Pittsburgh, lord god, Pittsburgh

(post title from this song)

I’ve been answering an abnormal number of reference questions about Pittsburgh history lately, especially regarding photographs of old Pittsburgh. I think there’s a class that has to find an old photo and then go to the same place in the city and take a new one. Much like what Walter C. Kidney did in his thoroughly enjoyable book, Pittsburgh Then and Now. The lovely and forever engaging (to me, at least) Historic Pittsburgh image collection is still growing, with many images having been added to the Pittsburgh City Photographer collection this year.

And then, today, I found out about how the Dallmeyer Building downtown has been restored to it’s original facade from the 1800s. There’s an interesting thread about it, and about historic building restoration in Pittsburgh, on city-data.

See also:
Pittsburgh Photographic Archive – Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania Photographic Archives
Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation
Historic Photos of Pittsburgh by Miriam Meislik
Photos & Scenes of Pittsburgh recommended by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh



dream project!

http://retrographer.org/ – “Dane, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University studying design and human-computer interaction, has created the Retrographer Project designed to geotag historical images of Pittsburgh. “Geotagging” adds latitude and longitude data to an historical image so that its geographic location can be identified on a map.” It does seem like it still needs work, but I’m glad someone is doing this.

Not only am I mildly obsessed with Pittsburgh history,  I also recently started geocaching.  Ever since I read this book I’ve been wishing that someone would make an online version that would juxtapose Pittsburgh of today with Pittsburgh of the 1970s and the 1800s. Well, “Retrographer” seems like just the sort of thing I was imagining.

I’ve never done any “geotagging”, but I have recently become hooked on geocaching.  I think it’s fun because it gives you extra incentive to explore your city and its surroundings, and finding the caches can be tricky, and thus rewarding.  I already liked walking in the woods, now I can just find hidden treasure while I do it. And right when my bff and I started doing this, I was reading about the history of Schenley Park, my favorite park in Pittsburgh.  I immediately started imagining caches I could create that would share some of the history of the locale where the cache was hidden.  I like the thought of creating collages out of historical photographs and text, so the contents of the cache would be like a mini-artistic homage to what was.

Another recently publicized project that combines Pittsburgh history with archival material and geography is Public Record, a “multimedia documentary project that Justin Hopper [turned] into a [walking tour of downtown] you can take with your iPhone, cell phone or MP3 player” (Post-Gazette).

While I’m really into these geo-projects that make use of technology like mp3s and digital maps, I also really like the simplicity, slowness, and tactility (yes that is a word, i just found out) involved in creating a physical cache and finding a physical cache using only a GPS reader as your technology.  While it’s cool to use digital media to experience the history of places, there’s something ironic about using a form as intangibile as digital media to recapture the most ephemeral thing of all – history! I’m not implying that the creators of the aforementioned digital projects are unaware of this tension or that they’re not exploiting it (in the positive artistic sense).  I think, though, that when I create homages to history I want them to be graspable (apparently this too is a word).  I want people to be able to stand with something – even if it’s just an image – in their mittens and say “This was here, but now it’s not anymore.”

ice skating on panther hollow pond
ice skating on Panther Hollow pond in Schenley Park


So much global positioning to do, so little time.

In praise of local newspaper indexing

“To the newspapers of our communities the historian turns to interpret the mind of the people during any crisis. For this quest the newspaper index is the indispensable key to the treasure house of facts locked away in newspaper files…Yet in the United States there is but one such index, published by The New York Times.”

–Paul P. Foster, librarian of the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1935. (in a Special to The New York Times)

In many cities, the newspaper with the most readers and the largest distribution area cannot possibly report on the happenings in the myriad neighborhoods and communities it covers. For example, in a 1995 article on collection building, John Yewell wrote that the Minneapolis Star Tribune “is no different from most other large city newspapers. The news decisions they make are intended to appeal to a wider audience. Their withdrawal over the years from local politics in Minneapolis has left a void that several small, scrappy newspapers are attempting to fill.” In Pittsburgh, we have the excellent City Paper, but also an impressive number of publications dedicated to reporting on happenings in our many neighborhoods and communities. The Greenfield Grapevine, the Spirit of Bloomfield, and the Pittsburgh Senior News are just a few examples.

