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Family and Friends Donate $50,000 to the Birmingham Public Library to Honor Retiring Director Renee Blalock

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 11:28am

Birmingham Public Library Director Renee Blalock received more than well wishes during her retirement reception on August 1. She also went home with a smile she found hard to erase after her family presented a $50,000 check to the library in her honor.

“We wanted to give a leadership gift to recognize and honor her efforts to revitalize the library,’’ said Brooke Coleman, Blalock’s daughter. “Today, we give $50,000 and hope this is just the beginning of raising money toward projects of revitalization.’’

The money will be used to help fund various library needs, including programs, materials, equipment ,and a redesign project of the downtown library, said Olivia Alison, director of development for the library.

The gift was a result of donations from Blalock’s children, Coleman and Daniel Hertzog; the library’s Foundation Board; and special friends of the library. “We are just proud of our mom. She was an inspiration to us and we wanted to inspire other people,’’ Coleman said. Blalock's children and Foundation Board President Jim White made the announcement today.

The donation came as a total surprise to Blalock, who retired after 33 years of library service. “It’s an investment in the future of the library and I’m very thrilled for it,’’ Blalock said.

During her career, Blalock managed branches, worked as a library business manager and served as a regional branch coordinator. She became an associate director in 1994. She was appointed director in 2009.

Children's Author and Storyteller Bil Lepp to Visit Central and Springville Road Libraries, August 6 & 7

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:30am

Famed storyteller and author Bil Lepp will appear at the Central Library on Wednesday, August 6, 6 p.m., and at the Springville Road Library on Thursday, August 7, 6:30 p.m. The events are free and open to the public. Lepp is the author of several books, both fiction and nonfiction. His latest release and first children's book is The King of Little Things, which won a 2013 Parents' Choice Gold Award.

"Bil Lepp became adept at spinning tales and exaggerating circumstances at an early age. A nationally renowned storyteller and five time champion of the West Virginia Liars’ Contest, Bil’s outrageous, humorous tall-tales and witty stories have earned the appreciation of listeners of all ages and from all walks of life. Though a champion liar, his stories often contain morsels of truth which shed light on universal themes. Audiences all across the country have been delighted by Bil’s mirthful tales and delightful insights into everyday life. Be it a hunting trip, a funeral, or a visit to the dentist, Bil can find the humor in any situation. Lepp explains that while his stories may not be completely true, they are always honest."

Learn more about Lepp at

Society of Alabama Archives and Birmingham Public Library Call for Nominations for Marvin Yeomans Whiting Award

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 10:46am
Dr. Marvin Whiting, BPL Archivist, 1975-1996
The Awards Committee of the Society of Alabama Archivists calls for nominations for the 2014 Marvin Yeomans Whiting Award. Named for Marvin Whiting, the Birmingham Public Library's first archivist and a pioneer in the professionalization of archives in Alabama, this award recognizes individuals, organizations, or institutions that have made a significant contribution to the preservation and dissemination of local history in Alabama. The award recognizes the preservation of historic documents and oral history but not buildings, historic sites or artifacts. The Birmingham Public Library co-sponsors the award.

The award was created in 2012 and the past recipients are Ed Bridges, retired Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, and Elizabeth Wells, former Head of Special Collections at Samford University.

The deadline for nominations is August 22, 2014 and the award will be presented at the Society of Alabama Archivists Annual Meeting at the University of Montevallo on November 14, 2014.

For more information and to access the nomination form, visit the SALA website

Questions may be directed to:

Jim Baggett, Head
Department of Archives and Manuscripts
Birmingham Public Library
2100 Park Place, Birmingham, AL 35203
205-226-3631 (voice), 205-226-3633 (fax)

Rotaract Club of Birmingham to Give Away Free School Supplies at Four Birmingham Public Libraries on Saturday, August 9

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 12:15pm
The Rotaract Club of Birmingham will distribute free school supplies and clear backpacks to more than 800 children at four Birmingham Public Library branches on Saturday, August 9, starting at 9:00 a.m. Distribution will take place at Avondale, East Lake, Pratt City, and Wylam branches, while supplies last. The event is free and open to the public.

New this year, Rotaract will partner with Whole Foods Market, which will donate fresh fruit to be distributed during the event. The goal is to encourage students to make healthy school snack choices.

