The Oldest Item From 12 Libraries

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Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura lists the oldest items at twelve major libraries.  The libraries are:

The New York Academy of Medicine

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Bodleian Library (Oxford)

St. Catherine’s Monastery (Egypt)

Chicago Botanic Garden

American Museum of Natural History (New York)

Library of Congress (Washington D.C.)

Folger Shakespeare Library

Boston Athenaeum

Australian National Library

New York Public Library

Free Library of Philadelphia

Learn about the oldest item in each of these libraries by clicking here

George Moses Horton’s Recently Discovered Prose

Horton, George Moses-NCHHMP-H-108a

George Moses Horton was an African-American poet enslaved in Chatham County, North Carolina.  Jonathan Senchyne, a book historian at the University of Wisconsin, has discovered a previously unknown essay by Horton entitled “Individual Influence.”

Learn more about Horton and this new find in Jennifer Schuessler’s piece at The New York Times:

The essay, a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation called “Individual Influence,” was found at the New York Public Library by Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor of book history at the University of Wisconsin. The document, which will be published in October in PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association — appears to be the first prose essay in Horton’s handwriting to come to light, and one of only a handful of manuscripts in his own handwriting known to survive.

Today, while Horton is still far from a household literary name, he has been celebrated in a growing body of scholarship; in a children’s book; and in Chapel Hill, where the university renamed a dormitory in his honor, as part of continuing efforts to tell a fuller story of its historical relationship with slavery.

Any new text by Horton, scholars say, is a welcome discovery. “We’re unlikely to find much more from him, given his enslaved status,” said Faith Barrett, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who has written about Horton. “It’s really a wonderful find.”

“Individual Influence” is interesting not just for Horton’s lofty, abstract words about the primacy of divine influence, but for the context in which they were preserved: in a scrapbook of material relating to a prominent scholar who was forced out of the university after publicly opposing slavery.

Read the entire piece here.

Check Out the Records of the Boston Committee of Correspondence

Mark Boonshoft, a post-doctoral research fellow at the New York Public Library, informs us that records of the Boston Committee of Correspondence (1772-1774) are now freely available online. Here is a taste of his post at the blog of the NYPL:

Looking back on the Revolution in 1815, John Adams remarked that “The History of the United States never can be written” without the records of the Boston Committee of Correspondence. When it was formed in 1772, the BCC was the closest thing to an organizing body of the nascent American revolutionary movement.  From that year through 1774, when the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, the BCC corresponded with similar committees in hundreds of Massachusetts towns, as well as from every one of the thirteen colonies.  It was the central node in a growing revolutionary network.  According to Adams at least, the BCC was not merely significant for American history but also for world history. He argued that the BCC provided a model for future European revolutions…

As part of an ongoing project to digitize large portions of the New York Public Library’s early American manuscript collections, NYPL has made the records of the Boston Committee of Correspondence freely available online.  Over the next couple of months, I’ll periodically blog about the collection, especially with an eye toward making it accessible for students.  And we certainly hope this will reinvigorate researchers’ interest in the collection.  But keeping with the Library’s mission to make knowledge available to all, we hope everyone who is interested in the history of the American Revolution will also dive into this rich material.

The New York Public Library’s Map Collection Will Be Digitized

435,000 maps in all.  What a time to be a historian!

From Mental Floss:

Thanks in part to a grant from the Knight Foundation, the NYPL is currently in the process of digitizing their extensive map collection. So far, the institution has only processed 33,000 maps, but by the time they’re finished, a staggering 435,000 documents will have been uploaded online for the public’s perusing pleasure.
Many maps in the collection were drawn after New York City’s Great Fire of 1835 destroyed 17 blocks of Manhattan. Surviving insurers employed a cartographer to sketch a series of maps depicting wards and neighborhoods they couldn’t scope out themselves. The artist’s detailed renderings depict small businesses, streets, and buildings, revealing snapshots of a long-vanished city.
The NYPL might be the brains behind the project, but a volunteer task force comprised of more than 1000 members is responsible for manually inputting or double-checking map data that the institution’s computers don’t recognize. Interested in lending the library a hand, or simply love looking at old maps? Find out more about the crowdsourced project on the NYPL’s website. 

Traveling With the Declaration of Independence

Have you ever wondered how an original version of the Declaration of Independence travels? 

Recently Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence (the one that condemned slavery) traveled from England to its home at the New York Public Library and Tom Daly of The Daily Beast went along for the last leg of the journey.

