When Archive Digitization Goes Wrong

Last week I paid a visit to a wonderful archive in a medium sized city of Shandong province, China. There I looked up various documents from the 1940s for my dissertation research that are a bit more local in scope than those I have been looking at in the Shandong Provincial Archives here in Jinan.

The archivists were incredibly friendly, and warned me in advanced that they didn’t think they would have too much from the period I was looking at. After providing the letters of introduction that are required at most archives in China and having the way paved for me thanks to a phone call from a contact I made in Jinan, I was allowed to search for documents using their digital database. They even gave me a free lunch from their cafeteria on the first day and a free copy of a book they had published that I was interested in getting containing documents from the wartime period.

Unlike the provincial archives, this archive found their collection manageable enough to scan and store digitally copies of all the files and make them available for viewing by visitors in place of the originals. Unfortunately, I was not given the option of looking at the originals instead. Also unlike the provincial archives, the online search of their database seems to return results from a much larger proportion of materials that are found by searching for the same on their internal database.1 They did not allow me to save any of the digital TIF image collections of individual documents onto a USB drive2 but I was allowed to print documents and, after their contents was checked over by the archivist3, to make off with these environmentally less friendly non-digital printouts.

Unfortunately, almost everything that could have been done wrong with this digitization program and its presentation to the visitor did. So let me list of the issues as a warning to other, especially smaller archives, that might consider going the digital route. I have listed them from the least worrisome to most serious:

1) Environment: The computer designated for viewing of documents had a cheap monitor with little screen brightness (even when set to full) which faced a window where sunlight beamed into the room (even when I convinced them to partially lower shades), providing a horrible viewing experience and harm to the eyes. An uncomfortable mini-mouse, horrible chair, and a table with almost no spare room for visitors to put a notebook or their laptop made this a nightmare to spend any length of time looking at documents.

2) Software: The custom built database software had an advanced query system which is useful for advanced users and archivists but requires multiple stages to search and although I quickly got used to it, I think it would confuse users not used to such systems. Also, when it shows images of archive files, a lot of vertical screen space is wasted on software options and interface components, which leads to a great deal of scrolling at any zoom level that makes reading possible.

3) Page Numbers: At the archive in question I requested a lot of documents where essentially local versions of other documents that I had seen before from other districts. Having seen many originals of this kind I know most of them are one small A5ish sized sheets of very thin paper that are held together with string. Despite the age of these documents, surprisingly I have never run into paging issues at the provincial archives, mostly because I’m seeing them still stringed together. By contrast, pages were all over the place in these documents in their digital form. While it is possible they were already unstringed and in messed up order when the contractors got the documents, I suspect that they got messed up through negligence when the originals were unstringed in order to be scanned.

4) Indexing: This is a very serious problem I found with all but two of the 70 or so documents I looked up during the two days I was at the archive. Before coming to the archive, I used the online database I made a list of file names and file numbers for documents I was interested in. I brought these to the archive and looked up the same numbers in the internal database. Each file number, unfortunately, corresponds to a packet of multiple files ranging, at least judging by what I saw, from 15-50 or so in number. I could then easily locate the appropriate document by its file name and open the images directly in the system. To my horror, in all but two of the cases, the documents in the file images did not correspond to the file name. For each document I would have to hunt through the other dozen or several dozen documents in the same general area to find the images for the file I was looking for. Sometimes I was never able to locate the file, suggesting that those images are probably found in other file groups, if at all. Now, what am I supposed to do as a historian when I cite the documents I did find? I’ll record the correct file numbers, found in the database, but any other historian wishing to confirm the information I am citing will look them up and find a completely different document unless the archivists have gone in and fixed all the indexing issues throughout their scanned collection.

I asked two of the archivists about this issue and I essentially got a, “That is funny. Well, just hunt through the rest of them and find your document. It’s probably like that for this whole collection. We paid a contractor to have it done and didn’t have the resources to check all their work.”

