Blogs

Can you imagine saying goodbye to almost everyone you know, leaving behind most of your possessions, and traveling 2,000 miles across the country to live in a place you'd never seen? Almost 500,000 people did just this, packing mostly supplies they would need for the journey into covered wagons, and traveling along the Oregon Trail.

The trail started in Missouri, and then went through what is now Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. History Globe shows an 1843 map of the trail, featuring "Unorganized Territory" (land with no government) and "Oregon Country" (what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and part of Montana and Wyoming). The map will make more sense when you click on the  "modern map" link! The Trail Tour section of the website provides information and images about various stopping points along the trail.

History comes alive when we learn about events through people and their stories. The Oregon Territory and its Pioneers is a gold mine for learning about these stories and what life was like on the trail. The website itself is a pioneer on the Internet, started in 1989. It looks much different than websites that you are used to browsing, but don't let that that keep you from exploring. It is packed with great information. Take a look at the section called "The Journey'" to learn about daily life along the trail. Oregon Trail 101 features some amazing pictures of wagon trains and emigrants. Check out Emigrant Diaries and Journals to learn what people who traveled the trail thought about their experience.

The Oregon and California Trails Association is another great resource for learning about the people who crossed the Oregon Trail. The People and Stories section of the website shares emigrant profiles and trail stories.

Want to take a break from your research and play a game? Actually, you don't have to! The Oregon Trail lets you research while you are playing a game. See how you would have fared on the trail and learn about some of the hardships that those who crossed it faced. This game has been around since the 1980's, so check in with your teacher and family to see if they played the game when they were your age. You can either play the early version of the game online, or download an app. Besides the game, the website shares information about daily life along the trail.

Want to learn more about the Oregon Trail? Just ask a librarian !

Discover some of the ancestors of peoples now living in modern day Mexico to Peru from these websites and books about the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans. 

Map of Mesoamerica, Maya

 

The British Museum in London has artifacts from around the world, representing people, places and cultures from the past two million years. Khan Academy has detailed information about the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans. Click on photos to find out more about that object and its importance. 

 

Scroll down the page of The Civilizations of Ancient Mesoamerica to read about the history and culture of ancient Mexicans. Visit The World of the Ancient Mayans for more information.

 

Have fun exploring The Sport of Life and Death: the Mesoamerican Ballgame. Not only can you learn about the world's first team sport, you can get quick info about each culture and the time periods. Test your knowledge as you play a game (no sacrifices involved). Check out the video below about the rubber balls used for the game and see an example of how a version of the game was played.

Rubber Balls in Mexico Have a Long History

If you want or need more help, contact a librarian. We're just a click away!

So I put myself on hold for Nick Trout's book, Tell Me Where it Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon after reading a positive review of it somewhere, and fortuitously it came in right before my vacation. Trout is a veterinary surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Massachusetts, and although he's British, he's pretty far removed from the James Herriot I knew and loved in my youth through All Creatures Great and Small

Trout focuses mostly on the dogs he's met and operated on and condenses a number of cases he's seen over the years into one day to give readers a sense of the urgency and adrenaline rush one might experience in a day working at Angell. He begins with an early morning call that gets him out of bed and ends his day over fifteen hours later when friends of his child bring in a pet that needs some immediate attention.

Interspersed among the cases are Trout's ruminations on the practice and business of being a vet - issues that I had barely, if ever, considered over the years of taking my pet to the vet. Questions of ethics and finance, cures versus palliative care - these are all noted in Trout's honest, if at times slightly condescending, voice. Now that I make weekly visits to the vet with my elderly cat, the new insight has given me an even deeper appreciation for the doctors who work so hard to make sure our pets have the best possible care. 


This is part two of a multi-part series on researching past residents of your Portland-area house:


House history researchers are often interested in learning who lived in their houses in the past.  In the first post in this series, we explored using city directories to find past residents of Portland houses.  But that only works reliably for 1934-present, because nearly every building in the whole city got a completely new address (and sometimes a new street name) in the early 1930s.  So, what if you want to go back further and find out who lived in your house in 1933, or earlier?  You have come to the right place!  To get started, here's a little background on old and new addresses in Portland:

Portland's 1930s address system revision

House numbering crews at work (photo from the Oregonian 16 July 1933)
The city grew enormously around the turn of the century and each newly-added bit of land had its own street naming conventions and address numbering system.  It was rather chaotic!  In the spring of 1931, the city finally decided to act.  That summer, five-man crews began walking the entire city and assigning new addresses to every building.  Many street names were changed too.  The crews finished their work in July 1933. 

