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6 posts from April 2014

28 April 2014

Erica Wagner: A Trojan post

Uncle Sam, Troy.  Photo by Erica Wagner

Image © Erica Wagner

Who's that? Why, Uncle Sam, of course standing in downtown Troy, New York, his native town. Sam Wilson was a meatpacker who supplied American troops during the war of 1812. You might call him this city's most famous son, if he didn't have some stiff competition: Kurt Vonnegut hailed from here (if you've come across a mention of Illium in his work, that's good old Troy), and just this morning, on River Street, I came across a plaque on a house that marked the site of the old Troy Sentinel newspaper  in which Clement Clark Moore first published The Night Before Christmas

But I'm grateful to Stephen van Rensselaer, too  who founded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute here in 1824; it was America's first technical college, and remains one of the world's oldest. RPI was the alma mater of Washington Roebling, the subject of the biography I'm writing, and builder of New York's Brooklyn Bridge. RPI sits above the town, and has the feeling of a city on a hill  perhaps more so than in days gone by, since the elegant campus is sometimes in striking contrast to urban Troy. Once one of the country's wealthiest cities thanks to its rich manufacturing heritage (everything from shirt collars to steel), these days there are plenty beautiful brownstone houses which are boarded up and broken down. 

That said: this morning I headed to the Troy Waterfront Farmers' Market  and found a thriving local produce market which was positively inspiring; if you ask me, it made the Greenmarket in Manhattan's Union Square look a little tired, which is saying something. It was a lively scene: and in downtown, certainly, many of those lovely old houses are getting the care they deserve. I was last here at RPI about four years ago; since then it does seem like business is coming back into the city at last. Uncle Sam would be proud. 

Erica Wagner is a 2014 Eccles Centre Writer-in-Residence at the British Library

25 April 2014

Why We Blog


Some advice from the 1980s: if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.  With this in mind, the long Easter weekend gave us some time for reflection, as well as a brief denial of service on Typepad. We're also coming to the end of our annual appraisal cycle, known in the Library as the Performance Management Record (PMR).  One of the things on my annual to list is 'promote collections through web and social media; engage with users'.  With this in mind, this post is about two questions: (1) why do we blog, and (2) are we any good at it?

There are some pretty blunt tools to measure the second question. For one thing, our blog is usually listed in the 'top ten' chart on Typepad and Google provide us statistics with how many visits we have, and how long people spend reading posts. We know how many retweets or mentions on Facebook we get, and colleagues in the library's Audiences division send us even more detailed measurements once in a while, along with coloured charts so we can see how far we lag behind the phenomenal Medieval Manuscripts blog. On the social media side of things, we know what Klout thinks of @_americas (and enjoy the conversations and tips on Twitter), and we keep an eye on how many clicks or conversations our Facebook postings encourage.

All these metrics go some way to answering the second question, but its possible that they are measuring the wrong thing, or at least not the only thing. In truth, there are a series of reasons why we spend some of our time posting to this blog, even in the 2010s, when it possibly seems to be a little early 2000s.*

1. For every book its reader. S. R. Ranganathan's third law of library science probably had open access stacks in mind. Most of our titles are safely in our basements at St Pancras or low-oxygen storage in Boston Spa, so perhaps the blog is one way of giving some of our American items some online air. Looking back through the archives, these types of posts form the bulk of the blog.  These may work more as curiosity or entertainment as much as book and researcher matching service, but we know that it's worked from time to time.

2. To be open about what we do. We're probably not very systematic about this, but we hope the blog gives some idea of what the section gets up to, and what it's like being a curator (or Eccles writer-in-residence) at the library. 

3. Showing off. This is perhaps the British way of saying put our best foot forward, but sometimes it's fun to mention who's been to visit, or to celebrate some of the items held by the Library.

4. Engaging with users. (Feel free to comment on the language of this heading in the comments field below.) This could mean the comments field, but in truth, we don't have many comments on the blog (with some exceptions, notably the Canadian $4 bill). That said, we do have a lot of conversations at conferences and in the library as as result of these posts.

5. To learn about the collections. The truth is, of course, that we know at best quite a lot about a sliver of the collections, and more plausibily probably not even that much.  But by spending a little time with an item, reading around it, finding out who is working on them, we get to know a little more.