“Rotaract is excited to present this event, which has a tremendous positive impact on our community,” said Sarah Beth Combs, Rotaract service director. With great economic challenges still facing Birmingham neighborhoods, many students do not have the basic supplies they need to begin the new school year. This project equips students with what they need to learn from day one.

For more information, please contact Allison Westlake at 218-7187.

About the Rotaract Club of Birmingham
The Rotaract Club of Birmingham provides an opportunity for young professional leaders to promote responsible citizenship, develop professional skills and employ effective leadership. The Club’s membership is comprised of young professionals, deeply committed to playing a key role in serving communities locally, nationally, and globally. It was founded in 2004.

Bards & Brews Open Mic Night To Be Held at Avondale Library, August 1

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 10:00am
North Birmingham Library hosted July's poetry SLAM
For more photos visit Bards & Brews Facebook page
Enjoy the perfect blend of poetry and free beer samples during the Birmingham Public Library's monthly Bards and Brews, Friday, August 1, at Avondale Library. Open Mic Night poet registration starts at 6:30 p.m. and poetry performances start at 7 p.m. Avondale Brewing Company will be providing the beer. Music by Patrick Summey. Call 205-226-3670 for more info. Attendees must be at least 18 to enter and at least 21 to be served. Free.

Bards & Brews, which is made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, is typically held on the first Friday of the month at various locations around Birmingham. Visit the Bards & Brews Facebook page for more information.

BPL to Open at 10:00 A.M. on August 1

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 7:44am
All Birmingham Public Libraries will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Friday August 1.

Avondale Library To Host Bards & Brews Open Mic Poetry Event, August 1

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 2:46pm
North Birmingham Library hosted July's poetry SLAM
For more photos visit Bards & Brews Facebook page
Enjoy the perfect blend of poetry and free beer samples during the Birmingham Public Library's monthly Bards and Brews, Friday, August 1, at Avondale Library. Open Mic Night poet registration starts at 6:30 p.m. and poetry performances start at 7 p.m. Avondale Brewing Company will be providing the beer. Music by Patrick Summey. Call 205-226-3670 for more info. Attendees must be at least 18 to enter and at least 21 to be served. Free.

Bards & Brews, which is made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, is typically held on the first Friday of the month at various locations around Birmingham. Visit the Bards & Brews Facebook page for more information.

The Genealogists and the Feds: Using Government Documents in Genealogical Research

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 1:42pm
In June, I attended the Institute for Genealogy and Historical Research sponsored by Samford University. I took a course titled “Advanced Library Research: Law Libraries and Government Documents.” It was an opportunity to learn a new use for government documents. How could genealogists use them? In surprising ways, I discovered.

Why would genealogists want to use law resources or government documents? Depending on what is used, genealogists can find out a variety of information to fill in blanks about their ancestors’ lives. For example, did Great-Great-Great Uncle William have a property dispute with Great-Great-Great Uncle Robert and take him to court? The case might be listed in the Alabama Digest: Table of Cases, and that could be the proof of why those relatives don’t speak to each other today.

Government documents can give a researcher similar information, primarily, what interaction did the ancestor have with the government? Government documents record the actions of federal, state, and local governments and agencies. BPL’s Government Documents Department collects documents from each of these. This article gives examples of some federal resources which a genealogist may use there.

The Congressional Information Service (CIS) indexes records produced by Congress beginning in 1970. The volumes are Abstracts, Indexes, and Legislative Histories. Government Documents has the print volumes and microfiche until 2012.

The United States Congressional Serial Set (“the Serial Set”), contains documents and records numbered in sequence by each session of Congress. It began in 1817, and The American State Papers (1789-1838) are included. An example of a document found there that would involve names of persons is “Titanic Disaster: Hearings on Titanic disaster, to investigate collision of White Star liner with iceberg and rescue of passengers, officers and crew by steamer Carpathia.” The Serial Set is available through BPL’s database Congressional Publications.

One resource on microfilm and paper is the Congressional Record, which began as the Congressional Globe (1834- current). Congress is required to keep a record of each session, word for word. An ancestor might be given recognition in the CR, such as “140 Cong Rec S Capt. Ronald Arthur Route, (Introduced by) Mr. Shelby” or “160 Cong Rec S3466 Nevada’s French Legion of Honor Recipients, (Introduced by) Mr. Heller.” The CR from 1994 is available through the Government Printing Office web page,

United States Statutes at Large contains every law enacted by Congress, public and private. It also includes treaties, conventions, executive proclamations, and concurrent resolutions. A genealogist’s interest would be in the private laws which pertain to individuals. For example, “An Act For the relief of the estate of the late Captain D.H. Tribou, Chaplain, United States Navy. February 9, 1925…page 1560.”

