Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Library the Site of First Civil Rights Sit-In in U.S.

One August day in 1939, five young men entered a public library in Alexandria, Virginia. Wanting to use the bright new facility, the men requested library cards. But they were refused. Why? They were black and the library, the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library, was for whites only. This was the segregated American South, where Jim Crow laws dictated there be separate facilities for black and white citizens. However, there wasn't a library for blacks in Alexandria in 1939.
The Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library in the late 1930s.
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The five men were undeterred. Otto L. Tucker, age 22; Morris L. Murray, 22; Edward Gaddis, 21; Clarence Strange, 21; and William Edwards, 19, quietly made their way to a bookshelf, picked out some books, entered the library's reading room, and sat down to read. "Because their presence [at the library] caused embarrassment to the white patrons," according to the September 2, 1939, edition of The Afro-American newspaper, the librarian on duty, Catherine Scoggin, walked over and asked them to leave. The men didn't. Promptly, the police were called. Arriving at the library, the police officers confronted the men, ordering them to leave the facility. The men silently stood up and started to leave the library, but as they reached the door, the police arrested them for disorderly conduct.

This brave action on the part of five young men who simply wanted to use the public library is widely considered to be the first civil rights sit-in in the United States, predating the much more well-known lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, by 21 years.

The five men being escorted from the Barrett Branch Library by police in August 1939.
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Tucker, Murray, Gaddis, Strange, and Edwards contested the charge of disorderly conduct with the aid of Attorney Samuel W. Tucker, who was the older brother of Otto L. Tucker. The elder Tucker had organized the sit-in at Alexandria Library's Barrett Branch for its refusal to issue library cards to the black citizens of Alexandria, Virginia. (Ironically, the branch is named for the physician and social reformer Kate Waller Barrett, whose philanthropic efforts benefited black Americans.) During the trial, Attorney Tucker got the police to admit that "being colored was the true basis of charges of disorderly conduct laid against five young men who entered the local public library," according to the aforementioned Afro-American article. Ultimately, the charges against the men were dropped.

One year after the 1939 sit-in at the Barrett Branch, the city of Alexandria, Virginia, opened a library for its black residents, the Robert H. Robinson Library. Today, that library is the Alexandria Black History Museum. All libraries within the Alexandra public library system were officially desegregated in the 1950s.

In 2000, Out of Obscurity, a 40-minute documentary on the 1939 sit-in at the Alexandria Library, was released by California Newsreel.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Zora Neale Hurston Sings in an Archival Recording

It was in high school that I first heard of the author Zora Neale Hurston. For a couple weeks that semester, the AP English teacher had us read and discuss Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. At the start of each class, the teacher would walk in and gleefully direct us to "take out 'Their Eyes'!"

I learned more about the woman behind the novel while in college. At that time, I was becoming immensely interested in the lives and works of feminists of color, which meant getting into author and activist Alice Walker. Beginning in the 1970s, Walker labored to renew interest in Hurston and her work. Thanks to the efforts of Alice Walker and others, I was able to hold a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in my hands in high school and read about Hurston in my women's studies and Afro-American studies classes in college. 

Zora Neale Hurston, 1935.
Photo source:

In those classes, I learned that Hurston had led an incredible life: in addition to being a published author, she was also a trained anthropologist. In the 1930s, she traveled extensively across the American South and in the Caribbean to carefully document the folklore of the black communities she encountered. Some of the folklore were songs, such as "Mule on the Mount," which Hurston was recorded singing on June 18, 1939. On this archival recording, which I've posted below, you can hear Hurston explain the song. By the way she spoke, you can tell that she was her own person. She was also a wonderful interpreter of this rich folk song.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Being an Older Student in a Library School Program

When I completed my undergraduate studies, I just absolutely knew that I was completely finished with school. No more tests. No more textbooks. No more teachers. Clutching my diploma, I exited the auditorium, lifted my beaming face toward the bright heavens, and hungrily inhaled my first whiff of sweet, sweet freedom. At last I was an adult and I was free of the rigors of academics. I happily marched off into the wide, unknown world.

Being an older student in library school has both its challenges and rewards.
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Then, a decade or so later... I'm back in the classroom, now as a graduate student pursuing a degree in library and information science. This time around, things are definitely different. For one thing, I'm among the older students in the program, many of us pursuing librarianship as a second career. Being an older student, I can relate to much of what Laura Sanders says in her essay "On Being an Older Library School Student," published on the Hack Library School website.

"Paying tuition fees is never easy no matter how old you are, but I do find that it's harder to be a student when you're older," Sanders says. "It gets disheartening to pound the pavement for an apartment that's in your budget, to turn down dinner invitations with friends because you can't afford to go, or to watch the money you manage to scrape together going toward tuition instead of your retirement fund."

As an older student, I'm paying my own way through school, which wasn't the case before (due to hard-working, sacrificing parents and Sallie Mae). And paying for school undeniably changes things. It affects not only my attitude (I'm much more serious about my studies this time around), but it also, of course, affects my finances. Like Sanders, I have to decline invites because I don't have the money, and it sucks seeing the money I squirreled away for savings go toward tuition.

Another thing that takes some getting used to as an older student pursing a second career is that you are starting all over gain career-wise. Getting a foothold in the library field is tough because your extensive prior work experience makes you overqualified for most entry-level library jobs, so the people who hire for those jobs aren't likely to hire you. But you need to get your foot in the door somewhere to get recent experience and build up your resume. I'm reminded of the feeling I had back when I was trying to get my first publishing job: "How are you supposed to get experience if no one is hiring you so that you can get that experience?" Plus, starting over at the bottom often means taking a drastic cut in pay, which most older students - who typically pay rent, mortgage, utility bills, childcare expenses, transportation costs, etc. - really can't afford. "Starting over is tough," says Sanders in her essay. I wholeheartedly agree.