5) Quality: The documents I’m looking at are Communist public security bureau reports and Communist party internal reports. Some of them are hand written or are characters carved onto a special surface that allows a sort of reproduction process frequently used in the 1940s (any printing history buffs know what this ancient photocopying method is called?). In either case, they are very difficult to read, faded with time, on surfaces that are themselves often in poor condition, and most importantly, written in tiny sizes. If you are going to digitize these kinds of documents, then, you need to digitize them with a much higher quality. As I mentioned in my posting on triage in the archives, I have had to sometimes completely skip some of the more hopelessly unreadable documents or those for which the pages per hour drops to a rate that makes the investment of time not worth it. I would say that this happens in perhaps 1/10 documents I look at here.

Now, take these same kinds of documents and scan them. If you scan them well, at high resolution and with color, then you can actually make those difficult to read but important sections more readable thanks to the power of zooming in on parts of the image. However, that is not what happened here.

The contractors here decided to take these extremely difficult to read originals and scan them in black and white (not even in greyscale!). Now I know the evidence seems to suggest that if you are going to run a massive scale OCR program on historical newspapers, for example, then black and white is not significantly worse than greyscale. However, OCR is not even worth trying on these hard documents, unless there are some major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. If, however, you are trying to use human eyes to read difficult to read handwritten or carved Chinese characters on poorly preserved mediums, you need to preserve as much of the quality of the originals as possible. The cost benefit analysis done in this case resulted, in the case of many documents, in completely unreadable digital copies.

This really left me depressed. In the case of the completely botched indexing described in number four above, an archivist or the hired contractor can go back and meticulously re-index the documents so that they point to the correct images. Since some of the documents have visible page numbers, messed up page numbers might also be fixed in those cases. However, I suspect it is harder to go back and explain to the budget committee, “Ya, our contractor blew the scanning job and made thousands of once barely readable documents in our collection now completely unreadable to visitors. Can we pay to do the scanning all over again?”

I came back to Jinan yesterday morning and felt incredibly happy to go back to reading similar documents in my own hands.4 Digitization can do amazing things for improving access and preservation. When the Japanese national library set about digitizing all Meiji and now Taisho period publications I found myself complaining mostly about the slower speed at which I could browse or skim through the books. I didn’t find that readability itself suffered too much during the process. In a case like these far more difficult to read wartime Communist documents, however, sloppy digitization of these documents, only gradually opening up to researchers and historians, actually reduces rather than increases access.

  1. When I asked one of the archivists at the provincial archives why they did not provide full online access to the database, rather than a very small sampler of the full internal database so that visitors could come prepared with a list of documents to request, I got a bewildered and serious look, “Do you want to put me out of a job?” This answer only makes sense if you realize that one of the primary duties of two of the archivists is to sit at the database search engine and help first time visitors search for documents. Given the fact many of the, especially older, visitors are completely computer illiterate, however, I still believe their services would continue to be required to help elderly comrades who come to search for their records. []
  2. though, as was the case with the Korean national archive, it would have been simple enough for a less scrupulous person to do this given the access to the “Save As…” option in the file menu and apparent lack of any security on the machine I was given access to. In fact, in the case of the Korean national archive at Daejeon, web browser access was restricted but I was able to confirm, at least as of 2008, the DOS command line still gave me FTP access to my server where I could have uploaded hundreds of pages of Korean archive documents they were requiring me to wastefully print and pay for, had I been so inclined to disregard their rules. []
  3. A bizarre and surely unnecessary step, since the documents have been screened once when they were added to the database for classified information. I could easily note down in my notes anything I read in the documents before printing them so not letting me keep the print outs hardly serves to prevent sensitive or privacy violating information from leaking out. If privacy issues are primary there should be a system, like the one at the Korean national archive, which charges the visitor to process accessed documents to redact out the names of people mentioned. At the Pusan branch of the Korean National Archive I paid about $50 and waited three days to get access to some old police logs. It took that much time because they had to go through and erase the names and provide me copies. However, I’m still grateful I got access at all. Although this is an important issue that deserves consideration, I generally feel that the privacy laws of Korea and Japan are far too strict and that they seriously inhibit serious historical work from the 19th through the period I’m working on in the mid-20th century []
  4. Note to super friendly archivists: if you encourage a visiting PhD student to eat while looking at the documents by suddenly (and generously) giving him a handful of juicy baby tomatoes, you might end up with a bit of tomato juice on one of the pages of part two of the 1946 treason elimination report from the Donghai public security bureau of the Jiaodong district. []

