The Great Fire in St. John

May 31, 2018

“James Turnbull … was about to rush into the cellar and tell him [his father] how near the fire was when he turned and beheld a dark shadow in the doorway. It was coming towards him, and for a moment struck terror into his soul. The tall figure of a woman, deeply robed in black, holding up a long train in her hand, and with head-dress all aflame, stood before him in the hall.”

This is one of the scenes in George Stewart’s The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877, a detailed description of the massive fire that for nine hours tore through the city destroying 1,612 buildings, killing 18 people, and leaving more than 13,000 people homeless. At the time, St. John was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in North America, with shipyards that were famous around the world.

Prince William Street

Prince William Street, St. John, before and after the fire.

Stewart lived through the fire. Indeed, he lost his home and his pharmacy business to the flames. His book about the fire and its aftermath was so popular that its sales allowed him to recoup all his losses.

After weeks of dry warm weather, St. John citizens welcomed the strong wind that arose on “Black Wednesday.” They soon had reason to fear it, however, when a small fire that started at McLaughlin’s boiler shop swept into neighbouring buildings. The author witnessed as “in a few minutes the fire spread with alarming rapidity, and houses went down as if a mine of powder had exploded and razed them…. The huge blazing brands were carried along in the air for miles around, and where-ever they dropped a house went down.” The fire roared through the city and into the harbour where the flames mounted the masts of the schooners, passing from ship to ship until it “formed a complete bridge of fire from the north wharf to the south. It was like a gala-day celebration of fire-works on a large scale.” Passengers on the Empress steamship that was entering the harbour were stunned by the sight of a city in flames and tortured by fears for their homes and children.

The book describes how people frantically carted their belongings to places they believed would be safe from the flames, only to discover that safety was only temporary — “Men had their stores burned at four and five o’clock, and their goods burned at seven and eight o’clock.” One woman hired a team to carry all her valuables to her mother-in-law’s house, only to have all her goods destroyed when her mother-in-law’s home burned to the ground two hours later, while her own home was spared from the fire.

People who strove to save what they could often found that they’d left the most valuable things behind. A woman, who asked her husband to cart away the bag that contained the family silver, discovered that he had rescued the rag bag instead. One man saved an old tub and dipper, and watched his valuable library and private papers succumb to the flames. Another man tried vainly to protect his house by standing on his roof with a pitcher and splashing water onto the flying sparks. He escaped, but the next day all that was left of his house was a pile of ash and his pitcher, still standing on the ledge of the tall chimney where he had left it.

There are many images of horror. I can still picture the flock of pigeons whirling into the flames and the cat who, “maddened and wild, cut off from all escape, dashed along, when the fire pursued her, and she stood still.” The author continues, “On Thursday morning she was still standing in the same place. Her frame only could be seen, with head up and tail erect.” He describes a little boy who could not be comforted: “O, pa, pa, come and see! God is burning up the world, and He won’t make another, and He won’t make another!” But the book also recounts many moments of heroism as the people of St. John worked together to save themselves and their city.

As well as describing the struggles and frequent heroism of the citizens and the terrible losses suffered, this account covers the aftermath of the fire, including detailed lists of donations received. There are also many beautiful woodcuts of the city and its buildings before and after the destruction.

The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877 is a masterpiece of its kind, giving us a first-hand account of how ordinary people endured, survived and recovered from a disaster that destroyed more than half of their city.

This post was contributed by Linda Hamilton, General Manager of Distributed Proofreaders.


… this may be for you.

April 30, 2018

proofed textIf you are a perfectionist, a nit picker, a grammar “nut,” the punctuation police, know what the Oxford comma is, or can spot a typo or an anomaly a mile away, this may be for you.

If you would like a volunteer opportunity without a specific time or place commitment, this may be for you.

If you would like to volunteer from the comfort of your own home, your own PC, or your favorite library or coffee shop, this may be for you.

If you would like to be part of an online community with a shared purpose, mutually helpful and respectful, this may be for you.

If you enjoy passionate debate or if you choose to observe debate without participating, this may be for you.

If you like to read generally older materials, be in the know, review books before they become generally available (again), this may be for you.

If you are looking to be able to make a contribution that needn’t be a financial contribution, this may be for you.

If you want flexibility in what kind of volunteer work you do and which projects you work on, this may be for you.

If you are not afraid of getting addicted to an activity that is legal, this may be for you.

If you seek nerdy fun, this may be for you.

