Library Serendipity. Part 1: Thank you Yale University and LOC

In my office at school, which sits in the middle of the library, there is a cardboard box filled to the brim with newspapers and magazines. Reader’s Digests from 1965, Look magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and local newspapers from the same era wait for curious students or teachers to come by and browse. Last year hiding out from a rare downpour, a few students discovered the box and began looking through the dusty items. I showed them a fun article from the Reader’s Digest called “The Perils of a Ph.T.” This was a condensed article from Brides magazine in which the author gives advice to prospective and newlywed brides about supporting husbands who are going to school. “Ph.T” stands for “putting hubby through [college].” While the article gave practical advice for the newly married working bride of the late 1960’s, it gave those kids a great discussion starter and kept them thoroughly engaged throughout the lunch period arguing about women’s rights, civil rights, and feminism. It was interesting to listen to their very modern views on the subject, years away from the source.

By organizing the “stuff” of life and making it available, we librarians create the space where kids can go to a shelf and find Jane Austen sitting near Laurie Halse Anderson and still close enough to Avi to see them all in one glance. We bring it together so that browsing can become an art that lets us all take a moment to reach toward what we think we want, only to discover a shiny cover that equally captures our attention. Quite often, we go home with both items in hand. That box of old magazines could just as easily led students to working topics for further research, or just a moment’s skimming through the pages looking for the cartoons.

All of this is leading me to give a shout-out about a–not just powerful, but serendipitous–new searchable collection of photos from the Library of Congress. Yale University indexed 170,000 of the Library of Congress photos taken by the Farm Security Administration photographers. Called “Photogrammar” it contains an interactive map  that currently highlights California; but will soon have data visualizations from all the states.

Click on the “Interactive Map” link and you’re taken to a map of the U.S. in which you can stroll over the 50 states, choose one and browse through hundreds of photographs from the decade 1935-45. Even more fun is to choose the “Treemap” by which you auger your way from Cities and Towns to Towns and Small Cities and then choose Cemeteries or Slums, or Pueblos [and more] and up pops pictures from your chosen subjects.

While there are many ways this will be a wonderful tool for classroom use, I hope to see teachers and librarians encourage students to use it as a browsing tool – letting library serendipity take over: “search for 5 towns in different states – and compare them” or “what occupations do you find represented in these years? How do they compare across the country?” “What kinds of evidence do we see that can tell us how people felt about their living situations?” “What kinds of family or other groups are in the images? ” “What can we surmise about these groups and how people lived and worked together?”

chickI searched for my town, Petaluma, and came up with the cutest image that absolutely personifies us as the “egg basket of the world,” and there were many more photos of farms with chicken coops dotting the landscape. Today sighting a chicken coop anywhere in the county is a rare event. Showing these images to students and making comparisons between the landscape of the past with that of the present can spark interesting questions about their own history and geography.  Invite your students to wander through  town and take pictures of today’s landscape and then compare them to photos in this collection. What personifies your town or state and how has it changed through time; and equally important: where is it heading? Let them enjoy the serendipity of discovering images that encourage further investigation and spark imaginations.

Blyth, Myrna. “The Perils of a Ph.T.” Reader’s Digest Oct. 1965: 143-46. Print.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Technology

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