A Night in Changdao

I’ve been outside of Jinan this week, traveling about a bit. Yesterday I caught a ferry from Penglai (蓬莱) to a group of islands known as Changdao (長島) county which I had been told were well known for their scenic beauty. I had a day left of traveling with no specific plans and it seemed like a nice quiet place to spend a day before I head back to Jinan for my last week in China. I arrived in Changdao late in the afternoon and after checking into one of the only hotels open before the summer tourist season starts in May, I wandered about the town a bit. I didn’t ever get outside the sleepy fishing town in the south of the islands either that evening or the next morning when I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Instead of making it out to see the Changdao National Forest Park and Changdao National Nature Reserve, instead I mostly roamed about the back streets of the town and port.

I couldn’t help noticing that the locals gave me more than the usual amount of attention with a much higher frequency of gasps, cries of “Laowai!” and in one case a mother in a grocery store giving a short lecture to her child, surely too young to understand, about what this monster in their midst was (“You have never seen one of those before, have you? Don’t be scared. A foreigner is someone from another country and they don’t all look like us…”). This is nothing new, of course, to those who have traveled outside the major cities of Asia and I simply attributed this to the natural curiosity for non-Asians I have experienced throughout the countryside of Japan, Korea, and China.

During that first evening, though, I learn something about Changdao almost by accident. Walking back to my hotel late in the evening I passed by a TV shop where my iPod detected a wireless internet connection. I stopped outside the shop to download some email, and, since I really knew nothing about the place I was visiting, at least downloaded the Chinese and English wikipedia articles for the islands on my little offline Wikipedia client on my iPod. When I read the article later that evening, I found the English page had these two surprising paragraphs:

Changdao Island is closed to non-Chinese nationals. Westerners found on the island are swiftly taken to the passenger ferry terminal and placed on the next ferry back to Penglai by the islands Police service. Islanders promptly report all “outsiders” to the islands police service. (First hand experience) Police explain the reasons for this, due to the high number of military installations on the Island.

The Changdao Islands are now open to non-Chinese nationals, including westerners This was agreed by the local and national governments as of 1st December 2008.

Given the fact that non-Chinese nationals have apparently only been permitted on the island since December, and the tourism season hasn’t really started, the relative isolation of these islands may not have been the only reason there was extra surprise at the sight of a (visibly identifiable) foreigner in their midsts.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel, and made my way back to the ferry terminal. On the way, I walked over to the nearby TV shop to download my morning email (I know, I’m an addict). A middle aged man across the street yelled at me to stop. None of the many townspeople I had come across the day before had stopped me but armed with my new knowledge about the island I nervously complied. He came up to me and asked me if I had registered with the police. I told him I hadn’t. He asked me what I was doing on the islands, where I had stayed, etc. I answered honestly. Although he was polite, he said he wouldn’t let me go until he had called the police to ask if I had registered yet. I explained I hadn’t registered but I had only arrived the night before1 and, at any rate, was now on my way to the ferry terminal to return to the mainland. “Ah, he said, but why are you going this way, when the ferry terminal is that way?!” Fortunately, a little more explanation made him understand that I simply wanted to walk a few more meters up the road to steal a wireless connection I had come across to check my email before hopping into a cab and going to the ferry terminal. At any rate, I avoided this concerned citizen’s detention, and the potential time-consuming process of going to the Changdao county police station to register myself.

Two notes to the Changdao authorities:

1. If I hadn’t downloaded that Wikipedia article, I never would have known there was any special status for the islands or any kind of military installations. Only the English wikipedia entry, and this 2005 blog entry from someone who was blocked entry some years ago alerted me to the fact, and only after I had checked into my hotel on the island. If foreigners need to take care to register when visiting the scenic islands or are subject to other restrictions, perhaps a sign anywhere in the ferry terminal2, or perhaps somewhere on the nice English language website for Changdao county where I am welcomed to the, “peaceful, sincere, civilized and beautiful Changdao for business investment and holiday!” If there is some kind of required registration procedure, can I recommend that one be able and asked to do this upon arrival at the ferry terminal or when one checks into the hotel (the hotel didn’t even look inside my Norwegian passport when I checked in). Finally, if a potentially military adversary like the United States really wanted to send a spy to reconnoiter your military bases on the islands, do you really think it would be a good idea to send an easily identifiable caucasian instead of one of its many citizens of Asian or similar complexion or even better, a hired local?

