As you may know, the West Branch Library is going to be renovated and we’d like to get community input on the design that’s currently under consideration. Please take a few minutes to check out the website and leave your comments – we appreciate your efforts to help us make a West Branch that will serve the Somerville community well!

You can view the plans by clicking here.


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Oliver SacksOne of the greatest minds of our time left us yesterday. Oliver Sacks, award-winning neurologist and author, died of cancer. He was 82. He had been a practicing clinician as well as a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Columbia University. As a doctor he helped patients with mysterious intractable conditions. As a professor he taught innumerable physicians. But it was as a writer that he reached the most people. He was a longstanding contributor to The New Yorker and the author of over a dozen books in which he explained the mysteries of the brain and perception with clarity and compassion, introducing the general public to conditions such as Tourette’s and Asperger’s.  I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat when I was around 22. The  title refers to a patient of Sacks’s who could no longer recognize people’s faces or even many common objects. And he really did mistake his wife for a hat.

The book upended my sense of reality. It’s one thing to know generally that our perceptions and our world can be altered forever by injury or disease. It’s quite another to get to know the individual experiences of people whose eyes, ears or even brains fail them on such a fundamental level.

Many people disapproved of Sacks’ writing on the grounds that he was exploiting the ill and disabled. Disability rights activist Tom Shakespeare called Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” But to me his writing reflects a genuine concern for his subjects.

I envy those who haven’t yet read any of his works. You have a great intellectual and emotional journey ahead of you. In his book Seeing Voices, Sacks writes about the lives of the deaf. In An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, he profiles Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science who is also an autist, and one of the few people with autism who can articulate what it is like to live with that condition.

Sacks’ books are wonderful not just because he was a great writer and a kind doctor, but also because he was infused with a curiosity and passion for knowledge that was seemingly limitless. In Oaxaca Journal he writes about taking part in an American Fern Society expedition to a region of Southern Mexico that’s home to over 700 species of fern. Like everyone else in the group, he has a consuming interest in ferns, but he’s also fascinated by the ruins of pre-Hispanic Mexico, the sounds of village marketplaces, and the food, about which he writes, “‘Of the many new foods I have eaten in the past days, the grasshoppers have pleased me especially — crunchy, nutty, tasty and nutritious; they are usually fried and spiced.”

Sacks was also a weightlifter who at one time held the California state record for a full squat (600 pounds) and an avid diver and motorcyclist who rode with the Hell’s Angels to the Grand Canyon. He was such a versatile man. He reminds me of one of those Victorian polymaths who fascinated me as a teenager. I can imagine him traveling with Darwin on The Beagle, or helping Sir Richard Burton translate The Arabian Nights.

Here is his New York Times obituary. And  here is a nice tribute to him by journalist Xeni Jardin.

The world is a poorer place without him. But as long we have his books, we can still connect with his mind and heart.


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..for Thursday, August 27.

John-miltonBooks by John Milton are burned in London by the common hangman for his attacks on King Charles II. Related reading at Somerville Public Library: Royal Survivor: A Life of Charles II by Stephen Coote. Or if you’re in the mood for reading a really long poem, try Paradise Lost. I’ve always thought the list of fallen angels at the end of Book 1 would be a great source for cat names: Belial, Moloch, Leviathan….

The first Tarzan book, Tarzan of the Apes, was published by Grosset and Dunlap on this day in 1912. This story of a human baby raised by apes led to 25 sequels, innumerable comic books, two radio programs, at least one Saturday morning cartoon, many bad movies, and a parodic reference in Bloom County (Bill the Cat played the title role in the film Orangestoke: Legend of Bill, Lord of the Monkeys). Related reading at SPL: Tarzan at the Movies: A Pictorial History of More Than Fifty Years of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Legendary Hero by Gabe Essoe, or the Bloom County collection Night of the Mary Kay Commandos.

Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil and many other novels, was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on this day in 1929. Related reading at SPL: Rosemary’s Baby. Or request the movie adaptation from another library in the network. It’s a masterpiece of direction and acting, and is widely considered one of the best horror films ever amde.


