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6 posts from February 2013

28 February 2013

Obama's Inauguration

Phil D and poster
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The route to the Americas curatorial team on floor 2 of the British Library is currently guarded by a 5 foot high sign indicating ‘Media Access’. A collection item on its way to accession, we’re lucky to have it. I wasn’t sure I would be able to haul it down the lamp-post on Constitution Avenue at all, and when I had it took a huge effort with my partner, Sarah’s pen-knife before it was fully liberated from its moorings. But Washington DC’s clean up team had been incredibly efficient, and a couple of days after the event we sighted only two from the hundreds of temporary President Obama second inaugural parade signs still languishing in place.

Parties of students swept past us in the gloomy evening light as they exited the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Federal office commuters headed for the Metro. We diligently sawed thick plastic straps with a wholly inadequate 1.5 inch blade, then joined the commuters on the subway, carrying the signs like a third presence between us. The following day the staff of United Airlines decided that it certainly could be classed as free hand baggage: “Did you really come over just for the inauguration? Would you have voted for him if you could have? We did.” High fives all round.

There had been a similar response at an Obama rally in Concord, New Hampshire on the Sunday before Election Day. A friend and I joined 14,000 other of the President’s closest acquaintances from the surrounding area and on a beautiful fall day the town’s central streets were filled. My friend, a supporter, but critical that Obama had not pursued a progressive agenda strongly enough, was chatting as we walked to the venue, ‘You have to be a bit disappointed, though,’ he said, ‘what makes you still sure that he has your vote?’ The woman he addressed stopped walking, locked eyes, gained his full attention, and said emphatically, ‘Love’. She was so emphatic I thought she might nut him.

The day before the inauguration Washington was a particularly happy and relaxed place. Inauguration-goers in their hundreds of thousands were arriving from all over the country and many of them wanted to scout the lie of the land before rising early to be in place for Monday’s ceremony. Eastern Market had more than its usual visitation of tourists for breakfast, and to browse the stalls. Around the Capitol we exchanged photograph taking opportunities with visitors from Illinois and Indiana. We had souvenirs pressed on us as gifts, “You are international? You must have this...’. Near the Washington Monument we were interviewed for a California schools project.

It was a crowd of enormous diversity, but with a common purpose, signed by many hats, shirts, buttons, balloons: to celebrate the second inauguration of the first African-American president of the USA. It may be that some in these crowds were very well aware that, regardless of policy outcomes, Obama’s second inauguration may be more important than his first.  If the first non-white president had lasted only one term, what would be the message to major parties about nominating candidates outside the orthodox tradition of white men?

These were different Washington streets to those I used to walk when I lived here in 1972-4, the time of Nixon, ‘benign neglect’ of racial poverty, and the mistrustful atmosphere of Watergate. The sense of one family on the Mall in 2012 could never have been predicted 40 years earlier. Inauguration Day fell this year on Martin Luther King Day, and Obama’s second term began as the nation was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. When we reached the Lincoln Memorial we found thousands of others were making the same journey.

After the exhilaration of inauguration day Washington returned quickly to its usual business of politics. The news media spent a few days discussing President Obama’s second inaugural address, agreeing that it was as forthright a statement of a political agenda as this president had ever made. As after election day, when many Republicans were shell-shocked at the degree of the Obama victory, there was some indication of potential co-operation across party political lines.

Other Republican voices wanted no capitulation, but instead a regrouping to take advantage of Republican election potential in the 2014 and 2016 elections. While one senior Democrat did mention to me the possibility of ‘twenty-five years of Democratic dominance’, and some Republicans were bemoaning a party failure that might last into the future, I certainly don’t see this being inevitable. The strategy for the Republicans to have single party control of the executive and the legislature in 2016 is every bit as plausible as that for the Democrats. There is all to fight for, campaign lines are already being drawn, and campaign funds already being raised.

Meanwhile the Library has a few inaugural pieces to add to its small collection of US campaign posters and other items, helping keep alive an event that within a few days seemed remembered most for the question of whether Beyonce Knowles lip-synched or sang live the national anthem.

