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Pandemic Favorites - Staff Picks

It has been a long ten weeks since we were ordered to shelter at home and the library was closed.  However, MI staff have spent some of their non-work hours (yes, we have all continued to do library work from home) reading books, watching DVDs and TV, and listening to audiobooks.  Below are some of the staff’s favorites since mid-March:

Celeste, library manager:

Here's what I am listening to:

Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer - Spring always makes me homesick for my native New England roots. I stumbled across this title while ordering e-Audiobooks for MI. Most of what I know of Paul Revere is from grade-school textbooks and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. But as I'm learning from Fischer's excellently researched book, Paul Revere was so much more than a lone rider shouting "The British are coming!" Revere's emotional intelligence, political savvy and geographical knowledge made him a key player in the American Revolution. (MI has this book in paper format only.)

Here's what I just finished reading: 

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate - I had no idea what "Lost Friends" advertisements were until I started reading Wingate's story of how newly freed slaves placed newspaper ads to find their loved ones after the Civil War. These early inquiries must have been like a primitive social media feed, tenuous at best since many slaves could not read. For families separated by slavery, any chance at finding members was better than nothing. Just as she did in the Prayer Box and Before We Were Yours, Wingate's storytelling makes history so incredibly appealing for today's sentiments.

What I'm watching:

I Know This Much is True (HBO miniseries based on Wally Lamb's book by the same title) - An outstanding show starring Mark Ruffalo as twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Dominick struggles to take care of his brother who has paranoid schizophrenia while searching for the truth about his family's history. The first episode is streaming for free on the HBO site:  https://www.hbo.com/i-know-this-much-is-true  I would not be surprised if this show wins an Emmy award.

Lisa, library assistant:

What I am reading:

For those  who enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow (perfect quarantine reading), I would recommend Amor Towles’ earlier novel, Rules of Civility.  It explores themes of love, class, friendship and betrayal through one eventful year in the life of a young woman making her own way in 1937 Manhattan.

I also recommend Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, a novel somewhere between a literary mystery and a ghost/fairy tale set in modern-day Poland.  Tokarczuk is a Nobel Prize winning writer who has written a surprise ending worthy of Agatha Christie.

Finally, a book with a San Francisco connection, Less by Andrew Sean Greera offers a deftly funny romantic comedy that grapples with aging, loneliness, and creativity without losing its light touch.

 

Enjoy and stay safe!

Posted on May. 26, 2020 by Diane Lai

Browsing MI’s Virtual Archives - Chess Room Visitors Register

Besides its extensive collection of chess literature, Mechanics’ Institute has a large collection of records documenting its chess club activities, including tournament records, photographs, and the Chess Room Visitors Register dating back to 1913, which includes signatures of World Champions from Alexander Alekhine to Boris Spassky.

The Chess Room Visitors Register has been digitized and stored on the Internet Archive. You can browse it from your home computer by clicking on the link below:

•    Chess Room Visitors Register: [1913-2014]

As you digitally flip through the pages, look for the signatures of these notable chess figures (please note that the signatures are not always in chronological order as visitors seemed to sign wherever there was a blank space):

 

  • Page 1,   Frank J. Marshall - 1st person to sign the register,  US Chess Champion from 1909 to 1936 (7/1/1913)

  • Page 6,   Alexander Alekhine - World Chess Champion 1927-1935 & 1937-1946 (2/27/1924)

  • Page 7,   Susan Polgar - as of 1984, the top-ranked female player in the world (12/23/1986)

  • Page 7,   Mikhail Tal - World Chess Champion 1960-1961 (3/7/1991)

  • Page 51,  H.J. Ralston - editor of California Chess Reporter (2/3/1939)

  • Page 85,  Imre Kӧnig - Hungarian International Master (2/2/1953)

  • Page 125,  John Grefe - 1973 US Chess Champion; International Master (11/19/1965)

  • Page 132,  Irina Krush - 7-time US Women’s Champion; Grand Master (2/7/1999)

  • Page 134,  Anatoly Karpov - World Chess Champion 1975-1985 (2/26/2002)

  • Page 146,  Boris Spassky - World Chess Champion 1969-1972 (9/29/2006)

These are just a sampling of the distinguished individuals who have competed or visited MI’s Chess Room since 1913. Also, there are signatures of the MI Chess directors, MI member players and a host of other esteemed chess celebrities and enthusiasts. If you are a fan of chess and its fascinating history, you’ll find much to ponder in MI’s digitized Chess Room Visitors Register.