This is how we got the familiar "five quadrants" that we use today: NW, N, NE, SW, and SE.  If your house was built before 1933 and you want to find its early residents, you will need to know the original address.

Finding your house's pre-1933 address

Old and new addresses on 24th St./Ave. in NE Portland (from the Crane Directory of Street and Name Changes)
There are several different ways to track down a pre-1933 address, but the simplest is to look in the Directory of Street and Name Changes published by the Crane Direct Mail Service.  The library has two copies, both at Central Library. Ask at the reference desk in the Literature & History room on the third floor, and the librarian on duty can show you how to use it.

Here's the information the Directory of Street and Name Changes shows for the Magadanz and Schuman family houses that we looked at in the 1934 city directory, in our last blog post:

The Magedanz family house's pre-1930s address was 1075 E 24th St. N (in pink, on the left). The renumbering crews gave it the new address 5115 NE 24th Ave.

Old and new addresses on Market St. in SW Portland (from the Crane Directory of Street and Name Changes)
The Schumans' house was 555 Market St (in white, below and to the left).  After it was changed sometime in 1931 or 1932, it became 1737 SW Market St.

The Directory of Street and Name Changes was published in the 1930s, and meant as a tool for people who had to live through this rather disruptive change.  It shows address changes for buildings that were within the city limits at the time (remember, Portland was much smaller in the 30s than it is now -- check the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability’s map of historical annexations to the City of Portland (pdf) to see when your neighborhood joined the city).  But, if your house was built before 1933, and it was within the city limits in the early 1930s, it should be included in this cross-reference directory.

Using pre-1930s addresses

Okay, what if you know your Portland house's pre-1930s address, and you'd like to find out who lived there in those early years?  If you want to know who lived in your house in 1930, 1931, 1932, or 1933, look at the Polk's Portland (Oregon) City Directories for those years – they each have a pink section in the back which lists residents by address.  General tips on using city directories are in part one of the Who lived in my house? series.  If you're looking in 1930 or 1931, use the house's older address; if you're looking in 1932 or 1933, you might have to check both the old and the new address, because some neighborhoods had their addresses changed earlier than others.

Finding out who lived in your house in 1929 and earlier

What if you want to find out who lived in your house before 1930?  That can be a challenge, because city directories for 1864-1929 don't have a section in the back with listings by address!

Here are some things to try:

Look for the names of your house's 1930 residents in directories from earlier years.  Maybe they lived there the whole time!

Check to see if the city issued plumbing or sewer permits when your house was built or modified – these sometimes list the owner's name. You can see some early permits by looking for your house in the city's property information database PortlandMaps – type in your address, then click on the "Property" tab, then on the "Historic permits" tab.  (Portland's Development Service Center has more complete historical permit records, so visit their office in downtown Portland if you'd like to dig deeper.)

Search the library's Historical Oregonian (1861-1987) database for your house's pre-1930s address to see if you can find news articles, rental or real estate advertisements, or funeral notices from early issues of the Oregonian daily newspaper that reference your house.  The Historical Oregonian can be a tricky database to search, so here are some tips:

If you are only interested in a limited range of dates, set your search to those dates by clicking on the "Dates and Eras" tab and typing in the years you need.  For example, if your house was built in 1913, you might limit your search to 1913-1932, the approximate date the new Portland address system was finalized.

Type your house's pre-1930s address in with quotation marks around it, like this:

"example street"

If your street had a directional before the 1930s (e.g. "East Pine St.," "E. 9th St. N," or "52nd Ave. SE"), be sure to include it in your search.  Try different variations:

"925 E Pine"
"925 East Pine"

"126 19th St. North"
"126 19 N"
"126 19th N"
"126 19th Street N"
"126 19th Street North"

"52 Ave. SE"
"52nd Avenue SE"
"Fifty Second Avenue South East"


Now you have some basic tools for finding your house's pre-1930s address, and for tracking down residents from the early 30s and before!  To get a refresher on using city directories to find out who lived in your house from 1934 to the present, take a look at part one of this series, and stay tuned for the next installment: Who lived in my house? Houses that are (or were) outside Portland.

