Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

Inside the Northwest History Room: Yearbooks

1924 Nesika page

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Through this blog I’ve had a chance to talk about a couple of the resources that get heavily used in the Northwest History Room (namely the Polk City directories and the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps). While there are many different areas of our collection that see frequent use, the Polks and Sanborns are joined by our yearbook collection to make up our ‘Big Three’ of local history reference materials. This year we began the massive task of digitizing our collection with the aim of getting them all online. So far we’ve received scans of all of our Everett High School Nesikas; in 2015 we’re hoping to do the same with the Cascade High School Vista. Now comes the fun but time-consuming work of uploading and describing all those pages of history in our database, but I’m not here to bore you with that!

1916 yearbook page

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So why are the yearbooks so important to us and the work that we do? Mainly because they’re very important to the people who contact us. Whether it’s a walk-in to our room or a phone call from overseas, people seek scans from our yearbooks for a variety of reasons. Most people are doing genealogical research; the Nesika goes back to 1909, so there are a few generations of Everett residents contained within them. In some circumstances yearbook photos are actually acceptable forms of identification, so we get individuals and family members seeking them for a variety of reasons. One afternoon I helped a walk-in researcher locate photos of their birth mom whose face they had never seen.

Aside from being of interest for personal or nostalgic reasons, our yearbook collection tells us a lot of general information about Everett’s history as it grows and adapts to changes in local and national society. I’ve only just begun working through our scans but from the beginning in 1909 to the farthest I’ve reached, 1930, I’ve seen the girls’ hair shorten along with the length of their athletic costumes. Also striking to see is the rapidly increasing participation of females in different school sports and the addition of new events like field hockey and swimming. In the boys’ athletics one can watch the rise of the legendary Enoch Bagshaw era of Everett High School football, which led to a string of championships (opens an MP3 of our Bagshaw podcast).1922 Girls Hockey team

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Some of the history documented in these yearbooks can be sad or uncomfortable. The budding Nesika series goes ominously silent in 1917 and doesn’t resume until 1919, with that year’s volume including a memorial for the students and alums who lost their lives in the First World War. Other pages in 1919 display long lists of those who served and returned. In some volumes there are pages featuring minstrel show lineups, racially and ethnically insensitive jokes, and advertisements with black-face caricatures. The jarring nature of how casual and deeply ingrained racism was during those decades helps remind us of where we’ve come from as a society and how to continue moving forward.

In addition to reading between the lines to glean cultural information from the yearbook collection, we also get to learn about Everett’s commerce and industry. Starting in the 1920s the yearbook staff sold advertising slots to local businesses. Through these ads, many repeated from year to year, one can get a picture of what businesses were common. Also present are ads from many of the major employers in the area such as Sumner Iron Works, local paper and timber mills, and packing companies presumably to entice recent graduates to join the ranks of the working class.

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Whether it’s family information, social context, or just enjoying some of the vintage artwork, you can find out all kinds of things by paging through our yearbooks. We hope that our future online collection will make this personal connection with local history more easily established for those near and far. In the meantime, scans are available at any time by request, or can be viewed at the Northwest History Room (the hard copies of the yearbooks are there as well, and are fun to look through). I will also be featuring interesting tidbits I come across during this project on our Northwest History Room tumblr – be sure to keep an eye out.

Inside the Northwest History Room: Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Sanborn 1914 title pageHere in the Northwest History Room of the Everett Public Library, we get frequent visitors looking into the history of buildings and land usage. One of the first resources we point people to is our collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. We have the set of 1914 maps, and a copy of the 1914 maps that was updated in 1955 to show the present state of the land. These dates come in handy for people who own older non-compliant structures because they can be grandfathered in if they predate 1955.

Aside from being able to check if your porch or outbuilding might be able to be grandfathered in, a lot can be gleaned from comparing the 1914 and 1955 maps. For example, in these two photos, you can see how the old Everett Flour Mill was gradually replaced by the sprawling Scott Paper Co. Mill (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Over time, this expansion meant altering the natural landscape by filling in some of the tidelands and building over them on piers. Roads and rails were altered to make way.

