Boston Public Library Launches a Crowdsourced Project to Transcribe 40,000 Documents from Its Anti-Slavery Collection: You Can Now Help

We can hardly understand America without understanding American history. Can we understand American history without understanding slavery? Many a historian would answer with an unqualified no, and not simply because they want to see Americans meditate on the sins of their ancestors: plunging into the controversies around slavery, seeing how Americans made arguments for and against it at the time, can help us approach and interpret the other large-scale legal and moral battles that have since raged in the country, and continue to rage in it today.

The Boston Public Library's Anti-Slavery Collection, one particularly important resource in that intellectual effort, could use our help in making its considerable resources more readily available. "For the past several years, we have been diligently cataloging and digitizing manuscript correspondences from our Anti-Slavery collection," writes the BPL's Tom Blake, all of which "document the thoughts, transactions, and activities of the abolitionist movement in Boston, Massachusetts, and throughout New England."

Now, "in order to make this collection more valuable to researchers, scholars, and historians we are pleased to announce the launch of a new website which will make these handwritten items available for you to transcribe into machine readable text."

It's no small job: the collection contains roughly 40,000 pieces of "correspondence, broadsides, newspapers, pamphlets, books, and memorabilia from the 1830s through the 1870s," including the work of some of the most notable American, British, and Irish abolitionists of the day. But the combined efforts of everyone willing to transcribe a few documents, will, in Blake's words, "allow the text corpus to be more precisely searchable and better suited for natural language processing applications – helping researchers better understand patterns, relationships, and trends embedded in the linguistics of this particular community." Which, ultimately, will help us all to better understand America. If you'd like to lend a hand, you can create an account and start transcribing at the Anti-Slavery Collection's site today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Free: Download 10,000+ Master Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum’s Online Collection

It’s hard for the casual browser to know where to begin with a collection as vast as the master drawings belonging to the Morgan Library & Museum.

The Library’s Drawings Online program gives the public free access to over 10,000 downloadable images, drawn primarily from—and in—the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many images are fleshed out with inscriptions, information on provenance, biographical sketches of the artist, and, in over 2000 instances, images of the verso, or flip side of the paper.

Researchers and similarly informed seekers can browse by artist or school, but what if you don’t quite know what you want?

You could tour the highlights, or better yet, bushwhack your way into the unknown by entering a random word or phrase into the “search drawings” function.

Knowing that the internet is crazy for cats, I made that my first search term, but the results were skewed by an 18th-century Dutch artist named Jacob Cats, whose work abounds with cows and sheep.

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s portrait of Kathleen Turner in the 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is unavailable for viewing due to copyright restrictions. (It’s easily viewable elsewhere…)

And the Where’s Waldo-esque excitement I felt upon an anonymous artist’s Mountain Landscape with Italian-Style Cloister faux-Bruegel dissipated when I realized this return owed more to the abbreviation of “catalogue” than any feline lurking in the pen-and-ink trees.

Next I entered the word “babies.” I’m not sure why. There certainly were a lot of them, almost as many as I encounter on Facebook.

Returning to the pre-selected highlights page, I resolved to let the experts pick for me. I saw a charming rabbit family by John James Audubon and the old favorite by William Blake, top, but what really grabbed me was the first page's final selection: Honoré Daumier’s Two Lawyers Conversing, circa 1862.

Part of the Morgan's recently closed Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection exhibit, the subjects' dress may be archaic, but their expressions are both humorous and evergreen. Lawyer. I had my search term.

My favorite of the seven search results is illustrator Edmund J. Sullivan’s Soumin an' Roumin from 1914. One of a dozen or so drawings Sullivan made for an updated edition of George Outram's Legal and Other Lyrics, it shows "an old woman in a farmyard surrounded by livestock fleeing three monstrous lawyers wearing wigs and robes and armed with hideous talons instead of hands and feet. One … chases a cow with a scourge, the thongs of which end in scorpions.”

Download that one for all your lawyer friends or your lawyer spouse… upload it to a t-shirt if you’re crafty.

Claud Lovat Fraser’s set design for Pergolesi's short comic opera La Serva Padrona (or The Maid Turned Mistress) at the Lyric Hammersmith doesn’t depict any lawyers, to the best of my knowledge, but he himself was one—also a caricaturist, lampooning the literary and theatrical luminaries of his day, and a soldier whose life was cut short due to exposure to gas in World War I.

In addition to the Morgan’s particularly well-fleshed-out artist bio for this work, the verso is a treat in the form of a printed announcement for the Chelsea Arts Club Costume Ball.

Browse the Morgan Library & Museum’s Drawings Online in its entirety here, or narrow it down by artist, School of Art, or personal whim.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her New York City  on February 8, when she hosts Necromancers of the Public Domain, a variety show born of a single musty volume - this month: Masterpieces in Colour, Basten-Lepage. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Virginia Woolf’s Personal Photo Album Digitized & Put Online by Harvard: See Candid Snapshots of Woolf, Her Family, and Friends from the Bloomsbury Group

Some writers are restless by nature, roaming like Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller, settling nowhere and everywhere. Others are homebodies, like William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Their fiction reflects their desire to nest in place. Strolling the grounds of Faulkner’s Rowan Oak one sweltering summer, I swear I saw the author round a corner of the house, lost in thought and wearing riding clothes. Visitors to Virginia Woolf’s home in the village of Rodmell in East Sussex have surely had similar visions.