What is “this”? It’s volunteering time and energy to Distributed Proofreaders. For any, some or all of these reasons, I hope you’ll give distributed proofreading a try. You may discover that it really is for you.

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.


Distributed Proofreaders Site Maintenance – 22 April 2018

April 22, 2018

The Distributed Proofreaders site is scheduled to be completely unavailable between 3 pm and 8 pm server time on Sunday 22 April 2018 as we upgrade to a new Operating System.

The update is not expected to take a full 5 hours. If checks are completed early, the site will return sooner.

Thank you for your patience. As you wait for Distributed Proofreaders to become available again, please feel free to browse through the excellent articles in this Blog.

We’ll keep this blog post updated with progress during the outage. You can also find us in the pgdp Jabber conference room (pgdp@conference.jabber.org)

Update 6:10pm: Site is back up and operational, thank you for your patience!

Update 5:00 pm: Still proceeding as planned.

Update 4:00 pm: Proceeding as planned.

Update 3:00pm: Maintenance has started.


April Fools

April 1, 2018

april0001_cropped

Looking for a way to celebrate April Fool’s Day? Project Gutenberg has a few amusing works on pranks and hoaxes, thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders.

Bram Stoker, best known for Dracula, penned an entertaining volume on Famous Impostors. Here we find pretenders to various thrones, dabblers in magic and alchemy, witches and wizards, false claimants to great fortunes, and a number of celebrated hoaxes of bygone times.

One such hoax was the brainchild of professional practical joker Theodore Hook, who bragged of his exploits in The Choice Humorous Works, Ludicrous Adventures, Bons Mots, Puns, and Hoaxes of Theodore Hook. His most famous prank was the Berners Street Hoax. On a bet that he could make any house the most talked about in London, he ordered numerous goods and services to be delivered to an address in Berners Street, all in one day. Hook’s shenanigans are also cited in an essay by Irish writer Robert Lynd on “The Humour of Hoaxes” in The Book of This and That.

The American West in the 19th Century presented opportunities for get-rich-quick schemes that were often founded on swindles. Pioneer and adventurer Asbury Harpending tries to clear his “family name and reputation” in his account of The Great Diamond Hoax, a purported diamond field in California that had in fact been “salted” with cheap gems.

For those who like their pranks dramatized, there’s the one-act farce April Fools, part of an 1889 collection of plays “for Church, School and Parlor Exhibitions.” The plot is a bit reminiscent of Hook’s Berners Street Hoax:

Mr. Peter Dunnbrowne, a gentleman with several unmarried daughters on his hands, receives a note from Mr. John Smith proposing for his daughter Fanny. Presently Mr. James Smith calls, he having received a letter announcing that Mr. D’s mare Fanny is for sale, and an amusing dialogue at cross purposes ensues. This disposed of, Mr. Joseph Smith, an undertaker, calls, he having been notified that Miss Fanny had suddenly died, and another puzzle follows.

We won’t give away the “surprise” ending…

Of course, children love April Fool’s Day pranks, and there are several children’s books at PG with stories about them, including Fun and Frolic, The Last Penny, and A Flock of Girls and Boys.

It just goes to show that Project Gutenberg has something for every occasion — with over 56,000,000* e-books in its library, that’s no surprise.

*56,000. April Fool!


Songs of the West

March 1, 2018
Cornwall

Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea, Cornwall, by William Trost Richards (1902)

Collecting folk songs became almost a craze among 19th-Century musical scholars who were concerned that the old traditional country songs and dances were dying out. Some blamed it on the Industrial Revolution: As young people from rural areas flocked to the cities, and the cities ate up surrounding rural areas, folk traditions began to disappear. So the folklorists went out among the people to hear and write down the old songs.

They had to write them down. Sound recording was not yet possible, so the folklorists took down the melodies in musical notation. Some then took it upon themselves to enhance the melodies with piano accompaniment. And then, faced with what one might call the earthiness of some of the lyrics they heard, some folklorists took it upon themselves to rewrite the lyrics.

In Songs of the West, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould did just that. In the 1880s, he traveled throughout Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England to collect songs “from the mouths of the people,” as the subtitle proclaims. But Baring-Gould apparently felt that those mouths needed to be washed out with soap, so he provided his own words.

The Introduction makes no apology for this bowdlerizing:

In giving these songs to the public, we have been scrupulous to publish the airs precisely as noted down, choosing among the variants those which commended themselves to us as the soundest. But we have not been so careful with regard to the words. These are sometimes in a fragmentary condition, or are coarse, contain double entendres, or else are mere doggerel. Accordingly, we have re-written the songs wherever it was not possible to present them in their original form.

