Hear the Voices of Americans Born in Slavery: The Library of Congress Features 23 Audio Interviews with Formerly Enslaved People (1932-75)

“During the last three decades of legal slavery in America,” writes Lucinda MacKethan at the National Humanities Center, “African American writers perfected one of the nation’s first truly indigenous genres of written literature: the North American slave narrative.” These heavily mediated memoirs were the only real firsthand accounts of slavery most Americans outside the South encountered. Their authors were urged by abolitionist publishers to adopt conventions of the sentimental novel, and to feature showy introductions by white editors to validate their authenticity.

Fugitive slave narratives did not necessarily give white Americans new information about slavery’s wrongs, but they served as “proof” that enslaved people were, in fact, people, with feelings and intellects and aspirations just like theirs. Ex-enslaved writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs sensationalized readers with stories of the physical and sexual violence of slavery, and their stories became abolitionists’ most potent weapon. The form succeeded as much on dramatic effect as on its documentary value.

Douglas and Jacobs were exceptional in that they had learned to read and write and escaped their terrible conditions through strength of will, ingenuity, the kindnesses of others, and sheer luck. Most were not so fortunate. But we now have access to many more firsthand accounts—thanks to the work of the Federal Writers Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration and others, who recorded thousands of interviews with formerly enslaved people living well into the 20th century, all from the first generation to outlive slavery.

Ted Koppel debuted some clips of those recordings to his Nightline audience in the 1999 episode above. “They are haunting voices,” he says, then prefaces the tape with “brace yourselves for a minor miracle.” What is miraculous about the fact that people who were born in slavery lived into the age of audio recording? Perhaps one reason it seems so is that we are conditioned to think of legal enslavement and its effects as receding further back in time than they actually do. In the 1930s, the FWP filed transcripts of over 2,300 interviews and 500 black-and-white photographs of people born into slavery.

Also, in the 30s, ethnologists like Zora Neale Hurston and the Lomaxes began recording audio interviews with formerly enslaved people like Fountain Hughes, further up, born in Charlottesville, Virginia. Recorded in 1949, he is fearfully reluctant to talk about his experience but vocal about it nonetheless: “"You wasn't no more than a dog to some of them in them days. You wasn't treated as good as they treat dogs now. But still I didn't like to talk about it. Because it makes, makes people feel bad you know. Uh, I, I could say a whole lot I don't like to say. And I won't say a whole lot more."

The Library of Congress puts the 23 surviving recordings in context:

The recordings of former slaves in Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine states. Twenty-three interviewees discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. It is important to note that all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings. The individuals documented in this presentation have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond.

Only seven of these voices have been matched with photographs. Many of these mean and women were interviewed elsewhere, but on the whole, little biographical information about them exists. The final interviewee, Charlie Smith, recorded in 1975, was the subject of a book and numerous magazine articles. He died four years later at 137 years old. Hear all of the audio interviews with formerly enslaved people at the Library of Congress’s Voices Remembering Slavery project and find resources for teachers here.

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

The Bird Library: A Library Built Especially for Our Fine Feathered Friends

"The two things I love most are novels and birds," said Jonathan Franzen in a Guardian profile not long ago. "They’re both in trouble, and I want to advocate for both of them." Chances are that even that famously internet-averse novelist-turned-birdwatcher would enjoy the online attraction called The Bird Library, "where the need to feed meets the need to read." Its live Youtube stream shows the goings-on of a tiny library built especially for our feathered friends. "Perched in a backyard in the city of Charlottesville," writes Atlas Obscura's Claire Voon, "it is the passion project of librarian Rebecca Flowers and woodworker Kevin Cwalina, who brought together their skills and interests to showcase the lives of their backyard birds."

