Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Working During a Pandemic


By Frank Boles

March has been an extraordinary month for almost everyone, not the least of which has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the operations of the Clarke Historical Library. Working first under Governor Whitmer’s executive order closing places of public accommodation (which included libraries) and then dealing with her subsequent order to “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Save Lives” has caused the library staff to respond with ingenuity and flexibility.

Like the rest of the library staff, I am working from home “for the duration.” What that means is, in addition to the resources always available online,  the library’s work continues, with one important exception, reference. Unfortunately, to answer most reference questions that come to the library we need access to the material in the collection. I trust that people who are still sending us reference requests will understand that while we are monitoring email and messages left on the telephone, we can only create a log of inquiries to be dealt with as soon as we can return to the library itself, on campus.

But aside from reference, a tremendous amount of work, some typically done every day and some often postponed, is being undertaken. Marian Matyn, the library’s archivist, is spending time preparing finding aids to be eventually uploaded onto the internet, making collections more accessible, as well as documenting CMU’s response to COVID-19 for the University Archives. In Cataloging, records are being created for uploading into the catalog, making material discoverable in the future.

Although the Microfilm and Digitization Project cannot photograph newspaper pages onto microfilm or scan new material, the unit’s staff continues to manage digitization projects with customers throughout the state, communicate with contracted vendors in three countries as well as with the Library of Congress, while also conducting quality control work, remotely, on existing scans. One example of this work will be over 70,000 newspapers pages from Paw Paw coming online at the library’s newspaper portal later this month.

One of the underappreciated aspects of the program is the tremendous amount of quality control that goes into making sure the raw scans from a project like the Paw Paw paper meet user expectations when they are made available for online use. Users find searchable online newspapers the next best thing to magic. Put a name or a term into the search box and very quickly a hopefully short list of pages to read appears. Those of us who remember “the old days” recall spending hours sitting in a darkened room, head more or less inserted into an old Kodak microfilm reader (aka “the tin can”) looking patiently for that same information which is now so effortlessly delivered. But making that effortless search happen takes a very large commitment of “back room” time and energy. It may be magic, but like any good magician, there is a lot of hard work performed by those who prepare the files that underlies the illusion of “effortlessness.” It may be a point I make too often, but it is a point too often forgotten by online users.

Bryan Whitledge is busy continuing his work on University electronic records and records management. He is also bringing a few seconds of delight everyday with videos of pop-up books on the Clarke’s social media channels. 

While reference librarian John Fierst cannot do much reference, he is working on a long-discussed project to transcribe and place online some of the John Greenleaf Whittier letters in the library’s collection. Whittier was a strident activist opposing slavery and well-known nineteenth century poet. Beginning in the 1830s, Whitter published widely about the abolitionist causes, editing several abolitionist newspapers, while unceasingly badgering the New England members of Congress to adopt pro-abolitionist positions. He would work to end slavery, until it was legally abolished in 1865.

At the same time as he worked towards abolition, Whittier wrote and published poetry. After the Civil War, Whittier exclusively wrote poems. His most enduring work, “Snow-Bound,” was published in 1866. After 30 years of writing poetry, he was surprised that “Snow-Bound” actually made him money. Whittier is also remembered for championing women writers, in an era when female authors were not taken seriously.

The Whittier papers in the Clarke, while both extensive and interesting, are something of an accident. A now-deceased CMU professor gathered the material together, and eventually gifted it the Clarke Historical Library. Because they reside in a midwestern college, separated from their New England home, they have largely been ignored. John’s work, we hope, will make the collection better known and share some of this important resource online through scans and transcriptions of selected letters.

As for myself, there are grants to be written, letters to compose, material about the current exhibit that can be drafted for eventual use on the website, and similar tasks to be done.

In these stressful times, I like to remind people of the great pandemic of 1918, which caused campus to close and left two members of the Central community dead. It was very, very bad, but it eventually ended. So, too will the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently enduring.

Take care and be well.



Thursday, April 2, 2020

Welcome Laura Thompson


by Frank Boles

Laura Thompson has joined the Clarke Historical Library’s staff as our new cataloger, as well as having responsibility for cataloging music in the University Library.

While new to the Clarke Historical Library, Laura has been at Central Michigan University since 2015. Prior to her new role as Cataloger and Music Librarian, she worked as a Research and Instruction Librarian in University Library, supporting the areas of Music, Art & Design, Fashion Merchandising & Design, Interior Design, and Recreation, Parks, and Leisure. In 2014, she received her MLS and MA in Musicology degrees from Indiana University, Bloomington (IU), where she specialized in Music Librarianship.


