Category Archives: Books

Memoria, Oratio, Scriptura: Truth and Method in Local Histories

By James Johnson

It would seem that History, in subject terms, from every culture and ethnic group, has memory as its precursor to contemporary method, utilized for documenting and understanding linear time, ancestry, and even ethnographic boundaries in retrospect. Memory can externally form in expressive traditions through song, chant, verse, and other articles of art and culture.

Spiritual, artistic, or physical articles of importance manifest a People’s group or individual memories. Transcribed in coastal red cedar totems by some aboriginals of the Pacific Northwest, or in tribute to nature and death carved upon neolithic cairns of some of the first Irish, these exist as tangible artifacts. Artifacts arguably at the crossroads of extinction and resurgent significance.

Oral history, unique to no ethnic group, appears as a cataloguing schema of the natural world, familial genealogical group-sets, and ritual spiritualism. Often perceived as an inferior form of historical collection and dissemination, Oral methodologies are the probable human default. Oral history can serve a culture of “illiterates” with no written language just as well as the culture where class structure dictated one’s likelihood of literacy. Where invention and technology arose to become the barrier breakers to monograph making and acquisition, literacy rates increased. There was an undeniable drive within the medieval peasantry to attain and share knowledge in this new way. Why? Written word, painfully transcribed by hand and in various languages – an ordeal obviously suited to the patience of priestly monks – long predated the German inventor’s newfangled printing press. Of course the sentiments of an illiterate European peasantry furnished with enough gumption to avoid utter despair will permanently be beyond my knowing, but I am willing to make the presumption that literacy was purpose-driven in the pursuit of Truth.

Truth, for some reason or another, is a core ethical tenant embedded in the institutions which I value. Truth in justice, truth in marriage. Truth in the knowledge that I’m buying beef and not man-meat from the grocery store. So imagine now the dichotomy of literate and illiterate groups sharing consensus as to what is Truth based on writ of law. How could anyone expect the disenfranchised not to seek this levelled plane? In the Western Hemisphere, this inequity has been routed with functional literacy rates increasing over time. The proficiency with which the growing or diminishing number of individuals developing critical analysis skills through literacy is a topic for another time.

Truth is a value in the bones of the rural community. The importance of reporting on the dull or exceptional true lives of people is evident in the abundance of early newspapers under various monikers: gazette’s, gleaners, standards, dispatches, and heralds. Keeping and distributing journals of record shared the union of clans, civil administrative machinations, and vociferation’s of the mourning. These isolated publications, those few issues salvaged by forward-thinking preservationists of their respective times, provide for us now an avenue of exploration much deeper than any oral tradition could aspire to. If you wanted to know the price of a pound of bacon or stew chuck in 1841 Upper Canada, and I were to share anecdotally that my great, great, great Grand Pop told his kid, and he told his kid, and so on and so forth, that it cost $0.10 cents a pound, how would you or anyone else know it for truth? Or that coinage wasn’t dollars or cents but pounds, sterling, and pence at that time?

Obviously, written and oral history share a common aspect. They are subject to the experience and subsequent opinion of scribe and speaker alike. The confounding nature of this truth, obfuscating the notion of Truth itself, remains an area of personal interest. However, preferring to adopt a First Nations approach to challenge this hypocrisy; listening to the speaker’s (or writer’s) experiences and respecting their stories as lived experiences. Or some version of it, if you like.

European settlements have a longstanding practice of recording their lives in minute detail. A direct impact of written versus oral histories is evident in the range of volumes produced by counties, townships, and historical societies throughout North America. This abundance of record serves a community in many ways, provided a community acknowledges that it may not represent all contemporary subgroups, a fact apparently less self-evident the more our mindsets shift progressively. It is apparent to most sincere researchers that written records, including census documents, were apt to inconsistency or outright error. This is a reflection of the relationship between oral and written traditions, rather than a condemnation of either. Whether reciting from memory or recalling events in testimony, the potential for error appears for both. Nevertheless, I could tell you the tale of the Sandyford Mystery, a cold blooded Scottish yarn of greed, betrayal, and murder! I might even get half the story right from off the top of my head, and that might be enough for some. For others, there is the near 500 page court proceedings, digitized from microfiche and available here. I value this information, and the method it is presented by, due in great part to my general distrust of strangers. Acknowledging biases in printed opinions, the factors of information processing in person are just as impactful, if not more. These include body language, intonation, level of voice, language or accent barriers, and physical location apprehension. Not to mention the challenge of returning to the materials for clarification.

Nevertheless, regarding either as inferior or superior is not the point. I remain convinced that the two methods are connected by progression. Spoken words become written. Ethnographers and anthropologists embark on fieldwork collecting and cataloguing oral histories and myths as a matter of survival, not some misplaced sense of superiority, though I’m sure the latter sentiment exists, however limited it may be. These oral histories aren’t necessarily the mythological origin stories of the Indians in North America either. Diminishing language and culture in some groups in the British isles is a growing concern for their respective Governments and local leaders.

The banner image for this article displays a collage of local history monographs. Township councils, historical societies, and sometimes impassioned local members, collect records and primary source material to tell the tale of their community’s past. Photographs and land purchase agreements, birth, marriage, and census data. And of course, the stories. Oral stories, parallel the hard data, adds the human element, and in many case confirms doubts or supports beliefs. These books and more like them are critically endangered. The growing ranks of rural ghost towns supports this prediction of doom. Young people can’t write local histories if they aren’t living the reality of them.

