Friday, February 22, 2008

Webcasts from the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the topic of a series of posts that I will make this week. The topic today: this rich selection of webcasts of LOC lectures and other public events. Categories include Biography, History, Performing Arts, Education, Government, World Affairs, Literature, Religion and Science. I am watching this panel: "Indian Religious Freedom, to Litigate or Legislate?" right now. Other intriguing titles include End of European Colonial Empires, Robert E. Lee, and 1507 Waldseemuller World Map. There are hundreds more!

Sadly the implementation of the webcasts is not what it could be. They are presented in the odious Realplayer format. (What is wrong with RealPlayer? Well PC Magazine listed it as #2 in their article "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.") An unfortunate side effect of the choice to use Realplayer is that you can't easily download the webcasts onto a portable device for later viewing--you have to watch them online, at your computer. (There are of course ways around this.) These programs were put on at the taxpayers' expense and are free of copyright, we should be able to download them if we like. There are no interactive features, we can't leave comments at the webcast pages. And it is not possible to insert the webcasts into a blog or webpage, as I so often do with YouTube videos on this blog.

I am delighted by the wealth of material in these webcasts, but wish they had presented them differently. I wonder why the LOC didn't just get a YouTube channel?

Monday, February 18, 2008

For Presidents Day: Newly Discovered Lincoln Photos

Check this out: NPR: Uncovered Photos Offer View of Lincoln Ceremony. I have always found the second inaugural address the most moving of Lincoln's speeches, as he struggles in public to understand the awful nature of the war and the place of God and of slavery in the conflict:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

For the full text of the address go here, and an audio reenactment of it here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Resurrecting Lost Books with

One of Isaac Asimov's lesser stories concerned two scientists in the far future who unknowingly reinvent discarded technologies. It was a humorous tale where the 26th-century men "invented" matches, books, and finally a propeller-driven aircraft (to replace laser igniters, computer screens, and anti-gravity cars).

I thought of the old story as I sit down to review, "an experimental non-commercial project to archive and re-publish public domain works," The site "any of the supported sites such as the the Internet Archive, Google Books or Universal Library (books in public domain ONLY) and reprint it using " Millions of out-of-print books back in print, just like that! I learned about from a post on Metafilter and decided to give it a whirl.

In keeping with the theme of this blog I selected the Reverend Samuel Parker's Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1838) an important early account from the first missionary to answer the "Macedonian Cry," the dramatic journey of four Nez Perce men to Saint Louis in 1831 to request Christian missionaries. Parker's 1836 journey to the northwest was sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and his account of the journey was snapped up by eager would-be missionaries and their supporters. It is a work that both shaped the history of the northwest and gives us one of our best descriptions of the region in the fur trade era.

Ordering the book could not have been easier. You find the volume you like on Goggle Books (or the other supported services) and copy the URL. You paste the URL in a box at, confirm your email, and are soon sent a link to an order page at, a web based print on demand service. Hand over your information and credit card number and the order is placed. It really was the work of a few minutes and cost $18.29 shipped.

Eight days later I had the book--my very own 1838 (sort of) edition of this important work:

The print quality is pretty good--not exactly crisp but clear and legible (the picture below suffers a bit from being taken in low light):

Some users of the service have complained that it does not handle illustrations very well, while others have commented that this is improving. The illustrations in my reprint were nothing to write home about, fairly muddy though clear enough to give you the idea. It is a shame they are not better, because mid-nineteenth century book engraving are a wonderful lost art:

The quality of the cover and binding were good enough for a paperback. I liked the very wide margins around each page, room for ample note taking for those of us who read with a pencil in hand. I was quite pleased with this service--it is a real boon for historians of the pre-1928 era! (1928 of course is when modern copyright laws kick in to spoil the digital history party.)

Now of course any book that is available for this service can even more easily be downloaded to your hard drive with a couple of clicks--which is just what I did with the Reverend Parker. On my Tablet PC I can pull up this book, read it or search by keyword, digitally highlight key passages, copy and paste quotations into a paper that I am working with, and otherwise have my way with the text in a fashion impossible with a mere printed volume. So what is the point of reprinting it?