Maps are another resource a genealogist might check. He/she might want to look at a battlefield map, for example, if a relative fought in a specific battle such as Gettysburg. The Department of the Interior, which supervises the national parks, produces excellent guides. The United States Geological Survey produces a variety of maps dealing with land and minerals. Such a map could give a genealogist an idea of what the area was like where an ancestor lived. Maps also may be found in the Serial Set, such as “Chart No. 1: Ice as Reported Near Titanic.”

Michelle Andrews
Government Documents Department
Central Library

Math & Science Day at Five Points West Library, July 26

Fri, 07/25/2014 - 8:16am

The Annual Math & Science Day conducted by Kwanzaa Year Round, Science for Kids Ministry, and hosted by the Five Points West Library, 4812 Avenue W, Birmingham, AL, will be held Saturday, July 26, 2014, 1:00-4:00 p.m., in the Main Auditorium. The emphasis this year will be on “Slave Science – African Contributions to Science Before Enslavement.”

The topic is based on studies compiled by historian Dr. Joseph E. Holloway in an article titled “African Contributions to American Culture.” His research documents Africans who helped establish rice growing, cattle raising, variolation (early vaccination), musical and architectural styles that were incorporated into American culture. Other specialties include metal working, midwifery, ship building, and navigation.

“Before the enslavement, Africans were closely observed for their various skills,” said Elinor Burks, one of the event’s planners. “Many skills Africans brought were not appreciated until several generations after their arrival in America.”

In addition to the historical emphasis, the math table will challenge students to solve Einstein’s puzzle using movable objects. The creativity table will let kids use their hands to make recycled objects from toilet tissue rolls as an example of protecting nature’s resources. The nutrition table will show young people how to create fun foods included in Japanese packed lunches called Bento, while learning about that ancient culture.

This event is free and designed for students ages 5 to 105. Parents must accompany all participants.

The End of Summer Reading—Now What?

Fri, 07/25/2014 - 7:13am
Poster created by Sarah McIntyreAs a fairly new librarian serving an underserved community where making ends meet supersedes the Library’s stance, the nearing of the end of Summer Reading has stimulated several questions such as: “How do I keep the momentum going and continue to motivate children and adults to read? How do I intertwine the Library’s resources with the needs of the community? How do I attempt to close the new digital divide where Internet access is no longer an issue, but how the Internet is being used poses the problem?”

I know that understanding the needs of the community where the Library resides is paramount and there are several resources available both in print and online that will provide insight on how to put community knowledge to use. One resource in particular that I recently found and plan on putting to use is the American Library Association’s Outreach to Underserved Populations Resource. This site targets many underserved groups and provides several resources that specifically address the issues within these groups. The site also provides a wide range of resources from blogs to organizations that focus on issues that plague underserved groups.

For more information on how you can serve an underserved group in your Library’s Community, visit

Karnecia Williams
Inglenook Library

Library Assistance Available for Online High School Registration

Fri, 07/25/2014 - 7:12am

Beginning July 1 the Birmingham Board of Education initiated an online registration process for parents of high school students. They offered a training session which was attended by employees of the Birmingham Public Library. Since many people do not have computers or Internet access at home, the library is the perfect place for them to come to begin registering their high school students, though they will still need to contact the school to complete the process. An email address is required to register and library assistants are trained to help people set up a free account.

At Springville Road, patrons who need more than a few minutes of help can make a brief appointment with a library assistant who will help them log in, set up a password, and create an email account if they don’t already have one. This service is for people who do not know how to use a computer or who may be uncomfortable with the online registration process. Library assistants can direct, but they cannot enter data for the patron, so someone who can type must accompany the parent.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a Springville Road library assistant, please call 226-4083.

Kelly Laney
Springville Road Regional Branch Library 

Book Review: The Silkworm

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 12:30pm
The Silkworm
Robert Galbraith

An obnoxious old writer has gone missing from his shabby London home just as he finished his scandalous masterpiece, Bombyx Mori. If that name sounds like a spell taught at Hogwarts, it won’t surprise you to learn that Robert Galbraith is the nom de plume of J. K. Rowling and that “bombyx mori” is the scientific name for silkworms, creatures boiled alive in their cocoons to preserve the valuable threads they have woven.