Woolf’s home contains her writing life within the lush garden grounds and cottage walls of the 17th century Monk’s House—Virginia and Leonard’s retreat, then permanent home, from 1919 until her suicide by drowning in the nearby River Ouse in 1941.

Even in death she belonged to the house; Leonard buried her ashes beneath an elm in the Monk’s House garden. Although Leonard was the gardener, “there are very few entries” in Virginia’s diary “which do not mention the garden.”

But there are many other ways to meet the author of Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room than traveling to her writer’s lodge, a tidy, tiny house on the Monk’s House grounds that served as her office. Like an avid Instragrammer—or like my mother and probably yours—Woolf kept careful record of her life in photo albums, which now reside at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The Monk’s House albums, numbered 1-6, contain images of Woolf, her family, and her many friends, including such famous members of the Bloomsbury group as E.M. Forster (above, top), John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey (below, with Woolf and W.B. Yeats, and playing chess with sister Marjorie). Harvard has digitized one album, Monk’s House 4, dated 1939 on the cover. You can view its scanned pages at their library site.

There are vacation photos and family photos; landscapes and photos of pets; clippings from newspapers and magazines; and, of course, the garden. The albums span the period 1890 to 1947 (including additions by Leonard after Virginia’s death). Many of the photos are labeled, many are not. Many of the albums’ pages are left blank. The photographs are arranged in no particular order. The net effect is that of a life recollected in pregnant images laced with lacunae, a psychological theme of so much of Woolf’s writing. Woolf, writes Maggie Humm, “believed that photographs could help her to survive those identity-destroying moments of her own life—her incoherent illnesses.”

But photography was also a means for cultivating relationships. Woolf “skillfully transformed friends and moments into artful tableaux, and she was surrounded by female friends and family who were also energetic photographers,” including her sister, Lady Ottoline Morrell, her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, and her great aunt Julia Margaret Cameron. She “frequently invited friends to share her reflections. The letters and diaries describe a constant exchange of photographs, in which the photographs become a meeting-place, a conversation, aide-mémoires, and sometimes mechanisms of survival and enticement.”

Unlike Monk’s House, a world built and shared with her husband, Woolf’s albums represent her own personal network of relationships. They serve as memorials and meditations after the deaths of those close to her. “Photographs of friends were important memento mori,” such as the portrait of poet Julian Bell, above, her nephew, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. The photos document gatherings and important life events among her social circle. They perform all the tasks of ordinary photo albums, and more—showing us the “chain of perceptions” of which personal identity is made in Woolf’s modernist vision, with repetitions and sequences centered around familiar objects like her favorite chair.

For fans, avid readers, critics, and literary historians, the photographs provide a visual record of a life we come to know so well through the letters, diaries, and romans à clef. Writing to her sister, Woolf once described painting a portrait “using dozens of snapshots in the paint.” Visit her photo album here at the Harvard Library site, and flip through the pages of her life in snapshots.

via @HarvardTheatre

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Carl Sagan’s Syllabus & Final Exam for His Course on Critical Thinking (Cornell, 1986)

Though now more than twenty years gone, Carl Sagan, through his many books and his classic television series Cosmoscontinues to teach us all he knew about life, the universe, and everything. Three decades' worth of students will also remember learning from him in person, in the lecture halls of Harvard and Cornell where he kept up his professorial duties alongside the considerable demands of his career as a public intellectual. If you've ever learned anything from Sagan, whether from the man himself or from his work, you know he didn't just want to teach humanity about outer space: he wanted to teach humanity how to think.

That goal became explicit in Astronomy 490, also known as "Critical Thinking in Science and Non-Science Context," which Sagan taught at Cornell in 1986. You can read its course materials at the Library of Congress, whose Jennifer Harbster writes that they "include mention of the important balance between openness to new ideas and skeptical engagement with those ideas in science," a point that "animates much of Carl Sagan’s work as an educator and science communicator."

The LoC offers the course's introduction and syllabus, its final exam, and Sagan's lecture notes, as well as the information he assembled to design the course in the first place, which show just how wide a range of contexts for critical thinking he had in mind.

Sagan collected examples of reporting on and public perception of phenomena related to sports playoff seriescar-loan interest rates, tobacco industry-sponsored tobacco health-risk research, and the number of helicopters that crash in Los Angeles. Harbster explains that "these notes illustrate how he wanted to use students' every day experience with things like television to prompt them to think more skeptically about how claims are made and warranted in everyday life." Though some of his examples  (the language of cigarette advertisements, for instance) may look dated now, the course's core principles have only grown more useful, and indeed necessary, with time — as Sagan, who wrote darkly of "the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media," surely knew they would.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Poem “Nemesis” Gets Unexpectedly Sung to the Tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”

"The internet made me do it," says musician Julian Velard. For whatever reason, it made him take H.P Lovecraft's 1917 poem "Nemesis" and mash it up with Billy Joel's "Piano Man." Find the original poem below. But know Velard "had to cut a couple lines to get it to fit." Enjoy.

Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
Past the wan-moon’d abysses of night,
I have liv’d o’er my lives without number,
I have sounded all things with my sight;
And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.

I have whirl’d with the earth at the dawning,
When the sky was a vaporous flame;
I have seen the dark universe yawning,
Where the black planets roll without aim;
Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name.

I had drifted o’er seas without ending,
Under sinister grey-clouded skies
That the many-fork’d lightning is rending,
That resound with hysterical cries;
With the moans of invisible daemons that out of the green waters rise.

I have plung’d like a deer thro’ the arches
Of the hoary primordial grove,
Where the oaks feel the presence that marches
And stalks on where no spirit dares rove;
And I flee from a thing that surrounds me, and leers thro’ dead branches above.

I have stumbled by cave-ridden mountains
That rise barren and bleak from the plain,
I have drunk of the fog-foetid fountains
That ooze down to the marsh and the main;
And in hot cursed tarns I have seen things I care not to gaze on again.

I have scann’d the vast ivy-clad palace,
I have trod its untenanted hall,
Where the moon writhing up from the valleys
Shews the tapestried things on the wall;
Strange figures discordantly woven, which I cannot endure to recall.

I have peer’d from the casement in wonder
At the mouldering meadows around,
At the many-roof’d village laid under
The curse of a grave-girdled ground;
And from rows of white urn-carven marble I listen intently for sound.

I have haunted the tombs of the ages,
I have flown on the pinions of fear
Where the smoke-belching Erebus rages,
Where the jokulls loom snow-clad and drear:
And in realms where the sun of the desert consumes what it never can cheer.

I was old when the Pharaohs first mounted
The jewel-deck’d throne by the Nile;
I was old in those epochs uncounted
When I, and I only, was vile;
And Man, yet untainted and happy, dwelt in bliss on the far Arctic isle.

Oh, great was the sin of my spirit,
And great is the reach of its doom;
Not the pity of Heaven can cheer it,
Nor can respite be found in the tomb:
Down the infinite aeons come beating the wings of unmerciful gloom.

Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
Past the wan-moon’d abysses of night,
I have liv’d o’er my lives without number,
I have sounded all things with my sight;
And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.

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How to Spot a Communist Using Literary Criticism: A 1955 Manual from the U.S. Military

In 1955, the United States was entering the final stages of McCarthyism or the Second Red Scare. During this low point in American history, the US government looked high and low for Communist spies. Entertainers, educators, government employees and union members were often viewed with suspicion, and many careers and lives were destroyed by the flimsiest of allegations. Congress, the FBI, and the US military, they all fueled the 20th century version of the Salem Witch trials, partly by encouraging Americans to look for Communists in unsuspecting places.

In the short Armed Forces Information Film above, you can see the dynamic at work. Some Communists were out in the open; however, others "worked more silently." So how to find those hidden communists?

Not to worry, the US military had that covered. In 1955, the U.S. First Army Headquarters prepared a manual called How to Spot a Communist. Later published in popular American magazines, the propaganda piece warned readers, "there is no fool-proof system in spotting a Communist." "U.S. Communists come from all walks of life, profess all faiths, and exercise all trades and professions. In addition, the Communist Party, USA, has made concerted efforts to go underground for the purpose of infiltration." And yet the pamphlet adds, letting readers breathe a sigh of relief, "there are, fortunately, indications that may give him away. These indications are often subtle but always present, for the Communist, by reason of his "faith" must act and talk along certain lines." In short, you'll know a Communist not by how he walks, but how he talks. Asking citizens to become literary critics for the sake of national security, the publication told readers to watch out for the following:

While a preference for long sentences is common to most Communist writing, a distinct vocabulary provides the more easily recognized feature of the "Communist Language." Even a superficial reading of an article written by a Communist or a conversation with one will probably reveal the use of some of the following expressions: integrative thinking, vanguard, comrade, hootenanny, chauvinism, book-burning, syncretistic faith, bourgeois-nationalism, jingoism, colonialism, hooliganism, ruling class, progressive, demagogy, dialectical, witch-hunt, reactionary, exploitation, oppressive, materialist.

This list, selected at random, could be extended almost indefinitely. While all of the above expressions are part of the English language, their use by Communists is infinitely more frequent than by the general public...

Rather chillingly, the pamphlet also warned that Communists revealed themselves if and when they talked about "McCarthyism," "violation of civil rights," "racial or religious discrimination" or "peace." In other words, they were guilty if they suggested that the government was overstepping its bounds.

According to Corliss Lamont's book, Freedom Is As Freedom Does, the First Army withdrew the pamphlet after Murray Kempton slammed it in The New York Post and The New York Times wrote its own scathing op-ed. In 1955, the press could take those risks. The year before, Joseph Welch had faced up to Joe McCarthy, asking with his immortal words, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? A question someone will eventually dare to ask again.

Note: An earlier version of this post first appeared on our site in March, 2013.

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