The Librarian at Play

June 3, 2015
Lee Library

The Carnegie library in Lee, Massachusetts, c. 1909.

In the small New England town where my husband and I spend our vacations, the jewel of Main Street is a lovely public library built in 1907 from local marble. It’s a “Carnegie library” – one of the 2,500 libraries established worldwide with grants from steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

A fictional version of one of those small-town Carnegie libraries is the setting for most of the pieces in The Librarian at Play by Edmund Lester Pearson, a delightfully humorous volume recounting, among other things, the daily interactions of the librarians with the quirky patrons of the library.

Pearson was a librarian and author, now best known for his fascinating true crime books, such as Studies in Murder, which are now classics of the genre. Educated at Harvard and the New York State Library School, he began his library career in Washington, D.C., and worked for a time at the Library of Congress. Beginning in 1906, he wrote a column, “The Librarian,” for a Boston newspaper, and it was this column that provided the amusing pieces in The Librarian at Play. The book was published in 1911, after he had moved back to his home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts – which, ironically, didn’t need a Carnegie library, because it had had a library of its own since 1854, and Pearson served on its Board of Trustees.

coverThe pieces in The Librarian at Play poke good-natured fun at books, readers, modern fictional characters, and even inventions. One piece features a salesman trying to sell the library an “interest gauge” that one attaches to a book to determine how interesting it is (the Letters of Junius doesn’t do too well, but a Conan Doyle story shoots the gauge up to a high level). Another piece concerns the exciting installation of a telephone at the library, which enables patrons to call for help in identifying a bird on the front lawn, or to get the answer to a newspaper contest question, or to locate a novel of which they know only the barest outlines of the plot, but not the title or author (“You see, it starts this way….”)

Even Andrew Carnegie is a source of playful humor. One fellow strongly suspects that the library doesn’t carry a particular socialist newspaper “because it’s Carnegie’s library, ain’t it, miss?” When the librarian replies that Carnegie merely donated the money for the building, the man insists that “he runs it, just the same” by using “people in his pay.” In another piece, an equally jaded gentleman opines that an overdue book notice demanding a fine is “just one of Carnegie’s games to get money out of yer.”

The Librarian at Play may be little known compared to Pearson’s true crime books, but it is a bright little gem in his body of work. Many thanks to the Distributed Proofreaders team for bringing it to the Project Gutenberg library.


Archaeological Essays, Vol. II

May 7, 2015
Greek medicine vase

Ancient Greek medicine vase

Since archaeology is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, I’ve smooth-read several books about it at DP. When I saw  Archaeological Essays, Vol. II, by Sir James Y. Simpson, show up in the smooth-reading pool, I thought, “Oh, boy! Another fun read!” Well, what I learned was, you can’t trust the title of a book. The first “essay,” which went on and on and on (you get the picture) had nothing to do with archaeology! It was entirely about the incidence of leprosy in Great Britain, Scotland, and parts of France! Now, mind you, the author quotes sources as far back as the 800s, but still! This is not archaeology.

I learned a lot about leprosy. I learned that there are three different kinds of it, that the ancient Greeks knew of it and called it “elephantiasis,” and that the Arabs had a different version of it. It is not the same thing as the swollen legs some people still get when infected by certain parasites. This particular author didn’t seem to think leprosy is very contagious. There was much discussion as to how leprosy arrived in Europe and England and spread to Scotland. There were rather graphic descriptions of what a person with leprosy looks like. I could almost be an expert in the field!

This is part of what makes smooth-reading so much fun. You never know what you’re going to end up with—or what you might learn!


Sunday School Stories

April 4, 2015

Maybee’s Stepping Stones by Archie Fell is a book of Sunday school stories for each week of the year. As I read it, I experienced a wide range of emotions — love, kindness, patience, life, death, naughtiness, guilt, fear, consequences, tolerance, forgiveness, family, community, happiness, sorrow, adversity, hope, loneliness, sadness, joy….

frontispiece

I gasped with alarm when Dick shot himself; when Tryphosa was overcome with the fire. I wanted to cry when Dick lay in the woods unheard, when Phosy and Aunty McFane became ill, and I rejoiced when Mrs. Harte and Bill Finnegan went to the Sabbath School, and when Dan Harte resolved to overcome his addiction to alcohol. I shared the children’s frustrations as they struggled with doing the right thing, and smiled unashamedly when their good deeds worked near miracles.

The stories may be old-fashioned, and based on Christianity, but the lessons are for us all, whether we believe in a god or not, whether our deeds are in person or via social media, whether we are young or old. We can all put out a hand in comfort and together we can grow in strength no matter what our trials and tribulations.

