Your Hometown Newspaper

Perhaps you saw the column from Dwight Bitikofer in last week’s Webster-Kirkwood Times, in which he noted that the paper is going into its 40th year of production. That’s quite a run for a newspaper which seems to have been started by a group of kids who got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s make a newspaper!’ That may be imposing a little too much of a movie plot on the beginning of the paper, but it’s a movie I’d like to see.

The success of the paper, as far as I can tell, has been remaining loyal to the communities it serves, telling their stories, treating their tragedies with compassion and their triumphs with joy. I read the Times first thing when I get into my office every Friday morning, to know what’s going on in town.

I don’t know if this is just coincidence, or part of a larger plan, but earlier this summer, Dwight Bitikofer began donating his own personal archive of the paper to the library. We are about 3/4 of the way through sorting and organizing this massive bunch of papers. We are missing very few issues.  It is an amazing source of our town’s history over the past 40 years.

There are stories about our schools, our churches, our neighbors, our local businesses and other institutions; about snowstorms and droughts; about local personalities, celebrities, authors, artists, politicians, and more. The coverage of sometimes notorious crimes with a Webster Groves or Kirkwood connection has been thorough and fair. There are stories about proposed projects that came to fruition, and way too many that never did.

Soon we will figure out the final disposition of the papers, how they will be filed and made accessible to our patrons. In the meantime, if you’re interested, drop by our Reference Room and take a look at some back issues. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

The Dog Museum?

A while back we added a new service called SELF-e. This allows aspiring authors to self-publish their manuscripts as eBooks and have them included in the library’s catalog. You can find the link to the published eBooks at our Website by clicking on the Materials tab and then on Indie Missouri.

One of the books I found on a recent check was titled Welcome to the Dog Museum of St. Louis, Missouri, by David M. Mundy. The book is mostly photographs of the many displays at the museum, which is located in Chesterfield. But the most distressing thing is that the introduction says the museum is moving to New York in 2018. I checked, and found news articles verifying this. The American Kennel Club, which runs the museum, has decided to move it to New York, close to its national headquarters, to increase attendance. Last year the museum only had about 6,000 visitors.

I’ll admit, I’ve never been, though I have long known it was there. I was surprised, in paging through Mr. Mundy’s book, at how many statues, paintings, photographs, and other dog-related works of art they have. I am not the world’s biggest dog fan, but I like them enough. Now I want to go–especially since I know that the time I have to visit this little gem is limited.

I think that’s the value of having a service like SELF-e. How many interesting books are out there, failing to find major publishers who are interested in printing them, that people like me might want to read, or at least look at?



Email Blunders

For purposes of my job, I am on a few email listservs. These are the lists of many people with similar interests or jobs or professions who all share questions and answers, announcements, news, et cetera pertaining to those things. One of the most important, for me, is the Missouri Library Association (MLA) listserv, from which I usually get several emails every day. Some I read, some seem of less importance.

A while back a local public library posted a job announcement on the MLA listserv. It carried the usual professional and educational requirements, a job description, and the proposed salary range. Soon after I saw it, a response came to me—as it came to hundreds of people on the list—from a woman who listed herself in her signature as a library science student, a prospective librarian. The gist of her message was, ‘No wonder this position is empty! The salary is terrible!’

Of course she didn’t mean to send this to the whole list. She thought she had forwarded this snarky little comment to one friend of hers, but whoops! Now she had revealed herself, at this early stage in her career, as someone who not only made such comments, but who had unrealistic expectations about what a starting salary for a librarian might be. (The salary was perfectly reasonable, and if she did not think so, she may want to reexamine her dedication to the profession. Nobody gets rich in Library Land.) And perhaps she had revealed herself as someone who does not know how to use email very well.

Yesterday on the MLA listserv there was a job announcement from the library at a Missouri university. Soon after it was posted, there came from a librarian at another university the comment that, ‘wow, they sure do go through people over there!’ Again, she had meant to share this comment with one friend, but had sent her denigrating comment to hundreds of Missouri librarians and library employees. Soon she issued an apology; the person who had listed the job posted a defense of her library as a great place to work, et cetera.