- a guest post by Prof. Philip Davies of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

26 February 2013

Guest Post: Miss Frank E. Buttolph – menu collector extraordinaire

Buttolph menu

Dinner in Honour of His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, 1904, C.120.f.2

Public Domain Mark These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

The Library holds a curious collection of menu and event cards from the turn of the last century which were collected and donated to what is now the British Library by an American lady called Miss Frank E. Buttolph. The menu cards feature meals served not only at restaurants but also at state banquets and annual association and society dinners. They often include details of the order of service, toasts and anthems from the events, and some even include full seating plans. Many of the cards feature sumptuous print and beautiful illustrations and offer us a glimpse into the eating habits, social mores, fashions and food trends in America at the turn of the twentieth century for a certain strata of society. The cards are delicately held together in four, large, leather-bound volumes and chart Miss Buttloph’s exhaustive menu collecting project. Ranging from ornately decorated hardbound embossed menus to much plainer railroad dining-car menus, the collection spans the years 18901904.

Miss Buttolph sent some menu cards and an accompanying letter to us in April 1902, enquiring as to whether we could help with her attempts to acquire two copies of the menu for King Edward VII’s coronation, due to take place in August of that year. She also wanted to find out whether a menu card from the Millenary Banquet for King Alfred had arrived; it had and can still be found in the collection today at shelmark C.120.f.2. Unfortunately we do not know whether she ever managed to obtain the Coronation menu cards that she was so keen to secure.

Miss Buttolph posted adverts and wrote letters to people all over the world to solicit menu cards for her project, and was quite fussy about the quality of the items sent to her. She did not hesitate to send back menu cards if they did not reach her high standard. In an article from 1906 the New York Times described her as 'a tiny, unostentatious, literary-looking lady, whose bugaboo is a possible spot upon one of her precious menus.'  Miss Buttolph was indeed a formidable character, who took her task of collecting menu cards extremely seriously; during her time as a volunteer at the Astor Collection (now part of The New York Public Library) she would only allow people to view the collection of menu cards held there under her strict supervision.

The collection at the British Library includes menus from some of New York’s most fashionable establishments of the day, such as Delmonico’s, and the Waldorf Astoria; from state banquets such as one held in honour of HRH Prince Henry of Prussia; to a banquet for the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, held in Arkansas in 1903. The majority of the menus were written in French, usually with no description of what the dish actually contained. The diners’ knowledge of French cuisine was assumed; Ris de veau a la Pilgrim, Petits aspics de foies gras à la gelée and Sorbet de fantasie are the some of dishes that appear on the menus. Oysters and mock turtle soup also seem to have been firm favourites of the period.

Miss Buttolph originally began collecting menus for what is now The New York Public Library (NYPL), which holds over 25,000 of the menu cards that she collected for them over some 23 years. However, many staff at the library found her disruptive behaviour untenable and she was dismissed in 1923. The NYPL is currently running a project called What’s on the Menu to transcribe its archive of over 40,000 digitised menu cards, including Miss Buttolph’s, dish-by-dish.

There aren’t many details available on the intriguing Miss Buttolph or why exactly she started collecting menu cards but there are a few clues as to her motives in an article from the New York Times in 1904, which noted that  'she frankly avers that she does not care two pins for the food lists on her menus, but their historical interest means everything.' They are indeed of great historical interest, offering us a charming insight into the way people dined at the turn of the twentieth century and the society in which they lived.

- A guest post from Sue Msallem, SOAS intern.

Good NIght
[Shelfmark C.120.f.2]

Public Domain Mark These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

22 February 2013

Editing Canada: help Team Americas and Wikimedia with a new digital collection

As the Picturing Canada digitisation project reaches critical mass the Library's Wikipedian in Residence needs your help - and has photos of Canada's cats to share.

In 1895, an amendment to Canadian law allowed the British Museum to receive one copy of all Canadian intellectual property deposted for copyright registration. This situation persisted until 1924, when - as part of a general reworking of Canadian copyright law - the right of receipt was removed.

During these thirty years, the Department of Agriculture - who administered copyright - regularly parcelled up half their deposits and sent them to London. As well as books, maps and sheet music, the collection included a copy of every photograph copyrighted in Canada in this period. These are now held by the British Library and, despite some of the works being lost in their original transit (thanks to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland) or added to other collections (such as the Geraldine Moodie photographs held by the British Museum), they represent a significant collection of early twentieth-century Canadian photography.