While many large city newspapers (and even some small ones) have adapted to the Web and provide keyword searchable content online, most community publications remain confined to the world of print (or PDFs, if you’re lucky). Few small newspapers possess the funding or expertise to mount their archive of print content online. Their content is not included in news databases, and libraries often neglect to collect them at all. This is unfortunate, because community and neighborhood newspapers can provide journalistic detail and a unique historical perspective that is increasingly absent from larger newspapers. Now that news information is more accessible and ubiquitous than before, community-produced information about local history and current events can be easily lost in the chaos or overshadowed by more easily accessible digital resources.

While in library school, I became especially interested in local news indexing practices and history. Indexing “small, scrappy newpapers” arguably requires knowledge of local history and language, in addition to familiarity with the needs and interests of potential users of the index. Since community publications may never make it to the Web, an index may be the only way to provide subject access to the years of history contained in their pages. It’s hard to argue for the time-intensive effort of indexing when digitization seems so quick and supposedly timeless. Despite the many benefits of news indexes, librarians and archivists have often found it difficult to convince users to use them, and library administrations to support their production at a local level. The format of indexes can be especially daunting for users accustomed to keyword searching, but these users have been found to appreciate indexes once they are made aware of their usefulness (Knapp, 2008). The issue of funding and staffing for the production of a local news index is a larger problem. I admit that researching this topic is a little self-indulgent. Still, you never know what can be accomplished with some tenacious grant-writing. Even if a small newspaper is capable of offering full-text content online, its users could still benefit from the improved retrieval accuracy that a good index can provide. (On a related note, see this article by Heather Hedden on book-style indexes for websites).

Journalists don’t use standardized terminology within a single issue of a paper, much less over a number of years. Indexing with the use of a controlled vocabulary (or “heading authority”) brings together all references to constantly changing personal, organizational, and community names. Local news indexers often use an already established heading authority like SEARS or LCSH, and modify it for local use. “To accurately assign subject headings requires an intimate knowledge of the community and its history”(Weaver, 2006), and indexers with local expertise can better recognize associative relationships that should be created between concepts and entities in the index. Community news indexers may also develop a list of recommended or modified headings designed to reflect local terminology and respond to the needs and viewpoints of anticipated users (Sholtys, 1984). Genealogists, local historians, reporters, authors, business people, county agency staff, students, and historical preservation society members are all potential users of a local news index, and their information-seeking habits should be considered in the wording of terms and their variants.

The main reasons to create an index are to save users’ time and facilitate their access to information. In 1982, one librarian wrote that the microfilming of local news archives resulted in “readers [being] less able to browse among the yellowing pages of bound volumes and [being] forced instead to endure the microfilm, where soonest found, soonest done” (J.D.L., 1982). This librarian’s indexing project was valuable because it enabled patrons to go directly to an article without having to deal with browsing and switching between reels of dreaded microfilm. I imagine that an electronic index could be especially useful for the community newspapers that exist in Pittsburgh, which aren’t necessarily archived in local libraries or even accessible to the public. I think a lot of them are stored at community centers, where (for all I know) there might be lovely filing cabinets or even a dedicated volunteer toiling away at an index. (I’ve been meaning to find out about this for the last year!) The time-saving principle of indexes applies to the Web environment as well as to print. Online, indexes have been shown to direct users to answers an average of 2 minutes faster than keyword searching (Knapp, 2008) (who knew?!). Users benefit from not having to browse through results only to realize they are irrelevant, and an index reduces the need to perform multiple time-consuming searches using different terms in hopes of getting all results on a topic.

During the 1970s, there was a flourish of local newspaper indexing projects. The interest was not limited by international boundaries nor by library type: projects were initiated in public and academic libraries in Scotland, Great Britain, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere. The majority of these projects were grant-funded, and staffed by one dedicated librarian with a few volunteers. Training the volunteers was time consuming and difficult, and volunteers were often not able to stay interested long enough to complete the project. This was a frequent problem with projects attempting to index a historical collection of newspapers. Projects that began indexing current issues seemed to fare better because they didn’t have such a daunting body of work facing them. In order to make indexing workflows as efficient as possible, one should consult the literature before taking on a project. Though they are outdated in many ways, articles from the 1970s and 1980s provide valuable tips on developing a name and subject authority file, determining depth of indexing, and dealing with staff and money shortages.