Here is a taste of Daly’s article describing the experience:


Virgin Atlantic Flight 3 from London descended through the gray summer haze and touched down at JFK Airport in New York just ahead of schedule. The Airbus A340-600 taxied up to the gate, its nose painted with the word ”Dancing Queen” and a woman in a swimsuit waving a Union Jack in each hand.
A baggage vehicle rolled up and the operator opened the door to the forward baggage compartment on the right side of the fuselage. He pointed to what had been the last item loaded aboard, a metal cargo container that was cocooned in plastic and stenciled with “AKE 0026 US.”
“The thing is there!” the operator announced.
He was addressing members of the NYPD Intelligence Bureau and the Port Authority Police who stood waiting on the tarmac. A Port Authority armored vehicle with a heavily armed emergency service team was nearby.
All eyes were on the cargo container as it was transferred to a trailer towed by a small airport vehicle. The vehicle immediately set off. It was escorted by a small convoy that included the armored vehicle and a black unmarked car driven by Inspector Steven D’Ulisse of the intelligence bureau.
On other days, the Intelligence Division had planned and implemented protection for any number of visiting dignitaries, most prominently including the president. The cops will be doing the same for the pope later this month.
The usual watchful care was now being accorded this metal container as if there were a living being inside as it rolled up to a cargo facility. Hundreds of millions in cash and gold routinely pass through this portal, but it was clear that this was something whose value was beyond the measure of money.
And the cops were not just standing guard lest anyone try to steal the contents. They were making sure that no harm came to it. And they were doing so with a hint of wonder, a touch of school-kid enthusiasm that bubbled just under their all-pro vigilance.
Read the rest here.

Sinatra Exhibit Coming to the New York Public Library

“The Chairman of the Board” with Willie B. Williams and Milton Berle, 1976

I grew up listening to Sinatra. During the summers when I worked for my father’s general contracting business, we would drive in his truck and listen to William B. Williams spin Francis Albert Sinatra (“The Chairman of the Board”) records over the lunch hour on WNEW in New York City.

Needless to say, I am going to try to get into New York  to see the Sinatra exhibit at the New York Public Library.  Here are the details:

Frank Sinatra, an artist of such uncommon talent, was known simply as “The Voice.” His impact on American culture is as striking today as it was during the height of his career. As the official exhibition of the Frank Sinatra Centennial, Sinatra: An American Icon showcases 100 years of Sinatra legacy and was curated by the GRAMMY Museum® at L.A. LIVE, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Sinatra Family. Sinatra: An American Icon, presented in cooperation with the Sinatra Family, Frank Sinatra Enterprises and the Frank Sinatra Collection, USC School of Cinematic Arts, will feature never-before-seen photos, family mementos, rare correspondence, personal items, artwork and recordings. The exhibition’s New York debut is presented in association with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven.

The Author’s Corner with Tom Glynn

Tom Glynn is Anglo-American History and Political Science Selector in the Alexander Library at Rutgers University Libraries. This interview is based on his new book, Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911 (Fordham University Press, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Reading Publics?

TG: I came to the history of American libraries by way of American labor history. My first article was on the Apprentices’ Library of the City of New York. That led to research on other libraries in the city in the nineteenth century and prompted me to explore what they held in common, what goals and values the Apprentices’ Library shared with, for example, the Mercantile Library Association, a library for young clerks. The book really began to take shape when I started to think about the contemporary use of the term public library to refer to these privately funded, privately managed institutions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Reading Publics?

TG: The early history of public libraries in New York City is an important part of the social and cultural history of the United States, revealing critical shifts in how Americans defined the public, the public good, and public institutions. It is also an important part of the history of books and reading, shedding light on the relationship between the market and culture, the reception of popular fiction, and class and gender in the construction of the reader.

JF: Why do we need to read Reading Publics

TG: Histories of public libraries in the United States omit or gloss over the fact that the meaning of the term changed over time, that public library meant something quite different to a reader in 1754 than to a reader in 1911. Reading my book you will appreciate the shifts from the eighteenth to the twentieth century in how Americans defined and what they expected of public institutions and what was valued as a public good. You will also learn about the history of books and reading in America and how class, gender and the market shaped the construction of the reader. Reading Publics addresses the need to place the development of public libraries within the larger context of American social and cultural history. But it is also a New York story, an accessible, interesting narrative of a little-know aspect of the city’s past. It was written not just for scholars, but for anyone interested in history, books, and libraries.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TG: I became a librarian before I became an historian. After I started my first job in an academic library, I joined a Ph.D. program, in part for the challenge and in part to be a better librarian. Later I wrote a book on the history of early public libraries in New York City for essentially the same reasons.

JF: What is your next project?

TG: I’m not sure. I’m very interested in the history of reading and also in detective fiction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It would be fun to find something that combines those interests.