The Silkworm is the sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) which introduced Cormoran Strike, a down on his heel (he lost half a leg in Afghanistan) private investigator. Strike is built like a boxer with a nose that has been broken more than once. In pain, he limps through the winter mist and snow of a gritty contemporary London, negotiating slick pavements and steps down into the London Underground. He can’t afford taxis, but is nonetheless attractive to beautiful socialites he encounters on his search for the missing author, Owen Quine. Strike’s search leads him into the heart of the London publishing scene, familiar turf for Rowling. The publishing executives, editors, staffers, and agents he interviews present themselves to the reader like Hogwarts professors, or fine old British character actors at the least. Rowling’s portrait of the book publishing world is trenchant and frankly outrageous.

Cormoran and Harry do not physically resemble, and the adult detective novels substitute sex, often perverse, for magic, but the two series of novels share much, including a taste for the horrific. Characters inhabit a shadowy world of evil intentions and official indifference. Strike and Harry are both lonely knights, keeping their counsel, finding truth in details, as is befitting of noir fiction. Strike has but one sidekick. Her name is Robin.

Lovers of crime fiction and devotees of Rowling’s Harry Potter series will likely find enjoyment in The Silkworm. The author retains her gift for plot and narrative. Her many characters have lives one can imagine extending beyond the written page. Dark quotes from London writers of the Jacobean era, like John Webster and Thomas Dekker, set the tone for each chapter. The Silkworm is yet another page turner from Rowling.

Don’t miss it!

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

Bards & Brews Travels to North Birmingham Library for a Poetry SLAM, July 11

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:46pm
A performer at the May B&B event at Botanical Gardens.
Bards & Brews Facebook page
The Birmingham Public Library presents the Bards and Brews Summer Poetry Slam on Friday, July 11, at the North Birmingham Regional Library.. The July edition of the monthly poetry performance and beer tasting event will feature beer sampling courtesy of Good People Brewing Company with live music beginning at 6:30 p.m., and poetry performances starting at 7 p.m. Prizes awarded are $200 for first place and $100 for second place; $5 gets you in the competition.

Brian “Voice Porter” Hawkins, the emcee for the evening, is a full-time performance artist and poetry slam events director; he has hosted On Stage at the Carver at the Carver Theater, the longest running poetry open mic in Birmingham (almost 10 years running).

The event is free and open to the public. Attendees must be 18 years or older to attend, and 21 years or older to be served. IDs will be checked.

The August 1 Bards and Brews Open Mic will take place at the Avondale Regional Library.

For more information, call 205-226-3670 or email

Bards & Brews, which is made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, is typically held on the first Friday of the month at various locations around Birmingham. Visit the Bards & Brews Facebook page for more information.

From Growing Orchids to Beer Tasting, Fun Adult Programs Are On Tap

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:26am
Photo by Alabama Orchid Society
Adults looking for something fun and different to do on a weeknight, should check out what's brewing at the Birmingham Public Library.

  • Enjoy the perfect blend of poetry and free beer samples during the Birmingham Public Library's monthly Bards and Brews, Friday, Aug. 1 at Avondale Library, 509 40th St. South. It's from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Open Mic Night poet registration starts at 6:30 p.m. Avondale Brewery will be providing the beer. Call 226-3670 for more info. Attendees must be at least 18 to enter and at least 21 to be served. Free.
  • Check out artist Debra Riffe's "Every Line Tells a Story'' exhibit during the Birmingham Art Crawl on Thursday, Aug. 7, 5 to 9 p.m., at the Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place. Riffe will be one of several artists slated to display works at downtown Birmingham businesses on this night.
  • Learn how easy it is to care for orchids on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 6:30 - 8 p.m., at the Springville Road Library, 1224 Old Springville Road. Master gardener Richard Healy, who's a member of Alabama Orchid Society, will provide tips on which orchids do well in the Alabama environment and in your home. Free.

