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Research

Jun 8 2012

ShareReads: The Maya

by ShareReads

Long before other world cultures conceived the use of zero, the Maya of Mexico and Central America were using zero to calculate and indicate dates in their books and on their monuments. They could calculate dates millions of years in the past and far into the future. The current epoch in the Maya calendar began in 3114 B.C. and ends in December of this year. The Maya built large cities with towering temples; to this day, the tallest building in Belize is a Maya pyramid at the ruins of Caracol. When the artist Frederick Catherwood first tried to draw a picture of a Maya carving at Copan, around 1840, he had difficulty wrapping his mind around what he was seeing because the art was so alien to his way of thinking.

I’ve been interested in Maya history and culture since I read Time among the Maya by Ronald Wright. That book tells of Wright’s travels in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala during the early 1980’s. I found the book fascinating, if a bit over my head. When I read it I had never traveled to the area where the Maya live, I was not familiar with the names of the ancient cities Wright described and I had no clue about Maya culture, past or present. Since reading that book I have visited areas in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico where Maya live and have enjoyed almost every minute of my travels there.

I just read Michael D. Coe’s The Maya and wish I had done so years ago. Coe is a noted anthropologist and first published The Maya in 1966, but he has revised it every few years since then. While it could be used as a textbook, The Maya is written in a straightforward style that is easy to follow. I finally feel I am starting to understand the development of the Maya civilization and how the seats of political power shifted over the centuries. This book also has information on modern Maya culture and tips on visiting the area, though the focus is on the past. Other books on Maya history are A Forest of Kings, The House of the Governor, The Blood of Kings, and Maya Art and Architecture.

If the ruins of Maya cities interest you,An Archaeological Guide to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, by Joyce Kelly, is a great book to read. Kelly also wrote An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America, which covers sites in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Thinking of visiting the Maya region? The Library has a number of travel guides, including Cancún and Cozumel, The Rough Guide to the Yucatán, Honduras and the Bay Islands, Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatán, and Lonely Planet/Mexico. These guides and others are good even if you have no interest in ruins; they tell you how to get around, suggest places to stay, and recommend restaurants. Restaurants in Yucatán often feature Maya cuisine, and these guides will let you know ones that are worth trying. The Maya culture covers a large area, from the Pacific coast to northern Yucatán, so there is something for almost every traveler to be found there.

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Feb 24 2012

Leap year, the end of the World and 1940

by Patricia D

2012 is a really special year.  We’ve got an entire extra day to mess with at the end of February, which will be nice since according to some folks the world is going to end (again) in December.  We’ve got all the excitement and discussion (because that’s what we call it in my bi-partisan family) of a presidential election.   However,  there is something else.  Something that only comes every 10 years.   Something that has me a’quiverin’ with anticipation.  Yep, it’s time for another federal census to be released.  Access to each census is restricted for 72 years, and for the 1940 census that 72 years is just about up.  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will release the 1940 census on its website on April 2, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.

There are some good things and some things that will get better.  For example, although the records will be available FREE at the NARA website, it’s going to take some time to get them indexed.  For a while, unless you have an address or enumeration district,  looking for your folks is going to be a little frustrating.  The NARA has a great FAQ regarding the census, ideas on how best to construct searches without an index, and will have enumeration district maps available on-line to help with tracking down your quarry.  This will be a little frustrating to new genealogists who have only ever known the indexed information available online, but to those folks who remember reading an entire enumeration district to hit paydirt it will bring back strong memories—in my case memories of nausea from watching the microfilm whiz by.

Along with the NARA website, Ancestry.com will also have free access  but only through 2013.  Indexing will be done by volunteers.  If you’re interested there’s a webpage where you can register  and download the templates you’ll need. There’s also a Twitter feed (@the1940census)  and a Facebook page.  All of this is great, but leaves my head spinning when I think back to the release of the 1920 census.  It was quietly done, and we had to wait a loooong time for an index and an even longer time for digital access.

So.  Leap Day will be fun, I don’t really think the world is going to end on December 21, and I love the excitement of a presidential election.  2012 is all good for me.   April 2 will just be the buttercream (real buttercream, not that stuff the grocery store calls buttercream) icing on the cake.  In the 1940 census, people were asked 45 questions about their households and identifies, for the first time ever, the person giving the information.  Not only will I finally be finding people I have met (I know exactly where six of my great-grandparents were in 1940,)  but I’ll finally know which of my grandmothers liked to play fast and loose with the facts.

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Dec 7 2011

A Date Which Will Live In Infamy

by Joseph M

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy in a surprise assault which caused the deaths of 2,402 Americans (with 1,282 wounded) and the destruction of numerous American ships and aircraft.  The attack was intended to prevent the United States Pacific Fleet from interfering with Imperial Japanese ambitions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean, but instead it resulted in the formal entrance of the U.S. into World War II.  Today, the USS Arizona Memorial on the island of Oahu honors the lives lost on the day of the attack.

Click here to see a catalog listing of our books about Pearl Harbor and learn more about this pivotal event in 20th century history.