Recent visitors, Voon adds, "have included a striking rose-breasted grosbeak, a cardinal that looks like it’s vaping, and a trio of mourning doves seemingly caught in a serious meeting." The Bird Library's web site offers an archive of images capturing the institution's wee regulars, all accompanied by enlivening captions. ("Why did the bird go to the library?" "He was looking for bookworms.")




Just as year-round birdwatching brings pleasures distinct from more casual versions of the pursuit, year-round viewing of The Bird Library makes for a deeper appreciation not just of the variety of species represented among its patrons — the creators have counted 20 so far — but for the seasonal changes in the space's decor, especially around Christmastime.

As longtime viewers know, this isn't the original Bird Library. "In late 2018 we demolished the old Bird Library and started design and development of a new and improved Bird Library 2.0! Complete with a large concrete base for increased capacity and a bigger circulation desk capable of feeding all our guests all day long." Just as libraries for humans need occasional renovation, so, it seems, do libraries for birds — a concept that could soon expand outside Virginia. "Cwalina hopes to eventually publish an open-access plan for a similar bird library, so that other birders can build their own versions," reports Voon. And a bird-loving 21st-century Andrew Carnegie steps forward to ensure their architectural respectability, might we suggest going with modernism?

via Atlas Obscura

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Take a Virtual Tour of the World’s Only Sourdough Library

There’s 15-year-old Precious from the Netherlands…

And Bubble from Australia, age 4…

Yeasty Beasty Methuselah, from Twin Falls, Idaho, is estimated to be around 50…

Every sourdough starter is special to the ones who made or maintain it, but of the 1000s registered online with Quest for Sourdough, only 125 have earned a permanent place in the Puratos Sourdough Library in Saint-Vith, Belgium. It's the world's only library dedicated to Sourdough, and you can take a virtual tour here.

Housed in identical jars in a museum-quality refrigerated cabinets, these heritage starters have been carefully selected by librarian Karl De Smedt, above, who travels the world visiting bakeries, tasting bread, and learning the stories behind each sample that enters the collection.




As De Smedt recalls in an interview with the Sourdough Podcast, the idea for the museum began taking shape when a Lebanese baker reached out to Puratos, a hundred-year-old company that supplies commercial bakers and pastry makers with essentials of the trade. The man’s sons returned from a baking expo in Paris and informed their dad that when they took over, they planned to retire his time-honored practice of baking with fermented chickpeas in favor of instant yeast. Worried that his prized recipe would be lost to history, he appealed to Puratos to help preserve his protocols.

While fermented chickpeas do not count as sourdough—a combination of flour, water, and the resulting microorganisms this marriage gives rise to over time—the company had recently collected and analyzed 43 venerable starters. The bulk came from Italy, including one from Altamura, the “city of bread, producer of what Horace called in 37 B.C. 'the best bread to be had, so good that the wise traveler takes a supply of it for his onward journey.'”

Thus was a non-circulating library born.

Each specimen is analyzed by food microbiologist Marco Gobbetti from the University of Bolzano and Bari.

A collaboration with North Carolina State University biologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden revealed that sourdough bakers’ hands share distinct microbes with their starters.

More than 1100 strains of microorganisms have been recorded so far.

Every two months, the starters are taken out of the fridge and fed, i.e. reactivated, with a combination of water and some of their flour of origin, yearly quantities of which are contributed by their bakers. Without this regular care, the starters will die off.

(The pandemic has De Smedt working from home, but he intimated to The New York Times that he intended to make it back to feed his babies, or “mothers” as they are known in sourdough circles.)

#72 from Mexico feeds on eggs, lime and beer

#100 from Japan is made of cooked sake rice.

#106 is a veteran of the Gold Rush.

Their consistency is documented along a line that ranges from hard to fluid, with Silly Putty in the middle.

Each year, De Smedt expands the collection with starters from a different area of the world. The latest additions come from Turkey, and are documented in the mouthwatering travelogue above.

For now, of course, he’s grounded in Belgium, and using his Instagram account to provide encouragement to other sourdough practitioners, answering rookie questions and showing off some of the loaves produced by his own personal starters, Barbara and Amanda.