Have fun researching the history of your house; and as always, be sure to ask your friendly librarian any time you have questions, or whenever you'd like help with a research project!


 

In the United States, our democracy relies on three branches of government. These branches -- executive, legislative and judicial help to ensure that laws are fair and balanced. The system created by these three branches is called checks and balances. Here's a video that explains the idea of how the three branches balance one another. 

 

Three Branches Rap - Smart Songs

 

Follow these links to find out more about the  President (executive), Congress (legislative), and the U.S. Supreme Court (judicial.) Or learn more by playing a game on iCivics.org. Games like Branches of Power and Supreme Decision give you a look at some of the real-life issues faced by Congress, the President and the Supreme Court. (You can register for a free account or play as a guest.)

Here are some more places to explore for more information about the Federal government:

Ben's Guide to US Government for Kids has information for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12.

Kids in the House is published by the Clerk's office of the US House of Representatives. This site has sections for Young Learners, Grade School, Middle School and High School.

For detailed information about state government in Oregon, the Oregon Blue Book is the go-to guide!

The Portland Visitor's Bureau has some great facts about each of our Willamette River Bridges.

Last summer I got to take a boat ride and took some pictures from the river of some of the bridges.

 

Can you guess which bridge this one is?

Underside of the grates in the Hawthrone Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In January of 2013 the Sellwood bridge got moved. They moved it because they are building a new one and wanted people to still be able to cross the river there.

What is it about the villain that captures our interest?  Sure, they provide a force for the hero to battle. But there’s more than that. While the hero is a spotless and shining example of our virtue, the villain shines a light on those dark recesses of our soul. They have motivations that are far murkier. They’ve had to make the tough choices. They are the losers who have to k

eep pushing through when the world turns against them. A good villain makes a story memorable. 

There are two sides to every story. The following books look at familiar stories from the villains’ point of view.

Medea: A Delphic Woman Novel by Kerry Greenwood

I know what you’re thinking: How could there be a good side to a woman who kills her own children.  But did you know that Euripides was paid by the city of Corinth to write his version of this myth with Medea murdering her children? This modern interpretation is closer to the original.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Aaron Burr is mostly remembered as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. However, though he's been stricken from the pantheon of the Founding Fathers, Burr influenced our burgeoning nation in innumerable ways.

Darth Vader and Son by Jeffery Brown

This playful graphic novel reminds us that before Darth Vader was the Dark Lord of the

Sith, he was just a single dad with a precocious young son.


This is part one of a multi-part series on researching past residents of your Portland-area house:


If you’re interested in your house’s history, chances are you want to know more about the people who lived there before you moved in.  The good news is, it is usually both easy and fun to find out who lived in your house!   In this post, I'll show you how you can use historical city directories to find information about who lived in houses that are in the city of Portland. 

UPDATE: This post will show you how to find the names of people who lived in your house from 1934 to now. Portland had a massive, citywide address system revision in the 1930s, so finding earlier residents requires an extra step -- finding out your house's pre-1930s address!  We'll deal with that challenge in part two of this series, Who lived in my house? Portland addresses 1933 and earlier.

If your house was within Portland city limits when it was built, or during the time period you want to research, its residents will probably be listed in the Portland city directories.   If you’re not sure when your neighborhood became part of Portland, take a look at the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability’s map of historical annexations to the City of Portland (pdf).

City directories are a little bit like telephone books, except that they date back way earlier (the first Portland city directory was published by the Polk Company in 1864!).  To look at the library's extensive collection of city directories, visit the Literature & History room on the third floor at Central Library.  The librarian on duty will be happy to help you get started – but here's a bit about how to go about using these valuable resources:

City directories often contain more information about people than phone books do.  In addition to a home address, most people’s city directory listings state their job or occupation, and some include their employer’s name.  Usually only heads of household are listed in city directories, but you’ll see their spouses or (in the case of women who are widows) deceased spouses noted in parentheses.

