witchesIt’s late October and Halloween will soon be upon us. Someone recently asked me to post about some of the more unusual materials in the Local History Collection. And the approaching seasonal celebration of the terrifying brought an item to mind: an 1832 reprinting of the 1693 book, Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather (1663-1728). Mather was a prominent Boston clergyman who wrote Wonders to defend the judges of the Salem witch trials of the previous year.

In addition to being a good Halloween tie-in, the book also gives me an occasion to acknowledge the work of one our patrons, Annmarie Ostrowski, a book conservator for Harvard Libraries and an all-around great human being. She did some volunteer repair work on our copy of Wonders, which is now in excellent condition.

Wonders of the Invisible World is part apologia (after participating in mass hysteria, the residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were having a case of fanatics’ remorse), part witch-hunting manual. In trialdescribing the steps the judges took in determining who was a witch, Mather was basically writing a how-to for finding the servants of the Devil. If somebody is accused of witchcraft, ask around the neighborhood. Do any “Persons of Credit and Honor” say they’ve seen the accused do anything unusual, such as lift something several times his body weight (say a huge barrel of molasses or a cannon)? Or appear in spectral form at someone’s bedside in the middle of the night? And if the accused is believed to be tormenting people with spells, bring his alleged victims into court to testify against him. If they can’t testify because they’re shrieking, crying or screaming, the most likely explanation is that the presence of a witch is causing them extreme pain, or that the Devil is torturing them to keep them from talking.  Are they unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer?  Also conduct a physical examination: the Devil marks his peeps. The satanic mark might be a blue spot on the skin. It might be a red spot. It might be a depression in the skin. Or it might be an extra nipple.  But if the accused has any one of these, they’re probably a witch.

This all seems very strange to twenty-first century minds, but bear in mind that this was beginning of the Enlightenment. Sir Isaac Newton is establishing modern physics; microorganisms have just been discovered, thanks to the invention of the microscope. The Salem judges are methodical men who have worked out an evidence-based process for identifying witches. This is science, people. And while the criteria used by the judges had been part of European lore for centuries, Mather won’t endorse just any old method for identifying witches. For example, the traditional English practice of taking the urine of a bewitched person, stirring it into cake batter, baking the cake and feeding it to a dog, believing that when the dog takes his first bite, the party guilty of the bewitching will scream? Mather says this is “not only wicked Superstition, but great Folly.”

But in all seriousness, Wonders is a fascinating historical document. It’s an unsettling look into the minds of seventeenth-century Puritans, people who believed that evil lurked in their midst, and that they were first and foremost among Satan’s enemies.

And if you’re interested in a more objective look at events in 1692 Salem, we’ve got some books at SPL by historians who have varying takes on the subject informed by economic history, gender studies, and sociology. Try Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, or Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go visit a neighbor and make an awkward request.

Then I need to bake a cake.


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privacyWe regularly learn about new assaults on our privacy, who’s watching what we do on the Internet, listening in on our phone calls, and sharing our personal information.

There are a number of software programs and browser extensions that can help us get some of our privacy back, but most of us don’t have the expertise to know which ones we should really be using. Fortunately the staff of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the premier digital rights advocacy group in the US, has put together a surveillance self-defense guide, with advice, tools and instructions for protecting yourself. Take a look: learn about encryption, get advice on creating stronger passwords, watch tutorials on securing your data and staying safe on social networks. The guide includes instructions tailored for different operating systems and advice specifically for journalists and political activists.

Check it out: read, learn, and download.


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MarktwainPeople love making lists. Especially book people, it seems.  And the people at Publisher’s Weekly just tweeted a list of “The Ten Best Mark Twain Books” (their words, not mine). I was kind of surprised that they chose Mark Twain for such a list. He’s certainly noteworthy. He’s so influential that American literary history can and should be divided into “Before Mark Twain” and “After Mark Twain.” Nevertheless, he’s not on the tips of people’s tongues the way Jodi Picoult or Ian McEwan are.

