclusion. If I were older, I might adjust the lapels of my tweed coat and bite my briar pipe thoughtfully and admonish the students trooping reluctantly back to class, reminding them of the passage of time and encouraging them to drink in everything their education has to offer. But I don’t have a pipe, or the years of perspective. So I’ll just say to those students: I envy you.

To be young and unsuspecting and arrogant, not knowing how a book that you don’t even want to read can reach right between your ribs and touch a heart still soft enough to feel things sharp and deep. What a misery and what a joy.

Have a great school year, everyone.

 

Why Tracking Your Reading Is a Good Idea–And Some Ways to Do It

by Brittney Reed-Saltz

It’s a dilemma familiar to many avid readers: You’re browsing the stacks at your local library, searching for a new book to read. It feels like you’ve read everything, and you teeter at the brink of despair, when finally, a title catches your eye. You read the blurb, and it sounds like something you would love! You proceed with excitement to the circulation desk and check the book out. Back home, you settle in for a night of literary escape. You read the first few pages, and immediately you’re sucked in… Until you realize that things sound familiar. Too familiar. You’ve already read this book.

Despair! Angst! Worse… Nothing to read! Nooo!

During the years that I’ve worked in libraries, I’ve frequently encountered patrons stuck in this dreaded cycle. And I get it. When you read multiple books each week, it can be hard to remember what you’ve read.

That’s why I’m such a proponent of keeping track of every book that you read. I’ve been doing it for years, and here are some of the ways I’ve accomplished this task.

The Pen-and-Paper Method
This is exactly what it sounds like: you write down the books you read. Looseleaf paper, notepads, fancy notebooks, it’s all up to you. The same goes for any other information you want to include: dates started and finished, genre, markers of diversity, inclusion in book challenges, etc.

You can expand this idea way beyond a simple list. Bullet journals have been a big thing for awhile now, and there are so many articles and ideas on Pinterest for finding your own bookish bojo bliss. Keep it simple, or go as wild as you like… After all, this could be a great excuse to buy multicolored pens and whimsical washi tape.

The Social Method
Maybe pen and paper isn’t your style. You don’t want to keep track of a bunch of lists or have to remember to bring your journal with you when you’re out and about. If you want an easy and portable way to track your reading, book-oriented social media sites are the way to go.

Goodreads lets you create custom shelves, set goals, and share reviews with friends, and it is probably the most popular site to track your reading. The mobile app even lets you scan barcodes to quickly look up books and add them to your shelves! There is no end to the book recommendations that you’ll get on Goodreads, so expect your Want to Read shelf to overflow almost immediately.

LibraryThing is another option that allows you to catalog your personal library with as much specificity as you want. However, the site is only free for the first 200 books you enter; after that, you’ll need to pay a subscription fee or buy a lifetime membership.

Another fun option is Riffle, which allows you to create and share curated lists of books. If you’re the kind of person who loves recommending books to your friends, you can have a lot of fun coming up with your own custom reading lists. Riffle is also great for discovering new books or finding your next read when you’re craving a specific type of story.

The Privately Techy Method
Maybe sharing everything you read with the general public–or even just your friends–doesn’t appeal to you, but you like the ease and portability of a digital option. In that case, try a reading spreadsheet! With Google Sheets, you can have your list right on your phone. You can also customize your spreadsheet as much as you would like. It’s easy to track genres, page counts, audiobook lengths, and more. If the idea of an over-the-top spreadsheet is appealing, but you doubt your prowess, never fear. Book Riot has one that you can copy to your own Google Drive and use for free. 

So, which one do I use?
I have dabbled in each of these methods, and have experienced firsthand the pros and cons of each. When I first started tracking my reading in middle school, I made a simple pen-and-paper list. That evolved into a Word Perfect doc (hey, it was the early 2000s) that I kept for each school year and summer, printing them off for record-keeping. Sometime around the end of college I discovered Goodreads, and I used it off and on for several years before I decided that I wanted a more private way to track my books.

That’s when I started my Google Sheet reading log. I adore being able to track genres, color-code my reading by months, and easily sort my data. (It’s possible that I even make charts at the end of each month. And by “it’s possible,” I mean that I definitely do.)

Sometimes I still miss the social aspect of Goodreads, though, which is why I’m on it nearly every day, and why I still periodically review books there. Sometimes I just really need to talk to other people about a book that I’ve loved–or one that made me facepalm myself unconscious–and besides, I love making disastrously long lists of books that it will take me years to get through.

Ultimately, every reader has their own interests and needs, and there is not one method that will work for everyone. If you’re new to tracking your reading, try out different options and see which one feels natural to you and best fits your lifestyle.

Track your reading carefully and consistently, and you’ll free yourself from accidental re-reads forever!