1934 city directory listing for Lida Schuman
On the right is a listing from the 1934 Polk's Portland (Oregon) City Directory showing that Lida Schuman, widow of Louis L. Schuman, lived in, and probably owned the house at 1737 SW Market St.  (There is an abbreviations code at the beginning of the directory which tells us that "h" means "householder," most likely another way of saying that the person listed both lived in and owned the house.)

Let's look at another one:

1934 city directory listings for the Magedanz family
This listing (also from 1934) tells us that Gustav R. Magedanz, who worked at a business called Pigott & Magedanz, lived with his wife Martha, at 5115 NE 24th Ave.  There is an "h" next to their address too, so they probably owned the house.

A little bit below Gustav and Martha, there are a couple of other people named Magedanz who share the same address: Marvin Magedanz, a millworker; and Norman A. Magedanz, an attendant at Pigott & Magedanz.  These are very likely relatives of Gustav and Martha – maybe their sons or brothers?  Both of their entries have an "r" before the address.  According to the abbreviations list at the beginning of the directory, this "r" means "roomer or resides." Usually this is an indication that the person or family in the listing rents their house or apartment, rather than owning it.  (Marvin and Norman lived in what appears to be their family home, so they may have paid rent, or perhaps not.)

1934 city directory listing for Pigott & Magedanz
Pigott & Magedanz has a listing too (shown at right), which tells us that Gustav R. Magedanz and his partner Thomas A. Pigott operated a gas station at 1035 SW 6th Ave., in downtown Portland. 

Sharp eyes will note, though, that the listings above are alphabetical by name, not by address!  When you are looking for the past residents of your house, you probably don't know their names, right?  Never fear, Portland city directories published in 1930 and after have a special cross-reference section in the back that you can use to see who lived at a particular address. 

1934 city directory listings by address, SW Market St.
Here’s what the by-address listings in the back of the 1934 directory look like – the top excerpt on the left shows Lida Schuman's house at 1737 SW Market St.

1934 city directory listings by address, NE 24th Ave.
And the one below it shows Magedanz family house at 5115 NE 24th.  In both by-address listings, you can see the cross streets at each corner, which can be quite helpful when you're searching for a specific property.

The listings by address don't show as much detail as the listings in the alphabetical-by-name section, but they do sometimes have a little donut symbol to the right of the householder's name.  This means that the person reported that they owned their house.


Now you have a grasp of some of the basics of using city directories to find out who used to live in your Portland house, in 1934 and later!  To learn more about finding past residents of your house before 1934, take alook at the next installment in this series: Who lived in my house? Portland addresses 1933 and earlier.

Have fun researching the history of your house; and as always, be sure to ask your friendly librarian any time you have questions, or whenever you'd like help with a research project!


 

You can find out a lot about how your house might have looked when it was new by leafing through magazines from the period your house was built.

"Shelter" magazines (magazines that focus on interior decorating, gardening, architecture, and related subjects) from the period your house was built are great sources for information, especially if you are willing to browse through them carefully.  Here are a few to try:

  • Better Homes and Gardens (July 1925-present) 
  • House & Garden (1904-2007)  Like a lot of magazines, House & Garden has changed its name over time. Issues from 1904-1993 were called House & Garden; from 1996-1997 it was called Conde Nast House & Garden, and then from 1998-2007 the name was House & Garden again.
  • House Beautiful (1897-present) 
  • Sunset (1898-present)  Sunset was one of the first magazines to celebrate ranch-style houses, and their annual "Idea House" building project has generated dozens of creative and dynamic house designs over the years.

You might also be interested in magazines about historically accurate renovation.  The best-known of these is Old-House Journal (1975-present), and it can be a treasure-trove!  The early issues focus more on 19th century houses, but as the magazine has matured it has come to include renovation and do-it-yourself advice and articles on the history of houses from the early 1800s through the 1960s. 

Some other house renovation and old house style magazines you might find useful are: Old-House Interiors, American Bungalow, and Atomic Ranch.

All of these magazines are available for you to browse at Central Library, on the second floor, in the Periodicals Room.  Ask the friendly librarians in the Periodicals Room to help you locate the specific issues or date range you need!

Questions? Ask the Librarian!

