ruththeacrobat I grew up across the Potomac from Washington and the Library of Congress, not the most kid-friendly place. Strict rules—I don’t recall the specifics—guarded against various services of the Library from being swamped by the pimple-faced hordes slaving on term papers. To what extent did William Randolph Hearst‘s jingoist press cause the Spanish-American War? Such was my fixation for Ronald Savage’s history class, or maybe Bert Cohen’s; and unhappy with the pickings at my local public library, I talked the librarycrats into making me an exception.

But wouldn’t it be nice if the the Library were less aloof, not just from high school kids but from the Net as a whole? And so I’m delighted to learn that the acrobat image and some 3,000 others from the place will be available on Flickr—there to be enjoyed, picked up for other Web sites, and maybe even tagged and captioned in ways that bring new facts to light. That’s just a speck of the 14 million images at the Library, in part due to copyright restrictions, but it’s still a good start. Bravo! Would that even recent books from the library be online, too—something that would be possible, with compensation for writers and publishers, under a TeleRead-style approach.

Bookish truancy

With my high school episode in mind, I was amused early this morning to run across a somewhat similar tale, from an old school friend of my sister, Beth Wellington, the journalist-poet-activist whom Yahoo 360 dissed. Beth’s LOC item, however, provides twists going beyond my own, and here’s an excerpt from her post, which also passes on some disturbing details from the FlickR-LOC story:

Library_of_Congress“The Library of Congress is one of my favorite haunts. The first time I had to sneak in because I was still in high school. I confess this, hoping that the statute of limitations has expired. While other folks ditched classes to cruise the mall, I transgressed once by riding with Dad into the District to research a senior term paper, ‘The Effects of The Great Depression on Communist Party Membership in the United States.’ I had already tried the Richard Byrd branch library. Its only book—a 1958 tome by J. Edgar Hoover—warned that the shoe salesman peeking up my skirt might be a communist…The college libraries weren’t much better” in their selections. The truant office caught up with Mrs. Wellington, who later revealed that Beth was lucky in the wording of his question. “He asked whether I knew you were not in school and I said yes. If he had asked me if I knew you were skipping school I would have told him the same thing.”

‘Remnants of the McCarthy era’

“The shortage of books,” Beth recalls, “was my first experience with the remnants of the McCarthy era. Imagine, instead, a library where everything in print was available!”

Exactly. Or how about most everything available electronically—whether from the Library or from local systems or from the private sector, with ways to bypass the censorship that Washington might well try to impose?

The more things change…

Now, here’s the disturbing aspect of Beth’s post, something you may also see in a few other accounts of the Library-FlickR alliance. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, a godsend for vendors of filtering software, prevents certain school or library computers from accessing FlickR.

One fix could be for the Library site to mirror only “safe” parts of FlickR. A better one, though, as many have observed, would be to mitigate the legislation.

Will this happen soon? We’re not back in the McCarthy era, but the urge to repress is alive and well among no small number of voters and politicians. It’s not as if we should have kids gazing hour after hour at  porn—better for library bats to fixate instead on the causes of the Spanish-American War. But surely the act can be made less burdensome.

Donning white globes to gaze at the art of Blake

Meanwhile, three other points. First I agree with Beth that E can’t replace everything library, whether as a social gathering sport or a place to see artifacts close up. Remember Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti’s post mentioning her visit to the Morgan Collection, where she told time off Lewis Carroll’s watch? Well, Beth has her own memories—of, for example, donning white gloves “to wonder at William Blake’s original illustrations”  at the Library of Congress.

Second, how can I conclude without direct links to 1,615 color transparencies, taken in the 1920s and ’40s by the U.S. Farm Security Administration and the 1,500 black and white shots on the sometimes-overlapping topics of politics, crime, sports, and theater (as well as shots of strikes and disasters)?

marcdavis Third, isn’t it ironic that the FlickR end of Yahoo is laudably helping to preserve history, while the Yahoo 360 end is doing just the opposite—by shutting down 360 without promptly providing Beth and other bloggers with the tools they need to make smooth transitions to other hosts? I suspect I’m not the only Washington-area library fan who can relate to Beth’s recollections. Same for other people who follow the blogs of friends and acquaintances, in other locations and on other topics. There is no such thing as a generic blogger, at least among those who do more than rewrite the big news stories, and Beth’s latest item is a handy reminder to me to follow up with Yahoo’s “social networking guru” on the data portability issue. One Marc Davis—that’s Mr. Guru’s real name—has been by the TeleBlog if you go by a MyBlogLog image displayed publicly, courtesy yet another Yahoo service. Same guy? Either way, I’m hoping Marc has had time to reflect on the transition problem and can get his employer to make a serious pledge to help Beth and others chroniclers of history-in-the-making. Come on, Marc. We’re rooting for Yahoo to do the right thing, just as it has in its cooperation with the Library of Congress.

(“Ruth the Acrobat” image found via Beth’s blog.)


  1. The LOC Flickr collection is amazing. Shots of the process of replacing a locomotive’s tire (look for a ring of fire); amazing pictures of the German Fleet in New York harbor circa 1912 (with Kaiser Wilhelm demonstrating lifeboat drills); lots of photos of TVA hydropower dam construction during WW II, ostensibly for aluminum smelting, though for some reason when you plot them on a map they form a rough circle around Oak Ridge, Tennessee; a photo I’d never seen before of a lifeboat from the Titanic, filled with dazed-looking people, coming alongside the Carpathia.

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