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Nov 9 2011

Seven Billion

by Jimmy L

According to the United Nations, the world population reached seven billion on Monday October 31, 2011. This figure is completely inconceivable to me, but the BBC website has created a website that makes it easier to see this number in the context of its numerous contributing factors. If you enter in your date of birth (since this is a British website, make sure you enter day first, then month and year), it will tell you what your number is,  i.e. how many people were alive at the time you were born. It will also tell you how many people have ever lived since history began (78.7 billion). If you click “Next”, it will break down population growth by country, gender, and other factors. If you’re interested in thinking about this topic more, check out some of these books:

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Sep 26 2011

Toughest Reference Questions

by Jesse M

One of the most interesting parts of working in a library is the questions you field from patrons. In addition to being known as a place to get books, music, DVDs, and internet access, the library also has a reputation for being a place where you can get an answer to your question. Any question is fair game, no matter how convoluted, random, or off the wall.

Recently, the Christian Science Monitor featured an article wherein the author asked librarians to send him their toughest reference questions. Here’s a sample to give you an idea. A librarian was asked about astronomical phenomenon of November, 1831:

“Back when I worked at the American Museum of Natural History, I got an e-mail from an author writing a biography of an amateur astronomer who crossed the Atlantic from London to New York during November 1831, asking what notable astronomical phenomenon he might have noticed.

To answer this question, I had to create star charts for the beginning, mid and end points of the journey and then check records for eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, auroral displays, meteor showers and whatever else I could think of.

As it turns out, the Leonid meteor shower was notably strong on Nov. 13 of that year (although less impressive than the following two years) and would have been visible in the east in the mid-Atlantic in the early morning as the nearly full moon set in the west. Weather permitting, of course.”

As you can tell, librarians often go to great lengths to provide answers to the queries posed to them. The search for an solution can be a lengthy and often frustrating process but eventually finding the answer your patron is seeking highly rewarding experience.

If you’re interested in reading more about interesting reference questions librarians get asked, I recommend checking out blog of the Swiss Army Librarian, specifically his reference question of the week. There are archives going back several years.

For readers who are library workers, what are some of the toughest references questions you’ve fielded? For readers who are library patrons, what are some of the difficult questions you’ve asked?

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Sep 23 2011

Sometimes it’s just Wilder

by Patricia D

I had an epiphany in Iowa and it wasn’t the stunning revelation that in a diner in Iowa meat is a serious subject.  It also wasn’t that the land I thought would look hopelessly boring was surprisingly beautiful, with gently rolling green hills and wide open space.  Nope.  None of that.  I was at a rest stop, near the Nebraska state line and there were historical markers—one describing the Hungarian utopian community founded not too far away and one detailing the Trail of Tears.  I knew I was in Laura Ingalls Wilder country.  In fact, I had driven right through Mansfield, Missouri on my way to this Little Rest Stop in Iowa.  I’d spent a few nights in Independence and I drove home through northern Illinois and Wisconsin.  I wasn’t following Laura; I was doing genealogical research and was following my family.  I hadn’t thought about the Little House books in years but there in Iowa I was vividly reminded of the chapter  where Laura describes the days and days of weary people, forced from the land of their grandparents, walking past the Ingalls cabin out there on the edge of the westward expansion.  The Trail of Tears.  Until that very moment Laura’s books had been a favorite childhood read but I didn’t have a visceral connection to them.  I stood  stunned in front of that bronze sign in the golden October sun, the understanding of my family’s history and their place in the history of the very land on which I was standing no longer an academic exercise in fact checking but a bone deep fact.  All thanks to a connection made for me by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My relationship with Laura and her books is complicated.  She traveled hard on a difficult road to make a good life for herself, excelling at a time when women seldom did, but there are so many questions about her that leave me conflicted.  There’s the question (covered in Ghost in the Little House: a life of Rose Wilder Lane by William Holtz) of exactly how much of the books Laura actually wrote for starters.  There’s the fact that her books are fiction yet most folks believe in their deepest souls that they are biography.  I lost track of the how many times I had to explain why the books were in the fiction collection—this is also a problem with the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines.  There’s also the overt racism, which I didn’t notice as a child but I found appalling while reading to my own child a few months ago.  Fortunately, she can’t read very well yet (never thought I’d say that!) so she has no idea how much of the text I skipped or changed.  People will argue that Laura was only parroting what was appropriate for the 1870s but you know what?  I don’t care.  That was not a conversation I’m ready to have with my child.

All this and I’m still fascinated enough to go off on a Laura Ingalls Wilder research binge.  However, I’m not the only one.  There’s a scholarly collection of essays (Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder by Ann Romines), there are biographies (my favorite, by Daniel Zochert is out of print and unfortunately long gone from our collection),  and there are also collections of other of Laura’s writings: The Little House Reader: a collection of writingsLittle house traveler: writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s journeys across America  and West from Home: letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, SanFrancisco, 1915, all by Laura and all non-fiction.  My current favorite of all of the fact based Laura books is The Wilder life: my adventures in the lost world of Little house on the prairie by Wendy McClure.  It’s a wonderful book, not only for Wendy’s open admission of her geeky obsession but also because, without her, I never would have known that there are folks out there who have canned butter and Velveeta in preparation for the coming end of the world.