All of these problems could be avoided if people just learned to use email well. The problem in both of these exchanges was in misunderstanding, or misusing, the three basic ways one can respond to emails: reply, reply all, and forward. I don’t want to get into explaining here what each of these mean, and most people reading this probably understand it already.

But learning to use email well also means considering whether the thing you want to say is really worth sharing, or whether you should just stifle the impulse to comment and get on with your day. I was at dinner the other evening with three friends, all men who employ people. They all described warning employees about loose emails. Never ‘fire off’ an angry email, they all agreed. It’s usually written and sent in haste, and more often than not regretted within moments.

With the proliferation of social media (anti-social media, some have taken to calling it) we see the lessening, if not the demise of civility, and people share what were once personal viewpoints, misinformed opinions, and misdirected anger with ever-wider audiences. Misuse of email is much the same.

Perhaps this is why so many people still fear email. We conduct weekly sessions , we call them Computer Questions Days, to help people improve their computer and online skills. It is surprising and a little distressing how many folks one meets who are nearly terrified of the idea of using email. But clearly, even people who think they are perfectly comfortable with the technology have a lot to learn.

The Middle of the Sarpy Tract

Sarpy plaqueWe were at Gazebo Park a little while ago, taking photos for an upcoming historical display about the parks in Webster Groves. I looked all over for some kind of plaque noting anything important or significant about this busy little park. (It was just past 3 o’clock, and thronged with kids getting out of school.)

I pulled aside the branches of a pine tree and saw there, close to the ground, a sign in ancient verdigris that said, ‘This tablet marks the center of the grant of land of 6,000 arpens ceded to Gregoire Sarpy by the Spanish Government in 1802.’ Well whattya know? I had no idea this was here.

As many Webster Groves histories will tell you, way back in 1802 a French immigrant named Gregoire Sarpy was granted a large tract of land, 6,002 arpens–an old French measure–that stretched from River des Peres to the Meramec River. It was an L-shaped tract of land, which was irregular, and the federal land commissioner would not approve it. Development of the land was help up until 1842, when it was finally approved. In the meantime, much of the land was sold to various parties. A large portion of it was divided between Sarpy’s son John and Pierre Chouteau, Jr. This land was divided into lots which were meant to be sold to farmers, and which would eventually become the core of Webster Groves.

But in my many years of working on local history, nobody had ever pointed out to me the existence of this sign, which was placed there in 1933 by the D.A.R. In terms of Webster Groves history, it doesn’t get more ‘ground zero.’ Next time you’re in the Old Orchard area, see if you can find it.

Sam Phillips

People who saw the recent, highly entertaining Repertory Theatre production of The Million Dollar Quartet may have been surprised to note that the main character of the piece was not Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, or even Elvis. It was Sam Phillips, the legendary founder of Sun Records of Memphis. He narrated the play, and took it from scene to scene while the story, such as it was, played out.

This got me to thinking that I was long past due in learning more about the man whom all of these stars credited, at least to some degree, with discovering them and setting them on the path to stardom, and who always referred to him reverentially as ‘Mr. Phillips,’ never ‘Sam.’

The book I found was Peter Guralnick’s 2015 work, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n Roll. Guralnick is a long-time music journalist and writer for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and other major publications. He has also published an impressive shelf full of books on American blues music, early rock and roll, and more.

At well over 600 pages, his Sam Phillips is likely to be the definitive biography of the man. It would be hard to imagine more thorough coverage of a life. And in some ways that is too bad, since the book is deeply flawed.

For the first 400 pages or more, the story flows through Phillips’ triumphs and failures in the music business, as he finds his way towards the sound, the essence of the music he hopes to record and publish. Working in the early days almost exclusively with black artists, he discovers Howlin Wolf, Junior Walker, and other blues greats. He also records the seminal rock and roll anthem Rocket 88, by Ike Turner’s band, though in one of the great stories of the cavalier attitude of early music publishers, the song gets credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats.