Ongoing Programming at BPL Helps Students, Parents, and Teachers Stay Sharp Throughout the Year

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 9:53am
"i learnt to sing a glad new song," 2010, Debra Riffe
Fourth Floor Gallery exhibit, Central Library,  July 24 - August 26
With the start of school just around the corner, the Birmingham Public Library has free programs that will help keep young and young-at-heart minds sharp before and well after the school bell rings. Some library programs set for July, August, and September include:

Learn the different styles and techniques of wire and bead jewelry making on Tuesday, July 22 at 4 p.m. at Woodlawn Library, 5709 First Ave. North.

Enter the Lego Building Challenge on Tuesday, July 22 at 10 a.m. at Smithfield Library, #1 Eighth Ave. West, and on Thursday, July 24 at 1:30 p.m. at the Powderly Library, 3301 Jefferson Ave. SW.

Exercise the brain on Saturday, July 26 during the annual Math and Science Day at Five Points West Library, 4812 Ave. W, 1 to 4 p.m. For all ages. Adolescent attendees must have parent or caregiver present. Free.

Learn the marvels of magnets at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, July 23 at Ensley Library, 1201 25th St.,Ensley. McWane Science Center to present.

Connect with your inner artist and visit "Every Line Tells a Story," an exhibit of linoleum block relief prints by Debra Eubanks Riffe, July 24 - Aug. 26 in the fourth floor gallery of the Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place. Free.

Check out Debra Riffe's "Every Line Tells a Story'' exhibit during the Birmingham Art Crawl on Thursday, Aug. 7, 5 to 9 p.m., at the Birmingham Public Library. Riffe will be one of several artists to display works at downtown Birmingham businesses on Aug. 7. Free.

Get ready to laugh as storyteller and author Bil Lepp tells tall tales and funny stories on Wednesday, Aug. 6 at 6 p.m. at the downtown Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place. On Aug. 7, he'll be at Springville Road Library, 1224 Springville Road, at 6:30 p.m. Free. (Note: There’s only one L in Bil.)

Release your inner poet and attend a haiku workshop on Saturday, Aug. 23 from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Birmingham Public Library's first floor conference room, 2100 Park Place. Terri French, the Southeast region coordinator for the Haiku Society of America, will lead the session. Ideal for teens and adults. For more information, call 226-3670. Free.

Brush up on your computer skills with free August classes at the downtown Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place. Pre-registration is required. Classes will be from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. No one will be admitted after 9:45 a.m. Advanced Word Mail Merge/Labels will be on Aug. 25 and MS Word 2010 Advanced will be on Aug. 26. Visit for a complete schedule and to register. Questions? Call 226-3680.

See reading programs brought to life through dance during Sanspointe Dance Co.’s “Creative Catalog’’ performance on Wednesday, September 24. A Master Class for ages 12 to 17 will be held from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the Story Castle of the downtown Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place. Sanspointe Dance Co. will perform at 5 p.m. in the atrium. Free.

For more programs, visit

Birmingham Public Library Director Renee Blalock to Retire August 1, 2014

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 9:23am
Renee Blalock, director of the Birmingham Public Library System, will retire on Friday, August 1, after 33 years of service with the library system.

A retirement program will be held on August 1 at 8 a.m. in the Central Library's fourth floor Arrington Auditorium. Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell Sr. and Alabama Public Library Service Interim Director Kelyn Ralya will be among those slated to speak. A reception will follow in the library’s board room.

During her career, Blalock managed branches, worked as a library business manager, and served as a regional branch coordinator. She became an associate director in 1994 and was appointed director in 2009.

“I am a very lucky woman to have been able to earn my living doing something I love and that I believe is vital to our community,’’ said Blalock, who was also a member of the Leadership Birmingham Class of 2000 and was named as one of the NAACP Metro Birmingham’s 2008 Outstanding Women for Community Service, Multiculturalism and Political Action. In October 2012, Blalock was honored at the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham “SMART Party’’ for her innovative leadership.

Blalock has overseen numerous enhancements to the branch libraries, their collections, and furnishings. She served as the project manager for the construction of the Five Points West and West End branches. Major upgrades to the East Lake, Inglenook, and Powderly branches were completed under her watch. In January 2014, a rebuilt, safer and more beautiful Pratt City Library reopened after being destroyed in an April 2011 tornado. In May 2014, Inglenook Library reopened after undergoing renovations.

As her retirement approaches, Blalock remains committed to even more changes. “We are in the midst of planning a fantastic renovation of the Central Library that will not only move the Archives up from the basement but will transform the East Building into the world-class facility for learning that Birmingham and its citizens deserve,’’ Blalock said.