The list was occasioned by the recent publication of Mark Twain’s America, a cultural snapshot of the U.S. in Twain’s lifetime illustrated with vintage photographs, prints, caricatures, maps and other artifacts from the Library of Congress. I devoured Mark Twain’s works when I was a teenager, so the list peaked my interest. Number one is Roughing It, Twain’s mostly autobiographical, frequently embellished, always funny account of his early years as a minor government official and then journalist in the West in the 186os. It’s early Twain  (his second book), but his calling as a satirist was evident even then: everybody gets mocked, from the US territorial government to miners to Mormons.

Next up is The Gilded Age,  a satirical novel about political corruption in Washington. I haven’t read it, but given the topic, how could it not be timely. The subject reminds me of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “There is no distinctly American criminal class–except Congress.”

hfBooks 3 and 4 are Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. TS simply has no place on a list of “best books” by Twain. It’s heresy, I know, but I hate it.  Huckleberry Finn, however, is a must-read, despite its poor structure: it’s a scathing critique of the antebellum US, and there’s no other American novel quite like it. Twain’s artistic decision to show us the world through the eyes of a semi-literate boy was unprecedented.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But I do recall it being a lot of fun. And the premise: a nineteenth-century New England inventor transported to Medieval England? What’s not to like?

The Tragedy of Puddn’head Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins is #6. As a work of fiction it’s actually not that good, in my opinion. However, for the time it was written it had an extraordinary premise: a light-skinned slave who has just given birth (the father is a friend of her owner’s) switches her white-skinned infant son with her owner’s newborn, to give her own child all the privileges of wealth and whiteness. Decades later the truth of their identities is discovered. The inevitable conclusion is that race is an illusion, and that nurture is everything.

Following the Equator is #7. This 1897 travelogue deserves to be much better travelknown than it is. It’s a vivid, detailed account of what it was like to travel before air conditioning (never mind airplanes) and near-ubiquitous plumbing and electricity. It’s also an education in the late nineteenth-century world: Mark Twain visits New Zealand, Australia and India and sees (and detests) imperialism in action. But he also has some fun along the way, as when he mocks  Australian town names (Waga-Waga, Goomeroo, Mullengudgery) and expresses a genuine appreciation of some of the cultures he encounters on his travels, such as that of India’s Parsees. And sometimes he’s simply dazzled by the places he visits. Of Hawaii he writes, ” The silky mountains were clothed in soft, rich splendors of melting color, and some of the cliffs were veiled in slanting mists. I recognized it all. It was just as I had seen it long before, with nothing of its beauty lost, nothing of its charm wanting.”  And Twain, being Twain, weighs in one of the controversies that rocked nineteenth-century Western society: night shirts vs. pajamas.

Number 8: Twain’s posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger is one of his darkest, and to me most compelling, works. This unfinished novella is set in an Austrian village in 1590. The narrator, a young man named Theodor, becomes friends with a newcomer to the village, who reveals himself to be Satan’s nephew. The young stranger, also named Satan, creates mayhem in the village, often in the name of mercy. He predicts one man will die a slow and painful death, and decides to spare him that suffering by killing him immediately. Satan’s actions provoke a dialogue on morality and the cosmos between Satan and some of the villagers,  perhaps summarized most poignantly in the exchange in which a woman says, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His [God] seeing it,” and Satan devastatingly replies, “But it falls, just the same. What good is seeing it fall?”

coverI have never read the penultimate book on this list, Eve’s Diary (1907), a re-imagining of the first chapters of Genesis Twain wrote as a tribute to his late wife, Livy. I can tell, you, however, that if it is half as good as Mark Twain’s most famous creative treatment of Biblical themes, Letters from the Earth, any reader who takes up Eve’s Diary is in for a treat.  Historical aside: the nude illustrations of humanity’s parents in the original edition led at least one library to ban it.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about the choice for Number 10: the unabridged, uncensored edition of Mark Twain’s Autobiography. While it certainly shows a Twain unfamiliar to most readers, this edition of the Autobiography is a commitment: 1100 pages. And that’s only the first two volumes.  Volume 3 is scheduled for publication next year. Personally I think the 1959 edition of The Autobiography edited by Charles Neider is great. And it’s a perfectly manageable 500 pages.

