Libraries And Outsourcing, Oh My

Dick Eastman just linked to this article from the New York Times, about an emerging and interesting trend: municipalities outsourcing library management to private companies. Good thing or bad thing?

Hard to tell from this piece, which relies heavily on quotes from a private contractor and a mayor who supports privatization, steaming the story along on the premise that Privatization Equals Efficiency. But it’s thin on concrete examples of what towns would get for their privatization buck. How exactly does this improve the lot of the  library consumer? Would it make it possible to restore cuts in hours of operation, for example?

Another irritating aspect of this article is that it reduces arguments against library privatization to “libraries are just different” (and un-privatizable). I have a funny feeling that there are skeptical arguments out there that reach beyond, “GAH! … but … it’s the LIBRARY! A SACRED TRUST!”

Look, I don’t equate my library with Lourdes, but I do recognize it as a free public resource in a world where sometimes it seems the only thing free and public left is going to be the restrooms, and not so many of those at that. Practically speaking, a lot of taxpayers in my town depend upon a free library as a meeting and research space.

So how does a for-profit company fit into the municipal library’s mission to be a free, public space where toddlers are read to, seniors mingle, students do research with databases? What’s in it for the private managers, and what comes out of my hide as a taxpayer and consumer? What, for that matter, is meant by “outsourcing”? It could mean cataloging, or management, or materials selection (i.e., purchasing books/media for the collection).

The answers could be depressing or exciting. But I can’t say you’d find them in this particular article. Oh well: Chalk up another issue for the watch list.

Further reading: The American Library Association has been writing about the pros and cons of outsourcing for some time; some of their material can be found at their website.


Is that my great-uncle’s play in your catalog, sir?

I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff  copyrighted a play in 1909.

My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.

He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.

A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)

You never know who might turn up in the Library of Congress.

I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.

What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called  Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).

Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?

Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.

In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.


Library cuts: ‘Nuff said.

“Some persons may hold the view that the public library is a sort of luxury to be indulged in when money is easy, but to be put aside when the economic shoe pinches.  The period of depression has proven quite the contrary.  People have flocked to the libraries in greatly increased numbers, finding there recreation of the highest type at a minimum of cost, and also means of study in preparation for the old job which will surely some day again need its faithful servant, or for the new job which will give the individual a better opportunity to earn a living and to enjoy life.”

– Judge Edwin L. Garvin, President of the Brooklyn Library Board of Trustees, 1932.

h/t to Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Central Library chief, at Brooklynology, the Brooklyn Public Library blog.


Links, April 19, 2010

Today in history: In 1934, Shirley Temple appeared in her first movie, Stand up And Cheer! It would be more accurate to say “starred in her first feature,” since Temple appeared in a series of “Baby Burlesks” shorts and bit parts prior to …

What did you say? Something else happened today? Yes indeed, today in history the shot heard ’round the world was fired at Lexington, Massachusetts, igniting the American Revolution. The event was dramatized by re-enacters at dawn today, as it is every year. Here is a rundown of other notable events on this day (or any day) in history.

Today this happened, plus Shirley Temple made her first picture. Priorities, priorities.

More history lessons: I am indebted to my brother Jim, a fan of what I like to call Extreme History, for pointing out this news item on the Donner Party, famous for their  ill-fated trek westward and subsequent creative cooking experiments. Apparently their menu was not all it was cracked up to be. Jim is very disappointed.

Genealogy and Macintosh: James Tanner at Genealogy’s Star posted last week about why he does his genealogy on Macs. I’ve been a Mac person myself  since the get-go (minus a brief, disastrous fling involving a double-disk-drive Radio Shack PC). Still, I roll my eyes at the mindless cheerleading that often comes with the territory.  Which is why I love Mr. Tanner’s reasonable but positive commentary about what makes Macs and iPhones great tools for genealogists. (He is also noodling around with the iPad but thinks the jury is still out on its usefulness to his genealogy work.)

Larceny at the archives: I’ve posted before about ways to treat your library right, especially when you’re working in the local history archives. It did not occur to me to include the rule “Don’t Steal The Holdings.” However, this is just what happened to the entire vintage sheet music collection at a suburban Chicago library. The story has a happy ending — the unknown thief returned all 327 pieces of the collection  to the police. The accompanying note said only: “I am sorry.”

Better cemetery photos: Tombstone photography can be a nervewracking experience, especially if you are making a special visit to a distant cemetery and it’s a cloudy day. This article gives some helpful tips on making the most of your lighting to get a clear-cut view of the headstone’s lettering, even on an iffy day. I definitely appreciate the advice.

Any exciting news of your own? Share it in the comments, if you like. Enjoy the week!


The morgue I loved to visit

After college, I had a temporary job as a reporter at the Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News. It was called a postgraduate internship, which loosely translated as: “We can’t hire any full-timers, but we could use the help for a few months.”

It was mainly fun. Sure, I often had to poke myself awake at municipal meetings, but I also got to cover Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.

And by far, the coolest perk of the job was the morgue.

“Morgue” is newspaper slang for the files of old clippings and photos. Before digitalization, this meant a roomful of overflowing file cabinets. It varied as to how well the morgue was organized, or if it existed at all. There might be an actual archivist on hand, but at small papers, there might simply be a copy editor who got sick of never being able to find reference material, so the morgue was a labor of love.

Pawnbrokers' sales, obits -- the morgue had it all.

