August 2007

Come by the Education Building at the MN State Fair today and you’ll find me hanging out with computers and librarians, at the Try Cool Tools @ Your Library booth, sponsored by the MN Digital Library, Minitex, and the U of M libraries. We’ll be demoing Minnesota Reflections*, ELM databases, where you can access fulltext newspapers and magazines, the MNLink Gateway, by which one can access items from most libraries in Minnesota, MyHealthMinnesota GoLocal, connecting folks to health information and resources, and the Research Project Calculator. While you’re at the Fair, stop by the Creative Activities building and take a look at my lovely okra pickles. Anyway, I’ll be at the booth from 3-9. Come by, say hello, and try out the Cool Tools!

*the HCMC History Museum photos are up! Go look at them on Minnesota Reflections!
Update:  One of the best parts about this experience was having people come up to me to express their love and admiration for “you librarians.”  Folks don’t really get the warm fuzzies for historians, or museum people in general, in the same way they do for librarians.  Nice to have some of that reflected goodwill.


So, a few days ago I mentioned that I took a busman’s holiday, meaning that I did the same thing on vacation (go to museums) as I do at work (go to a museum), and I wondered about the derivation of this interesting phrase.  When did busmen first take holidays in such a way, and how did it enter popular culture?

My OED (1971 compact edition) gives the first use of bus, from omnibus, to Harriet Martineau, 1832, but is of no help with the holiday.  Wikipedia is of no use (though you can find out about the excellent Dorothy Sayers novel Busman’s Honeymoon, dating the phrase back to the ’30s at least).   A few places date it to 1893, for some unsourced reason. The “word detective” (scroll down) debunks a claim that it refers to 19th C London horse drivers who rode the buses surreptitiously on their days off to see how the horses were treated,  but claims that it really refers to a “buzzman’s (that is, a pickpocket’s) holiday,” which is to say, they never take a vacation, which also sounds a bit specious.

Etymological speculation aside, the interesting part of this story is how buses and their drivers became culturally connected to great (verging on excessive) dedication and unbreakable habit.  This is not the general image of bus drivers in my city currently, at least.  Please help, transportation historians.

Minnesota news roundup!

Folks are talking  about installing a statue of Emiliano Zapata in Powderhorn Park, in my neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  No links, as no public meetings have yet been announced, but apparently the city and the park board are discussing it.  This will be a  fascinating bit of public history; I’ll bring you updates as they arrive.

The Resource Center of the Americas is closing after 25 years. It was a community center, library, bookstore, cafe, political action center, with classrooms and an education program, conversation groups, movies, events, etc, around Latin American politics and culture. What a loss for the Cities!

Established by volunteers near the campus of the University of Minnesota in 1982, the Resource Center achieved a remarkable 25-year record of accomplishments – keeping a spotlight on human rights, globalization and development issues in the Americas while also providing support for immigrant rights in Minnesota. Its award-winning programs and services have included the Centro de Derechos Laborales (Worker Rights Center), Penny Lernoux library and the Bookstore of the Americas.

The Otter Tail County Historical Society is having its annual homebrewing fest tonight, 8/17, from 7-11 pm, up in Fergus Falls.  All the money raised goes to the OTCHS.

The Minnesota  Sesquicentennial Commission (2008 is our 150th) has a blog, with a County of the Week feature.  This week: Clearwater County, in NW Minnesota, home of the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

The excellent Twin City Sidewalks blog has become much more active recently, with regular Sidewalk of the Week features and some very intelligent responses to the bridge collapse.

The Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums will hold their fall conference Sep 28 at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum in Alexandria.  Save the date!

I took a busman’s holiday to New York last weekend, so I wanted to give you a wee report on my museum and history related activities in a non-Minnesota location.

I saw the Slavery and the Civil War exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, which was excellent and full of rare items:  a lottery wheel from the draft, the record books of an African-American orphanage, tons of periodicals.  I learned a lot about Dr. James McCune Smith, whose medical and political career is fascinating.  What really impressed me about the exhibit, however, was its stylishness.  The first few rooms were decorated as to evoke a period counting house and then a hotel, and all the signage and much of the interpretive text was in a faux-19thc-newspaper style.  If the narration was a bit disjointed at times, the design still held my attention.  (I also skipped the introductory video, shown in the lobby outside the exhibit–I didn’t feel like sitting and watching when I could be engaged more actively–but it might have elucidated some things for me.)

At the Central Childrens’ Room of the Donnell Branch of the NYPL, I saw some history of children’s literature items:  the original Winnie the Pooh and friends, all worn out with love and use, Mary Poppins’ umbrella and other memorabilia donated by PL Travers, sketches from Madeline, and original paintings by Wyeth from Robin Hood.  I did not, however, see famous kidlit blogger Fuse #8, who is a librarian there. 