If I had to make my own Mark  Twain list:

1. Huckleberry Finn. Ramshackle in structure, but still an American classic.

2. Roughing It. Worth it just for the section on polygamy.

3. Letters from the Earth. God’s just started an experiment he calls the Human Race. He sends the archangel Satan down to Earth to send back reports from the field, but Satan expresses what he really thinks only in his letters to his best friends, the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.

4. The Autobiography (Neider edition). Charming, funny and at times heartbreaking.

5. Following the Equator. At times you will laugh out loud. At other times you will be revolted by humanity.

6. The Mysterious Stranger. (My reasons above).

7. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays (vol. 2). Or really any other collection of his shorter writing that includes “The United States of Lyncherdom” and “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.”


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logo-drop-shadow-2xA couple months ago, I decided to take a month-long workshop offered by the City of Somerville called Mental Health First Aid. This program, begun in Australia in 2001, aims to give ordinary citizens training on how to identify mental health issues, listen and provide some support to sufferers and offer suggestions for professional treatment.

At first, I considered the training to be part of my professional training as a public librarian. But as the class continued, I realized that many of the skills I was learning were very appropriate in everyday life – for friends, family and coworkers. We primarily discussed issues with depression, anxiety, trauma and psychosis; issues related to substance abuse; how to raise the possibility of suicide or self-harm; and ways to gently convince someone to get professional help, even if their personal or cultural beliefs prohibit getting mental health help. We kept ALGEE in mind when considering action:

A – Assess for risk of suicide or harm.
L – Listen non-judgmentally.
G – Give reassurance and information.
E – Encourage appropriate professional help.
E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Through role play and group assessment of various scenarios, our class learned the best way to broach these subjects – from everyone to our closest friends and family to strangers on the street. It was very enlightening, and I’m very glad I attended. If you’d like to participate, instructor Patty Contente will be holding a new round of classes March 19, March 26, April 2 and April 9, 2015, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., location TBD. You can email her at pcontente@somervillema.gov for more information. There is a suggested, tax deductible donation of $40 to take these classes.

Here are some organizations that can help:

Somerville Trauma Response Network or call 857-221-0942
National Alliance on Mental Illness – Massachusetts
Families for Depression Awareness
Somerville Teen Connection at SHS: 617-575-5690
Guidance Center Referral Line: 617-354-2275
Mass. Substance Use Helpline: 800-327-5050
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) or en español at 888-628-9454

And remember, having mental health issues is nothing to be ashamed of. (That was one of the first things that Patty accentuated during our classes. A mental health problem is just like any other physical health issues – like MS or heart disease – and it can be treated!) One in five U.S. adults will struggle with a mental disorder in any one year.

Take care and be well!


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Do you use Whisper, the  social networking app that provides a safe virtual space to say things you wouldn’t on Facebook? That supposedly guarantees anonymity? Well, according to The Guardian, Whisper not only tracks its users, the company staff monitor the activity of users who might soon be newsworthy, and they maintain  a searchable database of posts, including posts users think they’ve deleted. Whisper also recently revised its terms of service: even if you have turned off your smartphone’s geolocation device, the company can still more or less determine where you are–within about 1600 feet.

As you can imagine, Whisper executives aren’t happy with The Guardian, going so far as to call the paper’s reporting on the company “a pack of vicious lies.”

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed has temporarily suspended its business partnership with Whisper over the issue of tracking.

I’m sure this is only the beginning of a big brouhaha.  Stay tuned….


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When you check out a book (or anything else) from the library, that information is supposed to be private. Safety is essential for personal exploration and growth, and one way to help people be safe is ensuring that what they read or watch or listen to is known only to them and whomever they decide to share that knowledge with.

One of the software programs developed for reading ebooks is Adobe Digital Editions. And recently various sources reported that the latest version of the program, Digital Editions 4, is guilty of heinous violations of user privacy. Digital Editions 4 sends to Abode servers extensive unencrypted information about what every single user is reading: not just what books they’re reading, but even what page they’re on. And this information is available to anyone who can hack web traffic or who has access to Adobe’s servers. Adobe employees can do the digital equivalent of looking over your shoulder while you’re reading. And if you were wondering, yes, Adobe Digital Editions is one of the e-reader platforms available for Minuteman titles.