Continue reading A Night in Changdao

  1. I think foreigners are technically supposed to register with the police everywhere in China within 24 hours of their arrival, and I did register in Jinan soon after my arrival, but almost no tourists traveling in China register in every city they stay in, At any rate, this registration he spoke of is not thus a Changdao specific requirement. Technically though, I hadn’t yet reached the 24th hour and I was off the island before my time ran out. []
  2. I confirmed there is no special information in either Chinese or English posted about the status of the islands when I returned to Penglai[]

Jinan Used Book Market

I have just gotten settled in here in Jinan, in Shandong province, China. Except for a few weeks in Shanghai and Nanjing, I’ll be here until the end of next April doing my dissertation research affiliated with Shandong University.

A young history masters student who has been helping me out since I got here and showing me around the libraries of the university invited me to join him for a trip to the used book market here. He told me he makes the trip down there every two or three weeks to look for good deals on academic history books on his period.

The used book market is open on weekends from around 8am until noon in Sun Yatsen park (中山公园). There are perhaps close to a hundred bookstore stalls and open-air table-based vendors. The selection varies widely of course, with some stores specializing in books on Chinese medicine, others on test prep books, others on Chinese literature, but most have a wide selection of what appear to be left over stock from bookstores. I’m guessing this since many books are cut partly on the spine to distinguish them from new books. I was surprised to see such a large selection of academic and especially history books, including collections of historical materials, obscure reference books, and historical journals. Amazingly, and thanks to the good eyes of my friend, one of the 18 books I bought today for just over $10 was a very useful pamphlet put out by the office of the Shandong provincial historical society that I had noted down for future copying only a few days earlier in the library of Shandong University’s history department. It has an index of periodicals published in Shandong from before 1949, with list of extant issues and which library or archive in the province still has those issues (建国前山东旧期刊目录1903-1949).

The price of the academic books on history I was looking at currently seem to average around 5 RMB (less than $1) but many books go for 1, 1.5, or 3 RMB. Sometimes, and I have no idea what market forces are at work here since it really seemed quite arbitrary, prices could go as high as 10 or 30 RMB. Perhaps a bookseller catches a glint in the eye of the purchaser indicating that he desperately wants a copy? Regardless, considering that many of the books in question go for 30-50 RMB new, these books are quite heavily discounted, in contrast with the Japanese used book market for academic works.

The used book market clearly draws a lot of students and there was an excellent showing from the department I’m affiliated with. I was told there are currently 13 graduate students in the history department of Shandong University, mostly masters students. A good half dozen of these were in the book market today prowling for good deals. These students would often keep an eye out for books each of them might have particular interest in and sometimes made cellphone calls to friends absent who might appreciate them snapping up some bargains. They would also compare prices with each other and use it in their efforts to bargain. One student found a Chinese translation of a volume of the Cambridge History of China for just over $1, while another who heard about this was frustrated in his efforts to bargain down a separate copy found elsewhere to under its $5 price. I was also interested to hear that students had been directed to snap up available copies of one of their professor’s books to give them. While the professors can buy somewhat discounted copies of their own books from the publisher, it is even cheaper to get them, or have their students get them from the used book market, perhaps for use as gifts to friends.

I’m really impressed at how much some of these graduate students seem to know about Chinese history works coming out the US and with their excellent critical skills and strong curiosity for new approaches to history. One student invited me to some kind of history reading club in the afternoon and said he wanted me to share with them what good stuff was being published in the US academic field on Chinese history. I explained that I had been out of the country for a while and had been reading mostly Korean and Japanese history of late so that I wasn’t really up to date on trends in English language scholarship on China, but that I was willing to pass on a few orals lists used by graduate students in the US. I was surprised to be assured that this wasn’t necessary since all they really needed were Chinese history books newly published in English in 2007 and 2008!