Register your starter on Quest for Sourdough here.

If you haven’t yet taken the sourdough plunge, you can participate in North Carolina State University’s Wild Sourdough Project by following their instructions on making a starter from scratch and then submitting your data here.

And bide your time until you’re cleared to visit the Puratos Sourdough Library in person by taking an interactive virtual tour or watching a complete playlist of De Smedt’s collecting trips here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her current starter, Miss Sourdough, was brought to life with an unholy splash of apple cider. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The National Emergency Library Makes 1.5 Million Books Free to Read Right Now

The coronavirus has closed libraries in countries all around the world. Or rather, it's closed physical libraries: each week of struggle against the epidemic that goes by, more resources for books open to the public on the internet. Most recently, we have the Internet Archive's opening of the National Emergency Library, "a collection of books that supports emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation while universities, schools, training centers, and libraries are closed." While the "national" in the name refers to the United States, where the Internet Archive operates, anyone in the world can read its nearly 1.5 million books, immediately and without waitlists, from now "through June 30, 2020, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later."

"Not to be sneezed at is the sheer pleasure of browsing through the titles," writes The New Yorker's Jill Lepore of the National Emergency Library, going on to mention such volumes as How to Succeed in Singing, Interesting Facts about How Spiders Live, and An Introduction to Kant’s Philosophy, as well as "Beckett on Proust, or Bloom on Proust, or just On Proust." A historian of America, Lepore finds herself reminded of the Council on Books in Wartime, "a collection of libraries, booksellers, and publishers, founded in 1942." On the premise that "books are useful, necessary, and indispensable," the council "picked over a thousand volumes, from Virginia Woolf’s The Years to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and sold the books, around six cents a copy, to the U.S. military." By practically giving away 120 million copies of such books, the project "created a nation of readers."




In fact, the Council on Books in Wartime created more than a nation of readers: the American "soldiers and sailors and Army nurses and anyone else in uniform" who received these books passed them along, or even left them behind in the far-flung places they'd been stationed. Haruki Murakami once told the Paris Review of his youth in Kobe, "a port city where many foreigners and sailors used to come and sell their paperbacks to the secondhand bookshops. I was poor, but I could buy paperbacks cheaply. I learned to read English from those books and that was so exciting." Seeing as Murakami himself later translated The Big Sleep into his native Japanese, it's certainly not impossible that an Armed Services Edition counted among his purchases back then.

Now, in translations into English and other languages as well, we can all read Murakami's work — novels like Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore, short-story collections like The Elephant Vanishes, and even the memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running — free at the National Emergency Library. The most popular books now available include everything from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to the Kama SutraDr. Seuss's ABC to Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (and its two sequels), Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart to, in disconcerting first place, Sylvia Browne's End of Days: Predictions and Prophecy About the End of the World. You'll even find, in the original French as well as English translation, Albert Camus' existential epidemic novel La Peste, or The Plague, featured earlier this month here on Open Culture. And if you'd rather not confront its subject matter at this particular moment, you'll find more than enough to take your mind elsewhere. Enter the National Emergency Library here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

Americans Visited Libraries Almost Twice as Often as They Went to the Movies Last Year, a New Survey Shows

Image via Wikimedia Commons

One recurring story over the past year, covered by every major news outlet, asks whether streaming services are “killing” movie theaters (or if they are killing themselves). Another looks into the trend of binge-watching, and the effect of an entertainment ecosystem built on shows that seem to stream themselves. Given the ubiquity of this kind of coverage, we might be forgiven for suspecting that the U.S. is turning into a mass of passive home viewers transfixed by supernatural thrillers, dark comedies, reality TV, teen dramas, etc.….