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Sep 12 2011

A Google a day

by Jesse M

When I was in third grade, I recall my teacher asking the class a question pertaining to a subject that we hadn’t really explored yet (I believe it was geography related).  No one, including myself, knew the answer off the top of their heads.  But after a long period of silence, one of my classmates raised his hand and provided the correct answer.  While the rest of the class had been sitting dumbfounded, my classmate had flipped through his textbook to an as yet unread section and found the answer.  My teacher smiled approvingly and favored us with an aphorism that has stuck with me ever since, “The most intelligent person isn’t one who knows all the answers, but rather the one who knows how to find the answers”.

For today’s post, I’m going to share a website which provides daily opportunities to practice the art of finding the answer using one of the most powerful, and ubiquitous, informational tools available, the search engine (in this case, Google). The concept is simple. Just head to the site, A Google a day, where you will be asked a different question each day (some recent examples: “This Greek goddess of love, displayed at the Louvre, was originally from Milos. What would she have held in her missing left hand?” and “If you picked up Plymouth Rock and held it over your head, how many stones would you be holding?“). Finding the correct answer will often require multiple searches, creative ways of thinking, and use of other Google tools such as Google Maps. If you get stuck, you can ask for a hint, which is generally a suggestion of what search term(s) to use. Once you get the hang of how it works, you can try playing the timed mode to see how quickly you’re able to find the solution.

Have fun!

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Aug 17 2011

King of the Wild Frontier

by Joseph M

Today marks the birth of Davy Crockett, one of the more iconic figures of the American frontier. When I was a kid, he was one of my favorite folk-heroes, and I have vague but fond memories of watching the TV miniseries. Growing up in San Antonio I had plenty of occasions to visit the Alamo, where Crockett died in battle, and I was the proud owner of a faux coonskin cap purchased at the giftshop there.

DCPL has a wealth of resources to help you explore the life and legends of Davy Crockett, including books for both children and adults. Try searching with his name in the catalog, or take a look at his entry on Biography in Context, one of our Reference Databases, which you can access with your library card.

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Aug 10 2011

National treasure

by Dea Anne M

August 10th marks the anniversary of the passage of the  Smithsonian Institution Act, an event which paved the way for the establishment of the immense and awe-inspiring collection of museums and research facilities that are collectively known as the Smithsonian Institution.

In the 1800’s, a British scientist named James Smithson stipulated in his will that should his nephew die without heirs, then the whole of the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an “Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men.” Ironically enough, Smithson had never visited the United States.

Today, the Smithsonian Institution includes19 museums, the National Zoo, and nine research centers. Most of these are in D.C., but some are located in New York City, Virginia, and other places. The Institution is functionally and legally a body of the U.S. government and employs its own police force.

The institution has over 136 million items in its collection. Some of these include:

  • The Hope Diamond
  • A giant squid
  • The Wright Flyer
  • A Harley-Davidson XR-750
  • Kermit the Frog
  • Bee-Gees, Thundercats, and Flintstones lunch boxes
  • A 1955 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon
  • …and many more.

Even if you can’t make the trip to D.C., DCPL has resources to help you learn more about this precious national treasure.

For a general overview of the institution, try The Smithsonian: 150 years of adventure, discovery, and wonder by James Conaway, A Picture Tour of the Smithsonian, or Treasures of Smithsonian by Edwards Park.

For museum specific material try:

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: an autobiography edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Alex M. Spencer, The National Museum of Natural History by Philip Kopper, or America’s National Gallery of Art: a gift to the nation by Philip Kopper.

For kids, try S is for Smithsonian: America’s museum alphabet by Marie and Roland Smith or The Smithsonian Institution by Mary Collins.

And for your viewing pleasure, don’t miss Night at the Museum: Battle of  the Smithsonian starring Ben Stiller and Amy Adams.

By the way, James Smithson finally did come to this country. His remains are entombed in the Smithsonian Institution Building , otherwise known as “the Castle” (seen at the top of this post).

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Aug 4 2011

A Storied Past

by Jimmy L

Being nonexistent in the 60’s, I had never heard of The Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta’s underground progressive newspaper published in the late 60’s and early 70’s, until I happened to hear a feature story about it on the radio a few months ago. I was fascinated by the history of the paper, the radical causes it took up, and the dedication of its members, who were often harassed for being associated with it:

Then the other day, while taking a walk in Decatur square (just a hop, skip, and jump away from the Decatur Library) I saw that the DeKalb History Center had an exhibit of The Great Speckled Bird.  It’s really a sight to see. They have many of the covers and spreads hanging up, and samples of the stories grouped by causes (Racial Equality, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Worker’s Rights, Anti-War, etc.). The exhibit is up now, so go check it out.

And if you’re not familiar with the DeKalb History Center, it is a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing the rich history of DeKalb County. It’s located in the historic DeKalb County Courthouse, in the “Decatur square”. They have several other interesting exhibits up right now too!

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