I can see a couple of uses. First, not many of us are comfortable reading entire volumes on the computer screen. I could see ordering reprints of key books in my research and reading them with the same book up on my PC for annotations and quotes. This would also be a great way to assign an out-of-print work in the classroom. Especially for those of us who teach local history or obscure topics where key resources are apt to be out of print.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Missoula Chicken Wars Heat Up

I love this. It seems that the citizens of Missoula, Montana are caught in a struggle over the place of chickens in their community. Some folks, influenced by the desire for organic food and the eat locally movement, are raising chickens in their yards, within city limits. (Apparently there is an "urban chicken" movement.) Others are against it. The city is considering legalizing chicken possession. (By which I mean owning chickens, not chickens being inhabited by the spirit of Satan.)

(This is yet another post stolen from someone at Metafilter.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Visualizing Man's Impact on the Oceans

A Global Map of Human Impacts to Marine Ecosystems: "The goal of the research presented here is to estimate and visualize, for the first time, the global impact humans are having on the ocean's ecosystems. Our analysis, published in Science, February 15, 2008, shows that over 40% of the world's oceans are heavily affected by human activities and few if any areas remain untouched."

This report is from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), which "supports cross-disciplinary research that uses existing data to address major fundamental issues in ecology and allied fields, and their application to management and policy." What makes me post it here is the innovative way the NCEAS presents its data as a Google Earth layer. Here is the KML file: Marine Impacts KML.

(via MetaFilter)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Schoolhouse Rock--Elbow Room

I recommend a stiff drink before watching this one:

Most of the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons can be found on YouTube, or you can just order the lot of them on a DVD from Netflix. But should we use them in the classroom? "Elbow Room" may be the worst of them, with a whitewashed version of westward expansion that would embarrass the coarsest Turnerian and a raft of historical errors. It might work very well in a college classroom, where students are used to picking things apart. I would hate for the teacher of my 8-year-old son to use it though.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Common-place: A Native American Scoops Lewis and Clark

Gordon M. Sayre's article A Native American Scoops Lewis and Clark offers a popular presentation and analysis of the story of Moncacht-apé, a Yazoo Indian who may have crossed the continent a century before Lewis and Clark. Moncacht-apé's adventures were recorded for posterity in Le Page du Pratz's Histoire de la Louisiane (first published in 1758, though the link is to a later translation at Project Gutenberg). Du Pratz was a French colonial official in Louisiana from 1718 to 1734, and it was in Natchez, Mississippi that he met the elderly Moncacht-apé. Du Pratz often interviewed natives for his history and for the important map or North America which accompanied the volumes.

Moncacht-apé said that in his youth he had taken two great journeys. The first was to Niagara Falls and then the Atlantic Ocean. The second journey was up the Missouri, across the mountains, and to the Pacific.

Did it really happen? I will let you read Sayre's excellent analysis of the tale. (And don't miss his own translations of Du Pratz and additional commentary at his own website.) But I do want to suggest that if Moncacht-apé did not make the journeys, other Indians surely did. A man can walk across the North American continent in one long season. (Your own sturdy blogger once walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, 2100 miles in five months, a typical time for that journey.) If the person were a respected healer, a native diplomat, or simply sufficiently quick-witted, they could travel along native trade routes easily enough. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, who traveled across northern Mexico while serving as a shaman to the natives, suggests what was possible.

The essay by the way is from Common-Place, a wonderful internet journal of early American history.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Kalispel Wellness Center Grand Opening

On Friday I enjoyed the privilege of attending a grand opening ceremony at the Kalispel Tribe's Wellness Center in Usk, Washington. I tagged along with the delegation from Eastern Washington University.

The Kalispel (the French dubbed them the Pend O'Reilles, and they often appear in the historical record under that name) once lived across a wide swath of the inland Northwest. They were not party to any of the 19th-century treaties however and only gained a reservation in 1914--a nine by one mile strip of land along the Columbia River. In 2001 the Kalispel opened the Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights near Spokane and their fortunes began to improve.

