Lots of Learning Part 1: Docs Librarians Keeping It Real

In the summer months I have more time for continuing education (and travel!) and have been attending a few meetings, conferences, and workshops. In the interest of sharing, I’m going to post some notes from the big ones. Enjoy!

On Friday, June 13 (scary), I attended the NCLA Government Resources Section’s annual workshop and business meeting. This is the group that puts on the most excellent webinar series ever! Check it! It was informative and a great opportunity to see some docs people from around the state.

FDLP Update

North Carolina’s Regional Depository librarian, Beth Rowe from UNC Chapel Hill gave an update on the happenings at the GPO. And oh those kids are getting a bit cray. At the Depository Library Council the GPO announced a National Plan for the Future of the FDLP. It is not an official document but more like a vision. You can read more about it here. Those slides go into quite a bit of detail. The highlights are first that the name FDLP will be changed to Federal Information Access Library Program. In addition besides regional and selective depositories, we will also have Affiliated Federal Access Libraries, which will be small libraries with under 10,000 documents. These are just some highlights. More information can be found in the document and a lot more is to come. There isn’t a timeline yet for implementation because the GPO is gathering comments and suggestions during the summer conferences. Let them know your thoughts!

State Documents Update

Jennifer and Denise from the State Library’s Government Documents Clearinghouse provided a lot of information. Again here are some highlights. An exciting addition to their site is a research guides page. The NC session laws page is especially nice. Another really cool project is the Symphony Stories. These are digitized programs back to 1947 from the NCS Kids Young People’s Concerts. They are also working on digitizing several serials like Wildlife in NC. Pretty cool stuff.

The NC agencies aren’t the best about sending their documents to the clearinghouse, so Denise Jones is the person tasked to acquire information and documents from state agencies. She is pretty active in that process. Next year she will be targeting the community colleges in NC for documents acquisitions.

Phil McDaniel – Online Mapping Made Easy

McDaniel from UNC Chapel Hill talked about two platforms for quick and easy data mapping: ArcGIS Online through ESRI and Google Fusion. ESRI primarily has a subscription account, but you can do basic mapping for free through ArcGIS online, while Fusion tables is also free but doesn’t benefit from ESRI’s map catalog. The cool thing about Fusion is that you don’t need latitude and longitude coordinates for your data as the program looks for geography within your table. Of the two Fusion has the most promise for my work, but it will take some playing around. Summer project! His materials are available to download from Dropbox.

NC Open Government Coalition

This was a fun session on the NC Open Government Coalition’s work. This coalition includes NGOs, local governments, universities and more (NCLA!) that are interested in open government and advocating for best practices in government transparency. The Director Jonathan Jones talked about NCGS 132-1 the law that defines public records and discussed some of the exemptions to the law and why those documents might be exempt. It was a great discussion and I encourage you take a look at their materials. You can connect with them through facebook and they have an app.  You can also email or call their hotline ( ncopengov@elon.edu / 336-278-5506).


Geological love story

Considering all the earthquake talk and stories about animals fleeing Yellowstone (but not really), I figured now would be a good time for a review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

I admit that I sometimes like to read disaster nonfiction (I don’t get out enough anymore) and from the title it seems like a disaster story, but it is much more than that. Winchester in good geologist fashion gives you the entire view  of why the earthquake happened and not just a description of its aftermath. Quite frankly it makes the story more engaging if quite a bit longer. It isn’t just death, gore, and destruction, but you feel you’ve learned a few new things along the way.

A Crack in the Edge

Places I never want to live

So, it is the story of the Great California Earthquake of 1906 and its fiery aftermath. To set up that story up though he begins with plate tectonics. (Side note: It KILLS me that plate tectonics was only discovered in the 1960s. I remember learning about it in school and thinking that it was the one science thing that just made sense. When I read Winchester’s Krakatoa I was floored by the fact that it was a recent discovery.)  He then takes a long trip from one edge of the North American plate to the other. He starts in Iceland and moves across North America to California giving science and history lessons along the way. My favorite chapters were actually the social histories of California during the gold rush and in the period before the earthquake, but the science holds up too for the non-scientist.

The closing chapters are of interest considering recent events/news. He visits Yellowstone and talks to some geologists there who are studying the geysers. One of the fun sentences in this chapter is “Yellowstone is thus, on purely statistical grounds, ready for an eruption almost any day.” At least he reaffirms that I don’t want to live anywhere in California, or the west coast, or west of the Mississippi. At least not until I’ve lived a long full life and have made peace with my maker.