She had just been reading a chapter in the Bible out loud, and Aunty McFane said there was a promise for every ache she had. Isn’t it funny,” he  continued, turning to Miss Marvin, “that folks just as different as can be find exactly what they want in the Bible? — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 224.

Reading these stories, I couldn’t help but reminisce about when I was a little girl going to Sunday school.

Denomination meant nothing to us so the church we attended was the one within walking distance — I think it was Presbyterian. Our parents didn’t seem particularly religious, but they did make us go to Sunday school. Our father had in mind that if we weren’t christened it would be easier for us if we wanted to marry someone of strong faith in a particular church.

I never did work out my father’s beliefs. I suspect my mother was quite devout, although I did not know her to go to church, and she didn’t speak about religion much. She did go to a Catholic primary school — she had me shocked and in fits of laughter when she told me of the time she had to stand in front of an open fire with a piece of soap in her mouth because she had sworn at the nuns.

…  then she tried scrubbing the inside of his mouth with soap-suds — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 19.

My sister only recently told me the story of her second son who, at age six, when admonished for swearing, was threatened with a similar fate of having his mouth washed out with soap. The little boy went to the bathroom, grabbed some soap, foamed it up in his mouth, and went out to his mother and said, “Now I can swear.” I think there’s quite a bit of my mother’s determined spirit in both my sister and my nephew. The same son said to my sister the other week: “Do what you want, mother, you will anyway.”

My mother also told the story of a family member who was a Major in the Salvation Army. I heard her say many times that only the good die young. And I learnt that she had a very difficult time accepting the death of a daughter before I was born.

Upon the pine coffin, the girls in Miss Cox’s class laid a wreath of beautiful hot-house flowers; but all over the lid, and inside, around the pale face and over the white robe, were fresh, fragrant pond-lilies, their subtile perfume filling the room. — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 149.

We had Sunday School stories, much like those told in Maybee’s Stepping Stones. We collected a stamp for each story lesson we attended. When our stamp sheet was full, we were presented with a little book.

We had our “Sunday best” clothes, and how we did love dressing up, putting on our delicate little dresses with ribbons and bows, and polishing our little shoes. Going to Sunday school was exciting and something to look forward to. It added a purpose to our lives, spiritual and social.

But she made her appearance, bright and early, Sabbath morning, comparatively quite docile, submitted to be washed, shampooed, braided, and ruffled, with a most martyr-like air, and came out from the process not so very unlike the five other girls, among whom Say seated her, with such a happy look in her own blue eyes. Just to see her sitting there more than repaid the trouble. — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 106.

Our Sunday school was at the back of the church in a prefabricated corrugated steel “Nissen hut” like those used for temporary accommodation during the war years. The building is still there but it is no longer a church, and the hut has been replaced by a brick addition attached to the main building.

I mentioned above it was within walking distance. Back then, there was a church nearby almost everywhere. I thought about this in recent years when a neighbour who had become almost housebound because of poor vision and declining mobility told me that one of the things she missed most was being able to walk to church. Her old church building was still there, too, at the end of the street where she had lived most of her adult life, along with the convent buildings that had been converted first to a school, and then to an art gallery, and now left to crumble. The nearest church for her was now on the other side of town. Buses don’t run on Sundays in this small community so, with few friends or family interested in taking her to church, she had only television services to comfort her.

So much inward soul searching from a little children’s book — literary merit?… Well, the stories stand up to the test of time, is all I can conclude.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


From Paper to App: How Distributed Proofreaders Got a Cebuano Dictionary on Smartphones

March 7, 2015

Because my wife’s native language is Cebuano, I am always on the lookout for resources in that language. Although widely spoken in the Southern Philippines, with about 30 million native speakers, the language lacks any official status and is mainly used in informal settings. Primary schools switch to a mix of English and Tagalog (re-branded as “Filipino” to make it a national language) after the first two years, and most official business takes place in English. As a result, there are very few publications in Cebuano.device-2015-02-23-204551

Back in 2006, I was able to obtain a set of scans of John U. Wolff’s Dictionary of Cebuano Visayan from somebody in the Philippines, and not much later I found a second set of scans available online from Cornell University. Immediately I noticed that this is a great resource for people who would like to study the language: it gives detailed grammatical information, and includes numerous sample sentences. Of course, it does have its issues: its use of non-standard orthography makes it less acceptable to most speakers of language, and the way the information on verb-usage is encoded is hard to understand even for a determined student. But still it would be very nice to have this book in a digital format.

Since the dictionary dates from 1972, at first I had little hope it could be re-published in Project Gutenberg; however, I got in touch with the author, now Emeritus Professor at Cornell University, and after consultation with the publisher he gave me permission to process the book for Project Gutenberg. Later on, I also noticed a very liberal “Public Domain” notice on this copy, stating that the book would enter the public domain in 1982.