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heatwaveThe hot, muggy weather last week prompted a patron to call the library with questions about the Boston Heat Wave of July 1911. I was able to answer her questions (some of which were quite detailed) using our historic Boston Globe database, which provides every single page of the Globe from 1872 to 1981. Using historic newspaper databases is not only a good way to locate facts, it’s also a way to get a feel for the past often lacking in history textbooks. For example, scanning the headlines for July of 1911, I learned that back then spells of extremely hot weather were called “hot waves” not “heat waves,” and that even in 1911 Boston was called “The Hub.”* Then, as now, many people went to the beach in hot weather. On the first day of the heat wave, July 3, the high was 96 and “every beach resort anywhere within reaching distance of Boston contained its greatest crowd in recent years.” Other people, I read, went to bath houses (back in the days when most homes didn’t have bathtubs or running water, many cities built public bath houses).

There was also a spike in demand for lemonade, ice cream, and  cold “temperance drinks” (non-alcoholic beverages sold in drugstores often made by combining fruit syrups and raw eggs). Or as the headline writers for The Globe put in the July 6 edition: “Hot Wave Brings Rush for Lemonade. Egg Concoctions Well Up in Race for Popular Favor. Ice Cream Concerns Beat All Previous Figures” (p. 11).

319 people in New England died from the heat, which also complicated their funeral arrangements. Horse-drawn carriages were still common at the time, but many owners of livery services wouldn’t send the same horses out on two consecutive days in order to give them a break from the heat. The result? “Many mourners…were forced to stay at home…or make their way to cemeteries in automobiles or on electric cars.” (“Hard Test for Undertakers,” July 8, 1911, p.2).

If you’re curious about any aspect of Boston (or American) history between 1872 and 1981, the historic Boston Globe database is invaluable. And fascinating.


*Quick research revealed that the nickname comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1858 essay collection The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table: “The Boston State House is the hub of the solar system.” Meaning no disrespect to Boston, to me the assertion reflects a rather flawed grasp of political and astronomical realities.



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..and if, like many residents of the Boston area, you don’t have air conditioning, it’s hot inside as well.

Here are some tips from the CDC on keeping yourself and people you care about safe in hot weather.

Greatist has a list of tricks for cooling down on hot summer nights. explains how to cool off by using low-tech ways to lower your body temperature.

Want to get out of the house? Consider one of these local swimming pools.


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open_culture_blogOne of my favorite websites for the fascinating, the stimulating and the unexpected is OpenCulture. It has links to 1,100 free online courses and more than 1,000 MOOCs.You could (for example) take a course on the Federal Reserve and its role in economic crisis, learn digital photography, learn to code, or study the history of pre-Safavid Iran.

The site also has a collection of 700 free movies that’s a film lover’s delight: it includes Bottle Rocket*, Alexander Nevsky, and the Sir Patrick Stewart/David Tenant Hamlet.

The site also features a small but well-chosen library of  downloadable audiobooks and ebooks. But my favorite part of OpenCulture at the moment is the archival recordings and films. I love history and accents fascinate me: so it’s a double treat to hear the voices of long-dead writers for the first time. In the recordings of Borges lecturing at Harvard, his accent slides back and forth between Argentine Spanish and the British English he learned from his Staffordshire-born grandmother.  When F. Scott Fitzgerald reads from Othello, or Syliva Plath from Ariel, you can hear traces of that lost American accent we know from Katherine Hepburn movies and recordings of FDR speeches. Flannery O’Connor’s distinctive old-time Georgia drawl and sensitivity to language add power to her reading of one of her most disturbing stories, “A Good  Man is Hard to Find.”

And if you’re in the mood for book recommendations, you’ll be interested to learn that OpenCulture has book lists by (among others)  Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ernest Hemingway, Patti Smith and  Art Garfunkel.

And there’s so much more on OpenCulture: art reproductions, music, writing advice. Go and explore.

The Internet: it’s not just cat videos anymore.




*Wes Anderson’s first film.


