2013 Grace Ellen McCrann Memorial Lecture

By Amy Ballmer

The 2013 Grace Ellen McCrann Memorial Lecture took place at LaGuardia Community College on Nov. 12 and showcased research done by CUNY librarians while using Professional Reassignment Leave. The research shared was on a diverse array of topics, all incredibly interesting and impressive. What follows are brief summaries of the presentations.

Alycia Sellie, Graduate Center: Meta-Radicalism: The Alternative Press by and for Activist Librarians

Sellie’s presentation detailed a research project that sprung from a donation to Brooklyn College of an archive of the publication Synergy—a serial publication produced by the Bay Area Reference Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and which was edited by Celeste West. Synergy contained lively discussions of radical politics, articles about bike riding, the environment, paraprofessionals, reference, homosexuality, the occult, sex, drugs and cataloging that spoke to Sellie in a way that was refreshing and vastly different from what she had previously found in glossy mainstream library literature.

As she examined what was unique about Synergy, she also thought about other works that it spoke to and referenced. Her research took shape when she realized that there was this meta trend, in which librarians were advocating for independent and alternative publications by creating their own—i.e. Synergy was an underground periodical which celebrated other underground periodicals. She then went about looking at the ways that librarians have argued for alternative materials in libraries by publishing their own work—as a kind of inside activism within librarianship. She ended up focusing on two waves: the radical press of the 1960s and 1970s, and the self-publishing of zine librarians.

Why did librarians make these publications? Like other alternative publications outside of librarianship, they wanted to discuss topics that were not already part of mainstream discourses—topics that may have been ignored or even intentionally kept outside of professional conversations. Librarians were speaking through alternative publications about what our duties are as collectors and sharers of culture. They were reflecting on what items we collect how that affects our role is in our communities—questions we still struggle with today: how do we allow our communities into our collections, and what people and thoughts are libraries not representing on our shelves and in our databases? Sellie’s research has been published as a book chapter: “Meta-Radicalism: The Alternative Press by and for Activist Librarians.” Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America. Ed. Christine Pawley and Louise S. Robbins. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. 217-236. Print  in Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America. A pre-print version can be found here.


Lena Marvin, City College: A Marauder’s Map for the Library

In her presentation Marvin explained how over the course of fifteen days of reassignment leave she created thirty nine individual animated maps of City College’s Cohen Library to replace static PDF maps.

Marvin was inspired to do this project by Bill McMillin, a Pratt Institute Librarian, who spoke at Metro’s Cod4Lib in May of 2012 on the subject of animated gif maps for libraries.  He had created such maps for the Milner Library at the Illinois State University, and had based his work off of the Eugene McDermott Library at the University of Texas at Dallas. Where the Milner Library images were created using costly proprietary software the City College Cohen Library images were created using free and open source software.

The Cohen library guide (built using libguides) is organized by call number which link to the CUNY library catalog. Both the CUNY library catalog and libguides use responsive web design.  Responsive design means the site itself can automatically detect when it is being viewed with a mobile devices and changes the user interface accordingly. Many mobile devices do not support animated gifs, which is why the images created by Lena Marvin also distinguish the area of interest with the use of color.  All other parts of the stacks which are not to be the focus of the image are in gray, while the section the patron is being directed to, is colorful. Click here to see an example.


Kathleen Collins, John Jay: Smart Cookie: The TV Career of Dr. Joyce Brothers

Equipped with a PhD. in psychology and a purposefully acquired encyclopedic knowledge of boxing, a young Joyce Brothers became a contestant on the $64,000 Question in 1955 and was the first woman to win the top prize money.  That triumphant debut, along with luck, charm and intelligence, was an unlikely but foretelling entrée to a career as the pioneer of media psychology and one of the most well-known popular figures of the 20th century. For more than four decades, through her own advice programs and perennial appearances on talk shows, the nation could count on her authoritative, calm response to almost any issue, from marital and financial woes to Beatlemania and the Space Shuttle disaster. A clever businesswoman, she discovered how to provide a mass-scale service for a never-ending demand – understanding ourselves.

Her longevity on television was in large part afforded by her flexibility and symbiotic relationship with the medium. She played other roles in addition to – and interdependent on – that of media psychologist. Her numerous appearances on variety shows, sitcoms and dramas kept her on the screen and in the public eye, creating both a persona as celebrity professional as well as professional celebrity. Brothers’ tenure on television comingled and evolved with countless events and trends in American culture, including the diminishing place for a national therapist. This portrait of her multi-layered career and iconic status explores the progression from addressing our cultural preoccupations on television in the pre-cable era to a fractured, self-help obsessed audience finding guidance in reality TV. As a cultural history, it tells us – the American viewer – about ourselves and our fixations as much it does about Dr. Brothers’ unparalleled and successful career. Collins is currently working on a book project about Dr. Brothers.


Robin Davis, John Jay: Early Modern Digital Agendas: Critical approaches in digital humanities at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Davis used her reassignment time to attend Early Modern Digital Agendas (EMDA), a three-week research institute held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Robin valued the long period of time they had to meditate carefully on digital issues and take a deeply critical look at what it means to build something digital; the political implications of scholarly projects, the fore- and afterlives of digital endeavors, and the long history and future of textual remediations. One topic of note was the idea of the library as a folded space, as proposed by Michael Witmore, the Director of the Folger. We can’t see all of the texts at once in the physical library, because we have folded them into a manageable size—otherwise the surface area of the pages would cover miles of land. Similarly, the folding-in of a library’s online book images creates a condensing of a user’s experience of digital collections. What one looks for online is folded—hidden—under the search box. But even in physical collections, looking down the long shelves of heavy books lends a weightiness and depth to the patron’s experience of the collection. We don’t have an equivalent way of representing large collections online, of feeling the mass of a thick scanned volume or seeing the far-off edges of what we can access. The best example of providing macro- and micro-representation of a large online collection was also presented at EMDA, the Historical Thesaurus of the English Language created by Marc Alexander. Talking through his data and visualization decisions was very useful for Davis, both as creative inspiration and practical consideration—the John Jay Library is building its Digital Collections site, to be launched in spring 2014.


Philip Swan, Hunter College: “The Present Defenceless State of the Country”: Gunpowder Plots in Revolutionary South Carolina

In South Carolina, the first year of the American revolution was fraught with rumors, both founded and unfounded, concerning the military use of slaves and Indians by both sides against the other. Alongside fears of slave insurrections, many South Carolinians alleged that agents of the Crown and of the Revolution were covertly seeking Native allies by dispensing “presents” of scarce munitions. With the outbreak of war, Indian and white communities competed in an unprecedented way for a very limited supply of gunpowder and ammunition, sparking suspicions, recrimination, and armed conflict. Conceding that the British would be far better able to supply the Indians with “presents” of munitions, the provincial government scrambled to match the largesse of the British as best it could. The tensions created by this situation would permeate and shape the course of the war in South Carolina from the start of hostilities through the late summer and early fall of 1776. An article based on this research was published in The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 108, No. 4.


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