Yes, there are drawbacks. But being an older library school student does have its benefits. At this age, you know who you are as a person, you know this is what you want, and so you pursue it with a passion that you may not have had as a younger student pursuing an undergraduate degree. Also at this point, you're used to being assertive to get what you need for yourself, so in the classroom you're not afraid to seek out the help you need. Plus, paying for library school yourself makes you determined to get the most out of your experience.

Laura Sanders reflects more on the plusses and minuses of being an older student in library school in her essay, which you can read HERE.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dewey Decimal Tattoos and Other Librarian Ink

I appreciate a good tattoo. If that tattoo was carefully chosen to reflect one of the passions of its wearer, that makes it even better. Many who sport permanent ink happen to be librarians. And being that libraries are their passion, their tats show that. What follows are some choice tattoos on some truly hip librarians.

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Remember the multi-drawered card catalog from the libraries of yesteryear? This librarian does. She has one beautifully inked on her upper right arm. Notice that around the catalog's legs is a scroll that reads: Peace & Knowledge. Love it!

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This children's librarian loves the profession so much that she had the Dewey Decimal number for books on operating libraries for children tattooed on her upper back. Despite the flashbacks it's giving me to last semester's challenging class on number building, I think it's a great tattoo.

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OK, skulls are badass. But a skill wearing geek glasses is just killer. And having a couple of books behind that skull with a scroll that says "Librarian" underneath? Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is one supremely awesome tattoo.

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Lastly, here's a librarian with an upper-arm tattoo of the tarot card for Librarian. I don't know if there actually is a tarot card for Librarian. (I know there's one for Magician, which the musician Beck signed for me at a bookstore appearance years ago, telling me, "YOU are the Magician." But that's a story for another time.) Whether there is or isn't, this is one cool design.

To see seven more photos of librarians sporting amazing ink, go to THIS LINK.

The Secret Library in the NY Public Library System

Tucked away below street level in midtown Manhattan is the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library. Its size - 2,100 square feet - makes it the second smallest library in the New York Public Library system. (The Macombs Bridge Library, inside the Harlem River Houses, is the smallest, at 700 square feet.) Its subterranean location almost makes it a secret. The commuters who pass by its shadowy entrance while going to and from the adjacent subway station seem to be the only city dwellers who know about it.

The below-ground entrance to the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library.
Image via Michael L./

"If you don't take the train, you'd probably never even know this places exists," said commuter Eric Velasquez, who exits the No. 6 subway station at the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 50th Street. A MetroCard machine is near the library's doors, so many people assume that the library is actually a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) outpost. "They come in asking for help with the MetroCard machine," branch manager Anisha Huffman told the New York Times. "We do help them if we're not too busy, and they also ask us for subway maps, so we keep a lot of them on hand."

The Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Branch started out as a library for the Archdiocese of New York, back in 1887. The New York Public Library took over the space and opened this branch in 1992. Considering its unusual location and its small size, this branch does get a surprising amount of foot traffic, especially during afternoon lunch hours and in the evenings. But it's not really a destination for research, Huffman told the Times. "Mostly, patrons don't come here for serious research. A lot of them are looking to head home with books for their children or looking for leisure books," she said.

Its location is a definite plus for commuters like Velasquez. "It's second nature to return the book," he explained, "because you can't help but pass the library every morning and evening when you're getting the train." And the practically secretive nature of the location gives it a club-like feel, which is a bonus for Melissa Britt, another commuter. "You see the same people all the time," she said. "You can't find this place unless someone tells you about it." Fellow book and library lovers, the secret is now out!

To read more about the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Branch of the New York Public Library, check out the New York Times profile of it HERE. (All above quotes are from the Times article.)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Vintage Print Ads for Now Classic Books

I love to browse and buy old magazines. One of the best things about these decades-old glossies are the advertisements: the snappy tag lines, the tongue-in-cheek ad copy, and the cleverly drawn artwork or unintentionally cheesy photographs. Usually, these ads are for automobiles or kitchen appliances or sportswear. But sometimes, they're for books, such as Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, or A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

Vintage ad for A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.
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Looking at these advertisements, I like to study not only how the books were promoted (the choice of words and illustration), but I also like to spot the street addresses of the publishing houses to see where they were once located and to imagine what the city and the publishing world were like then. Eleven of these advertisements were highlighted by Flavorwire. Go to this LINK to see vintage print ads for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and more.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Students Eye Print vs. Electronic Textbooks

One of my library school professors told us that experiments were underway in classrooms across the country to see how students take to textbooks in electronic form. Last week, New York's Daily News newspaper reported that kids in American universities still prefer traditional textbooks over the electronic versions.

Students in Clearwater, Florida, take out their school-issued e-readers.
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According to the Daily News, "some students" stated their preference for print textbooks. Their reasons? The electronic versions are "clumsy" and "difficult to use." I have to say I sincerely doubt that today's college students, who've come of age in the digital age, would have trouble navigating their way around a handheld electronic gadget. Perhaps e-textbooks can be "difficult to read" on certain types of electronic devices, as some students claimed in the Daily News piece. But I think most would welcome the opportunity to not have to lug around a bag full of heavy textbooks. I really think it all comes down to the influence that textbook publishers have on school systems and if individual schools have the money and in-house expertise that would allow for entire groups of students to be equipped with the technology to access textbooks in electronic form.

As much as I love books in print, digital is the way of the future. And if today's college students are already used to absorbing information via a compact electronic gadget, perhaps e-textbooks are the way to go.