For centuries, Europeans have explored places unfamiliar to them.  The big push to explore happened from the 1400s to the 1600s and is known as the Age of Discovery or the Age or Exploration.  Here are some sites that will help you learn more about individual explorers, the places they went, and the tools they used to get there.

Santa Maria model

For a broad website on exploration that includes biographies of explorers, information and illustrations ships and navigation tools, plus an interactive map showing voyages of the most ancient explorers through the 1920s, check out Exploration Through the Ages from the Mariners Museum.  Here's another link to exploration info at the museum.

Look at the companion website for the PBS program Conquistadors for more about explorers Cortes, Orellana, Pizarro and Cabeza de Vaca.  See also All the World is Human:  The Conquistadors for the companion videos from the BBC.  Be aware that this site takes a bit of time to load.
 
Learn about longitude, latitude, and navigation tools and see a film on how to use an octant and try it yourself at Marine Navigation in the Age of Exploration.
 
Find out how hard life was for a sailor and explorer in this infographic:  Age of Exploration:  Life on the Open Seas
 
Now you're ready to conquer the world!

“City of the Book” is a poem that Kim Stafford wrote for the Multnomah County Library, to mark the formation of a new library district on July 1st, 2013. At a celebration that day on the steps of the Central Library, he led the crowd in a reading of the poem.

Kim Stafford reading in front of Central Library

When asked about the experience of writing this poem, Stafford said:

I understand the library as a force of nature--more like a river or an orchard or a lagoon teeming with fish than a box of silent books. The place is alive, bountiful, brimming, spilling treasure of ideas and stories, facts and films, songs and tales for children in all directions. It's a watershed, harvesting rain and feeding everyone. So, to write a poem about such a place is more like turning on the tap than struggling for words. Words flow from libraries, for libraries, for people in libraries. I was just a small part of this bountiful storm of words.

Kim Stafford’s father, William Stafford (1914-1993), spoke at a different library event 30 years prior at the Lake Oswego Library. Lewis & Clark University commemorated the 100th anniversary of William Stafford’s birth in 2013, and the 2014 statewide Oregon Reads community reading project focused on his work.

Looking for consumer reviews for cars and household products? Try checking Consumer Reports - to get reviews and articles from Consumer Reports for free through the library, follow these steps:

 

  1. Go to MasterFILE Premier
  2. Click Begin Using This Resource, then enter your full library card number & PIN.
  3. Type your topic in the Search box, for example dishwashers.
  4. Type Consumer Reports in the Publications box.
  5. Click Search.
  6. Click on the PDF Full Text link to view your article.

Breaking Chains book jacket
Guest blogger Rae Richen’s short stories, poetry and articles have appeared in anthologies of Northwest authors, in Pacific Northwest newspapers and in Writers’ Northwest Handbook. She has taught junior high, high school students and adults since the ice age, and has always been impressed with the wide-ranging curiosity and the persistent search for answers among her students. Her newest book, Uncharted Territory is written for young adults and adults who enjoy a triumph of life over fear.

Breaking Chains: Slavery on trial in the Oregon Territory, by R. Gregory Nokes is an important addition to Oregon’s history. For three generations, my mixed-race family has known that Oregon’s legal relationship with its African American citizens was rocky, but details were elusive. Much of Oregon supported an apartheid-like atmosphere well into the 1960s. When my children and my students ask for specifics, I can now give a more complete answer. I can offer them Breaking Chains.

This untold part of Oregon’s history came to Nokes’s attention because a former slave was mentioned in his family genealogy. Nokes soon learned that Oregon, though admitted to the union as a free state, also tolerated slaveholding and had a constitution that supported a ban on African Americans. Its citizens voted for pro-slavery politicians, including the first territorial governor. Even when slavery was opposed by white Oregonians, it was often for reasons more self-preserving than selfless.

Nokes’s deep research, his interviews of slave’s descendants and his incisive story-telling style delves into the history of Robin Holmes who, with great perseverance, successfully sued his owner for his freedom, and of Reuben Shipley who was forced to choose between remaining near his enslaved family in Missouri and his tenuous hope of freedom in Oregon. There is a wealth of information about the life of Oregon’s early African Americans in Breaking Chains.