She has been actively involved in the American Library Association, the Alabama Library Association, and the University of Alabama Library School Association Board. She served on the ALA’s Public Library Association board as well as many committees and task forces. She received the Alabama Library Association’s Eminent Librarian Award in April 2013 for her advocacy, community service, and service to the profession. She's also supported the Jefferson County Public Library Association and the Jefferson County Library Cooperative Board.

“The expansion of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative and its services and resources has enabled citizens across Jefferson County to access books and information in numbers that would have been incomprehensible when I started here in 1981. We take enormous pride in being the most cooperative and collaborative organization in Jefferson County,” said Blalock.

Blalock supported her staff’s efforts to launch a 2013 worldwide celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” For its efforts, the library, in June 2014, received the John Cotton Dana Award, which honors outstanding and effective strategic communication campaigns that produce results. The Library Leadership and Management Association presents the award each year. This is the fourth time that BPL has won the award.

Blalock added that she’s seen wonderful changes, big and small, happen in the library world during her years of service. A memorable one is how the Internet has made each branch a gateway to superior information for all patrons.

“The equity of access to information today is astounding,’’ she said, adding that the library has downloadable eBooks, music and audiobooks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week through its Internet services.

Associate Director Angela Fisher Hall will serve as interim director when Blalock retires.

Children's Book Review: The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda (Ages 8-12)

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 7:37am
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
Tom Angleberger

Dwight is the weirdest kid at in McQuarrie Middle School, but he doesn’t seem to care. Despite his low spot on the middle school food chain he shakes things up when he folds an origami Yoda finger puppet who starts giving out advice. The kids at school are confounded when the paper Yoda says some really insightful stuff while he is perched on Dwight’s finger. The real Dwight would have never thought of such clever solutions to his classmates’ problems. How could a finger puppet say such astute things? Is Dwight actually wise beyond his years or has the puppet somehow gained magical properties? In this title, a group of students work to put together case files to help them get to the truth of the matter as they investigate the mystery of Dwight and his paper Jedi.

This is a great story for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The book is split up between several different characters’ case files, so the book is chopped into short segments with a different voice narrating each event. There is also a generous supply of doodles that are sure to lure in kids who cling to journal and diary books. Though this book is set in a middle school, the reading level is geared more toward the elementary school crowd, which makes sense as fourth and fifth graders tend to be interested in reading about what life is like for older kids. There are instructions for how to fold your own paper Yoda in the back of the book, which is a lot of fun and a good introduction to origami. This is a series, so if you or your kids love the first one, there are already three more titles out there. This is a great summer read for avid and reluctant readers alike.

Check it out!

Mollie McFarland
Springville Road Library

Book Review: Lily Dale

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 7:36am
Lily Dale
By Christine Wicker

“Serving spirit” in Lily Dale doesn’t mean tending bar. It means forwarding messages from departed loved ones to the living. Lily Dale, New York is different. Only Spiritualists can buy houses here. This creates solidarity but depresses property values. Residents regularly report seeing ghosts strolling “the streets dressed in Victorian era clothes.” Just about anything goes in Lily Dale, at least in the broad confines of New Age thought. Well, almost. Once the leader of the Spiritualist Assembly was shut out of the annual meeting because he’d failed to pay his dues.

Lily Dale is grounded in many good ways. “Neighbors help one another. Old people are looked after…When someone falls sick, everybody knows it and helps. Children can play outside at night. There’s no crime to speak of.” And yet, Spiritualism dissuades its members from getting involved in politics. As a result, it’s much too other-worldly for most. Maybe that’s why the sewer never works well in the town.

Are these people weird? Scary? A friend asked me when I told him I was reading this book. No, dotty’s the best word.

Spiritualism once claimed anything from hundreds of thousands to millions in the U.S. Now there are about 400 very small churches. And if you look at the people who were captivated by it (for a wide range of reasons) William James, Jung, Edison, Houdini, Conan Doyle, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Upton Sinclair—you can see it had a great cultural life. James and Jung in particular are important to Christine Wicker, who keeps coming back to their ideas about how the mind can get into many modes and how the unconscious may be the explanation for the spirits.

Spiritualism was very big, but a series of fraud scandals reduced its numbers significantly. Today, happily, most members freely acknowledge their compromised past.