The Wellness Center is the most visible sign on the Kalispel Reservation of the tribe's new wealth. The center includes health care facilities, a dentists office, daycare and after-school facilities, an astonishing set of indoor pools including a therapy pool, exercise center, and much more. The opening ceremony included welcomes from various tribal officials and elders and a wonderful performance of traditional music from the Frog Island Singers. Later Joe Pakootas, Executive Director of the Camas Institute gave us a tour of the Wellness Center. A few pictures below:

Main Hallway of the Wellness Center

Joe Patookas Welcomes the Crowd

The Pool Area

Climbing Wall

Mountain Views

Kalispel Buffalo Herd

I want to say thank you to the Kalispel Tribe for opening the facility to the public and to my friends at Eastern Washington University for letting me tag along.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I See Dead People

Here is another cool resource from the Washington State Digital Archives--a lot of Death Records for Washington counties. Once you find a record you can pull up a high quality scan of the death certificate. Pictured below is Spokane Garry's death certificate, which is a sad little story of the chief's last days. The certificate lists his age as 84 and his place of death as Hangman Creek. Like many Indians pushed out of the city as it grew, Garry lived in the valleys and ravines on the outskirts of Spokane. The date of his death was January 14th, 1892 and the cause "congestion of lungs." It is easy to read the certificate and think of Garry broken and cold, shivering in his tepee as his lungs slowly filled with fluid. (Apparently I cannot link directly to the certificate, but if you search Spokane county for the last name Garry it is the only result.)

Each and every certificate tells a story, not a few of them sad. A. J. Smith, a 53 year old black man who worked as a plasterer, died of pneumonia in 1903. He was born in Indiana in 1850--a free man--but his father came from Kentucky. Had the elder Smith escaped from bondage on the Underground Railroad? A man listed as only "Jim (a Chinaman)" was 44 and single when he died of illegible causes (pluttusis?) at the Eastern Washington Hospital for the Insane. His occupation was listed as "day laborer." Whereas Iwojiro Akamatsu was born in Japan and died in Kootenai Idaho in 1905 in an unspecified "railroad accident."

I think these would be a wonderful teaching resource! Stay with me here--what do kids love? That is right, kids love dead people. And mysteries. A teacher could quickly print off a passel of these certificates and hand them out in class, asking each student to pretend that they are the dead person and tell the class about their life--and death.

Mary Latham's Pessary and other Google Patents

Here is an overlooked digital tool for historians--Google Patents Search. Incorporating 7 million patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the database has sophisticated search features at the Advanced Patent Search page. So what were the inventive residents of early Spokane patenting?

Well, Mary Latham developed a pessary. "My invention relates, primarily, to means of supporting the womb in that disarrangement of the organ known as 'prolapsus uteri,' or to prevent movement of or shock two said organ," Latham reported. Some types of late-19th century pessaries (though not this one) were sold as medical aids but actually used as birth control devices. This was especially common after the Constock Act of 1873 made it illegal to send contraceptive devices or even information through the mail. (This NY Times review article, "The Secret History of Birth Control" is a good overview.)

What else were Spokanites inventing? Lots of farm equipment. A watch fob fastening device. A device to the head still when surgery is performed. A toilet designed "to prevent the escape of noxious fumes." A complicated toy horse. A water-powered machine gun. And most amazing, a 1900 patent for an automobile "adapted for use as a pleasure vehicle ... or may be used as a gun carriage by using a suitable armor plate."

The best of these old patents are the elegant and sometimes goofy line drawing of the inventions. I think that students would delight in these. Patents are also a good way to explore local history--even most small towns will show a patent or two over the 200 year history of the Patent Office.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Who Are You People?

Above is a map of recent visitors to this blog. Fifty to one hundred people visit this site each day, many of them repeat visitors, 3500 visitors since I installed a stat counter a few months back! I began blogging mostly as a way to force myself to keep current with the latest digital history sites and technologies, but it turns out that others are interested in the same topics. The vast majority of visitors are from the U.S. and Canada, but there have been readers from numerous other nations as well, including New Zealand, Australia, may locations in Europe, Japan, and Kahzakstan. (I wish my book was half this popular.)

So who are you people? The stat counter tells me where visitors are coming from, but nothing more than that. Introduce yourselves in the comments section, if even pseudonymously.