Given the tenor of the times, Baring-Gould had no choice. The original lyrics to song No. 45, “The Mole Catcher,” for example, which Baring-Gould described as “very gross,” are admittedly on the bawdy side. But despite the censorship, Songs of the West is a valuable and entertaining collection of music that, thanks to Baring-Gould’s devotion, preserves folk traditions that might otherwise have been completely lost. He enlisted the help of three other music scholars — the Rev. H. Fleetwood Sheppard, F.W. Bussell, and the eminent folklorist Cecil J. Sharp (aptly referred to in the book as “C. Sharp”) — to help him take down the tunes and to render the very fine piano accompaniments. The work contains 121 songs with detailed notes about their origins and the adjustments Baring-Gould and his co-authors made to them.

Baring-Gould was himself a Devon native, born in Exeter. His church career took him to Yorkshire for a time, where he wrote the well-known hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In 1881, he was able to return to Devon, where he found the time to produce numerous books and articles on various subjects, but Songs of the West was his masterwork. The Songs of the West website, run by Martin Graebe, author of As I Walked Out: Sabine Baring-Gould and the Search for the Folk Songs of Devon and Cornwall, provides an excellent review of Baring-Gould’s work on the songs.

Project Gutenberg’s version of Songs of the West is based on the fifth edition of the book, as reprinted in 1913. The HTML version features MP3 audio files of all the songs, transcribed by a DP volunteer, so you can enjoy listening to them while viewing the music.


Learning How to DP

February 1, 2018

mentorcover_croppedOne thing evident in the Distributed Proofreaders forums is that DPers love helping people, often tripping over each other in their enthusiasm to help others master the skills they need to work on various DP tasks. Looking at this another way, it’s easy to see how working at DP can be enormously satisfying for those who enjoy working in teaching/learning environments–the learning curve is steep, but the rewards well worth the effort.

In addition to answering questions in the forums, there is a structured proofreading mentoring system which involves proofreading beginner projects in the second proofreading round and providing feedback to the newcomers who proofread the pages in the first round. What skills and qualities do P2 mentors require? Enthusiasm, a really good knowledge of the proofreading guidelines, empathy, and a genuine desire to help people master what is required of them to become good proofreaders/transcribers.

Formatting mentoring is similar, and, while a little less structured, involves giving a guiding hand to those who have begun the steep learning curve to become good formatters. The skills and qualities are the same as for proofreading mentors, with a sound knowledge of the formatting guidelines added to the mix. Whereas proofreading is most often right or wrong, formatting can be less defined with several ways to format a page correctly, so both formatting and mentoring formatters can be more challenging.

Post-processing mentors are magicians. They help people learn about the software tools available for post-processing, and how to install and use them. Then they guide the new post-processor through the steps required to check the pages for any last remaining errors. But their job hasn’t finished there! Once the new post-processor has mastered the skills to get that far, the mentor takes them through the process of creating html, epub and mobi versions of the ebook. But wait! there’s more … they need to help the learner check all of those versions in the available tools to make sure nothing has been missed so that the best possible product will be uploaded to Project Gutenberg.

Post-processing verifiers need all the mentoring skills mentioned above because when checking a post-processor’s work they need to be able to advise on the tools and processes used, as well as to carry out all the checks the post-processor has already done. Their job is to advise the post-processor on layout issues, to catch any remaining errors, and to help reword transcriber’s notes if they are unclear or don’t reflect what has been done when transcribing the book. Post-processors have invested a lot of time and effort into producing their ebooks and the decisions they have taken along the way are important ones, so tact is required when providing feedback. Just as well post-processors are always keen to learn and apply that knowledge to their books.

And then at every stage we have mentors who mentor the mentors, as well as the as yet unmentioned developers who are learning and teaching in every development task they work on.

A big thanks to all DPers who have mentored and taught other volunteers how to produce high quality ebooks, and to those who have developed the site and tools required to do our jobs.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


Celebrating 35,000 Titles

January 26, 2018

Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 35,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, Shores of the Polar Sea. Congratulations and thanks to all the DP volunteers who worked on it.

Prolonged periods of well-below-normal temperatures and wind chill have made life uncomfortable and even dangerous for people in areas of the northern hemisphere recently. This blast of frigid Arctic air gives scope to imagine what life was like for the British explorers venturing northwards toward the Pole in Shores of the Polar Sea, a Narrative of the Arctic Expedition of 1875-1876.