More pictures available in a variety of sizes can be found here.

Home Movies, in the Park

I am a bit sad to think I will be leaving this wonderful island in just over two weeks. I have really grown quite attached. I could easily stay here another 6 months or a year since I really feel like I have just barely scratched the surface here, both in terms of the people and culture as well as the materials that might potentially be useful to me in my dissertation research.

It is the little things about life here that really just make me smile. To give one little example, for the 3rd time in a row, as I walked home from the NTU library around 21:00, I saw a group of elderly residents of a neighborhood I pass through lounging in one of the many small parks and watching a Kung Fu movie on one of those large projector screens. The event doesn’t look very formal or organized, so I can only imagine that one of the locals dragged out the projector and large screen so the neighborhood could all watch it together.


Weekend in Kanghwa-do

Spent the weekend in Kanghwa-do with a friend. I have never been one for the usual tourist destinations so many of the highlights of the island listed in tourist brochures went unseen. The highlight for me was the hike on the first day through some hills on a small country road in the south of the island, through some farmers’ fields and along the southern coast of the island to a popular beach. Since the island is so close to North Korea, the coastline was actually a military restricted area but we walked unmolested along most of it. A man on a bicycle passing by told us it was restricted but we learned from soldiers at the next checkpoint that he was a high ranking officer out on a bike ride. When we told the biker/officer we were trying to walk along the coast to the beach, he let the soldiers further down the path know that we were harmless and to let us through. The many empty checkpoints and observation boxes along the coast had human shaped plastic scarecrows that could be set up to look like people were manning the positions.

We ended up not climbing any of the hills on the island, which in any case average around 350 meters. I’m actually glad, the hordes of other climbers, all clad in standard Korean hiking uniforms and equipment reminded me of climbing on Halla-san in Cheju-do where we essentially stood in line to get up the mountain behind hundreds of people (including groups of women sweating through their heavy make-up). Much more enjoyable was the wonderful and quiet stroll along forested country roads we got on Saturday afternoon when a local told us how to get through the hills to the coast the fastest way by an older road not marked on many maps. I recommend these country strolls in Korea as a wonderful alternative to the industrial tourist staircase that is so much hiking in Korea. You can often find yourself behind so many mountaineers you might have guessed you were on a subway stairway at rush hour if it weren’t for the fact that everyone is wielding useless metal poles and carrying plastic mats to keep the rear of their expensive and fashionable hiking pants from getting any dirt on them when they sit down.

A few places that got saved on my GPS from the weekend:

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Trip to Cheju-do

I haven’t had a chance to blog much about it but I made a trip of almost a week to Cheju-do. The original purpose was for a Fulbright researcher conference where all the junior researchers presented on the progress of their research but I went early with one of my fellow researchers because the conference was only a few days after April 3rd. This year is the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the April 3rd, 1948 uprising on Cheju island. We went early to participate in various memorial events, visit the Cheju 4.3 peace park, and the huge museum just opened in the park, and I was also able to attend an international conference on the uprising. I may blog more about Cheju 4.3 over at Frog in a Well – Korea but in the meantime, here is a quick google map mashup of places visited, something I was able to create quickly since I saved various locations on my GPS reader.

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The Dangers of a Sample Size of One

I spent a few hours in the Shandong provincial library here in Jinan this morning to pass the time while I waited for an appointment with a professor at Shandong University. After spending less than ten minutes to get a one year library card for 15RMB (Using my Chinese name 林蜀道, American passport, writing down Harvard as my 单位, my parents’ Oklahoma address for my home address, and my Korean cellphone for my cellphone—it is so incredibly refreshing to be in a place where I can do this kind of thing without a citizen registration number or even a local address. Note: if you want to check out books you have leave them a 100RMB deposit.) I poked around the various reading rooms in order to see whether this might be a useful place to visit more often when I move to Shandong later this year.