Posted on May. 20, 2020 by Diane Lai

Norman T. Whitaker: Chess Player, International Master, Con Man

A few years ago, when former Chess Director, John Donaldson, handed me the Chess Room Visitor’s Register to place into the archives, he pointed out several notable signatures of Mechanics’ Institute’s Chess Room visitors and players. Among these names was Norman T. Whitaker, whom Donaldson described as a “con man”  saying he “had something to do with extorting money and the Lindbergh baby.” With such an irresistible tagline, I was itching to learn more!

Norman Tweed Whitaker (1890-1975) was born in Philadelphia to an upper middle class family. His father, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, taught him to play chess at the age of 14. By age 28, Whitaker was reputed to be one of the strongest chess players in the nation.  He graduated from UPenn with a Bachelor’s degree in German Literature and went on to earn a law degree at Georgetown University.

While an undergraduate, Whitaker made his first recorded visit to MI on July 29, 1915.   He was a member of the 2nd oldest chess club in the United States, the Franklin Mercantile Chess Club in Philadelphia. His chess opponents in exhibition and competitive matches included some of the most famous chess players at the time, such as Emanuel Lasker, Frank Marshall, and Jose Raul Capablanca.

In the early 1920s, Whitaker, a patent attorney in Washington, D.C. and his three siblings were arrested for auto theft and insurance fraud. Whitaker was sentenced to two years in Leavenworth Prison.  Shortly after his release he made a second visit to MI in July, 1923, this time to participate in the Western Association Chess Championship.  He was eventually disbarred in 1924.

Whitaker is most infamous for his involvement in an attempt to swindle an heiress in 1932 of money purportedly to be used to ransom the kidnapped baby of Charles Lindbergh.  He conspired with a former FBI agent, Gaston Means, who had a plan to extort $35,000 from Evalyn McClean with a story that he knew the kidnappers and could arrange for the return of the baby.  Whitaker was to act as the bagman and retrieve the ransom money.  The scheme was exposed and they were arrested.  Means received 15 years in prison where he died. Whitaker served 18 months before being released.  He went on to have multiple arrests in his life and served time in several prisons including Alcatraz, where he befriended Al Capone.

His 3rd and final recorded visit to the MI Chess Club occurred on September 24, 1960.  By this time Whitaker was driving around the country in his Volkswagen Beetle playing chess full time and campaigning to be awarded the International Master designation by FIDE (which he accomplished in 1965).  He wrote an extensive article about his ‘Sixty-Five Years in American Chess’ in the December, 1969 edition of Chess Life magazine which conveniently extolled his chess triumphs and ignored the criminal element of this life.  He died at the age of 85 in Phenix City, Alabama, an active chess player till the end.

Posted on May. 6, 2020 by Diane Lai

Pandemic Favorites - What Are You Reading, Watching, or Listening To?

As we all shelter at home during the pandemic, we are finding numerous ways to entertain ourselves whether it is by reading, watching DVDs, or listening to audiobooks. I know that I am reading about 3 books per week besides doing jigsaw puzzles, cooking, binge-watching baking shows, and cleaning out closets!

So far, my favorite book has been the new fantasy novel by Sarah J. Maas, House of Earth and Blood, the first book of her Crescent City trilogy.  In a world governed by archangels, shifters, and witches, the heroine is a half-Fae, half-human twenty-something-year-old dismissed as a half-breed wannabe until the murder of her best friend forces her into a partnership with a Fallen angel to discover the identity of the killer. The novel is an intense and complicated story about friendship, loss, power, freedom and love.