The interesting - and unusual - aspect of this collection is that it's entirely unselective. Anyone who submitted two copies of their picture, the correct form, and the right amount of money would have it copyrighted; it would be entered into the collections without any regard for its artistic merits. As a result, the collection includes some entirely unexpected material:

The Globe kittens (HS85-10-13446-3) 

We don't yet know anything about the "Globe Kittens" (1902), but it seems a reasonable bet that not many serious photographic curators would have bought and preserved prints of them! As well as what you might expect - portraits, buildings, scenic pictures of mountains - there are hundreds more images like this - unexpected, provoking, and quite possibly completely forgotten. So far, working through the catalogue data and the early scans, we've found cute animals, urban-regeneration proposals, salacious stereograms, and at least two attempts to copyright a movie.

The British Library recently got funding from Wikimedia UK and from the Eccles Centre for American Studies to digitise the bulk of the collection. We're planning to have them released to the public by mid-April, but we've hit a snag. While the digitisation itself has proceeded well, and we have a veritable mountain of metadata to work with, we still need to do the final step of cropping and orienting the pictures - this part can't easily be automated, and my fingers are getting pretty tired.

So, we're going to run a workshop at the British Library on Monday 18th March to try and steamroller through the backlog of image processing, and we're looking for volunteers to help. We'll provide laptops (though you can of course bring your own) and lunch; you'll have a chance to get a sneak preview of this collection before it goes public, as well as helping us look for interesting or significant images that we haven't discovered so far.

If you're interested in coming along and joining our experiment in "physical crowdsourcing", please get in touch!


[Ed: Some of our regular readers will recognise this collection as the one Phil has mentioned here, here and here. For those of you who would like to know (quite a lot) more about the collection and its contents Phil's thesis on it is available here.]

20 February 2013

Democratic Brazil at the British Library

Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlet 002
Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlets [BL shlefmark X.0520/785]

I recently had the privilege to attend a talk by the Brazilian Minister of External Relations at King’s College London. During his talk the Minister discussed among other things how the process of democratisation in Brazil has informed its domestic and foreign policy. In particular, how the transition from military dictatorship (Brazil’s current president Dilma Roussef was herself a victim of torture under the dictatorship) has shaped the country’s emphasis on multi-lateral and peaceful diplomacy, reduction of social inequality, and democratic reform of international organisations such as the UN security council.

The minister’s talk plus the upcoming conference ‘Democratic Brazil Ascendant’ and seminar on affirmative action in Brazilian universities inspired me to take another look at some of the Brazilian political pamphlets and ephemera that we hold from the 1980s onwards, when Brazil began its transition from military dictatorship to electoral democracy.

Taking a look at the collections we have here at the BL you immediately appreciate the popular groundswell that brought an end to the dictatorship in Brazil and the social goals that are still coming into fruition today.  The collection includes pamphlets promoting gay rights, affordable housing, agrarian reform, full employment, and an end to poverty and racial discrimination. The various collections of pamphlets and ephemera cover national and municipal elections as well as organising campaigns. They date from the early 1980s through the late 1990s.

Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlet 001
Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlets [BL shlefmark X.0520/785]

The collection also includes items from Lula’s 1982 campaign for governor of São Paulo, the work of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (which Lula help to found) and the Direitas Já! campaign for direct popular presidential elections in Brazil. In addition to political ephemera we also hold fascinating publications by the Brazilian trade unions (Miscellaneous collection of publications on trade unions – BL shelfmark ZL.9.d.3). As well as a special microfilm collection of documents and ephemera on the origins and evolution of the PT that you will find at shelfmark SPR.Mic.A.287.


11 February 2013

Posada’s ‘Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano’

Hernan Cortes
'Hernan Cortes' by Jose Guadalupe Posada [awaiting shelfmark]

Public Domain Mark
These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Jose Guadalupe Posada, one of Mexico’s most important and influential visual artists. Posada is best known for his political and satirical illustrations and engravings from the late 19th and early 20th century.

Hundreds of cultural events have been organised across Mexico throughout the year in honour of Posada. Here at the British Library we hold a rather unusual collection of Posada’s work, a set of booklets called the ‘Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano’ or ‘Mexican Children’s Library.’ Illustrated by Posada, the booklets are thought to be the only mechanically produced chromolithographs that Posada ever created. 