Quickly, the process of preparing the scans for Distributed Proofreaders started: splitting all scans into columns, preparing instructions for the sometimes complex entries, and preparing several projects (one for each letter), such that proofers wouldn’t be shocked by a 2500+ page count, and more importantly, that work on it could be done in all rounds at once, and post-processing could get an early start with the first few letters.

When the first parts started to return from the site, the massive work of post-processing such a huge work started. Fiddling with regular expressions and custom-made conversion scripts in a combination of Perl and XSLT, I managed to massage the original typographic tagging to a far more useful structural tagging, such that all the various elements encoded in the dictionary were marked as such, with grammar labels, entries and sub-entries, sample sentences, and their translations having their own tag. This would also enable a spell-check of the entire document, in which the dictionary itself proved highly useful, because one of the first things I did with the data was to convert it into a SQL database, and build a web interface around it, which enabled me to quickly look up words in their context, and then use this interface to locate remaining issues in the data.

When all this was done, I was able to produce a huge (almost 10 megabyte) HTML and text file for submission to Project Gutenberg, and a nice PDF version which could be used to reprint the book; and, even better, I could publish the web interface on the website I set up to promote Bohol. All files required to process the dictionary are available online as well.

Since the introduction of tablet computers, I wanted to also create some software for them, and I got that opportunity in 2013, when I got three months of paid leave as part of my severance payment when my employer decided to close the Dutch office in which I was working. In that period, I dived into the architecture of Android apps, and basically re-coded the functionality of the website for a smartphone, in such a way that all the data was on-board and could be accessed without the need to be connected. Although the app was basically finished by October 2013, it took me quite some time to publish it, as I was occupied with other things, as a 7.2 earthquake in Bohol destroyed my in-laws’ house (as well as many other buildings, including some of its most beautiful historical churches). Also, I wanted to add some more features and polish the icons being used, and was investigating a way to earn something from the app. Seeing that this was not going happen soon, I decided to release the Cebuano-English Dictionary App for free, and also publish the complete source code, hoping it will prove a great resource for all with an interest in the Cebuano language, and hoping the source code will be helpful in building similar dictionaries for other languages. (Unfortunately, I won’t be making a version for the iPhone, as Apple requires DRM on all apps distributed through their iTunes store, and in general their conditions are incompatible with the GPL-3 I am using for my code).

Of course, all this wouldn’t have been possible without the diligent proofreading of many volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders — for that, daghang salamat (many thanks)!


Opera Buff

February 7, 2015

Not everyone likes opera, but when someone loves opera, it’s a deep and passionate and unending love. There’s something utterly beguiling about the marriage of music and drama that makes some people downright demented about it. I know whereof I speak; I’ve been working with a small opera company since I was 11 years old, for nearly 44 years now, and I’m familiar with every form of opera dementia—my own and that of countless others. For the love of opera, people will stand in long lines in the rain, sit in uncomfortable seats for hours, travel long distances, spend years studying it, singing it, working at it, talking about it, writing about it.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Gustav Kobbé (1857-1918) was demented about opera, but the sheer scale of his masterpiece, The Complete Opera Book, proves that it was no ordinary labor of love.

Kobbé trained as a pianist, and took a detour to law school, but ultimately made his career as a music and drama critic for the leading newspapers and magazines of the day. In that capacity, he attended opera performances all over the world, including the 1882 premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth, Germany. He put his decades of opera experience into The Complete Opera Book, published posthumously in 1919.

The book is truly a tour-de-force, covering over 200 operas in over 800 pages. Kobbé provides information about each opera’s premiere and important performances, with the leading singers’ names; a complete character list with voice types; anecdotes about the opera’s composition and early performances; analysis and criticism; a synopsis of the plot; and, as the title page boasts, “400 of the Leading Airs and Motives in Musical Notation.” The first edition also contains “One Hundred Portraits in Costume and Scenes from Opera”—fascinating historic photographs of the leading singers of the day, in character.

Caruso

Enrico Caruso as Canio in I Pagliacci

Alas, Kobbé didn’t live to see his masterpiece in print. In the summer of 1918, he was indulging in his other love, sailing off the coast of Long Island in New York, when he was killed by a low-flying hydroplane. According to the New York Times account, he saw the plane coming, and had just stood up to dive to safety when the plane’s bottom boards hit him in the head.

Luckily, he had nearly completed The Complete Opera Book, and it was decided to bring it to publication soon after his death, with fellow music critic Katharine Wright editing the work and adding some operas to it. But the apparent rush to publication unfortunately left numerous errors in the first edition. Still, Kobbé’s labor of love was deservedly hailed as a “notable addition to musical literature” (Oakland Tribune, Jan. 4, 1920).