These two photos show the expansion of residential buildings that happened at 26th and Rainier. One can see how some buildings changed use, for example going from being a dwelling (‘D’) to being a shed, or gained or lost outbuildings. Some houses, surprisingly, remained mostly the same over the course of those 41 intervening years (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Lastly we have the key that helps us interpret all the colors and symbols used in the maps. This provides us with a wealth of information about the construction of the buildings, from the materials used on the exterior walls, to the types of windows and skylights present, to the appearance of the chimneys. This is really useful for people who are looking to restore their homes to an earlier appearance, or for people who are trying to discover what a demolished building looked like when no pictures exist (click image to enlarge).

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps key

 

I invite you to come down to the Northwest History Room at Everett Public Library’s Main Library to see what you can find out about your home, or any other Everett property you might be curious about – either David or I would be happy to show you how to use our map collection.

Book Club Adventures

A long time ago, in a job/city far away, I was tasked with forming a book discussion group. As a fairly introverted person whose previous work experience was along the lines of solo archival work with just a dash of librarianship, I found the idea a bit terrifying. Would I have to talk? With real people? Shudder to think. Little did I know that hosting the book group would soon become one of my favorite parts of the job.

The Adventures of Augie March CoverThings didn’t start out all that easy, though the pay-offs tended to be pretty satisfying. On one memorable occasion none of my small group of regulars were able to attend. At the very last minute I had one woman, previously unknown to the group, ask to set up an alternate meeting date to discuss the book. We met over lunch, and she proceeded to rip into everything she disliked about my selection for about 20 uninterrupted minutes (The Adventures of Augie March). She actually told me that she wanted to meet so that she could tell me how much she hated the title. After she’d gotten it all out of her system and my ears stopped burning, we actually settled down to a really great, in-depth discussion of the book. I happened to have loved the book, so there was some really lively back and forth. After that she never missed a meeting.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo cover imageMy fledgling club didn’t gain much traction until I picked a current bestseller to discuss. Attendance for our Girl with the Dragon Tattoo discussion was triple the usual amount. This was both a blessing and a curse. From the large group that attended we gained many new regulars. On the downside, the group was large and unwieldy and the flow of conversation was a bit awkward. Lesson learned? If you want to kick-start a new club consider picking something that’s new and hot. If you want to ensure success in the long run, pay attention to what your regulars are into and choose your reads wisely.

Mill Town cover imageFast forward to the present day where I find myself, once again, at the helm of a young book club. This time I get the chance to experiment with doing a themed club: local history and literature. Amazingly, our first meeting was well-attended and lively. We decided to do a mixed approach, where we led off with a mini-lecture on a related topic and then launched into the discussion. This worked wonderfully with Mill Town, which tells the story of Everett’s early days up until the notorious Everett Massacre; our group really enjoyed seeing the book’s pages brought to life with images from our archives. Our second title, The Mushroom Hunters, was a more intimate discussion with some folks who were very interested in foraging and the politics surrounding it. We swapped stories and recipes, and everyone left having learned something new. It was a treat to get to talk with people who were genuinely enthusiastic about the selected title.

The Beginning of a Mortal cover imageThis month we host our third discussion in the series: Max Miller’s The Beginning of a Mortal. I’m excited to see how things go. My colleague and I picked Miller’s autobiographical work of fiction because he wrote extensively about his childhood in Everett. I loved the book’s lively vignettes of daily life in Mill Town highlighting the good, the bad, and the ugly with humor and compassion. As an additional perk, the book is sprinkled with charming pen illustrations of the author in his Huck-Finn-like adventures about town. So if you’re like me and have a thing for hobos, shingle mills, and history, come to the Northwest History Room to grab a copy from our book club set. We’d love to see you at our meeting on August 25th, at 6:30pm in the Main Library Training Room.