You read a book like Lily Dale for weird stuff. Wicker doesn’t disappoint. In one case, a spirit who looks like a man from the Homo Erectus period manifests itself. This might answer a question I had as a kid, “Are there cavemen in Heaven?” In another bit, a spirit announces it had been “a priest, an amoeba, a virus” by way of pulling rank on a living human. At a town meeting, one practitioner argues that just because a spirit guide says something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s profound. He admits that his guide often visits him while he’s on the toilet and once offered this advice: “Flush.” Another local goes to the doctor for a mental ailment. The doc asks him if he hears voices. He says,”Doc, where I live, I’m the only one who doesn’t.” You come in for weird and you get funny in the bargain.

While reading, I kept noticing the many similarities between Spiritualism and Shamanism. “Almost all the mediums suffered with chronic illnesses before taking up their gifts,” says the author. One medium writhes on the floor and hisses like a snake. Several locals encounter the spirit of an Andalusian stallion. A medium says no one needs to feel lonely because spirits are all around us. What may seem odd to modern Americans has been going on, more or less, since the Paleolithic Era. Everything old is new again. Wicker seems unaware of this. It would have added much depth to the book if she had been.

Christine Wicker is the former religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News. She keeps her feet firmly planted throughout her stay in the Dale. She allows herself reveries and gets transported several times. But she always comes back to a middle ground of skepticism mixed with openness and appreciation. She finds all kinds of inside dope, such as the fact that many mediums don’t allow their sessions taped because they’re afraid that false predictions may be used against them. Reach for the stars, but tether your camel. Wicker concludes that religion says that “people will be transformed into new beings. They aren’t. And faith sails right on.” This seems largely true. Harkening back to James and Jung, she asks, Can we know where the mind leaves off and the sprits start? No, says Wicker. She ends up in a space between belief and unbelief. I think this is a sensible choice. Many spend their lives there.

After all are said and done, people keep coming to the Dale. Most just want their fortunes told. They aren’t interested in talking to the dead. Lily Dale is highly readable, and very engrossing. Wise, witty and almost always well-informed, I recommend it to all on this side of the dark-or light-veil.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

The progression of the written (and well-read) word

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 8:33pm
In the beginning information passed from one person to others through speech. Oral tradition was the only means of distributing information until the advent of visual communication, and continued for some time to be the primary means of sharing and preserving information. Cave paintings are usually recognized as the earliest form of visual communication, with the earliest known dating to 30,000 BC. More permanent visuals — carvings rather than paintings — developed shortly thereafter, with pictograms (the predecessor to hieroglyphics and cuneiform) developing by around 9000 BC. While logographic writing systems developed by around 5000 BC (Sumerian cuneiform is thought to have developed in the late 3000s), it wasn't until the late 2000s BC that we began seeing alphabetical written language as we know it today.

The spoken word, though notoriously unreliable, was still a primary option. Town criers served from antiquity through the early 20th century* as did broadsheet-style bulletins (such as the Acta Diurna), posted in prominent places,  which created an 'official' version of the news.

Similarly, the oldest written form of long-distance communication, the post, began with the Persian monarchs in the 6th century BC. The first formal postal system as we would recognize it, the Roman cursus publicus, began under Augustus as a means of communicating governmental business throughout the empire. To move information across greater distances, carrier pigeons (first known to be trained in Persia) were, according to the Roman statesman Frontinus, used by Julius Cæsar as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. The Greeks used pigeons during the Olympics, and pigeons were a common means of carrying information across great distances until the development of the telegraph in the 19th century, used by both business and military.

Our journey through the history of communications must now take a side trip to the printing press. Credited to Johannes Gutenberg, the movable-type printing press (c 1450 AD) almost doubled productivity from typographic block-printing, and greatly surpassed the efficiency of handwritten manuscripts. This innovation allowed not only for the quick and wide dissemination of materials, but also for ease in correcting future editions. Many credit the vast spread of the readings of Martin Luther — and the subsequent Protestant Reformation which changed the face of religion in the western world — to the printing press. This innovation also enabled information to spread widely and consistently and thus was the first enabler of mass communication.

This new era of communication increased literacy and empowered those outside the elite, in both church and political spheres. It also changed public expectations. The first publications that we would today recognize as newspapers† appeared in the late 16th and early 17th century, allowing the spread of detailed information to a greater number of people — whether for upright or selfish reasons.