Incidentally, this book has one of the best description of dawn I’ve ever read. In his prologue he asks you to imagine watching the earth from the moon as dawn arrives on April 18, 1906, the morning of the earthquake. He says “To the east of the line, all would have been bright and daylight. To the west, an impenetrable dark.” When the earthquake happens it would have been indiscernible from space, a mere shrug of the planet, but on land it was nothing but hell.

Simon Winchester is shaping up to be one of my favorite writers. He deftly creates readable descriptions of difficult scientific ideas while placing the science in the social and historical context. In this book, he is at the top of his game.


Help! is almost 3!

help!A bit amazed by this … These are NCLA Gov Resources Section’s webinars (http://www.nclaonline.org/government-resources/help-im-accidental-government-information-librarian-webinars) since April 2011. We will be three years old in April and still going strong. Thanks to all of our volunteers! You make this possible!

April: The basics with Bryna Coonin
May: Genealogy Using Government Information with Jane Johnson
June: American Community Survey and Census 2010 with Michele Hayslett
June: Economic Census with Mray Scanlon
July: Beyond Google: Effective Patent Searching in Every Library with David Zwicky and Hyun-Duck Chung
July: Resources for Guard and Reserve Soldiers and their Families with David Durant
September: Good Health (Information) in North Carolina with Rebecca Hyman
September: State Agency Databases with Daniel Cornwall
November: Beginner’s Guide to Legislative History with Rebecca Hyman
November: Maps and geospatial information from the federal government with Marcy Bidney
December: PubMed, PubMed Central, and Medlineplus – What’s the difference? with Lea Leininger

January: Creative Commons with Rosalind Tedford
February: Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project (WVHP) with Beth Ann Koelsch
February: Government Resources of the European Union with Howard Carrier
April: International Government information with Jim Church
May: American Community Survey with Michele Hayslett
June: Hunting Down Fugitives and What to Do With Them Once You Found Them with Vicki Tate
September: Researching the House Un-American Activities Committee with David Durant
September: Mooooooore Data at the USDA! with Amy West
November: United Nations Statistics and Data Resources with Melanie Maskin
December: British and Commonwealth legal materials with Howard Carrier

January: Information for International Development: Poverty Reduction, International Organizations, and Civil Society with Jim Church
February: Homeland Security Digital Library with Greta Marlatt
March: All you ever wanted to know about Economic Indicators! with Mary Scanlon
April: Come to Your Census: the development of the U.S. Census from its inception to the present with Bryna Coonin
May: Legal Research …Without the Law Library with Jennifer Behrens
June: Just the Facts, Ma’am!  Getting Started with the U.S. Census & American FactFinder with Katharin Peter
August: Climbing Capitol Hill: The Basics of Congressional Research with Rosalind Tedford
August: Historical Economic Data Sources & Economic Time Travel with Pamela Campbell
October: I Didn’t Know I Could Do That!: using government and government-related websites for research on just about anything Alex Simons
November: Geocoding for Beginners with Christine Murray
December: Secrets of the Congressional Record with Melanie Maksin

February:  Keeping  up with Congress with Jeremy Darrington
March: Tracking Federal Legislation with Pix Fleming

Cruel Humanitarians

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo examines the contested origins of the idea of humanitarianism by investigating the proslavery and antislavery debates over the meaning of pain. This is an excellent work for understanding not only the intellectual development of the pro and antislavery positions, but also for breaking apart the concept of humanitarianism, to understand it as a contested and not static term.

She begins with a discussion of the role of the Quakers in developing the idea of sinfulness of slaveholders. For them slaveholding was not wrong because it inflicted pain, but because it created a desire for luxury, therefore bringing shame to the community. Over time this morphs into a broader understanding of the sufferer and the role of the community to alleviate suffering. Next, she examines the merging of Scottish moral philosophy with American religion, where indifference to the misery of others is sign of a moral and social breakdown. Both of these cases tend to focus on distant cruelty as the problem and not the immediate issue of slavery. Because of this it becomes much easier to fight “distant cruelties” such as the slave trade than to tackle the slavery issue at home. Finally she presents the proslavery view that argues that slavery was a moral responsibility of the slave owner to the slave, and that life outside of slavery would be harsh and cruel.