JF: Sounds good, thanks Tom!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

More From Christian James on the Digital History and Library/Archive Front

New York Public Library
For Christian’s previous AHA 2015 post click here.–JF

Later Friday, I attended two panels about important historical research issues in the digital era.

The first, Session #42: “Digital Tools: From the Archive to Publication,” presented case studies, suggestions and perspectives on how to use software to manage archival sources. Ashley Sanders started off the panel by giving a broad overview of digital history and tools and resources such as Zotero, Omeka, Evernote, and H-Net Commons and Crossroads. (Sanders is a PhD candidate in History and a Network Developer for H-Net.)

 Nancy Brown and RachelKantrowitz discussed specific software applications further in depth. Brown talked about her creation of a keyword taxonomy to organize piles of image scans in Adobe Lightroom. Kantrowitz discussed using Devonthink Pro to make her scanned documents searchable through optical character recognition (OCR) and cross-reverencing her scans while writing using Scrivener.

 Nora Slonimsky put the panel in a sort of meta-historical perspective by sharing some of her research in intellectual property concepts and laws of the early American republic. In this historical context, there was a clearer distinction between the labor of authorship and intellectual content; this pitted copyright disputes between the “indolent compilers” and the “industrious authors.” Slonimsky’s implication for digital scholarship seems to be that clearer distinctions such as these would give historians greater flexibility to share the process (i.e. source files) and products of their research.

 The question of sharing research almost dominated the ensuing roundtable and audience discussion, at the prodding of panel chair Leah Weinryb Grohsgal. Grohsgal asked panelists if they would not share their research to collaborate with libraries and archives and help other historians, while the panelists and some audience members shared reservations. (The sharing of research files is becoming a significant aspect of academic research in the natural and physical sciences, a comparison I would have liked to have seen discussed.) Another contribution came from Rosenzweig Center forHistory and New Media Director Stephen Robertson, from the audience, who pointed out that the work described here enables further digital scholarship, principally text mining. Sharing the panelists’ research could therefore enable new paths of inquiry.

 After checking into my hotel and having dinner with a friend, I stopped by the late evening plenary session on the “New York Public Library Controversy and the Future of the American Research Library.” I typically don’t attend events like this, opting to turn in early or socialize instead. At 8:30pm the dim lights made me a bit drowsy, but the intense panel conversation easily kept me awake.

 Joan W. Scott led the panelby diving directly into her active efforts to “save” NYPL, prompted by The Nation magazine’s articleslamming the Central Library Plan (CLP) to close Manhattan branch libraries and remove research collections from the famed 42nd Street branch. Her recap was a blow-by-blow account, but unfortunately, given her position as an eminent scholar, presented more of the controversy and less reflection on the future of library research.

 Michael Kimmelman, New York Times architectural critic, gave a very nuanced account of events as he tried to judge the CLP on its own merits and intended goals. He nonetheless reached a similar conclusion to Scott: that the Plan benefited real estate developers at the expense of researchers and New Yorkers.

 NYPL had a chance to respond. President Anthony Marx, who was not listed as a speaker on the online program, was the next panel speaker. Marx admitted that the CLP did not work and that NYPL responded to public outcries by stopping it. (A major part of this admission, though, was the recognition that 42nd Street renovations would go over-budget.) Marx still wants to keep more, not less, print books on-site and increase programming for a range of constituent demographics. Association of Research Libraries’ Elliott Shore also responded by putting NYPL’s woes in a continent-wide crisis of funding. In this context, Shore thinks that old, nostalgic visions of research libraries like 42ndStreet are historically-constructed and can no longer be institutionally supported.

 There was little time for audience discussion following the panel’s presentations, but the Q&A tone seemed to both acknowledge the possibilities of digitization while doubling down on the need for collaboration between stakeholders and the preservation of on-site research collections. The audience also seemed unclear on Shore’s proposed solutions, perhaps because, as Scott pointed out, his references to consortia and other collaborative initiatives as ‘meta-librarianship’ sounded unintelligible to the audience. Perhaps more work explaining (or debating) these solutions and their utility to cash-strapped libraries is needed.

 Joan W. Scott referenced a forthcoming book (Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library), by Scott Sherman, due June 2015) on the CLP controversy. At the end of the panel, free copies of Simon Verity‘s book of cartoons on the controversy were given out. This episode is now, literally, in the books. But as I saw in these two panels yesterday, the future of historical research is yet to be written.

Tell Your JFK Assassination Story

Where were you (or someone from your family) on the day JFK was assassinated? I was not alive, but my father was a twenty-two year old contractor working on a roof somewhere in North Jersey when someone on the ground yelled out the news. Work stopped for the day.

In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, the New York Public Library wants to hear your JFK story. Go to their Facebook page and fill out the form.