Everything changed when a young factory worker named Elvis Presley came into the studio one afternoon asking to record a song. Within a year Phillips had abandoned most of his black artists to record white artists who ‘sounded black,’ the shift in emphasis that truly signals the beginning of what we know as rock n roll.

All great history. But at a certain point, the story of Sam Phillips becomes less interesting. He spent the last decades of his life jumping from one investment, one project, one pipe dream to another. He had affairs. He fought with his sons, who both became involved in the Memphis music industry. But for the most part he collected accolades and attended awards shows.

Peter Guralnick has written a two-volume biography of Elvis, a history of American blues, a biography of Sam Cooke. He has known people like Sam Phillips and his whole family for a long, long time. And so in working to make the last half of his life more interesting, he serves up one long chapter after another about his interviews with them. How he met them, what it was like interviewing them, what his impressions were. From a writerly perspective, this may all hold some interest, but for readers looking for more rock and roll history, the last 100 to 150 pages of the book are, frankly, a slog.

Still, if you want to know all there is to know about Sam Phillips, how he came to found Sun Records, and how he came to ‘invent’ rock and roll, the first 400 pages are as good a story as you’re likely to find.

The Undoing Project

‘People don’t make decisions about things, they make decisions about descriptions of things.’

This is one of the mind-boggling and provocative quotes from Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman, the two Israeli psychologists whose work stood the the field of psychology on its head in the 1970s and 1980s—followed by the fields of economics, history, business, politics and many more. By challenging conventional wisdom about how people thought, about the basic assumption that people were by nature rational, they proved that much of what we considered true in many areas of academic endeavor was simply not so.

Michael Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project tells the story of these two remarkable men and their close working relationship. They came of age in the early days of the Israeli state, and both men had their academic careers repeatedly interrupted by military service in Israel’s many wars. Yet they continued to work and learn, and when they met one another at Hebrew University, it was a fortuitous meeting of minds.

Lewis, the author of Moneyball, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker and many other highly acclaimed books, brings both men to life and makes their somewhat difficult work accessible to the interested reader. He also deals with the eventual breakdown of Tversky and Kahneman’s relationship, and Tversky’s early death. Kahneman would go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics—no small feat for a professor of psychology.

A highly recommended read.

Electoral Dysfunction

Imagine a country where the right to vote is not guaranteed by the Constitution, where the candidate with the most votes loses, and where paperwork requirements and bureaucratic bungling disenfranchise millions. You’re living in it.

This quote is from the introduction to Electoral Dysfunction, a book by Elizabeth Bassetti which tries to explain the ins and outs of the American election process, and why it is so riven with difficulty and controversy. I recently became interested in our election process, particularly the Electoral College, which every several years gets people angry and confused. I must confess I did not really understand it, and so I went in search of a book that might explain it. This is the one I checked out.

Electoral Dysfunction is a quick read, well-written, and pretty eye-opening. Its basic premise, which comes as a surprise to many, is that there is no guaranteed right to vote in our Constitution. That’s only the beginning. It tells of a system of 13,000 individual state, county, and municipal election authorities who all do things pretty much how they want. It details the long and painful history of providing suffrage to everyone, not just white male landowners, as our Founding Fathers intended.

Most disturbing of all, it tells of the efforts by various factions to make sure large numbers of people are denied the vote. All major political parties have done this at some point in our history. From Southern Democrats with their strict Jim Crow laws–poll taxes and strict registration requirements–to modern Republicans and their ID laws, nobody who’s paying attention can ignore the fact that these are all attempts to disenfranchise the poor and most minorities.

The book is full of interesting and often maddening anecdotes about things that have  taken place at the polls. It is all in all a very interesting and informative read, although, even though there was an entire chapter dedicated to it, I still don’t think I understand the Electoral College any better.