When History Splashes Off the Page

You may recall I gave myself a list of reading challenges for 2014. They are all self-imposed and they all just randomly fell out of my brain one day in a burst of madness inspiration. Whether this is the first you’re hearing of my reading resolutions or you just want to review, here is the list of my reading inspirations:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular (see below)
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

Up until now I thought of this list as only a clever way for me to have some ready-made books to blog about. However, I really didn’t expect anything mind-blowing to result. Then I decided to tackle number five, the super-popular designation. And guys, I finished reading this book three weeks ago. Three weeks ago. I have been unable to pick up another book since. This book broke me. I am stuck in a rut, afraid to pick up another book because it’s really not fair to that book to have to follow behind one so good as this one.

The boys in the boatUnless you’ve been living under a rock, or just not in the Pacific Northwest, everyone has been buzzing about The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The library first bought the book last June and I don’t think we’ve ever been successful at keeping a single copy on the shelf. As of this writing there are still twenty-two outstanding holds across all formats. I was lucky enough to snag an eBook copy. Pro tip: if you need a popular book quickly, the holds queues for eBooks tend to be far shorter than physical print copies.

So there I was: sitting curled up on the couch, Saturday morning, fresh-brewed coffee in hand. This was back before that big summer heat wave hit Seattle. It was just me and the title screen on my Kindle. I had no idea what was about to happen, how truly involved in this story I would become. I ended up creating countless highlights in my eBook of passages I thought embodied a person, idea, or event. I didn’t count on how difficult it would be to retrieve said highlights later. So you’ll have to keep with me as I try to put into words how incredibly magnificent this book was, and still is.

Joe Rantz was born in Spokane in 1914. His childhood and early adulthood are detailed throughout the book, juxtaposed with great inventions of the time, and a healthy dose of local, federal, and world history. His father invented as a hobby, but it was never enough to pay the bills. When Joe was still quite young his mother died. His father, heartbroken and searching for work, moved all over the Northwest. Sometimes he took Joe; sometimes he left Joe behind; sometimes he shipped Joe out to a relative’s house. As a result, Joe had a severely unstable childhood but also became extremely self-reliant. Being left behind in a half-built house in the wilderness outside of Sequim, while your father packs up his new family and leaves for parts unknown will do that to you.

By the time he got to the University of Washington in 1933, Joe was always second-guessing his worth. Despite working hard, and during the Great Depression no less, to not only scrape together tuition money but also find a place to live, Joe never really saw his strengths. Joe was used to hard work, but he thought he would finally feel like he fit in with like-minded people in college. Instead his threadbare clothes and deep poverty made him feel like an outcast from the very start of his college career.

Eventually, Joe managed to work his way onto the UW crew team. Despite his aptitude, dedication, and stamina, he saw that his place on the team was not permanent and never guaranteed. Coaches swapped students around on different boats, trying to find the right combination of rowers. This boat-swapping, coupled with his childhood of abandonment put Joe constantly on edge, fearful that he would be let go from the team just when he was starting to feel at home. Knowing that staying on the crew team was his only chance to stay in college, and have a shot at a good future, Joe was constantly worried but always striving to be better.

Over his freshman and sophomore years, his boat had its ups and downs in competitions and teammate personality conflicts. But it wasn’t until his junior year that his teammates became as close as family. In 1932 UW’s west coast rowing rivals, UC “Cal” Berkeley, had won Olympic gold. Entering the 1935 rowing season, everyone at both UW and Cal knew that their coach would be pushing them to fight for the chance at the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. And any team competing against Germany on their home turf during an oppressive time would, if they could win it…well, do I need to go on?

