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9 posts from November 2009

30 November 2009

Declaration of Independence

In the attempt to pursue happiness with a little more determination, here's a linkto what may have happened if the Founding Fathers had access to some of this new fangled technology.  You may need a Google Wave account to get the full story - and Franklin's interventions seem to have been passed over.

The U.S. National Archives has a rather less whimsical site on this theme, as well as some good resources based around Jefferson's fair copy of the Declaration at The New York Public Library.

20 November 2009

Still remembering the dead

Despite Matthew’s efforts to make our blog more cheerful, I’m afraid I’m still deep in the war zone, having just read in the Times that it’s 40 years today since Ron Haeberle’s  photos of the massacre at My Lai were first published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Published the best part of 2 years after the event, they recorded the horrific slaughter of March 16th, 1968 when 347 or 504 (depending on who you believe) Vietnamese civilians died at the hands of a U.S. infantry brigade. Today the Plain Dealer has published a rare interview with the photographer, which is well worth reading.

There’s a huge amount of information on My Lai on the web, but I would pick out Seymour Hershe's original reports for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, which first exposed the massacre (and which won him a Pulitzer). And the Library of Congress has digitised the Peers Inquiry.

Also, you will find James Stuart Olson and Randy Robert’s My Lai: a brief history with documents (Boston, Mass: Bedford Books, c.1998) in the BL.



19 November 2009

Communication Tools, and A Little Bit of Fry and Twitter

As Coolidge put it, 'the chief business of the American people is business', but what is now business is sometimes hard to understand.  Silicon Valley is the engine of an online economy that is now the size of a medium country, but a lot of what it does is free, or at least appears to be be done for nothing.  Twitter is perhaps the most famous current U.S. innovation that, at the moment, is not 'monetised' (this, though, will surely not be long - it's already valued at $1 billion).

Nesta  Americas Collections is, of course, interested in the business of the U.S., and not just from a cultural or historical perspective - colleagues in Business and IP Centre  in particular make great efforts to make information available to entrepreneurs, lawyers, NGOs, and so on.  So, I was pleased to get an invitation to a talk at NESTA on Social Media - a force for good as part of the Silicon Valley comes to the UK programme (it also ties into some of my work on 'C21st curatorship').  Not only could we hear Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter and Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, but also on offer was Stephen Fry, who, as the NESTA chair said, needs no introduction.

There were some of the usual venture capital types and web startups doing their delicate courtship dance, but also a mix of politicians, journalists and think tankers.  The talk itself was unusually interesting - and should be available online, if NESTA's servers take the strain.  Fry, in particular, responding with charm, elegance, placed these new communication tools in a broader context, alluding to the changes wrought by the printing press, and reminding us that the titles we remember from the eighteenth century are the Tatler, the Idler, the Spectator - magazines and journals that offered a human, amusing, interesting, and quite often apparently trivial view on the human carousel.  For Fry, the joyous thing about Twitter is that it makes communication personal and human; it invests work with emotion.  The internet, he argued passionately, is at heart a deeply literary thing.

There were also questions about the 'road map' for Twitter, privacy, 'deadwood' news, mob rule, and the intersection between politics and  international relations; again, they should be on the NESTA stream.  Matthew Taylor of the RSA asked two very important questions about the lack of real sociological and orthographical research on social media, and the extent to which powerful organisation and governments were able to manipulate or exploit sites such as Twitter.  I wanted to ask about how this stuff might be accessed by future historians.  Next time...

Americas Collections also has its own Twitter stream (the term 'feed' sounds too much like Reuters, it seems).  It's turning out to be a useful way to communicate with scholars, publishers and others libraries, so feel free to join in.

In some ways, though, it's not so much about the tools, as the communication and the contacts that make up this new 'Republic of Letters'.  And sometimes the old ones are the best.  I brought a pencil with me to make some notes, but not a sharpener.  So, thanks are due to Basheera Khan of the Telegraph (@bash) who lent me a very nice pen.