By the mid-19th century the electric telegraph (as opposed to optical telegraphs such as smoke signals or reflected light) was used to transmit messages over long distances by wire. The commercial availability of both the system and service enabled intercontinental (first transatlantic and later to Australia) messages to be sent and read quickly. By 1902 there were cables circling the the world, bringing news, wedding announcements, death notices, and stock quotes to an eager public. Because of how it was used, the telegraph could be considered the first modern social network. The telephone added immediate voice to the benefits of the telegraph, and by the early 20th century, most homes in the western world had or had access to a telephone. The telephone, along with the radio (1895) added to the changing ways in which people interacted with information.

ARPANET, a precursor to the internet developed around 1970, was originally a text-only means of communication limited to those in select locations with special skills. Computers among specific corporations and universities were connected to share resources and information. As the internet became more widely available, Usenet newsgroups, which debuted in 1980 and are similar to modern bulletin boards or Reddit, gained popularity as ways to talk to people with similar interests. A side note: email was first introduced internally at MIT in 1965, and was widely commercially available by the late 1980s.

The World Wide Web (www) debuted in 1991. The arrival of the Mosaic graphical web browser (1993) - a predecessor to browsers like Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox - provided a means for the distribution of a variety of media, like pictures, video, and music.

As the internet has developed over the last twenty years, so have the ways in which we access it. Since the 1990s personal computers - desktop computers, such as those offered at BPL and later laptop computers - were most the common ways to access the internet. More recently, however tablets and cell phones have become popular ways to find information online. With these devices, apps, rather than the web, are becoming increasingly prevalent. E-books, Audio-books, and language learning software are even available through BPL and can be downloaded directly to your tablet, smartphone, or e-reader.

With information now retrievable via glasses and watches, who can imagine the ways in which we read words  might continue to change and grow.


*Although the functional use of the town crier ended by the early 20th century, there remain "offical town criers" in many municipalities, and there are several town crier guilds throughout North America. There are also numerous town crier competitions.

†A newspaper is dated, printed, published at regular intervals, and with a variety of news items.

Allie Graham
Arts, Literature, Sports
Central Library

How to Get Audiobooks for Your Summer Vacation

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 3:57pm

By Wade Kwon

I am a book junkie, and I am never going to rehab!

You can feed your habit easily, as I do, with audiobooks. I listen to them in the car and while walking. You can pick up a few for your summer roadtrips or flights.

The Birmingham Public Library, as well as the entire Public Libraries in Jefferson County
, make it very easy to get your hands and ears on the latest audiobooks.

Let me show you how you can get them, even when your local branch is closed.

The old-fashioned way

I love this method because I can get my favorite audiobooks at my nearest branch while out running errands. You can pick from any collection in the entire Jefferson County system.

1. Search the online catalog. This example shows a search for author Stephen King in three formats: compact discs, downloadable audiobooks and self-playing audiobooks.

2. If you prefer physical media such as CDs and self-playing audiobooks, click Request It. This allows you have the audiobook sent from the lending library to your preferred branch.

3. When notified, pick up your audiobook at your favorite location. The delivery usually takes a few days, longer if the title has a waiting list.

(If you prefer the downloadable version, click on the book title and follow the instructions. Not all books are available to all residents.)

The digital way

Sometimes, waiting for the library to open can seem like an eternity. But I can borrow audiobooks any time I want through the libraries' digital portal,

Even better, these audiobooks expire automatically. No more overdue fines if you forget (as I sometimes do).

1. Visit Sign in by entering your library card number.

2. Search for your favorite titles, authors or subjects, or browse by category. This site features ebooks, too. This example shows a search for author Stephen King in both ebooks and audiobooks.

Pro tip: On the left sidebar, click Filter Search by Audiobook to narrow down the list. And click Available Now to limit it to titles ready to check out.

3. Pick your audiobook and click Borrow, then click Download.

4. The file isn't the audiobook, but a small bookmark file for OverDrive software.Make sure to install the free app on your computer or phone. Open the file using the app to begin downloading the actual audiobook's MP3 files. OverDrive has custom instructions for all major computers and devices.

Pro tip: If you download the MP3 files to your computer, you can then transfer them to your phone, tablet or MP3 player, just as you would your music.

As you travel this summer, get lost in a great audiobook. A few clicks can bring you hours of entertainment and information. It's addictive!
Wade Kwon is a communications consultant in Birmingham. He's usually into three or four books at a time.