Kids these days. Back in the day we walked to school and didn't have cell phones to call home and report, "mom, come get me - there's a zombie following me!" But that was okay, because zombies back then could only shamble along at a mile an hour and it was easy to outrun them. And the vampires? They were a lot more polite back then. They'd only come into your house if you invited them, and what dork would do that?
 
Nowadays, you have your fancy schmancy running zombies and your political activist-type vampires. The undead just aren't what they used to be. Don't believe me? Take a look at this list of hipster horrors.
 
Tana wakes up at a party to find all her friends dead and her boyfriend infected with vampirism, necessitating a trip to Coldtown, home of vampires and their infected human pets.
Some people look on the zombie apocalypse with horror, but for meth-head Chase, zombies are just one more impediment to getting that next fix. One reviewer calls it Trainspotting for the Walking Dead crowd.
 
In the early days of the zombie apocalypse, a family stumbles upon a dead mother and her baby, also dead - undead, that is. Defying all mythological convention, baby Stony starts to grow and as he does, causes awkward situations for the family that adopted him.
 
Teenage angst, uptight parents and family dysfunction are all so much worse when you have to hide your true nature.
 
Like other zombies, R. feeds on humans, not only for sustenance but to absorb their memories. When he eats the brains of a teenaged boy, he
Husk bookjacket
falls in love with the boy's girlfriend. This is a book for those who wonder what zombies think about. And hey, if nothing grosses you out, it's also a movie.
 
Boyfriend troubles, an empty bank account, and several auditions gone disasterously wrong, but that's the least of Sheldon's troubles. How will he get his big break when he's falling apart - literally.

Comic books are full of charismatic leaders locked in desperate struggles, but a vast majority of these are fictional. It's perspective-changing when comics are used to tell stories of real people. One such book is Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, by Chester Brown.

Riel is a character of mythic proportions in Canadian history. He butted heads with the newly established government of Canada, starting in 1869 when he led the Red River Rebellion. Riel was a leader who believed he was divinely chosen to protect and defend the rights of the Metis - descendants of First Nations people and Europeans who suffered persecution from the wider culture.

Brown tells the story of Riel's fights and flights back and forth across the Canadian border, from Manitoba, to Montana and then to Saskatchewan, where he was eventually arrested for treason and hanged.

The minimalist color scheme and Brown's crisp drawings create a suspenseful story that could otherwise come across as a dry recitation of historical fact. If you never thought you'd read a comic book, but are a history buff, give this a try.

Find out more about the intriguing Louis Riel.

Sometimes I think it would be great to be the Queen of England. Having staff at your beck and call to cook and clean for you and drive you wherever you need to go, the trips to exotic locales, the lovely palaces and castles to live in - it just doesn't get any better. But there are definite downsides: the paparazzi, people constantly judging your every decision, and the daily round of obligations to meet (and meet with a smile). It's just so e

xhausting!

In Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Queen Elizabeth is tired. She's well past eighty years old, she's had some pretty significant stresses in the last few decades (children's divorces, Diana's death, Windsor Castle burning, the decommissioning of Britannia, the Royal Yacht) and now the final indignity: no more Royal Train for Her Majesty's use. The expense, she's been told, is just too great. So on one dreary winter day, Queen Elizabeth is thinking of Britannia, one of her favorite things, and takes the opportunity to slip out (mostly) unobserved and take the train to Scotland where the yacht is moored. What ensues is a wonderful story of the palace staff who care about Queen Elizabeth and a portrait of a monarch nearing the end of her long and largely successful reign.

Other people have imagined Queen Elizabeth II's life in books and film. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett examines the person the Queen becomes when she starts reading books from the local bookmobile. The film The Queen takes a look at the royal response to Diana's death.

If you, too, think it would be good to be queen, enjoy this film and these books and see if you change your mind!

 

This post contains high levels of drugs, crime, and lawyers. What we may be missing is quite enough justice…

Statue of Lady Justice

How often do we hear the words of the Miranda Warning, You have the right to remain silent; you have the right to an attorney in our favorite cop shows?  Usually, that’s where the show ends. And yet the real story is only beginning. 