17 November 2009

Nixon, China and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service

President Obama's visit to China has led to many news reports recalling Nixon's visit to China in February 1972.  This reminded me of a recently acquired resource, available via JISC at many university libraries but also in the British Library's reading rooms: the digital collection of Foreign Broadcast Information Service(FBIS) Daily Reports (1975-1996).  (There's a helpful blog post about it at the Vere Harmsworth blog at Oxford.)

FBIS is a vast collection of intelligence gathered by the US, usually derived from local newspapers, government reports or transcribed radio broadcasts.   A quick search of 'Nixon', 'China' brings up a wealth of documents, including a special report detailing Kissinger's preparatory visit.  A great resource for any student of recent politics, international relations - or journalists.


16 November 2009

The Twelve Stars of Our Republic


It's been rather a gloomy and wet weekend, so what better way to start the week than a rather brilliant example of mid-nineteenth century U.S. bookbinding: The Twelve Stars of the Republic.  Out Nation's Gift to Her Young Citizens, published by E. Walker of 114 Fulton Street, New York.  It is also served with a colourful side of chromolithographs by James Ackerman (part of the reason why I called this title up from the stacks).


Photo 0041

The book gives a suitably glowing account of the first twelve presidents of the republic, offers a series of coloured prints of historical scenes and national monuments, such as the Capitol, a chronology and a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  It is a great example of a 'gift book', ornately designed, illustrated and meant to look expensive: as the contemporary New York Sunday Times put it, 'The binding glitters with elegant designs, in harmony with the contents and objects of the volume, and as a gift-book, we have as yet seen nothing that pleases us so well as the Twelve Stars of the Republic.'

(On Gift Books, see Frederick W. Faxon, Literary Annuals and Gift Books: A Bibliography 1823-1903, reprinted with supplementary essays, 1973.  For more on book bindings, visit the British Library's database of bindings)


10 November 2009

Canada at War, Officially

As Remembrance Day draws near, Jerry writes...

Between 1914 and 1919, 424,000 Canadians served overseas. During that period the Canadian forces earned a reputation as the elite 'shock troops' of the British Expeditionary Forces. In part, this reputation was constructed by Sir Max Aitkin as head of the Canadian War Records Office in London and by publications pushed through the rigors of the censor (as the contents page of the December 1917 issue of the Maple Leaf magazine notes, it was “Passed by Press Bureau”  (BL Shelfmark P.P.4039.w.d.(6)).  This post looks at some of these remarkable records of that terrible conflict.

1. The Maple Leaf magazine began as a publication of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Pay and Record Office for the support of Canadian Prisoners of War, but its contents were also to appeal to the general public. It included short fictional articles, battle reports written by participants, humorous pieces and poetry. It also raised funds for the Canadian Prisoners of War Tobacco Fund, and helped in a campaign to send cigarettes to Canadian soldiers and prisoners.  Such activities were recognized by the command at an early stage as an important factor to maintain morale at the front; as the Maple Leaf claimed in 1916, “a parcel of smokes from home makes a man happy for days…”  The parcels of cigarettes also contained a postcard addressed to the sender so that the soldier might acknowledge receipt of the gift.

2. Although the use of photographic equipment was closely monitored at the front to prevent potentially valuable information falling into enemy hands, the Canadian War Records Office published the Canadian War Pictorial (BL Shelfmark: 9085.ff.4) until 1918, when the publication ceased. It published volumes illustrating the soldier’s life on the western front with pages of photographs interspersed by short essays. The British edition sold out within a week and the Canadian edition printings could not keep up with advance orders.

3. Canada In Khaki (BL Shelfmark: 12355.k.23) - another pictorial newspaper - was also a great success. The first volume published January 1917 sold 40,000 copies in the UK, leaving none available for the Canadian market. Canada in Khaki was made up of fictional short stories, humorous pieces, and patriotic poetry accompanied by photographs by the official photographer in both black and white and colour. It also contains cartoons from famous illustrators such as W. Heath Robinson (above).
These publications are not, strictly speaking, what spring to mind when one thinks of 'official publications'. However, the catalogue records all name the author as Canada: Army, Canadian Expeditionary Force. While it is quite clear that at the time these hugely popular periodicals fulfilled a propaganda role of boosting morale and maintaining the view of the war as heroic and just war in the public eye, over ninety years later we might reflect on this material from differing view points.