Her cataloging experience includes working with historical sound recording formats (78s, LPs, 45s, cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, acetate transcription discs) and accompanying documentation at the Archives of Traditional Music at IU. She also participated in a month-long codicology (the study of codices or manuscript books written on parchment (or paper) as physical objects) and manuscript description course in Italy, titled, “Musical Collectorship in Italy in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Survey of the Greggiati Collection in Ostiglia and a Model of Electronic Research Tool.”

The project studied and worked with early 19th-century Italian music manuscripts (mostly Italian opera). She described these materials for inclusion in an eventual digital tool that makes possible both connecting data from different musical collections and also help scholars reconstruct how the music was gathered together and collected. She gained additional experience working with special collections materials as a student working in IU’s Lilly Library.

She is very excited to be able to put her knowledge into practice working with the collections of the Clarke Historical Library.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Clarke's Pop-Up Book Exhibit is Coming to You!

The current COVID-19 public health emergency has resulted in several extraordinary changes in our lives. Navigating the new public health precautions can be difficult. Many of us are saddened or distressed because we were looking forward to events and gatherings that have been cancelled or postponed. And some of us are left looking for ways to bring joy into our lives while practicing social distancing.

To help bring a moment or two of happiness and delight into our lives, the Clarke Historical Library will use our social media accounts to post short videos of books featured in our new exhibit, the Surprise and Wonder of Pop-Up Books. Every day, you can catch a glimpse of one of the items we have on display. This is a fun and engaging way to admire the ingenuity and artistry found in pop-up books from the comfort of wherever you are practicing social distancing.


Because the Clarke Historical Library is closed to the public until at least April 13, we will make lemonade out of that lemon and bring the pop-up books to the people. Be sure to follow the Clarke's Twitter and Facebook pages to see the magic unfold!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Public Health Emergencies and CMU

by Frank Boles

The current COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time the educational mission of CMU has been disrupted by disease. Some alumni will remember this headline printed fifty-two years ago in Central Michigan Life (then the name for CM Life) on December 14, 1968:


With over 1,000 cases of the flu reported in residence halls, where there were 6,000 beds available for students, President William Boyd cancelled all classes for three weeks between December 14, 1968 and January 5, 1969. In a world before the internet, students probably took some comfort in President Boyd’s statement that there was no plan to make up missed classes. The President implied, although did not quite say, that no makeup work would be required nor would students be accountable for any missed tests. Students were simply encouraged to leave campus the week before winter break began and stay home until January 6.

It may have been a public health emergency in the president’s eyes, but some students took it less seriously. A picture of smiling students packing a car to go home, published in the same issue, was captioned, “Students wasted no time in leaving for the early Christmas vacation tonight.” And students, thinking about their finances, asked if they left campus early would they be able to get a refund on the unused portion of their food contract. The answer was no.

Although many students in 1968 were ill, all recovered. Fifty years prior to the 1968 flu wave, a more severe global pandemic struck Central, with deadly consequences. In the last week of October 1918, the influenza outbreak devastating the world came to Mt. Pleasant. Because of the high mortality rate associated with the disease, all classes were cancelled as of Friday, November 1. Students were instructed to remain in their homes until Monday, November 18.

To deal with the large number of sick individuals -- by November 8, there were 110 cases of influenza at Central on a campus with about 1,200 students -- an emergency hospital was set up in the school’s gymnasium. Members of the local Red Cross provided bed linen, nightgowns, towels, washcloths, face masks, and other needed hospital items. Despite these efforts, two members of the campus community died. One of them was Professor Lucy A. Sloan, a popular English instructor and the person in whose memory Sloan Hall is named. The other was Clarence Neal of Coleman, who was at Central as part of the World War I Student Army Training Corps program.

emergency hospital in the Central gymnasium, 1918

As CMU copes with another pandemic, we hope the outcome will be less tragic than that experienced in 1918.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Clarke Library Events Cancelled

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Central Michigan University has cancelled all events where an audience of 50 or more people are anticipated. This cancellation is in effect until March 31 and may be extended, depending on circumstances.

As a result, the planned March 17 exhibit opening of “The Surprise and Wonder of Pop-Up Books” has been cancelled, as has the presentation that evening by Matthew Reinhart. Also cancelled is the March 25 presentation of Carl Doud on the subject of mosquitoes and malaria in Michigan.
I regret the need to take these actions. We plan to reschedule these presentations at a later date.