6. As a record of what we get up to. We forget; and we have PMR forms to fill in.

7. As a guide to our holdings. We have particular pages on the blog about our past exhibitions and bibliographies, such as the the beat bibliography. We also post longer bibliographic guides from time to time, such as Early American women writers, and draw attention to types of material, such as digitised newspapers and other electronic resources.

Most of these can be seen as subsets of the item on my PMR. But perhaps not the most important reason, the one identified by Ferrris Bueller at the start of his day off. While we appreciate all our readers, and want to make our holdings as well and as appropriately used and understood as possible, perhaps the greatest boon of spending half an hour or so once a week is a chance just to look around and think about why we do why we do. Most of time, we're pretty thankful that we do.


* The full New Yorker article is available via Factiva in the Business and IP Centre, Social Sciences reading room 1 and the new Newsroom: Rebecca Mead, 'Digital Culture: You've Got Blog', New Yorker, 13 Nov 2000: 'A year and a half ago, there were only fifty or so weblogs; now the number has increased to thousands, with blogs like Megnut getting around a thousand visits a day.'

23 April 2014

Marking ANZAC Day: 'Fighting Australasia'


Front cover from, Fighting Australasia. You can see more on the Library's item viewer.

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

As Friday marks ANZAC Day Team Americas and Australasia dig into the Library's Europeana contributions and look back on Australia and New Zealand in the First World War.

Quoting from from the Australian War Memorial Website, ‘ANZAC Day – 25 April – is probably Australia's most important national occasion. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.’ To mark the event, the British Library’s ‘Item of the Week’ is currently, Fighting Australasia: a souvenir record of the Imperishable story of the Australian Forces in the Great War.

The Supreme Test (sinking of RMAT Ballarat)

Sinking of R. M. A. T. "Ballarat", from Fighting Australasia. You can also view the item on the Library's World War One learning resource.

Published in London in 1917 the publication sits alongside other works such as, The Anzac Book, which commemorate the actions of Australian and New Zealand forces in the war, often while working as a means to raise money for the soldiers’ Comfort Funds. While publications such as The Anzac Book were written and assembled by members of the Australian and New Zealand fighting corps (in this case, in Gallipoli itself) Fighting Australasia is very official in tone and was produced and printed in London’s Piccadilly. Inside the publication is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least the wealth of advertising material the flanks the main text, which includes a Bovril advert using the text of letters from Gallipoli before proclaiming, “Bovril Gives Strength to Win!” (p. 89). The account is heavily photographically illustrated and contains a number of artist’s illustrations, including one of the sinking of R.M.A.T. Ballarat.

  NZ Cyclists (9084.BB.21_0024)

Photographs from, Regimental History of the New Zealand Cyclist Corps.

Both Fighting Australasia and The Anzac Book have been digitised as part of the library’s contribution to ‘Europeana Collections, 1914 – 1918’ where they form part of a large selection of material detailing how people from the then British Empire contributed to the First World War. Within this there is a wide range of Australasian materials from, Australia in the Great War: the story told in pictures; to, The Maoris in the Great War: a history of the New Zealand Native Contigent and Pioneer Battalion and; Regimental history of New Zealand Cyclist Corps in the Great War, 1914-1918 (seen above). Some of this material can be found with further details in the British Library World War One learning resource and the rest can be found on the Library’s Image Viewer.


11 April 2014

Newsiest and Best: Team Americas Browse the News


Cleveland Gazette, 22 July 1916, p. 2, from African American Newspapers, 1827-1998.

We’re just back from a walk around the new British Library Newsroom and it’s a great space. Not only are there all the mod-cons for readers to enjoy in the working part of the reading room but there’s a wonderful entrance gallery where readers can drink coffee, read (or watch) the news and recharge (themselves and their laptops).  There's more about our news media services here.

Always ones to pay attention to the contents of an open shelf we had a wander to the back of the reading room and were pleased to see a healthy selection of Americana. The major newspaper indexes for the UK are present and correct but so too are indexes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times and others. If you’re in London and fancy a look (or even just a recharge) do pop in.