This last point is especially critical because proslavery advocates were framing slavery as benevolent (if free, the slaves would suffer, etc), which then nudged the antislavery activists toward using cruelty rhetoric too. Many antislavery activists found this rhetoric problematic because they were wanting to frame slavery in terms of human rights and equality and not in terms of pain and suffering. Because society was not ready or willing to answer those harder questions of equality, cruelty became the dominant discourse. Unfortunately the proslavery rhetoric of slavery as benevolent returns after the Civil War to shape race relations through the “myth of the happy slave” (236).

This is a critical book because it breaks apart the notion of humanitarianism and examines the debate over its meaning. This is significant because “Humanitarianism relies on a facade of self-evidence, the sense that both cruelty and humanness should be instantly recognizable to all people of goodwill” (239). The problem though is that “cruelty allowed whites to criticize slavery without asking tough questions about human rights, racial equality, or African Americans’ place in society” (239). And this problem still exists. We are better able to identify issues of suffering and pain than to deal with the larger questions about justice.

While not a book for everyone, it illuminates issues surrounding the idea of humanitarianism, both in the origin of the idea and in its future application.

America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?

King of the severed hands #cbr6

I am taking a graduate course on the history of human rights (yes, for the fun of it) and hope to write book reviews (depending on time). If you are interested you can see those reviews under the human rights tag. More to come.

Monument in Arlon. It says "I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium." CC 2.0 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monument_%C3%A0_L%C3%A9opold_II_.jpg

Monument in Arlon. It says “I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilization and for the good of Belgium.” (cc 2.0 by Olnnu)

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is one of those books I always wanted to read, but had trouble getting around to. Honestly you know it isn’t going to be an “easy” book, so it was difficult to make the time. When I saw it on our supplemental reading list as a book on which I could give a required presentation, I jumped on it. I’m very glad I did.

This work describes King Leopold II’s land grab of the Congo River area during the scramble for Africa of the late 19th century, which led to the deaths of 8 to 10 million Africans, the destruction of their societies, and the devastation of the area’s wild rubber plants. Each chapter takes on a different character or episode through the history. Starting with Stanley’s quest to find Livingstone and journeying through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hochschild does a fabulous job telling this brutal story through the eyes of people who lived it. He also tries as much as possible to bring African voices into the narrative. Of course this is not easy considering the oppression of the regime and the lack of historical interest in those voices.

Along with other books in our class, Hochschild points out Leopold II’s need to couch his colonial conquest in humanitarian terms. (Polemical Pain, which I will review later, makes a similar argument using the American pro-slavery rhetoric). Of course this “humanitarian effort” is patronizing, based on “moral uplift”, scientific progress, and stopping the Arab slave trade. To do this Leopold creates a Geographical Conference in 1876 and humanitarian shell organizations. All of these efforts are used to bolster his ambitions to create his colony in Africa.

Ultimately though, the story’s main focus are the people who tried to bring attention to the brutal regime in the Congo, including George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, Reverend William H. Sheppard, and Sir Roger Casement. In various ways all of them contributed to what Hochschild calls the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. It is humbling to read about the sacrifices each one of them made to bring attention to the brutality of Leopold’s colony. While it is the Africans who suffered, these people gave up quite a bit, in some case their lives, to stop that suffering.

The only major criticism is that Hochschild’s tendency to psychoanalyze his characters can be a bit much. He describes Stanley as “one part titan of rugged force …; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class.” King Leopold II whom for good reason he is much less kind seems like a ball of evil enveloped in aristocratic clothing. While it makes the book more readable, he never goes into enough depth about their psychology (except maybe Stanley) to understand their motivations. Statements like — “the adventurers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past” — feel trite and cliched in comparison to the weighty history he is describing. Instead, I would prefer that he stick to contextualizing their actions in the society, economics, and culture of the day than to try to “understand the man.” But, psychoanalysis makes for more engaging popular history. 

My minor criticism is that I would have loved more maps … or any maps. Granted I can grab my phone and google the Congo River, but I love a good map to guide me along. I wish more authors could appreciate that. Hochschild is an excellent narrator who describes the surroundings well enough to imagine, but any work with such a strong connection to geography needs some maps.

This is an important work and required reading for anyone interested in colonialism, human rights or Africa. While it isn’t an easy topic, Hochschild is a kind narrator and writes extremely well. Don’t wait like I did; just go ahead and read it!