Storm Center and the story of Ruth Brown, the radical librarian who inspired it

Senate House Library is currently running an exhibition called Radical Voices, displaying items associated with activism for positive change in society, which have been preserved in the library’s collections. As part of this exhibition season the library hosted a film night, showing Storm Center (1956), directed by Daniel Taradash and co-written by Taradash and Elick Moll.


Storm Center stars Bette Davis as a public librarian who is fired for refusing to remove a book about communism from her library. While the film itself is significant for being the first Hollywood film to challenge McCarthyism, I found it more interesting to discover the real-life story behind the film.

Dr Richard Espley (Head of Modern Collections at Senate House Library) introduced the film, explaining that it was inspired by a true story: the dismissal of Ruth Brown, a public librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1950. Although Brown was dismissed for circulating communist materials, many believe that the real reason behind it was her civil rights activism. Brown was a member of a group affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She had made efforts to promote racial equality, for example by running an integrated library, trying to introduce an integrated story-time, and taking part in a sit-in with two African American teachers at a local drugstore (Robbins, 2007). This was in 1950, before sit-ins became more widespread as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the complaints of a “citizens committee”, Brown could not be dismissed for her actions and had been careful not to break the law. The library board that supported her was replaced by the City Commission, who interrogated and then fired her.

An intriguing detail concerns a photograph published in the local newspaper during the controversy and claimed to be of subversive materials removed from the library. In an attempt to calm the situation, the library board had moved copies of these magazines to locked storage, but on top of them were two books about communism, which later could not be located (Robbins, 2000). The library board denied knowledge of the books, and it has since been asserted that the copy of Marx’s Das Kapital was not even from the Bartlesville public library, but had been checked out from the Tulsa public library for the unauthorised picture in order to incriminate Brown (Robbins, 2007). Presumably the book was returned to the Tulsa public library and remained there free from censorship.

After Brown’s dismissal, a group called ‘The Friends of Miss Brown’ was formed in order to defend her and protest against the censorship of library materials. The group’s spokesperson, Darlene Anderson Essary, wrote in a letter to the Saturday Review, “the denial of Constitutional rights to our citizens has significance beyond the boundaries of our town”. It was this letter that inspired Daniel Taradash and fellow screenwriter Elick Moll to make a film based on the events in Bartlesville (Robbins, 1998).

Storm Center is historically significant for challenging McCarthyism, and is an enjoyable, if melodramatic, film. However, as Espley pointed out, it is ironic that a film about fighting censorship and defending intellectual freedom actually censors the real-life story upon which it is based. The film makes no mention of the civil rights activism of Ruth Brown. Louise S. Robbins researched the story and wrote a book about it: The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library (2000). The photograph of subversive materials mentioned above appears on the cover of the book.

Thank you to Dr Richard Espley and Dr Jordan Landes at Senate House Library for hosting such an interesting event. I am excited to attend the related conference next month, Radical Collections: Radicalism and Libraries and Archives.

There has been talk of organising a regular film night at #citylis in order to watch movies about librarians. I think that this is a great idea, as there are many more films featuring librarians! The 10 best librarians on screen: Staff at the BFI Reuben Library nominate their top 10 librarians in film and television.

Senate House Library blog post: The (partially) radical librarian on film

Robbins, L. (2000) The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

Robbins, L. (1998) Fighting McCarthyism through Film: A Library Censorship Case Becomes a “Storm Center”. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 39 (4), 291-311. doi:10.2307/40324305

Robbins, L. (1996) Racism and Censorship in Cold War Oklahoma: The Case of Ruth W. Brown and the Bartlesville Public Library. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 100 (1), 18-46.

on Digital Humanities, Python, and Rasperry Pi

As Dr Lyn Robinson discussed in her blog post from 2015, ‘Are the Digital Humanities and Library & Information Science the same thing?’, the two are closely related. There is a focus on documentation in both disciplines, for example through the creation of digital resources, and issues such as open access, metadata and linked data. I think that it is important for librarians to be aware of the work going in in Digital Humanities. This is not only so that they can better support students and researchers, but also because librarians are increasingly involved in this kind of work, through digitisation projects and digital libraries.

Beyond the creation of digital resources, an activity associated with Digital Humanities is textual analysis. In DITA we explored some online textual analyis tools such as Voyant Tools, Wordle and Tagxedo. These kinds of tools are easy to use for simple tasks, but if you want to have more control and carry out your own text or data analysis project, it would be helpful to learn how to write the code for this yourself.

A Word Cloud showing the most frequently used words on my blog, created using Tagxedo.