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Joseph Agilata, a student at MGhightech on Central street in Somerville, plans to speak at the Somerville Public Library on August 20th at 7PM about Online privacy.

His main focus will be on why we should care about online security. Some people figure, oh well, who cares if someone else see’s all my e-mails? The truth is, someone can hack your identity easily just by finding out info like your e-mail account.

Joe is currently obtaining his CISCO certification, where he will graduate in the next three months. He hopes to one day be a network administrator.

If you have questions concerning online privacy, want to learn how secure your e-mail, Facebook or any type of online account, please join us on Thursday August 20th at 79 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA.

Space is limited, please sign up by contacting Heidi at 617-623-2920.


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AnnWelcome to the first in a series of short articles about the Library’s staff.  First up: Ann (whose face is familiar to anyone who uses the Children’s Room at the Central Library) tells you all about her job – and a few other things too!

“I love my job!  I love being with the kids.  I’ve worked in a few different departments here at the Library, but this is the most rewarding.  It’s hard work, but sometimes we’re having so much fun it feels like play.  I tell stories, do programs, and when I do a storytime and watch someone fall in love with the same book that I love – my heart just melts.  There’s nothing like it!

I also love reading children’s books and recommending them to kids who I know will enjoy them – it’s fun matching kids we know with books they’ll like.

Other things I enjoy are vacationing at the beach, shopping, foreign films, and puzzles. I’ve been dancing ballet since the age of three and I still enjoy going to dance classes twice a week.

Stop by the Children’s Room to say hi anytime!”



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We’re still getting responses to our question about how the Library has impacted your lives. Some are short and simple, like this one:

The Library has taught me the invaluable lesson of research and how to learn something new by gathering the books to collect and learn. Whether it be the law, electrical, carpentry, computer knowledge, etc. And of course the simple pleasure of reading a good book.

and this one:

It’s great to be able to request books and DVDs through the Minuteman Network and have it delivered to the closest Library to my house. It helps as I’m on a budget and couldn’t afford to buy all that I want. Also, we walk our dogs on the grounds.

Others are filled with detail, like this one:

Each time I visit the Somerville Central Library I discover a book on a topic that I never would have found anywhere else but in this very well-stocked, fabulous library. I have learned of many different cultures and their ways of life. This promotes understanding of other peoples, which certainly helps us to live and work harmoniously with those of different cultural backgrounds. I’ve discovered novels, short stories, biographies, and cookbooks of many cultures, which has educated me profoundly about our varied world. I’m very thankful to our library for the opportunity to gain such knowledge.

The library also sponsors holiday-themed events, such as the “Snowflake Workshop” instructed by Thy in December, before Christmas. Both young and old learn, in a relaxed and joyful environment, how to make colorful snowflakes based on Asian art-forms. In his workshops, people from all walks of life work cooperatively in fabricating lovely holiday decorations. Refreshments are often included as well.

Whether it’s fiction, science, or politics, the library has helped greatly to educate me about the surrounding world. I learned many things I never knew about prior to coming here, although I’ve been to college!

We love them all!

Would like to share your story (and qualify for a chance to win a $25 gift card)? Email Glenn Ferdman, Director of Libraries, or click here to fill out a short online form. You can also fill out a paper form at any SPL location.

We’re looking forward to reading your story soon!


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You might already know about Hoopla, the online service that allows you to instantly borrow free digital movies, music, eBooks and more, 24/7 with your Somerville Library card.  But did you know that the service just keeps getting better and better?  Now you can even download and read comic books on Hoopla, including titles from DC (The Dark Knight, The Flash, Wonder Woman) and Vertigo (Sandman, V for Vendetta, Fables)  There are tons of others too, including comics for kids (Adventure Time, Pocket God, Classics Illustrated), sci-fi titles (Doctor Who, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes), humorous comics (Lumberjanes, Tank Girl, Teen Dog), and many more! Browse by genre or collection and see what you can find.

You can also have fun playing around with the display. Want to read page by page? Or would you rather zoom in close and go panel by panel? Your choice!


Additional titles are added every week so there’s always plenty to explore – have fun!


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