Anti-Racism in Archives

In case you missed it, Providence Public Library’s Director Jack Martin sent a Message of Solidarity to the Library’s mailing list on June 5, 2020. It includes a link to a powerful Black Lives Matter reading list put together by the Library’s Info Services team, as well as a link to a list of local nonprofits doing grassroots racial justice work in our state.

Here in Special Collections, we’ve been engaging in deep thinking and extended discussions about our role in the movement for racial justice, especially given our profession’s historic location within systems of white supremacy and the overwhelming lack of diversity in our field. We certainly don’t have any answers, but we’re planning to share via social media some of our readings and the issues we’re grappling with over the coming weeks. We believe in dismantling the myth of archival neutrality and openly sharing our learning processes, and we welcome anyone who wants to engage with the issues alongside us.

Archives in the Time of COVID-19

Hello, loyal blog readers. We wish that, right now, we were posting under normal circumstances to impendingly welcome you back into our newly-renovated library and enthusing about a soon-to-open exhibition, but alas, that’s not the case given the current COVID-19 situation in the U.S. However, we do have an update on library services and Special Collections access during our closure, as well as some information about where we left off our reopening preparations (with photos near the bottom of this post):

First, as you likely know, Providence Public Library has wisely postponed the date when we will re-open to the public; if you didn’t receive the library’s email announcement, you can find it here. You can also check our website for updates about virtual library services and announcements about our rescheduled opening. (To answer your most pressing questions: no, you don’t need to return your books right now, nor will they incur overdue fines until we re-open; and yes, you can apply for a temporary library card online if you don’t have one and want to access the library’s e-books and other digital services.)

Second, all members of our Special Collections staff are currently working from home. That means that we’re available by email but not by phone, and we don’t have access to our physical collections at the moment. We do have a number of virtual services available:

  • First, please avail yourselves of the plethora of images available through ProvLibDigital. They’re free to download, and could make great additions to online curricula, research projects, or creative projects.
  • We can offer some virtual instruction or reference services: do you want us to offer an online session for your class on how to do primary source research? Have questions about your genealogy research? Need some ideas for your history class? Please get in touch; we’d love to work with you.
  • We’re working to put together additional resources that will be available through our website, such as subject guides to common research topics, ideas for teachers and professors to integrate primary sources and historical materials into their virtual curricula, and information about preserving family history. Stay tuned!

Now, for some pictures and construction/ exhibit updates:

Up until mid-March, we were frantically preparing for the library’s grand re-opening. While construction continued outside our new office doors, we received new furniture for our Special Collections Reading Room, including a bank of lockers for researchers’ personal belongings, new tables and chairs, and an official-looking desk for the librarian monitoring the room. We don’t have pictures to share just yet, so you can act very surprised when you finally sit in our new chairs.

We also got VERY exciting new cases for our VERY exciting new exhibition gallery. The cases were manufactured in Germany and journeyed across the Atlantic on a cargo ship. They arrived via delivery truck on a rainy day in wooden packing crates, having crossed the miles relatively unscathed.

(Don’t worry, we got a replacement for this single broken glass shelf.)

Look at the cool Drop (N) Tell Impact Indicator on the side of the shipping crate that tattles on laissez-faire crate handlers:

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Here are a few of the cases set up in the new gallery:

Exhibit gallery

In early March, we started building custom book supports for our annual exhibition and program series. Here are some poorly-lit pictures of Angela doing math, and of freshly-made supports inside our new cases.

We’re still planning to have the exhibit completed whenever the library re-opens to the public; in the meantime, keep an eye here and on our other social media for posts highlighting Special Collections materials, and even a few exhibit sneak-peeks.

We sincerely hope you’re all staying safe and healthy and feeling supported and connected to one another.

Beauing Around

Our Creative Fellow has been doing a deep research dive into a book that we all love: the Linguistic Atlas of New England, a multi-volume title documenting regional accents and dialects in New England circa 1931-1933. Researchers visited 213 communities and asked 416 people what words they used to describe common situations (for instance, “lightly raining”) and also how they pronounced common phrases. Pronunciation was documented via a modified version of IPA transcription and printed directly onto maps, with a sidebar listing respondents’ words and phrases.

In honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday, we thought we’d highlight some of the pages in the Linguistic Atlas documenting interpersonal relationships.

First, here is the record of how respondents asked, “May I escort you home?”

May I Escort You Home

Don’t miss the very sweet response next to 29: “That’s what you say if you want to shine up to a girl after [prayer meeting].”

Presumably after having a nice time escorting someone home, a couple may end up “courting” or “sparking.” (You can see the “delightful” Rhode Island accent in the IPA transcription of “sparking” below.)

I’m not sure how I feel about referring to a marriageable young woman as “good sparking wood,” but I guess no one asked my opinion.

There’s also the (possibly more serious?) “Keeping Company,” including the memorable “beauing her around.”

Keeping Company

If you’ve been keeping company with someone nice, you may find that you become quite fond of her.

Fond of her

Maybe you even want to make things official?!

Of course, SHE may not want to make things official. She might even… GIVE HIM THE MITTEN!

Gave Him the Mitten

 

 

 

 

New (Old) Tattoo Books

We’ve recently acquired a couple of fantastic books featuring photographs of early 20th century tattoos–one French, and one German.

The first book is a 1934 volume of Dr. J. Lacassagne’s Albums du Crocodile, improbably written for an audience of medical school alumni from the Hospices Civils de Lyon and focusing on tattoos in the French criminal underworld.

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Title page of “Albums du Crocodile” showcasing a delightfully gothic French prisoner’s tattoo

Author Jean Lacassagne was the head of the prison medical service at Lyon, son of the founder of the Lyonnais School of Criminology.

The book’s photographs* feature mostly-anonymous, heavily-tattooed prisoners, both male and female, in various states of undress (and many completely nude). (*We want to acknowledge that it’s not clear whether the subjects of these photographs consented to the photography or whether they, more likely, were compelled to display their bodies and tattoos for the doctor’s camera.)

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A jaunty French sailor in, ahem, scant clothing, with copious chest and arm tattoos.

Female prisoners are present only in a section about prostitutes, and the author considers their “low-quality” tattoos an early sign of impending ruin.

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An example of a “vaccin d’amour” tattoo.

The only prisoner who is identified by name in this volume is Louis-Marius Rambert, referred to as “L’assassin d’Ecully.” (He and an accomplice murdered two people with a hammer, a crime for which he was sentenced to death.)

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Rambert’s chest stars a “magnifique tatouage polychrome,” a pink, green, and blue image of an eagle fighting a dragon from a Shanghai tattoo artist.

As described in the caption above, Rambert willed his skin to author Lacassagne before his death by tuberculosis in 1934, as a sign of gratitude for the doctor’s services. Lacassagne carefully preserved the prisoner’s skin, and this colorful tattoo was later used in the binding of Rambert’s own manuscript memoirs. (!!!!!!) (We’d like to thank bookseller Brian Cassidy for drawing our attention to this gruesome story.)

The second book from this fascinating acquisition is the 1926 Bildnerei der Gefangenen, a book of prisoners’ art.

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Title page of Bildnerei der Gefangenen, with a stunning reproduction of a watercolor.

Author Hans Prinzhorn was a psychiatrist who documented outsider art from mentally ill and incarcerated artists. This book includes sections on illustrations, clay sculptures, and playing cards, as well as thieves’ symbols and prisoners’ carvings.

A section at the end of the book features photos from the Hamburg police department of heavily tattooed men and women who were taken into police custody.

We noticed, upon close examination, that two of the men in the photos (below) have very similar tattoos, one reading “Only For Lady” and one reading “Nur für Damen”– we can only assume that these are instances of artistically inked homophobia, but are sincerely curious if any of our readers are tattoo anthropologists and can tell us more about these. Was this a widespread practice in the 1920s?

If you’re interested in viewing these books, or any other materials related to the history of tattoos, get in touch to make a research appointment!