Another wonderful book, that is particularly relevant, is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles . In the years following the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, when the nobility was fleeing the country and Lenin was in power, Count Alexander Rostov was sentenced to a permanent house arrest (the ultimate shelter-in-place order!) for a minor infraction in the grand hotel Metropol near the Kremlin where he was living in a suite.  After his arrest, he is moved to new accommodations in the attic of the hotel to reflect his reduced circumstances.  The story follows Rostov through his 30 years of confinement within the hotel’s walls and the amazing life he created from the relationships he formed with a multitude of characters.

What have been your favorite books, DVDs, or audiobooks during your stay at home?  Send me an email to Diane Lai at dlai@milibrary.org with your recommendations, and I may include your review in a future blog or in a display of Member Pandemic Picks when the library re-opens.  (I reserve the right to edit the review/recommendation as necessary.)

Posted on May. 1, 2020 by Diane Lai

Volunteering in the Archives from Home

If you are interested in history, have access to a computer, and are going crazy with boredom at home during the pandemic, you are the ideal candidate to volunteer to transcribe MI’s historic handwritten Board of Trustee minutes into a readable document!

In the MI archives, we have nine volumes of the Board of Trustee minutes (1854-1923) that have been digitized and stored on the Internet Archive website.  While this is wonderful, these are handwritten tomes that can be difficult to read and impossible to search.  Transcribing these volumes into a typewritten document solves both of these problems.

 

So far, we have transcribed the first volume (1854-1857) and we are looking for volunteers who are willing to devote a few hours per week to transcribing more of these BOT minutes.  Since the minutes are digitized, and the transcription is stored on a Google Doc, all of the transcribing can be done remotely from your home (and even in your pajamas)!

 

The transcription process is relatively easy, although it helps if you are familiar with Google Docs, and we will be providing training via email or Zoom meetings.


If you are interested in volunteering for this opportunity, please contact Diane Lai, MI’s archivist, at dlai@milibrary.org.  She will be able to answer your questions and/or schedule a time for your training.

Posted on Apr. 24, 2020 by Diane Lai

2nd Floor Display - Nellie Burrell Scott, Artist

 

If you haven’t yet had a chance to view the exhibit in the archival display case on the 2nd floor, I urge you to make some time to take a look at it!

Nellie Burrell Scott was an early California still life artist who exhibited at the Mechanics’ Institute’s Industrial Exposition in 1893.  She was most well-known for her paintings of the California Golden Trout, and images of other fish, although her still life paintings also included flora and fauna.

The most fascinating aspect of this collection is that it was discovered by a current Mechanics’ Institute member, Joan Boyd, in the attic of the San Francisco house that she resides in. Joan recognized the value of her discovery and offered the entire collection to MI. Once it was confirmed that Nellie had been an exhibitor at our 19th century Industrial Expositions, we were thrilled to accept her gift!

Although time and adverse storage conditions (prior to the collection’s unearthing) have contributed to the darkening of the paint/images and fragility of the items, most of the collection has survived the years with minimal damage.

The Nellie Burrell Scott collection will be on exhibit until the end of the year.

Posted on Nov. 12, 2019 by Diane Lai

FINALE - 1894 California Midwinter Fair Ephemera Display

 

As the finale (and 4th installment) for our long-running California Midwinter Fair exhibit, in the 2nd floor archival display cabinet, we have an incredible showcase of Ed Herny’s collection of over 200 souvenir spoons, medals, badges, watch fobs, match safes and luggage tags from the Fair!  This is a phenomenal display and a fitting end to this exhibit, which will close in mid-September.

Ed Herny, the current president of the SF Bay Area Post Card Club and a member of the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Historical Society, has been collecting ephemera from the California Midwinter Fair since 1972.  His collection is comprised of a wide-ranging array of objects, souvenirs, photos, and paper-based items.