Learning coding (or writing a set of software instructions) may seem daunting, but there are many tools online which are aimed at beginners. Codecademy is a popular starting point as it has various free courses for learning different programming languages. Python is recommended as a good language for beginners, as it has a strong focus on readability, clarity and openness. There is a strong community around Python, which encourages open-source code and the sharing of ideas, and so if you have a problem the answer is probably already available online.

There is a library of over 90,000 Python packages available on PyPI (the Python Package Index). These contain code that other people have already created for a certain function and made available for others to download and use. An example that is useful for librarians is PyMARC. This is a module that can access, create and manipulate raw binary MARC record data. It can be used to extract, analyse, add or remove fields and subfields. (see Hill, Frank & Pernotto 2016, p. 22-25 for an example of how to use PyMARC to batch process MARC records.)

While looking into learning to program, I have been thinking about the importance of these skills to children and young people. There is a generation (in which I include myself) which has grown up never having to interact with computers without the help of a user-friendly graphical interface. Young people may be great at using computers, but do we really understand how they work? Coding has been added to the school curriculum in the UK, and so new ways of learning and teaching the basics of computer science are being explored all the time.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
Raspberry Pi 3 Model B (via Wikimedia Commons)

Eben Upton created the Raspberry Pi (a credit card-sized, single-board computer) in response to decreasing numbers and poor skills of incoming computer science students at Cambridge. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a UK charity which aims “to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world”, by providing low-cost mini computers and promoting the teaching of basic computer science. You can learn to code on a Raspberry Pi, and then the list of possible projects to use it for is endless. Astronaut Tim Peake even used special Astro Pis during his mission on the International Space Station, running experiments designed by school children (final Astro Pi mission update).

I am very tempted to get myself a Raspberry Pi and see what I can do with it (if ever I have time after writing all of my assignments), so watch this space!

Robinson, L ‘Are the Digital Humanities and Library & Information Science the same thing?’:

Walton, D ‘Chapter One: Introduction’, p. 1-10 and Hill, C; Frank, H; Pernotto, M ‘Chapter Two: Python’, p. 11-26 in: Thomsett-Scott, B (ed.) (2016) The Librarian’s Introduction to Programming Languages, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

Get started with Raspberry Pi:

Raspberry Pi Education:

“data about data”

In DITA (Digital Information Technologies and Architectures) we have been looking at how information is organised and retrieved. In this post I will explore the use of metadata and bibliographic frameworks in library technologies.

Metadata is often described as “data about data”, but if this sounds too vague it is helpful to think of it in terms of something familiar, like a book:

Jeffrey Pomerantz (2015), Metadata MIT Press

The information given on the cover of this book is metadata: the title, its author, an image related to its contents, and often a brief description. By looking at the cover of the book, we can know what it is about without having to read all of the information held within its pages. In the digital world, the word metadata is increasingly being used to descibe the data attached to digital resources. Metadata is very important in an information society, as it allows us to organise information and be able to access it when we want to. This is an essential aspect of library and information science, and so I believe it is important to think critically about the ways in which we organise data, and whether these can be improved upon for the internet age.

Libraries use metadata in the form of a bibliographic record, which acts as a surrogate for the book (or other item such as a journal article, DVD, or online resource). Traditionally this metadata would have been held on a catalogue card, and is now in the form of a digital record to be accessed using a computer.

Most libraries use a standard called AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd ed.) to determine what information about an item is recorded. Another standard is RDA (Resource Description Format), designed to be compatible with and eventually replace AACR2, but its adoption has not been universal.

MARC (Machine Readable Cataloguing) is the format used to communicate this bibliographic data to the computer (MARC21 is the most commonly used version today).  MARC uses a 3-digit number to identify each field, e.g. 100 to indicate the author field, 245 for title, 260 for publication information and so on. (See here for more detail on MARC.)

Having these standards allows bibliographic information to be shared between libraries. Unless they are working with very rare materials, it is common for a cataloguer to copy over an existing record created by another librarian and make adjustments to it, rather than having to create a whole new record from scratch.

By learning about the history behind these standards, I am beginning to understand their advantages and disadvantages in a modern context. For example, MARC was developed in the 1960s by Henriette Avram at the Library of Congress. As it was designed at a time when computer processing was much slower and memory was much more of a concern than it is today, it is excellent at using a small amount of memory to create stable records, like catalogue cards. However, this also means that it is not ideal for expressing relationships with external resources such as webpages.

Dublin Core was designed to be a simple metadata standard for use on the web. This makes it easier for people not trained in cataloguing to use, but in simplification it inevitably loses a lot of the detail which cataloguers have achieved in AACR2 over the years. Sacrificing detail may save time, but also makes it harder to facilitate a more nuanced search that will fetch the most relevant results.