Las Infamias de la Ambicion
'Las Infamias de la Ambicion' by Jose Guadalupe Posada [awaiting shelfmark]

The booklets tell the history of Mexico through short fable like stories that include, Moctezuma and Aztec society before the arrival of the Spanish, the Spanish conquest and the role of the Catholic Church, the struggle for Mexican independence. The series was written by Heriberto Frías a journalist and novelist who, like Posada, was known for his scathing critique of the late 19th century oligarchy, and Porfirio Diaz in particular.

Violence, love, religion, passion, dreams, and the gods all come into play in the creation of a freedom struggle narrative. But there is no ‘grand finale’ to this story. Rather, these tales of struggles against colonial injustice and oligarchic corruption leave a question mark around the future of Mexico. Created at the turn of the 20th century the reader is inevitably left with the question, what next?  At a time of political and social turmoil, that eventually erupted in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, these children’s booklets offered a vision not only of the Mexican past, but also strived to inspire young people to think of its future.


07 February 2013

Lincoln, Alexander Gardner and the Silent Indian

  Public Domain Mark This work (Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, Washington, 1865) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: 1784.a.13]

One of the many joys of American Studies is that it’s very easy to argue that you’re watching a particular TV programme or going to a movie because, well, it’s work isn’t it? Just recently we’ve had a few films that we all felt compelled to see, and not least because they’ve provoked numerous debates on Twitter and in the press. Fortunately, we’ve enjoyed at least two of them – Django Unchained and, of course, Lincoln. A lot of words have already been generated about both so I’ve no intention of reviewing either, but I did want to just touch on a couple of things in Lincoln. 

In one scene Abe discovers his son looking at 2 glass plates of ‘slaves for sale’ and tells him that they should be returned to Mr Gardner. This of course is a reference to the photographer Alexander Gardner. And there were numerous points in the film when it was if Gardner’s (and his associated photographers) images had sprung to life, particularly when Lincoln and entourage are touring the battlefields late on in the film. Sadly our 2 volume set of Gardner’s Sketchbook of the War is not quite complete and is missing the iconic photograph of Lincoln in the field. But we do have the image at the top of the blog, taken by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. If you’ve seen the film, you will recognise it as the Appomattox Court House in Virginia ‘where the Capitulation was Signed between Generals Grant and Lee.’ I’ve already blogged about Gardner and the sketch book so I’m not going to say anything further, other than to flag up that both volumes have now been digitised as part of Matt’s Civil War project and you can peruse them here (vol. 1) and here (vol. 2).

But let’s go back to that scene at the Appomattox Court House. You might also have noticed that a tall Indian in Union uniform walks across the frame at one point. He had also appeared briefly earlier on when we first encountered General Grant. He has no lines at all but a close scrutiny of the credits confirmed my assumption that he was intended to represent Colonel Ely Parker (Tonawanda Seneca), adjutant and military secretary to Grant, drafter of the final terms of surrender, and who became, amongst many other things, the first Native American to be appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. I can’t do justice to the extraordinary (and sometimes controversial) life – and many careers of the talented Ely Parker in a blog, but you can read about him in this piece from the American Indian Magazine. We also have a number of books on him in the Library, including Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker Union General and Seneca Chief, William H. Amstrong, 1978, BL shelfmark: X:950/31002.

Ely parker

Public Domain Mark This work (
The Life of General Ely S. Parker, by Arthur Caswell Parker. Buffalo Historical Society, 1919) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: AC.8367/3, vol.23]

It’s a shame that Parker doesn’t merit any dialogue in the film. There is a much repeated story that, at the surrender, General Lee first mistook Parker as a black man. Realising his mistake, he then shook his hand, saying 'I am glad to see one real American here.' Parker’s response was 'We are all Americans, sir’, which, you have to admit, is a pretty good line. I can't vouch for the authenticity of the story, but the lines do occur in the movie - but between Lee and, I think, Grant. And incidentally, Parker is played in the film by Asa-Luke Twocrow (Oglala Sioux), a member of the Lincoln rigging crew, who, much to his surprise, was asked to take on the part.




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