See also, 

Where Duty Leads: Canada in the First World War, Exhibition Catalogue by Graham Bradshaw. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, 2008.

Tim Cook, Shock Troops Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, Viking Canada: Toronto, 2008   [BL Shelfmark: YD.2008.a.9604]  

Tim Cook, “Documenting War and Forging Reputations: Sir Max Aitkin and the Canadian War Records Office in the First Wold War”, War in History 2003 10 (3) p.p.265-295 [BL Shelfmark: ZC.9.a.3892]  

Veterans' Week


[J. D. J.]   

05 November 2009

Remember, Remember, 5th November

Because not only is it the anniversary of Gram Parson's birthday, the fiftieth birthday of a Canadian singer and photographer (both of whom are well-represented in the British Library Sound Archive), it is also the alt-country musician and former Whiskeytown front-man Ryan Adams' 35th birthday. 

Why do I mention this?  Partly because my previous posts have mostly been stuck in the eighteenth century, but there is also contemporary literary connection as well. Adams has also published a couple of poetry books, including a signed chapbook (Sad American Mythology, which is held by the Library, along with Infinity Blues and Little Sunshine), and writes for Black Book Magazine.  You can watch an interesting discussion about this between him and Marie-Louise Parker at The New York Public Library on line, as well.  Adams' music has also inspired some good writing, notably Nick Hornby's piece on Oh My Sweet Carolina in McSweeney's (Heartbreaker's 'perfect, still centre, its faint heartbeat').

Adams is published by Akashic Books, one of the more anarchic and interesting of the U.S. small publishers that we like to ensure are available in the BL.  The fifth of November has other meanings in the UK, of course; and in recent years has perhaps surprisingly taken on something of an anti-establishment tone, not least in popular culture.  All the more reason for this short posting mentioning one of the publishers committed to the 'reverse-gentrification of the literary world'. 


04 November 2009

Remembering the dead

 Photograph by Michael Katakis

Last weekend the British Museum celebrated death the Mexican way – they had a big party. I’ve always loved this aspect of Mexican culture – families and friends coming together to remember and celebrate the lives of their loved ones, rather than mourning the deaths. But after my last blogpost on the Civil War, and with continuing bad news about more casualties in Afghanistan and the fact that Remembrance Sunday is almost upon us, I’ve been thinking about how we remember our war dead, and in particular, about war memorials.

Earlier this year at the BAAS conference, I heard Patrick Hagopian’s paper on the politics behind the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. I was reminded of my first visit to Washington, over 20 years ago now, when a trip to the memorial had been high on my list of things to do. Stupidly, I had failed to register that it was Memorial Day weekend, and arrived to find hundreds of people lining up. I can still remember the almost palpable sense of grief, as I watched people shuffling along the wall to find and touch the names of their family and friends. I didn’t stay long on that occasion – I felt as if I was intruding, and, if I’m honest, I was also unsettled by some of the Vietnam vets in the line and circling around the neighbourhood on their motorbikes.

Some of those memories also re-surfaced more recently when John (Falconer, our curator of photographs) and I opened the boxes of a consignment from the photographer and writer Michael Katakis. I met Michael last year when he had come in to see if we wanted to acquire a book that he had just written. Through one of those simple, almost accidental meetings that can have such unexpected results and which can make the life of a curator so rewarding, Michael and his wife, the anthropologist Kris Hardin, subsequently decided to donate their archives to the Library, and we are delighted to have them.

The consignment in question was a series of photos that Michael took at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over a 2 year period in the 1980s. The photos are deeply moving and I can do no better than quote Michael himself,

There were no answers in my photographs, no deep intellectual analyses that gave new insights or profound conclusions, no eloquent tributes, just images of people left behind to deal with the past. The legacy of war that has so often been invisible does have to do with the people left behind, their lives, and how they move on. From this vantage point, as these photographs show, it is the living who haunt us as much as the dead.

Some of Michael’s photographs can also be seen in his book The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (with an essay by Kris Hardin), published by Crown in 1988. And Patrick Hagopian’s book The Vietnam War in American Memory: veterans, memorials, and the politics of healing, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, 2009, is now out.  Both books are in the BL.


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