I admit I really don’t spend much time thinking about criminals or lawyers, except to avoid them.  So when Attorney General Holder gave a speech to the American Bar Association  last month about how we send people to prison, saying that “as a nation, we are coldly efficient” at putting people in prison and that “we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken”, I had only a vague idea of what he was talking about. Turns out it is all about numbers: The number of prisoners, the number of years they are in prison, the number of cases that public defenders have, and the money we spend as a nation.  The forces at play?  Mandatory minimum sentencing and the 6th amendment’s right to an attorney.

The right to an attorney can be found in the Bill of Rights. Our modern idea of it is from the case Gideon vs. Wainright:  When Clarence Gideon was tried for stealing $55 dollars and breaking into a pool hall the State of Florida told him they didn’t have to give him an attorney.  He was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and used that time to change the legal system

Mandatory minimum sentencing says there are crimes people shouldn’t serve less than a set amount of time for.  They aren’t new- the minimum sentence for the killing a meat inspector was set in 1907- life in prison or the death sentence.  (That's the year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published.)  Then in the mid 80s and 90s sentences were set for a wide range of drug crimes.  The effect?  The U.S. now has the highest prison population in the world, but not in any equal sort of way, and we spend huge amounts of money ($80 billion in 2010) locking people up.  

Sing-Sing Prison in the early 20th century

When people are sent to prison for set amounts of time no matter the situation, things just get weird.  And don’t let me forget the Cooperation Paradox: the more involved you are in a criminal enterprise, the more information you have to bargain with- meaning that the criminals who are the guiltiest get the lighter sentences.  

So, two very different parts of the legal system.  What happens when they collide? Nothing good.  There are too many people in the system for the number of public defenders.  Many people never actually see their lawyer- or a trial.  In a wonderful if curse laden interview by John Oliver with the director of the documentary “Gideon’s Army” Dawn Porter they explain better than I ever could

Steve Edgar, Prison number 21655

So let’s head back to where we started: Holder’s speech for the Smart on Crime Initiative.  The gist of the initiative is that by focusing on prosecuting the most serious of criminals and not snaring everyone else in mandatory minimum sentencing crimes, the Department of Justice will be able spend money and effort elsewhere, saving people from the system and the system from the burden of all those people.  It’s pragmatic and surprisingly readable.  Changing the laws will literally take an Act of Congress, but the U.S. Attorneys can choose how to charge people.  Will it work?  I can’t tell you that.  I’m a librarian not a seer.  But we can hope for the best.

Curious to know more?  Check out the Reading and Viewing List on the subject or ask us a question!

So I'm pretty sure when a six-year-old asks if the babies just "explode out of their moms' stomachs" when they're born, the officially sanctioned and appropriately parental answer is not, "Well, yeah.  It's kind of a mess." To follow that terrible answer with an intentional subject change like, "Check out this kick!  Do I look like a ninja?" is probably enough to get me placed into some sort of mommy lock-down until I can be re-educated by guards named Spock, Leach, and Brazelton.

Luckily it's back-to-school time and I can again place my children's formal education in the capable hands of skilled professionals. Child the Elder's wailing and gnashing of teeth over school starting again was probably heard from space. After the children went to sleep on that dreaded and fateful eve, I joined the rest of the school-age parental demographic in the ritual night-before-school celebratory margarita. This night should probably be a recognized and formal holiday, like Mardi Gras. As Mardi Gras marks the sober beginning of Lent, we have a long school year ahead of us to attempt to make our children lunches they will actually eat or rip our hair out over projects requiring posters, costumes, and sonnets written in perfect iambic pentameter. In the face of all this, one night to party is not too much to ask.

As summer fa

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des in the rear view mirror, it is good to be reminded that we are never too old to learn. One of the best movies I watched in between SpongeBob SquarePants and Brady Bunch marathons was Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about an amazing 85 year old sushi chef and his tiny three-star Michelin rated restaurant (the first of its kind) in a Tokyo subway station. This quiet movie is simultaneously a feast for the eyes and a meditation on work and family that should not be missed. Jiro's story had both me and my 11 year old riveted from beginning to end (which is saying something for a subtitled documentary with an 85 year old subject containing no chase sequences, explosions, time travel or animated sea sponges.) Jiro's wildly successful restaurant career is countered by his and his sons' musings on what price that success exacted from his parenting.