In order to enter the “Shandong local materials” room on the fifth floor I had to sign in at the door. I like the fact that people I have met in China over the years are not often surprised to see that I can write Chinese characters, in stark contrast to the amazement this frequently generates if I write in the simple Korean writing system in Korea or the mix of writing systems used in Japan. However, around two thirds of the time, when Chinese people notice that I’m writing with my left hand they will express their surprise by telling me, “You write with your left hand!” I usually just smile, agree, nod, and keep writing instead of adding that, unlike many of my fellow lefties in places like China, I was not subject to abuse throughout my childhood that forced me to use my right hand.

Today however, there was an interesting addition to this common exchange when a cleaning lady who had come over to watch me sign in added her own observation.

Librarian: 你是用左手的! You use your left hand!
Me: 对. Yup.
Cleaning Lady (with confidence): 对,他们都是用左手的! Ya, they all use their left hand!

Meeple and the Ideal Student Coffee Shop

Ever since a college roommate introduced me to the world of coffee addiction I have spent a good amount of my college and graduate student life studying in coffee shops. I have spent hundreds of dollars on beverages such as coffee over the years but only a small percentage of this has been to feed the addiction. Instead, I have always thought of it as a kind of tax, or perhaps a rental fee for the space I occupy in a coffee shop to talk with friends and most of all to study.

Reading Voltaire's Letters on England, Studying for My Oral Exams in a Coffee Shop, 2005Why not study at home? I do study at home as well, but there are a number of reasons why many of us spend hundreds of hours a year studying outside of our homes. Sometimes I have only a few hours between engagements and like to use the time for a reading session in a comfortable place. Sometimes I like the mix of background noises provided by the average coffee shop. Sometimes I want to get away from the potential distractions of the internet and the risk of napping on my bed or a couch. Sometimes I like being around other people. Sometimes my desk is a complete mess and I want a clean surface to work on without having to clean up my room. Why not study in a library? I very often too, especially when they allow me to bring in coffee or other beverage and especially when they are 24 hour libraries with coffee shops open until 3am. Sometimes though, there are no seats available in a nearby library. Sometimes they are closed. Sometimes I am not near a library.

Coffee shops, of course come in all different kinds. Sometimes they have rocky little round tables that are useless for putting anything on. Sometimes they have horrible light for studying. Sometimes their music is really annoying. Sometimes their coffee is way too expensive to become a frequent haunt. Sometimes they are too popular and can’t be guaranteed to have seating available just when I want them. Sometimes they close long before I am ready to go.

Sayaka and I once discussed what we thought would be the absolute ideal student coffee shop and how we might make it a profitable business. Here are some of the things we thought it should have: 1) largish stable tables with room for a computer and a book 2) bright but not obnoxiously bright lights suitable for reading 3) decent chairs not designed to make you leave quickly 4) strong wireless signal provided under three possible systems a: whenever you make a purchase of some minimum amount you get 1.5 hours of wireless or b: you get an unlimited usage of the wireless for a reasonable (that is to say, not the ridiculous prices they charge now) subscription rate c: have “free wireless happy” hours during those hours the cafe is not crowded to attract customers 5) sell healthy snacks/sandwiches 6) nap couches/seats such as those provided in various Japanese 24 manga lounges 7) printing and photocopy services 8) some computers for quick “shots” of internet for those who did not bring laptops 9) group study rooms

Japan and Korea seem to have the kinds of places that provide some but not all of these services. What the above looks like is something like a mutant combination of the Japanese/Korean coffee shop/manga cafe/PC lounge/karaoke rooms

The place which comes the closest I have ever seen to this kind of ideal coffee shop is right here in Seoul, Korea located near Exit 4 of Shinchon station:

Meeple – http://meeple.co.kr/

Meeple is a coffee shop and cafe but provides most of the things I listed above: 1) It is nicely lit 2) Offers array of drinks and foods with decent prices compared to nearby coffee shops (2800 coffee, compared to over 3000 for Starbucks, their delicious teas are more) 3) Has completely free and strong wireless connection with no stupid subscriptions 4) Two computers for free use 5) Printer/photocopy machine 6) Coffee shop lounge area 7) a kind of TV lounge with wide-screen TV 8) Plugs in the floor near all tables in the coffee shop and most interestingly: 9) Over a dozen study rooms which can be occupied free with a drink or food purchase. These study rooms contain 2, 6, or a dozen chairs, whiteboard, plugs, table, and a phone for room service (much like a karaoke room has).