Creative Fellowship update

Today’s blog post is an update from our 2020 Creative Fellow, Kelly Eriksen, who’s been making a deep dive into our Special Collections and planning out a sound installation for the spring.

“Last week I got to go on a really exciting hard hat tour of the Providence Public Library renovations.”

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“The tour was a great opportunity to move through the old/new space and to gain an understanding of how the public will eventually use it.”

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“Starting to get clearer and clearer ideas for installation. More details to come!”

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“Big thanks to Aaron Peterman for giving a great tour and answering all of my (so many) questions!”

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Thanks, Kelly! Stay tuned to see what she’s up to in the new year!

Announcing our 2020 Creative Fellow

We’re delighted to announce PPL’s new Creative Fellow: Kelly Eriksen, a Providence-based multimedia artist with a background in glass and an interest in “how the things that we interact with every day can be viewed as materials with which we can work and play.”

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Over the coming 8 months, Kelly will do research in our Special Collections and design a sound installation related to the topic of journalism as part of our 2020 exhibition and program series.

We love that Kelly’s work is both conceptual and interactive, and we’re so excited to see what she creates!

Reminder and Researchers

A quick reminder: applications for our 2020 Creative Fellowship are due this coming Tuesday, October 1st.

Now that you’ve been reminded, we’re excited to tell you that Special Collections materials are (mostly) moved into their new homes in our renovated, climate-controlled stacks!!! (The news is exciting enough to merit some rule-breaking punctuation.) We have twelve fancy air conditioning units that control and monitor temperature, air distribution, and humidity, keeping our books happy and stable.

Now that we’ve moved, we’re able to take classes and researchers on a limited basis (due to space considerations during the ongoing renovation). Get in touch if you’d like to make an appointment!

Call for Proposals: 2020 Creative Fellowship

Providence Public Library is now accepting applications for our 2020 Creative Fellowship.

 

The 2020 Creative Fellow will create new, original work in the field of music or sound related to the topic of Journalism, as part of the Library’s 2020 exhibition and program series tentatively titled “The King Is Dead.”

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Learn more about our annual Creative Fellowship and the work of past Fellows, or read the full call for proposals.

Proposals must be submitted by October 1, 2019.

Moving Our Special Collections

We’ve been in FULL SWING with the first phase of moving our collections into their new, climate-controlled stacks. It’s involved copious sweat, a few tears, and minimal blood, but our art and architecture folios are now on designated shelving, and our Rhode Island collections are settling into their new homes.

book moving

We couldn’t have done it without tireless and meticulous help from a fantastic team from William B. Meyer. Phase two of our moving will begin in a couple of weeks – stay tuned for updates!

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Renovation Update and a Giant Bat

“Hey, Special Collections Librarians,” we can hear you thinking, “where have you been?”

Renovation has been kicking into high gear over here at the Providence Public Library.

Renovation stairwell

Workers create an open stairwell through the building’s many floors.

We’ve been cleaning and packing materials in preparation for our move into newly-renovated, climate-controlled stacks. We’ve vacuumed many of our books with a special HEPA vacuum to clean them before they’re loaded onto carts, and we’ve been setting shelves to hold our materials in their new space. Delicate items are getting wrapped, and Jordan has been making a Herculean effort to track every book’s current and future location through color-coded spreadsheets and maps. Everything is topsy-turvy (but in a collections-preserving manner, don’t worry).

Renovation

Part of this space will eventually be our new exhibition gallery.

We’re not taking research requests or appointments at the moment, as most of our collections are inaccessible. We’re hoping to have completed the move by late July or August; we’ll post an update on this blog and on our social media once we’re taking new reference questions and research appointments. In the meantime, you can always check the PPL website for updates about the building transformation, or visit our colleagues at the Rhode Island State Archives, Providence City Archives, Rhode Island Historical Society, and other awesome local institutions for all of your research needs.

To tide you over for the next month or two, here’s an exciting illustration of a giant bat soaring above a cathedral (taken from a children’s book about animals called On Four Feet):

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