At the Brooklyn Museum, which I went to because of their excellent presentation on social networking at MW2007 this year, I saw the new Center for Feminist Art, where Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a long-term resident, and is housed in this hushed and darkened triangular gallery.  It’s really an amazing piece, and I enjoyed seeing some women from the history of science at the table (Caroline Herschel!).  I do think the third section of the piece, the herstory gallery, needs some updating.  Incorporating some of the new research done since the piece was conceived could really make the herstory gallery fascinating rather than a bit dutiful.  I also saw the Global Feminisms Redux exhibit, which was great, and walked through the next door Brooklyn Botanical Gardens pointing out wild edibles to my friend.  The Brooklyn Museum also has a great behind-the-scenes blog.

Also, I heard a concert in a community garden in the Bronx, went to Books of Wonder and Bluestockings, and went to the farmers market.  A busy vacation, and now back to grant and dissertation writing in the lovely Midwest.

Two weeks ago, I went up to Grand Marais, on the lovely North Shore of Lake Superior (and convenient jumping-off point for a camping trip on the Gunflint Trail).

Of course we had to visit the Cook County Historical Society, headquartered in an old lighthousekeeper’s house in downtown Grand Marais.  The society and the museum are all-volunteer run, and the museum encompasses the history of the whole country, 70% of which is federal forest/lake/parkland, and which extends up to the Canadian border, though it focuses on the county’s towns:  Grand Marais, Schroder, Tofte, Lutsen.

When I walk into a small local historical society, my conservator’s brain usually starts to scream:  are those original photos on display?  what are those lace dresses doing in front of the window?  there’s condensation on the basement walls!   The CCHS was no exception, but they win points for judicious use of plexiglass and other barriers to visitors handling all their items.

Their local collections are wide ranging, from a spinning wheel brought over from Norway to a dogsled used by a rural mailman.  Interpretative labels are scarce, but exhibits on land surveying, lumber camps, the CCC, geology and shipping in the county were informative and interesting.  Native American history in the county is sadly also scarce, though the mail service exhibit includes information on John Beargrease, who delivered mail by dogsled and after whom an annual dogsled race is named.

The CCHS’s web presence is worth discussing.  They don’t have their own website (hence the lack of linkage), but they do participate in the community portal pages at, the fab local nonprofit community ISP.  Boreal’s county history page (note that the whole site is built in drupal) links to a number of articles on county history, and also features a photo identification page, where community residents can identify people in the CCHS’s photo archives.  With these pieces around, it would be very short work to write a homepage for the museum, with hours and location and collections overview.  Lots of potential here.

Hey, today is Charles Fort‘s 133d birthday!  (via)   Fort, a bookish writer from upstate New York, spent most of his life in the British Library and the NYPL, researching paranormal phenomena, and writing four books full of documentation and pronouncements on the nature of science, evidence and belief.  He insisted that paranormal phenomena be investigated as dispassionately as any other natural phenomena, and criticized mainstream science for its ‘damning’ of unusual facts and occurrences.  Everything, according to Fort, should be rigorously investigated, falling frogs no less than glaciers.  His totalizing skepticism has been an inspiration to scientists, counterculture types, writers, artists, and (I insist) had an important influence on public opinion of science in the early twentieth century.  Historians of science should take note.

In honor of our boy Simic being named poet laureate, I’ve decided to inaugurate (historically-inclined) Poetry Friday here at PH.

I’m still thinking about historians, museums, and the productive, creative, life-affirming work we do and can do in the face of catastrophes.  More on that later.  But expect to see more of the literary imagination around history featured here, in particular a review of John Crowley’s new book.  Can a writer of historical fiction be called a public historian?

Simic’s poems are absurd and weary, tolerant of folly, but joyous in a feast or a moment caught in the light of the end of the world.  Here’s a Simic prose poem, from his 1989 book The World Doesn’t End:

A century of gathering clouds.  Ghost ships arriving and leaving.  The sea deeper, vaster.  The parrot in the bamboo cage spoke several languages.  The captain in the daguerrotype had his cheeks painted red.  He brought a half-naked girl from the tropics whom they kept chained in the attic even after his death.  At night she made sounds that might have been singing.  The captain told of a race of men without mouths who subsisted only on the scents of flowers.  This made his wife and mother say a prayer for salvation of all unbaptized souls.  Once, however, we caught the captain taking off his beard.  It was false!  Under it he had another beard, equally absurd-looking.

It was the age of busy widow’s walks.  The dead languages of love were still in use, but also much silence, much soundless screaming at the top of the lungs.

A bridge on 35w over the Mississippi collapsed tonight, not an iconic bridge, a nondescript, workmanlike bridge, that I’ve driven countless times, that I bike under every few days.  There are six people dead so far, but so many fire and so many cars in the river.

What is the use of being a historian right now, instead of an EMT?  Does being a historian mean being an observer, instead of an actor?

I work at the museum at HCMC, the hospital where they’re taking the survivors.  Hopefully tomorrow I can get some oral histories and do some good. But I’m drained.  I’m out of ideas.  I have stories but no solutions.