I don’t know if they can survive the ruthless competition in the neighborhood. There are at least half a dozen coffee shop chain stores (including Starbucks and Caribu Coffee) located on the same block and they are located in the B2 basement instead of on the street-front but I think the concept is great and could well attract students from the nearby Yonsei, Sogang, Hongik, and Ehwa universities.

Some pictures:

Sayaka studying in Meeple study room

Smallest 2 person room


Floor plugs

Printing services


It is the Kind of Town

After my week-long adventure with my father in Alabama, I am visiting my parents and sister in Oklahoma, in a place called Bartlesville. I have never lived there (I refused to move to America when my family moved there from Norway when I was about to begin my senior year at the International School in Stavanger) and I don’t think I surprise my friends or family when I say that I really don’t care much for the place. When I pass through to visit, I spend most of my time indoors with family or in the library, where these days I continue to work on a translation project and, during my breaks, annoy my sister, who works behind the reference desk. This weekend I leave for my two years of dissertation research in Korea, Taiwan, China, and Japan.

But in the meantime, what sort of place is this town of Bartlesville?

Img 2477

It is the kind of town where it is apparently necessary to place signs on many of the doors of office buildings and other businesses to indicate you don’t want people wandering in bearing firearms.

It is the kind of town where a novel in the local Mid-High school library may get banned for containing two lesbian characters, who, shock and horror, kiss. At least a few local librarians and other concerned community members are showing their opposition to the ban (including my sister) but we’ll see how things turn out. As one editorial by a concerned mother puts it in the local Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise,

“How sad it is to me that people are outraged for a parent to try to protect her child from the message that ‘being homosexual is ok and acceptable.’ God’s word teaches us otherwise. What has happened to our nation in 400 years? We have gone from fearing God’s word to ridiculing it.”

Oh, what a travesty that a junior high school child might haplessly stumble upon a novel in their own Mid-High school library with two lesbian (though one was apparently “experimenting”—even more frightening!) characters. Who is responsible for installing that sort of smut? If only this book was removed then surely the children would be safe to walk the library aisles and bask in the grace of God’s law.

It is the kind of town where, as happened to me only a few hours ago, should your lunch at the Subway sandwich store amount to $6.66, you will be invited to buy a cookie, or at least accept a trivial $.01 “miscellaneous” charge so that the number of the Beast will not mark your purchase.

It is, as you can see, almost like another country.

Murals at the Birmingham Public Library

I have been working on a translation here at the public library in Birmingham, Alabama. There are large murals painted on the interior walls of the research library where I am sitting as I write this and it struck me that I couldn’t figure out what concept united all the murals.

They were painted by Ezra Winter back in the 1920s. Each mural appears to be representing a nation or culture, but I was puzzled by the choices made.

To represent the English we had Lancelot, a fictitious legendary figure. The Russians got Igor, the Spanish got Don Quixote, the Germans got Faust and Margaret. I thought the theme was fictional characters from literary works, but there were real historical figures as well: John Smith and Pocahontas for Americans, Dante and Virgil for Italians (though I realize they are probably taken from within the Divine Comedy), and Confucius for the Chinese. See the full list here.

LancelotIgorDon QuixoteFaust and Margaret Smith and Pocahontas Confucius

I concluded that they were all chosen as figures which might reasonably pop up, fictional or otherwise in a classical education. However, I still found the choices somewhat bizarre when juxtaposed with the nation or culture they are supposed to represent.

I confess I didn’t recognize the characters for Japan: Otohime and Urashima Tarô, until I looked up the familiar story (J) online. The two are apparently now available in Hello Kitty versions.

Otohime and Urashima Tarô

The only Otohime I remember coming across in Japan was the device occasionally found in bathrooms to conceal the noise of one’s bowel movements. Only now do I realize that the name was not just a “Sound Princess” (音姫) but was at least potentially an additional play on the pronunciation of a version of the name of the mythical characther (乙姫).