And, if a visit means less of a pop than an epic rail, road, or plane trip, then all is not lost.  A key number of our American papers can be consulted remotely by registered readers via the e-resources remote access pilot (scroll to the bottom of the page). These include:

  • Biblioboard
  • Early American Newspapers, Series 1
  • Foreign Broadcast Information Service 1974-1996
  • Latin American Newspapers Series 1, 1805-1922
  • World newspaper Archive: African Newspapers, 1800-1922

There is also a new addition, which can be accessed via the Early American Newspapers or the Archive of American link: African American Newspapers, 1827-1998.  Watch out for the press-gang, though:


A cartoon by Garfield Thomas Haywood (1880-1931) in the Indiana Freeman (11 April 1905), from the African American Newspapers, 1827-1998.



04 April 2014

Old bits of Trees by Andrea Wulf

As a historian I get very excited about old letters, diaries, account books and inventories – but once in a while there are other ‘records’ that trump almost everything else.

I had one of those moments this week when I returned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Over the past six years I have been many times to Washington’s estate in Virginia (just south of Washington DC) – first to research my book  Founding Gardeners and then to give talks about the book. By now I go there to see the changes in the gardens (of which there are many, such as the fabulous restoration of the Upper Garden) and to meet my friend Dean Norton who is the Director of Horticulture there. Dean always makes a huge effort to entertain me – for example, by taking me out on the Potomac in a boat or letting me drive around the estate with a gator [A John Deere utility vehicle, not a reptile - ed.].

Last Wednesday’s visit, however, was one of the most memorable. Within a little more than a month, three very old and important trees had come down. The most visible loss is the majestic Pecan tree next to the house. It was a shock to see Mount Vernon without the beautiful tree (145 feet high). It all looked a bit naked.

Pecan low

Mount Vernon’s Pecan before it was taken down (photo by Dean Norton)

Dean explained to me that they had finally decided to take down the tree because it threatened the house. One big storm and the Pecan might have crashed onto Washington’s house. No matter how old the tree (from the 1850s), the mansion and its content was of course more important.

It took four days to take the giant down – with a crane. They did a fabulous time–lapse film of it.

Click here to see the film.

At the same time they felled a white oak that had been killed by lightening a while ago. The white oak was in a less prominent spot but it was even older – pre–1770 and most likely planted by the great man himself. Another painful loss. At least the wood is now invaluable for restoration projects at the house.

And then, on 31 March, the next tree came down – crumbling under its own weight. This was a big swamp chestnut oak which grew at the ha-ha wall on the slope towards the river. Planted in the 1760s or 1770s it was probably also placed there by Washington. It was completely rotten from the inside and just needed that last bit of wind to crash down. It's so sad to see these giants lying broken on the ground.

When I scrambled around to pick up a bit of bark to take home as a memento, Dean got a chainsaw and sliced off a bit for me. Now I have my own Washington tree in my office. That’s the kind of history that gets under my skin.

Dean Andrea low

Andrea Wulf is a Eccles Centre Writer-in-Residence emeritus.

01 April 2014

Tall Stories


 All-Story Magazine, April (New York & London, 1912).  Cover art by Cover by Clinton Pettee. Public Domain Mark

We don't know what to believe. 1 April is a good day to stay away from social media, and perhaps tuck into a plate of tree-grown spaghetti or unicorn pie, as well as feeling grateful that Americans don't much go in for April Fool's Day (Madison Avenue aside).

This said, we have other tall stories closer to home, including this magazine that I've just collected from the Reading Room. This is April's cover from 1912, but regular readers of this popular pulp fiction periodical could look forward to a story by Edgar Rice Burroughs that October, entitled Tarzan of the Apes (again illustrated by a nicely lurid Clinton Pettee cover). Tarzan would be published as a hardback in 1914, with Burroughs taking the opportunity to remove the presence of 'African' tigers in his text.  

Burroughs also lurks in this present volume, which contains part III of his  'Under the Moon of Mars', issued under the pseudonym Norman Bean, and later published as the Barsoom series of novels (alas, a copy-editor rendered his proposed nom-de-plume, Normal Bean, in this more prosaic fashion). In this tale, Capt. John Carter, a confederate veteran, heads west in search of gold, takes refuge from 'hostile Indians' in a cave and, by means of poisonous gas, finds himself transported to Mars.

Now, would you believe it?



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