Be sure to also check out the numerous 3D objects in the side cabinets of the display case which are spectacular and will be on view until the middle of September!

 

Members of the public are welcome to come to the Mechanics’ Institute to view this display – please inform the lobby attendant of your wish to see the exhibit and go to the 2nd floor Library and knock on the door for entrance.

 

Posted on Aug. 19, 2019 by Diane Lai

3rd INSTALLMENT - 1894 California Midwinter Fair Ephemera Display

Once again, there is a new batch of California Midwinter Fair items on exhibit in the 2nd floor archival display case! The third installment of Ed Herny’s ephemera collection showcases beautifully illustrated postcards, postal history covers (envelopes) and letter sheets. (See if you can find the “Midwinter Fair” postal cancellation stamp on two of the covers (envelopes) – very rare!) This part of the display will be on exhibit until August 1st.

Ed Herny, the current president of the SF Bay Area Post Card Club and a member of the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Historical Society, has been collecting ephemera from the California Midwinter Fair since 1972.  His collection is comprised of a wide-ranging array of objects, souvenirs, photos, and paper-based items.

Be sure to also check out the numerous 3D objects in the side cabinets of the display case which are spectacular and will be on view until September 11th!

The current and future rotating displays in the flat, horizontal display cases will include:

  • June 26th  - August 1st  - Postcards, postal history covers & letter sheets
  • August 1st  - September 11th  -  Souvenir spoons, award medals, badges & jewelry

 

Members of the public are welcome to come to the Mechanics’ Institute to view this display – please inform the lobby attendant of your wish to see the exhibit and go to the 2nd floor Library and knock on the door for entrance.

Posted on Jul. 1, 2019 by Diane Lai

Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the First Transcontinental Railroad

New Photo Display in Classroom 3A

Prior to 1860, the railroad network in the United States existed primarily east of the Missouri River.  Due to the lack of a rail network in the West, travel took from 4-6 months to make the trek from the Missouri River to California by covered wagon.

The Pacific Railroad Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1863 to grant federal aid to the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Central Pacific Railroad Company for the construction of a Transcontinental Railroad (TCRR) which would run from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California.  The Central Pacific started laying rail in Sacramento and worked their way east; the Union Pacific began in Omaha and moved west meeting up with the Central Pacific Railroad Company in Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869.

Once the TCRR, considered one of the greatest technological feats of the 19th century, was completed, travel from New York to San Francisco could be accomplished in as little as 7 days at a cost of less than $100.

A photo exhibition of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is on display in the display case in Classroom 3A in the 3rd floor Library.

Posted on May. 20, 2019 by Diane Lai

2ND INSTALLMENT - 1894 California Midwinter Fair Ephemera Display

The second installment of Ed Herny’s ephemera collection from the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 (also known as the California Midwinter Fair) is currently featured in the 2nd floor archival display case.  This phase showcases trade cards, ribbons, tickets and passes, and embroidered silk handkerchiefs.  This part of the display will be on exhibit until June 26th.

Ed Herny, the current president of the SF Bay Area Post Card Club and a member of the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Historical Society, has been collecting ephemera from the California Midwinter Fair since 1972.  His collection is comprised of a wide-ranging array of objects, souvenirs, photos, and paper-based items.

Be sure to also check out the numerous 3D objects (glassware, jewelry caskets, games, etc.) in the side cabinets of the display case which are spectacular and will be on view until September 11th.

The current and future rotating displays in the flat, horizontal display cases will include:

  • May 13th - June 26th   - Tickets & passes, trade cards, ribbons, & silk hankies
  • June 26th  - August 1st  - Postcards, postal history covers & letter sheets
  • August 1st  - September 11th  -  Souvenir spoons, award medals, badges & jewelry

Members of the public are welcome to come to the Mechanics’ Institute to view this display – please inform the lobby attendant of your wish to see the exhibit and go to the 2nd floor Library and knock on the door for entrance.

Posted on May. 14, 2019 by Diane Lai