Somerville Public Libraries will close at 5 pm today and will be closed all day both Thursday and Friday.

Normal hours resume on Saturday, November 29.


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googleDo you have a Gmail account? If you’re reading this (and therefore an Internet user) you probably do, since Gmail is the most popular email service. After all, it’s reliable and it’s free, right? Well, it’s free in that we don’t pay money for it.  But as the saying has it, “If you’re not paying money for the product, by default you are the product.” Google collects information about you and what you do online and sells that data to other businesses so that when you’re online, you’ll be bombarded with ads chosen specifically for you.

Once I was emailing a friend and saw an ad on my computer screen disappear and be replaced with one related to what I was writing about. Creepy.

Have you ever wondered what information the Big G has collected about you, and how to make them stop doing that? Log in to your Google/Gmail account and follow the instructions in  this step-by-step guide from Business Insider.

And while you’re at it, considering installing an adblocking service such as Ghostery: it can make your web browsing a much less cluttered experience.


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Our latest and penultimate Muslim Journeys event, an interfaith panel discussion, went even better than I had hoped. Everyone, including the panelists, had a great time. Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz of Temple B’nai Brith, Rev. Jeff Mansfield of the First Church of Somerville, UCC, and Dr. Ghiath Reda of the Islamic Center talked about what their religions have in common, how they differ, and other people’s misconceptions about their faiths and its members.*

Alexis Jordan Gewertz of Harvard Divinity school did an excellent job moderating the discussion, asking penetrating questions and guiding the discussion towards the more interesting issues raised by the panelists’ responses.

I learned a great deal. I did not know, for example, that the Virgin Mary is a prominent figure in Islam as well as Catholicism, or that wearing a hijab is not commanded or even mentioned in Islamic scripture.

One of the conclusions common to all the panelists was that many of the difficulties or problems associated with particular religions arise not from the religion itself, but from the failure of its adherents to live up to its teachings.  Referring to Islamist violence in the Middle East, Dr. Reda pointed out the Q’uran strictly prohibits murder, violence for religious motives and aggressive warfare: “whoso kills a soul…it shall be as if he had killed all mankind” (5:53) and “God loveth not aggressors” (2:190).

This part of the evening reminded me of a passage on ecumenicism in Mohandas Gandhi’s early writings: “we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu … But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

Thanks to our participants and audience.


*Rev. Mansfield’s stories about housemate interviews when he first moved to Somerville are a hoot. It seems that if you really want to freak out potential roommates, don’t tell them you use illegal drugs or that you’ve got mental health issues, tell them you’re a minister.


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MJLTAThe latest event in our Muslim Journeys programming series will take place on Wednesday, November 12 at 7 p.m. with the interfaith panel discussion “All Abraham’s Children: What Judaism, Islam, and Christianity Share.” at the Central Branch, 79 Highland Avenue.

The program is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, and aims to familiarize the American public with Islam, the cultural heritage of Islamic civilizations around the world.

We’re accustomed to talking about the differences between religions, how Jews are different from Christians, or what distinguishes Islam from both. But what do the three have in common? All are monotheisms that originated in the Middle East, a sacred text is central to all three religions, all claim the patriarch Abraham as part of the history of their faith.

Join us as Dr. Ghiath Reda of the Islamic Center of Boston, Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz of Temple B’nai B’rith of Somerville, and Rev. Jeff Mansfield of the First Church of Somerville try to find common ground among their religions, and discuss what they can learn from each other.

Alexis Gewertz of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School will moderate.


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Run, Ichabod, run!!

Run, Ichabod, run!!

Happy Halloween! I am reminiscing about my favorite childhood Halloween TV specials. I always loved Disney’s Halloween Treat that featured the Ichabod Crane clip, which sadly I can’t find online. (The Headless Horseman scared the pants off me!) But there’s plenty of other goodies to be found in that special on YouTube:

I also loved the Garfield special, which had a scary part, but also Garfield memorably chanting “Candy, candy, candy!” as he trick or treats with Odie. I still chant this to myself every Halloween.

And it goes without saying (although I am saying it!) that the Charlie Brown Halloween special is wonderful; it makes me feel more nostalgic and sad rather than scared.

What are your fave Halloween movies or specials? Tell us in the comments!






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pumpkinEvery year on the evening of October 31 children in the US and Canada put on costumes and go door to door asking for candy. Some adults put on costume parties. TV networks and theaters air horror movie reruns.

But why?

Halloween is a corruption of the term All Hallow E’en or  All Hallows Eve, the day in the Christian liturgical year before All Hallows Day, a.k.a. All Saints’ Day, which is followed by All Souls’ Day. In Catholic tradition it’s the time when one  is supposed to remember the dead. In the Middle Ages some believed All Hallows Eve was when the souls of the dead wandered the earth. In some societies it was also believed that witches gathered to meet on that night, a sort of last hurrah before All Saints’ Day, when the powers of good were believed to be at their strongest.

In the late Middle Ages  poor people in England and Ireland would go door to door on All Hallows’ Eve asking for food, offering in return to pray for the souls of the dead.  In Scotland the custom took on an interesting variation: young men would go from house with their faces blackened and threatened to make a little trouble if they didn’t get money or food (you can see where this is going…).

When the Puritans and Pilgrims settled in New England, they brought with them an intense dislike of such customs and of the observance of days such as All Saints’ Day (or even Christmas), all of which they associated with Catholic superstition and corruption.  However, in the Southern colonies some of the less rigid Anglicans continued to observe a few of the old ways, as did the setters of the Catholic colony of Maryland.

But Halloween as we know it really took hold in the US after the nineteenth-century mass migrations of Irish and Scots. In addition to the old All Hallows’ Eve customs, these two peoples  brought with them a strong belief in supernatural beings: fairies (which the Irish called aos sí,* and the Scots brownies), vampires, demon women,  and myriad other creatures.  The combination of these ancient traditions and beliefs with a gradually secularizing and increasingly consumerist society gave birth to modern Halloween, with jack-o-lanterns, costumes, horror movies, and candy made just for the season.  Toward the century’s end the holiday appeared to have been accepted even by future society ladies. In Nov. 1891 a writer for The Boston Globe noted with amusement that the last week of October the young ladies of Wellesley College had transformed themselves into “rollicking, much-bedecked brownies…endeavoring to outdo [each other] in quaintness and gaiety of costume.”


*Pronounced “ee-shee.”



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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 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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