The Complete Opera Book has remained an important opera reference work since. It was revised and updated a number of times, most famously by George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, whose best-known edition, The Definitive Kobbé’s Opera Book (1987) contains over 300 operas and is now considered a classic, though it lacks the historic photographs and some of Kobbé’s original commentary. The most recent edition, The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997), added some 200 additional operas, but disappointingly omits much of the detailed information and music notation contained in earlier editions, presumably to make room for those additional operas.

To my opera-demented mind, the later editions, while useful, somehow lack the charm of the original, with its frank enthusiasm (“Wagner’s genius was so supreme that, although he has been dead thirty-four years, he is still without a successor”) and its wealth of illustrations. The Distributed Proofreaders team has brought the original to life again, complete with photographs, and music that you can actually hear. Who knows, it may make an opera buff out of you.


Histoire de France: Our 29,000th Title

January 14, 2015

PGDP - 29.000th Unique Title

Distributed Proofreaders is celebrating another milestone — our 29,000th title posted to Project Gutenberg — with another very special project: the completion of all 19 volumes of Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France.

Michelet labored for over 30 years on his masterpiece, at first aided by his job in the French government’s Record Office, which gave him access to a vast array of primary sources. Due to his ardent republican sentiments, he lost his job after the 1848 Revolution, but continued the work on his great Histoire, taking time out now and then to produce a number of works on subjects as varied as natural history, religion, and even witchcraft. Project Gutenberg has a good collection of Michelet’s works in different languages.

The Histoire, completed in 1867, covers the full sweep of French history from ancient times to the French Revolution. Michelet devoted several volumes to the Renaissance, a term that he is said to have coined to describe the flowering of European culture after the strictures of the Middle Ages. He brought to his work not only meticulous scholarship, but also a unique personal style, almost poetic in its romanticism, and a deep interest, revolutionary for its time, in the people of France, not just their kings and governments.

Congratulations to the many DP volunteers who brought this great project to fruition!


A Day at Waterloo

January 7, 2015

Early last year I downloaded A Week at Waterloo in 1815, by Lady Magdalene De Lancey, from Project Gutenberg. I was soon caught by the story, written by the widow of Colonel Sir William Howe De Lancey.

De Lancey

Col. Sir William Howe De Lancey

Sir William was mortally wounded in a skirmish, the day before the big battle at Waterloo, when he was riding at Wellington’s side. He was hit in his side by a cannonball that threw him off his horse. He was not killed immediately, but survived his wound for six days. When his men saw he wasn’t dead yet, they moved him to a barn, where he was left for several hours, till the fight was over, and he could be transported to a nearby farm.

When his wife, who was staying in Antwerp, heard that he was wounded, or maybe dead, she didn’t hesitate to look for transport that would bring her to her husband. When she finally got there, after much trouble, she was relieved to find him still alive.

The cannonball left a gigantic bruise on Sir William’s side. In those circumstances, nobody could really tell the severity of his wound. Lady De Lancey nursed her husband, never leaving his side. But he didn’t make it. After his death, examination revealed that the cannonball had broken several ribs, which had penetrated his lung.

I was very much touched by this story. Sir William seemed to have been a good man, and his comrades, his superiors, and his family speak very highly of him in this memoir. You can find a full review of it here.

Now to my own story. A few weeks after I read the book, my dog died. I was very sad, and so was my son. We felt lost in the house. We decided it would do us good to get out and make a day-trip. I proposed that we should go to Waterloo, as it is only an hour’s drive from our place, but I had never been there. So the next Saturday we went.

memorial

Waterloo Memorial at Evere

First we visited the cemetery in Evere, where the British casualties are entombed, and there is a beautiful memorial monument on top of the tomb. The illustration is on page 118 of the book. If you look at it, you can see on the left stairs going down. This is where you enter the tomb, and inside there are niches containing the remains of the officers. I soon found William De Lancey’s last resting place, and stood a few minutes in silence, honouring this brave man, and his fellow officers and soldiers. (The soldiers with lower rank are also buried there, outside the tomb, but within the outer walls that you can see around the monument.)

Afterwards we went to Waterloo, where we visited the Wellington Museum, located in the house where Wellington had his headquarters. On a wall in one of the rooms was a newspaper page, and in the bottom right corner I could read amongst the names of the casualties: William De Lancey, mortally wounded.

We also climbed the stairs to the top of the Waterloo Lion, from where we had a view over the entire battlefield. Later we also visited Napoleon’s last headquarters.

This day was a very interesting experience, being at the place where so many gave their lives. But it was William De Lancey and his wife who touched my heart.

Thank you, all the members of the Distributed Proofreaders team, who worked so hard to make this book available for the world!

This post was contributed by Eevee, a DP volunteer.


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