This isn’t entirely the case.... While others tally up the number of eyeballs on variously-sized screens, veteran polling outfit Gallup spent part of December 2019 asking Americans around the country what they did when they went out. Among the nine activities they listed—including movies, concerts, sporting events, museums, zoos, and casinos—“visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far,” averaging 10.5 visits per year, notes Justin McCarthy at Gallup News.




To put that “by far” into perspective, those polled reported, on average, going to the library almost twice as often as going to the movies, the second-place activity, over the past year. But as with all such polling data, we should not draw hasty conclusions without looking at specifics. Gallup breaks down the demographics by gender, age, income, region, and by households with and without children. Surprisingly, they found very little difference between the latter two groups’ reported library trips.

Among the other categories, we find that women reported going to libraries almost twice as often as men; that people between 18-29 report going over twice as often as those between 50-64—perhaps due to college assignments; and that low income households report going at much higher rates than those in higher brackets. “Cost seems to be a factor driving these trends,” writes Brigit Katz at Smithsonian. “Visiting the library is free, as are the variety of services libraries offer, including Wi-Fi.”

Indeed, “29 percent of library-going Americans over the age of 16 went to use computers, the internet or a public Wi-Fi network.” Libraries are places to gain access to cultural experiences that can be cost-prohibitive elsewhere: to take free classes and enjoy free movies, music, and, yes, books. The number of average visits has remained unchanged since a similar poll in 2001, “suggesting libraries are as popular now as they were at the turn of the millennium.” Trips to the movies, on the other hand, are down an average of 1.3 visits.

Make of the data what you will in the full breakdown at Gallup News. The telephone survey has a very small sample size—1,024 adults in all 50 states—which may not be at all representative of the whole. Nonetheless, McCarthy concludes that “despite the proliferation of digital-based activities over the past two decades… libraries have endured.” May they continue to do so, and to serve the needs of all Americans, especially those who might otherwise have little access to the kinds of knowledge, information, and culture that libraries steward.

via Smithsonian

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

The Library of Congress Wants You to Help Transcribe Walt Whitman’s Poems & Letters: Almost 4000 Unpublished Documents Are Waiting

Every once in a while, a prominent artist will offer the advice that you should quit your day job and never look back. In some fields, this may be possible, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult these days, which may explain the reception Brian Eno gets when he tells art school students “not to have a job.” Eno admits, “I rarely get asked back.” In a letter to his anxious mother, Gustave Flaubert, railed against “those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night.” Such a life, he wrote, was “made for mediocre minds.”

Sure, if you can swing it, by all means, quit your job. Most poets throughout history—save the few with independent means or wealthy patrons—haven’t had the luxury. Poetry may never pay the bills, but that shouldn’t stop a poet from writing. It didn’t stop T.S. Eliot, who worked as an editor (he rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm) and a bank clerk (he turned down a fellowship from the Bloomsbury group). It did not stop William Carlos Williams, the doctor, nor Wallace Stevens, who spent his days in the insurance game, nor Charles Bukowski,  though he’d never recommend it….




Then there’s ultimate journeyman poet Walt Whitman, who left school at 11 to get a job and variously throughout his life “worked as a school teacher, printer, newspaper editor, journalist, carpenter, freelance writer, civil servant, and Union Army nurse in Washington D.C. during the Civil War,” as the Library of Congress (LOC) noted for the 200th anniversary of the poet’s 1819 birth. The LOC holds “the world’s largest Walt Whitman manuscript collection” and last year they announced a volunteer campaign to transcribe thousands of unpublished documents.

Whitman offered his own possibly dubious advice to aspiring writers—“don’t write poetry”—but he himself never stopped writing, no matter the demands of the day. He also advised, “it is a good plan for every young man or woman having literary aspirations to carry a pencil and a piece of paper and constantly jot down striking events in daily life. They thus acquire a vast fund of information.” Whitman’s “jottings” include typed and handwritten letters, original copies of poems, drafts of essays and reviews, and more.