BIBFRAME is in the early stages of development, and is intended as a replacement for MARC. In addition to creating a new way for communicating bibliographic data,  the BIBFRAME Initiative is also investigating new ways of bibliographic description. It focuses on the relationships between resources, rather than the self-contained records that MARC is so good at. This is more in line with the developing culture of Linked Data and the Semantic Web. As described on their website, “It is designed to integrate with and engage in the wider information community and still serve the very specific needs of libraries.”

I am interested to see whether a new bibliographic framework such as BIBFRAME will be embraced by the library community. I think that this would help to keep libraries active in engaging with new technologies, and that it would like be exciting to be a part of!


Library of Congress guide to MARC

Dublin Core


YouTube video about BIBFRAME

How do we document performance?

On Monday I attended a symposium at City, called ‘The Future of Documents: documenting performance’. As both a library school student and someone with an embarrasingly large collection of theatre programmes and tickets, this was bound to be a fascinating and enjoyable event! The day left me with a lot to think about, especially the different ways in which we document performance, whose point of view we are documenting, and who we are doing it for.

The first speaker of the day was Toni Sant, and he called for a focus on “documentation” rather than just “documents”. I think that for me this means thinking about the purpose of documentation and what future users will get from it, rather than being dismissive of traditional “documents” themselves.

What we might think of as traditional documents related to performing arts are scripts, programmes, posters, photographs, technical plans, designs, reviews and articles. Liz Harper told us about her work at the Royal Albert Hall, and how their archives are used for education and promotion. A wonderful example of this is the mural by Peter Blake, composed of photos of performers drawn from the archive, which now adorns the entrance hall.

Interactive version and quiz of the Peter Blake mural:

It was exciting to hear from Jenny Fewster about the development of AusStage, a database of performing art events, venues and resources in Australia. Ramona Riedzewski from the V&A spoke about their collaboration, using AusStage as a basis for creating a database for UK performing arts. An “IMDB for the performing arts” sounds like it would be a fantastic resource for researchers, professionals and enthusiasts alike!

Video is another way of documenting performance, normally from the point of view of the audience. Archival videos are often filmed with a single static camera, such as those filmed for the National Video Archive of Performance held at the V&A, or for the British Library’s collection. Other, multi-camera recordings are made for commercial use, such as for National Theatre Live or Digital Theatre. Stacie Lee Bennett spoke about the use of hand-held cameras and GoPros in developing training resources for actors and dancers, using the camera to capture the performer’s perspective. GoPros were also suggested as a way of creating an immersive experience of a perfomance, with multiple possible viewpoints.

Sound recordings are also used as a way of documenting performance. Eva del Rey spoke about the British Library’s Drama and Literature recordings, which include gems such as the only known recordings of James Joyce’s voice (reading from Ulysses), as well as oral histories and audio recordings of live performances. The BL’s ‘Save Our Sounds’ project highlights the problem of format obsolescence and degredation (or “plastic-rot”) which affects archives such as these.

Listen to James Joyce reading from Ulysses:

Audio recordings can be a better choice for documenting performance, as Yaron Shyldkrot demonstrated in his paper about theatre in the dark. In this case, there is a focus on the atmosphere of anxiety and isolation created by being in complete darkness. This feeling can be recreated more effectively using sound and headphones, rather than trying to film or photograph the performers.

It was great to hear about documenting another aspect of performance when Hansjorg Schmidt spoke about The Library of Light. I think it is exciting to explore the different ways of documentation that are possible, for example the use of network technologies, as explored by Zeta Kolokythopoulou in her presentation. She described the use of livestreaming and Twitter in Forced Entertainment’s Speak Bitterness, which encouraged audience members all over the world to partipate with their own contributions using the hashtag #FESpeaklive.

Article by Time Etchells of Forced Entertainment about Speak Bitterness:

An interesting comment came from an attendee, suggesting that we should not dismiss the effectiveness of a paper document over current trends for video and technology, for example the prompt book (a master copy of the script, annotated with the actors’ moves and technical cues), which may be a better record of a complex performance. It is important to think about who we are documenting performance for and what future users will want to get from it, whether it is the perfomers or companies themselves, audience or researchers, or all of the above.

The question of whether a performance can ever be truly documented, or if it is a unique live experience that cannot be captured is an interesting and, I expect, eternal one. However, the importance of the documention that is possible cannot be ignored, as was demonstrated by the breadth of possibilities explored at this event. I would like to thank all of the speakers, and I am sorry that I have not managed to mention every one in this post!

See the full programme and abstracts here.

The event on Storify.

APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections):

old problems, bigger data

The concept of big data has become a popular one in recent years, with many books and articles being written, masters degrees offered, and even art exhibitions exploring the subject. It is associated with the feeling of information overload.

The feeling of being overwhelmed by information is not new to humankind. The overseers of the Great Library of Alexandria probably shared this feeling while attempting to collect all of the world’s knowledge in one place, confiscating every text that passed through their port in order to make a copy of it before it could be lost to them. Paul Otlet, one of the fathers of information science, described the problem in a 1903 article:

“Today, there exist collections of books comprising more than two million volumes and whose annual accessions are more than one hundred thousand volumes. They have had to come to grips with quite new problems arising, on the one hand from difficulties of storage, classification and circulation of such tremendous masses of materials situated in the centres of large cities, and on the other hand, from new ideas within the research community about what it should be able to gain from such resources.”

Paul Otlet (quoted in Day 2014, p.17-18)

Finding ways of collecting and organising has been our way of dealing with a wealth of information for almost as long as we have been translating our thoughts, activities, and communications into documents.

“The first library to contain all knowledge”- Ashurbanipal’s Library at Ninevah, 7th century BC

So why is big data such a talked-about issue these days? The so-called information age in which we are living has made the feeling of information overload a reality on a much larger scale. Computers and network technologies have given us the ability to record so much data everyday that it cannot easily be managed by traditional means.

“Every day, enough new data are being generated to fill all US libraries eight times over.”

(Floridi 2014, p.13)

Floridi calls ours a hyperhistorical society, meaning one which has become mostly dependent on ICTs for human progress and welfare (with at least 70% of a country’s GDP being dependent on intangible, information-related goods, rather than material goods.). It has become extremely difficult to function in society without being a part of the network and constantly allowing data to be collected about your communications and movements. I recently bought a coffee cup, thinking I would reduce my use of disposable cups and save the planet, only to discover that it has the ability to pay for my coffee and collect loyalty points. Even coffee is not safe from the internet of things!

Why is big data relevant to Library and Information Science? In our class discussions about data, we identified many ways in which it is relevant to LIS. The skills involved with information management have never been so important when we are surrounded by so much data and information every day. Much of this is stored in formats which may soon become obsolete or fall prey to plastic rot. The vast numbers of constantly updating and changing websites and social media pages of the Web 2.0 era present problems of preservation and curation. As information professionals, are we responsible for this?

We also collect data on library users and their use of our resources. This can be helpful in improving services, but privacy is an important issue to consider. Last year, librarians in Japan were outraged when a newspaper published novelist Haruki Murakami’s borrowing record from his school library. These were paper records that someone happened to stumble across, but we can imagine how much more information could be released about a person’s reading  habits if their digital user record or their browser history were made public.

In the age of the email, I wonder if the days of publishing The Letters of [significant person] are gone forever, or if biographers of the near future will develop ways of collecting and editing emails and social media posts. Perhaps people will curate and archive these things themselves in order to leave behind an image that they are happy with.


Day, R (2014) Indexing It All: The Subject in the Age of Documentation, Information, and Data. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Floridi, L (2014) The Fourth Revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford: OUP

a lis odyssey

My name is Louise and I am a current student at #citylis (the Library School at City, University of London). This blog will be about my studies in Library and Information Science (LIS), and my experiences in the world of libraries.

At the moment I am working part time as a Library Assistant at the Institute of Classical Studies Library / Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, where I have just finished a year as a Graduate Library Trainee. This is one of several trainee positions at research libraries in London, aimed at people interested in starting a career in libraries (London trainees blog). As I had studied Classics as an undergraduate, this was the perfect job for me! Throughout the year I have learned so much, not only through working in a library, but also by going on visits to other libraries with my fellow trainees, meeting other librarians, and talking to them about their work and backgrounds. As I’m sure you will have guessed, I very much enjoyed my trainee year and decided to continue pursuing a career in libraries.

In my new role at the ICS Library I am responsible for the binding of periodicals and assisting the Periodicals Librarian, so I’m happy to be doing something different, while being lucky enough to stay on somewhere I really enjoy working. I will admit to being nervous about working at the same time as studying, but I hope that working in the relevant field will be helpful research as well as a challenge!

I am really looking forward to starting the course at #citylis, and getting to know my fellow LIS students. We are encouraged to engage with social media, including Twitter, which I do already enjoy both personally and as a useful tool professionally (I’m @Luisa_inthesky. Follow me for all your LIS, theatre, figure skating, and cult media needs!). I am less confident about sharing more than 140 characters on my own experiences, and so I hope that my first foray into blogging has not been too painful!