People (especially librarians and archivists) who want to begin indexing their neighborhood or community newspapers may be able to advocate for a project by invoking some practical benefits, which may especially appeal to administrators and funders:

  • A local news index is tangible proof of library activity (Dewe, 1972).
  • Librarians working on an index will be acutely aware of trends and issues that are of interest to the community. This is important for almost all aspects of public library operations, including programming, collection development, and marketing.
  • The production of an index is a chance for the library to form partnerships with other institutions. Librarians in Napa, CA used their indexing project as an opportunity to achieve closer cooperation among a community college, two small city libraries, four high school libraries, a private parochial college, and a historical society (Vierra & Trice, 1980).

The Web seems to lead many information-seekers to neglect the importance of information that is not available online. Local newspapers provide unique information about people, places, and events that may never appear on the Web or in any major publication. The time and money it takes to produce an index are significant, and it is harder than ever to convince non-cataloging types that such “old-fashioned” efforts are still worth it. However, without any way of facilitating the retrieval of information from small local publications, their “treasure house of facts” will be “locked away” when it could instead be helping people access relevant information about their communities and their histories.

Works Cited + Further Reading:
American Society for Indexing. “ASI Publications.” http://www.asindexing.org/site/asipub.shtml

Aslin, P. (2001). Raising Rochester history: The history of an index. Key Words 9 (3), 76-82.

Beare, G. (1989). Local newspaper indexing projects and products. The Indexer 16(4), 227-233.

Dewe, M. (1972). Indexing local newspapers. American Libraries 3(4), 59.

J.D.L. (1982). Local newspaper indexing in the UK. The Indexer 13(2), 103.

Knapp, C. (2008). Breakout session C1: indexes and the Google Generation: what you don’t know CAN hurt you. 2008 CALI Conference Report. Key Words 16(3), 95.

Knee, M. (1982). Producing a local newspaper index. The Indexer 12(2), 101-103.

Napier, K. (1982). Indexing a local newspaper. New Zealand Libraries 43(12), 197-199.

Sandlin, L. (1985). Indexing of smaller-circulation daily newspapers. The Indexer 14(3), 184-189.

Sholtys, P. (1984). Adapting Library of Congress Subject Headings for newspaper indexing. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 4(4), 99-102.

Special to The New York Times. (1935, March 2). Newspaper indexing urged as library aid. New York Times (1857-Current file), p. 13. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2005) database. (Document ID: 97144991).

Vierra, B. & Trice, T. (1980). Local newspaper indexing : a public library reports its experience. The Serials Librarian 5(1), 87-92.

Weaver, C. (2006). The Indexer as consultant: collaborative indexing of community newspapers. Key Words 14(1), 18-33.

Yewell, J. (1995). Why libraries must subscribe to –and preserve—the neighborhood and community press. Collection Building 14(2), 47-48.

FYI: much (but not all) of this post was distilled from a paper I wrote in 2008 as part of my MLIS coursework. Please give me credit if you’re citing or using any part of it.

Documenting the Face of America

Last night on my local PBS station, WQED, I stumbled upon the documentary “Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers” (written & directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler). What drew me in immediately was the number of photographs being shown in this program. In the words of the Library of Congress, these photographs are “a landmark in the history of documentary photography”, and it was great to see so many of them presented on-screen while learning about the political and social environment in which they were created.

I took a photographic archives course over the summer, and was impressed by how all the archives students seemed very familiar with the FSA/OWI story, right down to details about how certain photographs had been modified, damaged, preserved etc. I guess it’s understandable that archives students would know more about this than library students, since this collection is probably the type of thing aspiring photo archivists dream about. This documentary was especially nice to watch as a librarian, because it left the viewer with a strong impression of the importance of visual history, and libraries’ & archives’ role in preserving/providing access to that history. It also highlighted Stryker’s insistence that “the file” be kept together when the project was ending; scattering it would greatly reduce its value as documentary evidence of the period, and the strength of its social & political statement. The point was made, on multiple occasions, that many politicians and members of the general public disapproved of the FSA/OWI photography project, and thought the photographs were “stupid”. How fortunate that the Library of Congress was (and has been) able to provide such a good home for these far from “stupid” materials. It’s nice to see such a thoughtful documentary film emphasize the contributions of libraries/archives and the people who care for them.

A review is available here.