The Dust Bowl. Nazis. The Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power. All of this is set against our group of farm boys, working hard on the waters of Lake Washington. This is a true underdog story, one made more inspirational because every word of it is true. Pay special attention to the quotes from George Yeoman Pocock at the start of each chapter. He handcrafted all the racing shells at UW during Joe’s tenure, and he was wise beyond his years. I would love to read more about him and his equally humble beginnings and incredible life.

I really did not think I would like The Boys in the Boat, but was curious how a book about rowing could become so popular. I told my dentist I was going to read this book. He, an avid fisherman and happiest, I suspect, when he’s on the open water, said that it was also on his list to read this summer. I feel like I did us both proud. Look at me, reading a book about sports! But it’s so much more than that. If you, too, decide to give it a chance, prepare to be swept away at forty-five strokes per minute. Now that I’ve written this review I hope it releases me from the spell cast by Daniel James Brown. I’m going to crack open a new book tonight and test my theory.

In case you’re wondering, and lest us always remember, the boys in the boat:
Left to right: Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, John “Johnny” White Jr., Gordon “Gordy” Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris. Kneeling: Bobby Moch

1936 UW Varsity Crew Team

De-tech-tives

detechtives

Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.

keystone-kops-granger

These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.

A Day in the Life: Local History Librarian

Last weekend the Northwest History Room celebrated its 37th anniversary. For those who are well acquainted with our local history department, this longevity comes as no surprise. The uninitiated, on the other hand, may be wondering what we’ve been doing with ourselves all this time. In order to giver you a clearer picture, I thought I’d take you through a day in my life as a local history librarian:

Picture of jar with image of the Everett courthouse on lid.Early in the day I received a call from a woman who had acquired a little porcelain jar. On the lid was a lovely painting of the 1897-8 Everett courthouse building, and on the bottom was an inscription related to ‘B. W. Fargo.’ My caller was interested to find out whatever she could about the building pictured, and if possible, her jar. I asked her if she could send me a photograph of the jar and told her I would see what I could find out.

Black and white photograph of courthouseMy first stop was to check our resource files. Our department keeps files of clippings and other documents in a row of file cabinets, but we also keep a large digital file of scanned documents and photos, as well as typed histories of people and places. These files serve as an excellent shortcut when we’re looking into notable people and places in the area, because a lot of the work has already been done in the past. Here I was able to find the exact dates of the courthouse, as well as some historic photographs to send the caller.

Photograph of the ruins of the courthouseThis particular courthouse was designed and built in 1897 by architect A. F. Heide at the corner of Wetmore and Pacific. It was operational until 1909, when it was ravaged by a fire. County operations moved into an adjacent annex while Heide oversaw restoration work. Little more than load-bearing walls were able to be salvaged, so a new Mission-style facade was constructed and opened in 1911.

Photograph of Polk City DirectoriesNext up was figuring out who or what ‘B. W. Fargo’ referred to. For this I turned to our collection of Polk City Directories. Polks, as we call them, are similar to today’s phone books, except they lacked phone numbers in the earlier years and generally gave more information out about the businesses and individuals listed. You can often use Polks to find out a person’s occupation, spouse’s name, address, and sometimes even annual salary. When looking up a business you can find out the address, owner, and type of business.

Scan of Polk directory pageBy looking in the Polks, I discovered that Bert W. Fargo and Elizabeth Goerig owned and operated a business at 1809 Hewitt Avenue (blocks from the courthouse) called Fargo B W & Co. This business was concerned with selling crockery, art goods, furniture, and other domestic products. According to our Polks, the company operated under that name from roughly 1901 to 1905.  While there are no records in our collection from this business, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume that this company either produced or commissioned souvenir ceramics of the courthouse and possibly other Everett landmarks. From the dates in our Polks, we may be able to date the jar between 1901-1905.

I was able to find all of this information out using our resources in about two hours. We frequently do the same for visitors looking into the history of their families or buildings that they’re curious about. That’s just a small portion of the work that we do as local history specialists. If you’d like to learn more about our work, or if you have a local history question related to the Everett/Snohomish County area, please feel free to get in touch.