This detailed account of the expedition led by Sir George Strong Nares was written by British Royal Navy Surgeon Edward Lawton Moss (1843-1880), who served both as surgeon and artist on HMS Alert, one of the ships taking part. The many engravings and lovely chromolithographs in the book come from drawings and watercolor sketches made by Moss himself during the journey.

The expedition sailed from England with three ships, two of which would venture on northwards, HMS Alert and HMS Discovery. The third, HMS Valorous, was a support vessel carrying additional supplies to be transferred to the other two ships at a rendezvous point along the coast of Greenland. The goal of the expedition was to “attain the highest northern latitude, and, if possible, reach the Pole.” A sketch map in the book details the paths taken by the expedition ships on their way northwards and later back home, as well as the tracks made by sledges across land covered by snow and ice.

As the book starts, the narrator sets the scene for the coming adventure:

… the Arctic Circle has obvious boundaries. A conspicuous change in the ordinary habits of nature warns the traveller that he is leaving the hospitable realms of earth behind him, and entering a region full of new experiences. Here familiar light and darkness cease to alternate, morning and evening no longer make the day, and in proportion as the latitude increases, day and night become mere figures of speech.

The Alert, towing the Discovery in an effort to save fuel, leaves contact with home behind after a stop in Upernivik, then the northernmost settlement in the world.

The explorers remark upon the beauty of the sunlight on ice, comparing it to “fields of mother-of-pearl.” It is not long though before the ice pack halts the progress of the ships for days, with the men waiting for an opening that will allow them to push on. The ice floes continue to be a hazard to progress, tearing against the sides of the ships and crushing the ships in between them. The explorers eventually have to blast the ice with gunpowder to free themselves after their ice-saws are no longer sufficient to get through the thicker ice.

While the Discovery, according to plan, settles down to spend the winter in a harbour near Lady Franklin Sound, the Alert continues onwards, the men still optimistic about their goal. They struggle their way through the ice up the Robeson Channel and find shelter on a beach, but a sense of confusion falls over them. The continuing coastline northwards that they expect to see based on their maps is not there; instead, they find themselves looking at the open polar sea.

sledges_cropped

Various sledges pulled by dogs and their crews trek outwards from the ship to the north and west, hoping to find some evidence that the coastline eventually continues towards the Pole. The men on the sledges encounter waist-deep soft snow and harsh temperatures as low as 47 degrees below freezing. With water-bottles freezing shut, the men have only “icy cold raw rum” to drink! The sledge parties return to the ship weeks later without conclusive results and the Alert hunkers down for the impending winter, where the explorers will go 142 days without seeing the sun and experience temperatures of 73.7 degrees below freezing and lower.

The narrator notes that it is not the extreme cold that is the worst part of enduring the long winter, that “An icy tub on an English winter morning feels colder to the skin than the calm Arctic air.” The constant darkness is more unsettling, and worst of all is the confinement in a relatively small space with others, requiring discipline and dedication to a routine. The men keep up with astronomical, meteorological and other scientific measurements and notes during the winter. Outside the ship there is only silence, occasionally interrupted “by sudden unearthly yells and shrieks from the still moving pack, harsh and loud as a steam siren, but unlike anything else in art or nature.”

As travel becomes possible again in the spring, men from the Alert crew the sledges once more and set off, one track going along the shore to the northwest, the other heading out northwards over ice floes. The bright sun burns the men’s faces and damages their eyesight, but also creates this stunning visual:

Every crystal of snow reflected a miniature sun, and the path of the rays seemed literally sown with gems, topaz and sapphire generally, but here and there a ruby. Similar colours, but with a curious metallic lustre like oil on water, tinted the fleecy clouds overhead….

The sledges taking the northern route come within four hundred miles of the Pole, reaching a record northern latitude of 83° 20´ 26´´, but they and the sledges on the other track eventually have to turn back as the men become afflicted with scurvy, suffering from “exhaustion, swollen and sprained ankles, stiff knees, and bruised and painful legs,” and cannot continue. Not all will survive to get back on the ships as they turn back towards home, fighting through the ice and racing against time to avoid another Arctic winter.

Today, a small community still exists not far from where HMS Alert wintered during this expedition. Named after the ship, Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in what is now Nunavut, Canada, and is home to various Canadian weather and military facilities as well as an airport.

This post was contributed by ellinora, a DP volunteer.


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