If you a
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re a parent, you have entertained a fantasy about running away from it all. What happens when you decide to take a break from parenting and family life without properly informing all the parties involved? The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar examines this question through a lens of class and culture in southern California when the mistakes of one family become front-page tabloid news. Inexplicably left alone with Scott and Maureen's two boys, live-in maid Araceli takes them on a journey to Los Angeles which changes all their lives forever.

As all parents learn, the miseries of parenting are relative. We welcome new parents into the club without bothering to haze them, because we know the children will haze all the new members for us. (You know you are on the relative-misery scale when you are happy you only had to get up with a baby two times last night instead of three or four.) As a parent reading Jim Gaffigan's book Dad Is Fat , the first thing I thoug
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ht was at least I don't have five kids under the age of eight. In a two-bedroom apartment in New York. That guy is up a certain creek without a certain piece of necessary boating equipment.

But of course, he is not. He is another parenting voice in the wilderness, proclaiming how our kids are our frustrating and adorable crucibles, slowly and painfully refining us into better, if more exhausted, people. We know there are good answers out there and maybe we can come up with them if only someone will let us take a nap. Because this is due tomorrow. And I need a costume.

Viking. Woman. Explorer.

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When you think of Vikings, perhaps you envision a grim-faced man in a horned helmet, wielding an axe as he stands at the prow of a longship, long hair streaming in the cold wind, mind set on pillage and plunder. But how accurate is this image? What about Viking women - did any of them go along with the men on these voyages? And what did Vikings do when they weren’t raiding or exploring?

My interest in all things northern recently led me to read The Far Traveler by Nancy Marie Brown, which answers these questions and more. It’s a fascinating look at the life of Gudrid, an Icelandic woman who traveled far indeed, from Iceland to Greenland on a harrowing voyage in which half the crew died, then further to the distant continent of Vinland, and in later life to Rome. The book jumps from describing modern-day excavations in Iceland to bits of the ancient sagas (I loved hearing about the brothers, known for their tight pants, who took over as the local ruffians after Eirik the Red got kicked out of Iceland). By combining archaeology with literary evidence, a compelling case emerges that Vinland was in North America, and that Gudrid was there.  As she follows Gudrid’s story, Brown also reveals much about life in Iceland and Greenland around the year 1000. If you ever wanted to know how to build a turf house that will stand up to an Arctic winter, this is the book for you. Some of my favorite parts were details about Viking food, such as bone jelly soup and bog butter. How tasty! I also enjoyed the description of the fuzzy tufted cloaks the Icelanders were fond of for their warmth and rain-shedding abilities, and which they liked to dye… purple?

For more fact and fiction about Iceland and Greenland in the times of the sagas, take a look at the list below.

The story of this country is the story of people coming and going, but mostly coming. The very concept of America has captured the imaginations of millions, among them writers, artists and bloggers. I was reminded of the amazing pastiche of people who have come here after looking at artist Maira Kalman's latest on her blog The Pursuit of Happiness. In "I Lift My Lamp Beside the Golden Door", Kalman takes a long view of the history of this country, beginning with Leif Ericson and ending with a trip to a cemetery in the Bronx, where the diminutive immigrant Irving Berlin is buried, the one who gave us the line "heaven, I'm in heaven...".

New York is a fine place to start if you want to hear stories about outsiders and newcomers. A recent trip there inspired me to read, watch and listen to everything I could find about the city. Intrigued by the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, I searched for some fiction of that era and discovered Up From Orchard Street  by Eleanor Widmer. It's a 'slice of life' story about a family living in a crowded apartment in 1920's Manhattan and trying to make ends meet by running a restaurant out of their front room. A earlier and grittier portrayal of immigrants is the movie Gangs of New York. Though Scorsese took artistic liberties in describing the rivalries between immigrant gangs, he did draw from the book of the same name Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, by Herbert Asbury, first published in 1928. Be sure to watch the extra footage provided on the DVD if you're interested in the environs of 1800's Lower East Side.

A recent album by Steve Earle, who himself 'immigrated' to Greenwich Village from Tennessee, celebrates his adopted home. Washington Square Serenade includes several love letters to the city. "Down Here Below" tells the story of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who took up residence near Central Park and became a media darling. Another song rejoices in the diversity of NYC: "I've no need to go traveling; open the door and the world walks in, living in a city of immigrants."

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