His prose is always lively and robust, full of exhortations, exaltations, and admixtures of the high literary language and casual talk of city streets that were his hallmark. Witness the wild swings in tone in his brief letter to Abraham P. Leech (above) circa 1881:

Friend Leech,

How d'ye do? -- I have quite a hankering to hear from and see Jamaica, and the Jamaicaites. -- A pressure of business only, has prevented my coming out among the "friends of yore" and the familiar places which your village contains. --I was an hour in your village the other day, but did not have time to come up and see you,--I think of coming up in the course of the winter holidays.--Farewell--and don't forget write to me, through the P.O.  May your kind angel hover in the invisible air, and lose sight of your blessed presence never.

                  Whitman

There are many, many more such documents remaining to be transcribed among the close to 4000 in the LoC’s digitized Whitman collection. “More than half of those have been completed so far,” writes Mental Floss, and roughly 1860 transcriptions still need to be reviewed. Anyone can read the documents that need approval and officially add them to the Whitman archive.” This is a very worthy project, and it may or may not feel like work to volunteer your time deciphering, reading, and transcribing Whitman’s ebullient hand.

The question may still remain: How did Whitman acquire the physical and mental stamina to get so much excellent writing done and still hold down steady gigs to make the rent? Perhaps a series of guides called “Manly Health and Training" that he wrote between 1858 and 1860 hold a clue. The poet recommends routine trips to the “gymnasium” and a diet of meat, “to the exclusion of all else.” For those “students, clerks” and others “in sedentary and mental employments”—including the “literary man”—he has one word: “Up!”

As with all such pieces of advice, results may vary. Enter the two huge manuscript archives—“Miscellaneous” and “Poetry”—at the Library of Congress digital collections and peruse, or transcribe, as much of Whitman's endless stream of writing as you like.

via Mental Floss

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

The Smithsonian Puts 2.8 Million High-Res Images Online and Into the Public Domain

No matter how many public institutions you visit in a day—schools, libraries, museums, or the dreaded DMV—you may still feel like privatized services are closing in. And if you’re a fan of national parks and public lands, you’re keenly aware they’re at risk of being eaten up by developers and energy companies. The commons are shrinking, a tragic fact that is hardly inevitable but, as Matto Mildenberger argues at Scientific American, the result of some very narrow ideas.

But we can take heart that one store of common wealth has majorly expanded recently, and will continue to grow each year since January 1, 2019—Public Domain Day—when hundreds of thousands of works from 1923 became freely available, the first time that happened in 21 years. This year saw the release of thousands more works into the public domain from 1924, and so it will continue ad infinitum.

And now—as if that weren’t enough to keep us busy learning about, sharing, adapting, and repurposing the past into the future—the Smithsonian has released 2.8 million images into the public domain, making them searchable, shareable, and downloadable through the museum’s Open Access platform.




This huge release of “high resolution two- and three-dimensional images from across its collections,” notes Smithsonian Magazine, “is just the beginning. Throughout the rest of 2020, the Smithsonian will be rolling out another 200,000 or so images, with more to come as the Institution continues to digitize its collection of 155 million items and counting.”

There are those who would say that these images always belonged to the public as the holdings of a publicly-funded institution sometimes called “the nation’s attic.” It’s a fair point, but shouldn’t take away from the excitement of the news. “Smithsonian” as a conveniently singular moniker actually names “19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo," an enormous collection of art and historic artifacts.

That’s quite a lot to sift through, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, the site’s highlights will direct you to one fascinating image after another, from Mohammad Ali’s 1973 headgear to the historic Elizabethan portrait of Pocahontas, to the collection box of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society owned by William Lloyd Garrison’s family, to Walt Whitman in 1891, as photographed by the painter Thomas Eakins, to just about anything else you might imagine.

Enter the Smithsonian’s Open Access archive here and browse and search its millions of newly-public domain images, a massive collection that may help expand the definition of common knowledge.

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

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