Apparently unencrypted transmission of user data doesn’t occur with earlier versions of Adobe Digital Editions.

The American Library Association has demanded an explanation from Adobe, which has responded that its collection of user data is strictly for purposes of “license validation,” but adds that an update to the process of transmitting user data will be available no later than the week of October 20.

And Adobe may soon have other problems in addition to the bad press. Most states have privacy laws about library books, so the company may be answerable for their actions in courts across the country.


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I’ve been posting a lot about online privacy, threats to your computer, and other serious issues. Now it’s Friday, so let’s take a break and watch a corgi go crazy with a pumpkin.


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aam_2012-2October is American Archives Month, the purpose of which is to promote awareness and value of archives in society – as our country’s collective memory. The city of Somerville has its own archives, as does the SPL in the form of our Local History Room. I love old pictures, so I enjoy visiting the city archives’ tumblr, too.

While it’s unlikely you actually work at an archive, you may want to create your own personal archive. Right now, it may be a shoebox full of old photos and letters, or it may be a folder on your computer’s desktop. Or, if you’re like me, it’s a mixture of both — and more, spread across social media accounts, the cloud and a rusty old filing cabinet.

I’d like to highlight a few online resources to help you organize and build your own personal archive – one that can last for generations. The Library of Congress has a lot of great tips for preserving records, photos, audio, video, websites and emails.

Tips include:

-Locate and inventory all your files, whether they are on *gasp* floppy disks or on websites or in a tangible file folder.
-Decide which ones are important enough to keep and if the final draft or other versions are necessary to keep.
-Organize the items by giving them descriptive names, placing them in a folder also with a descriptive identifier and making a sort of key to your collections, a few sentences to remind yourself what’s in there.
-Make copies and store them in different places. At least two copies are recommended, one on your computer’s hard drive and one on a disk or thumb drive. It is suggested that you store one copy at home and another at a friend’s or relative’s or even in a safe deposit box. Make sure you check your physical copies every few years to make sure writing has not faded.

Here is a brief brochure in pdf format to help you get started and a longer one if you really get into your personal or family archiving project.

And, check out these books from the Minuteman System:

Personal archiving: preserving our digital heritage, edited by Donald T. Hawkins

How to archive family keepsakes: learn how to preserve family photos, memorabilia & genealogy records by Denise May Levenick

The unofficial family archivist: a guide to creating and maintaining family papers, photographs, and memorabilia by Melissa Mannon


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Apple has released patches for the Shellshock security flaw. They’re probably not 100% effective but far, far better than nothing: download links and other information here.

Go the follow links to access the patches for RedHat, Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora and CentOS  here.


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KeepcalmBy now many of you have probably heard about the Shellshock bug and the dire threat it poses to computers world wide.  If you don’t know what it is, it’s a flaw in the user interface of some computers’ operating systems that provides an opening for hackers to take control of other people’s computers. Some tech journalists were opining that Shellshock could be bigger than Heartbleed, the security bug last spring that put half a million servers (and all the passwords on them) at risk.

Well, don’t panic. First of all, if you use a Windows computer, you’re safe (oh, the irony!): the security flaw occurs in Bash, a program that appears only in computers that use the Linux or OS (i.e., Mac) operating systems. Second, if you’ve got a firewall enabled on your computer, you should be fine. A friend who works in IT pointed out that the hackers exploiting the Shellshock bug are more of a threat to servers than to individual computers. Hackers could trick you into running some of their commands on your home computer, but simply take reasonable precautions by keeping an eye out for phishing websites or malicious emails. If you don’t know what I’m talking about take a look at PC World’s guide to security traps.

Earlier this week the major distributors of Linux operating systems have released patches to fix the Shellshock bug, but they’re not 100% effective. Some more thorough patches were released in the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, Apple is working on a security patch for their operating system.

More later.


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