I lived for clip file research. Heck, I sometimes made up reasons to check the clips. (I really should have heeded this inner voice and chucked journalism in favor of a career in archiving.)

But today, newspapers are in shrink mode. Papers are closing. Or, like my former employer, they’re moving to smaller, cheaper quarters, with limited space for clip files.

This article, while bringing back memories, is a reminder that in many towns, the priceless resource that is a newspaper archive might be at risk. Fortunately the Courier-News management has donated its holdings to local libraries and historical societies.

But will everybody? What will happen to all that history? Speaking to a Syracuse, NY reporter, author and former newspaper guy Pete Hamill expressed the unique character of the morgues: “They tell you all the detail that historians don’t. How much was a pair of shoes. What did a guy pay to go to the ballpark in 1934 during the Depression. How many people were there.”

Interestingly, at least one business out there has sensed a commercial boon in old newspaper clippings.  A few months back, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed reported on Time Capsule Press, whose owners plan to partner with newspaper managements to package material from their morgues into books. Their debut is a history of the Los Angeles Lakers drawn from the files of the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a definite bright spot of potential for a historical resource that can’t be allowed to disappear.


Link Love, March 8

My friends, I am officially Oscar’d-out; I can no longer tell the difference between a Best Dress and a Worst Dress. So I will move on to my weekly links. Today we have quirky landmarks, a genealogy freebie and two New York City events of note.

Obscura Day is Coming! March 20! Yes, there is still time to prepare. No, it has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar. It is an international festival of strange, interesting landmarks, each of which will offer a public event on the big day. Some are of interest to genealogists; some are just off the charts. In London, you can trace the course of the long-lost River Fleet; in Boston, you can tour Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery. I don’t know what it says about Philadelphia that they’ve got two bizarre sites on offer, but there you go. You could even organize your own event in your town, if you want. It’s all facilitated by Atlas Obscura, an online compendium of “wondrous, curious and esoteric” places.

Free 1930 U.S. census: In a world where there is no such thing as free lunch, it’s nice to find a free census. This is NOT searchable by keyword or name; you have to browse it the old-fashioned way, page by page. However, it is free. (h/t to Pat Connors of the NY-Irish genealogy listserve.)

And for those of us in the neighborhood, check out these two upcoming genealogy lectures in NYC:

Researching Criminal Relatives: Presenter Ron Arons, author of the book The Jews of Sing Sing, discusses how to track down relatives on the wrong side of the law. Free; 5:30-6:30 PM Tuesday, March 16, South Court Classrooms of the Stephen Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library, 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. The NYPL has more about it on their Facebook page (click on the Wall tab).

Basics and Beyond: This afternoon-long seminar hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc. includes presentations from genealogists on censuses and vital records, research organization, goal-setting and online research. The seminar is organized in two tracks, one for beginners and one for more experienced researchers. 1 to 5 PM, Sunday, April 11, 130 East 59th Street, Manhattan. Registration is required; for details see www.jgsny.org.

Last-minute update: Omigosh, NPR has a story about a fish that has lived in a New York City pet store since 1970. Is this the oldest fish in New York City? Is there a genealogy angle? The answers are (A) Maybe; and (B) No, there is not. It’s just too strange to pass up. (h/t westchesterdead)


Link love, Feb. 15 edition

I guess this is the week in which you’re officially living under a rock if you still don’t know that the U.S. version of  Who Do You Think You Are is premiering on March 5. Yesterday, Lisa Louise Cook unveiled her  Genealogy Gems podcast interview of  actress and series subject Lisa Kudrow, which can tide you over until the show gets here.

In all the Who-pla, please don’t lose track of Faces of America, PBS’ excellent series with Henry Louis Gates. Episode Two is coming up on  Wednesday, Feb. 17. You can search for local broadcast times at the show website.

More link love:

Database digging: Black History Month is a useful time to consider resources of interest in African-American genealogy, such as a recently launched database of 83,000 individual slave names in the Digital Library on American Slavery at the University of North Carolina/Greensboro. UNCG has more on the database and its contents here.

On a completely different note, I was tickled by this news item from the Newberry Library, in which expert knowledge and deft database searches unearthed the genealogy of an accordion. You never know when genealogy will come in handy.

Gadget Corner: I’m always a sucker for online mapping tools, and a poster on the NY-Irish genealogy list spotlighted a nice one this week. Map viewer Virtual Turnpike incorporates Google maps and area photos from Panoramio and Picaso. The site is cleanly designed, easy to use and read, with generously scaled type and graphics. Fun and potentially informative in mapping ancestral locations.

Event Corner: If you’ll be in Washington, D.C. in the spring, it’s never too early to start planning for a visit on April 14-15 to the Sixth Annual Genealogy Fair at the National Archives and Records Administration’s headquarters. At NARA’s main site they have pictures from last year’s event, which looks as if it was a good time indeed.

Closer to home (for me, anyway), I was wondering when the next NARA orientation was coming at the New York City Northeast Region headquarters. Turns out it’s Tuesday, Feb. 16 from 1:30 to 4:30 PM. According to program notes, it includes “an overview of some of the lesser known genealogically pertinent holdings of the Archives.” NARA staff and members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society will be on hand to assist with research questions.  Here is more information on this and  other New York City area genealogy events in February and March.

Now I’m off to set my DVR and put on my podcast headphones … see you later!


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