I suppose in a way that should be my pitch to counsel. That little town comically presented on the brink of insolvency, victims of Tommyknockers or invading body-snatchers, needs an archivist. A town preservationist, with ties to the community and desire to maintain stories, engage youth, and advocate for funding from all levels of government. Is that the solution to the ghost town epidemic? Not in and of itself but in revitalization efforts, paramount.

Find these old books if you can, while you can. Primary and secondary source material like no other. Specifics will vary by location so ask a Librarian in the geographical area you are interested in researching. For Ontario researchers, listed society websites often sell their own publications or provide tips on where you can find them.

At The Circulation Desk

Cancelled? Banned? Out of Print? The why behind a title’s demise

Estimated reading time of article: 4 mins

By James Johnson

The corporation responsible for preserving the legacy of the late Dr. Seuss’s books has come under fire for ending the print run of six controversial titles. Supporters of this decision celebrate the removal of what many consider to be offensive and racist depictions of minority groups, while critics have slammed this move as yet another overreach of progressive wokeism and cancel culture.

As library professionals, one of the most important jobs we have is collection development. This work usually goes on behind the scenes, and users generally remain blissfully ignorant of it. Developing a library’s collection requires a deep understanding of not only the needs of the reader, but also the needs of other departments and what considerations, if any, are requisite for policy adherence.

Depending on the size and type of library, there may be several departments that operate within the organization. Each of these department’s has there own requirements, budgets, and even users. Departments can work independently of one another in service of the whole. Take the children’s section of a public library. It’s not often an adult library user checks out the latest Diamond Willow winner. In some cases these departments share budgets with other departments. In smaller cases there is only one budget for the system, and each department allocated a limited set of funds, do with it what they can.

In every case, collection development policy is key. Within the idea of developing a collection is the concept of selecting new titles and removing damaged, irrelevant, or unused ones. This latter process is known as weeding, or de-selection.

Library staff have a difficult job on their hands in weeding. Such a crucial step in developing a collection requires a robust and clear policy so that, no matter the individual conducting the task, a specified path to success can be followed.

The elements of a library policy are unique to the system it serves, however, there are principles that generally guide library professionals in developing good policy. Depending on the particulars of a library’s mission statement or goals, providing access to resources for the purposes of learning, entertainment, and discovery is almost always the prime directive of a publicly accessible library system.

Publishers choose to stop printing their property for many reasons. I believe Dr. Seuss Enterprises actively believes their policy of encouraging inclusion and support of reading and seeks to meet and exceed the expectations it sets forth, but don’t for a minute think this act of removing “wrong or hurtful” titles is solely in response to a policy of inclusion and support of reading. Dr. Seuss Enterprises makes money. That will always be theirs and every other for-profit business’s primary motivator. Whether you agree or disagree with the move, Dr. Seuss Enterprise will benefit from this. Their image and bottom line.

When library’s weed it serves a few purposes. We look at the items use (has it circulated well), condition, whether it has remained relevant or has been superseded, and whether alternative copies can be acquired or accessed easily elsewhere (frees up much needed shelf space in tighter quarters.

What effect does a publisher’s decision, like Dr. Seuss Enterprises, have on a library? Hopefully very little. A library should not base their development criteria on any outside sway. A robust and clear policy created in-house represents their unique users better than any third party influencer could ever establish.

The New York Public library said it well. They’re not in the business of determining what people should read. Removing an item from the collection on the grounds it has been challenged (for accuracy, relevancy, or negative attributes) takes careful consideration. As part of a healthy library’s collection development policy, new titles must be selected on the basis of relevancy, accuracy, and user need. Old titles, equally, require reflection when considering their place (or not) in the collection.

A publisher’s decision to end a print run is their prerogative, however they choose to spin in. Take a closer look at the parent owner of this subsidiary and you’ll find they choose to print material many people find offensive, hurtful, and wrong. I may not agree with the decision Dr. Seuss Enterprises made with this move, but it was a business decision first and foremost. Sure they support reading, so does Chapters Indigo. That doesn’t make them a library, and they don’t have to follow the same democratic principles that guide them.

Alternatively, a library has no place in determining the right and wrong of an item based on someone’s feelings. There is plenty of stuff I can’t stomach, content I find offensive and demoralizing. What authority do library professionals possess in removing access to such works, particularly those of publicly funded societies? We may as well claim rightful mastery over the contents of peoples skulls.

Library professionals have politicized the field far longer than I’ve been alive. Whatever side of the “battle” you find yourself on, I hope the purpose of the fight remains relevant to you. That you think for yourself, read what you wish, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Happy reading/streaming.

Won’t somebody please think of the children…!?

Representation of horror culture in children’s media key to their strength, resolve, problem solving, imagination, and character development
“Can you tell us where we can find the Fear Street series?”

By James Johnson

It’s still possible that Halloween may be cancelled this year, as COVID-19 continues to batter us. But that doesn’t mean our kids shouldn’t entertain themselves with festive content this fall. Or does it?

In her 2018 book “Once Upon a Time in a Dark and Scary Book: The Messages of Horror Literature for Children”, K. Shryock Hood has laid out a concerted effort to identify contemporary youth horror fiction as hopeless fare which leaves our children vulnerable, perhaps susceptible, to the horrific realities of this world. That, no matter how hard your parents may try, sometimes there just isn’t anyone coming to rescue you. In fact, she argues that parents actively endorse access to these types of stories for their kids – books with repetitive hopelessness as recurring motif.

But what is hopelessness? Hopeless for whom? The reader? The character? Suppose the author failed to connect the reader to the victim as a result of lack-luster character development. I’m terrible at flushing out characters and my son actively seeks to destroy the NPC’s in our Dungeons & Dragons adventures because they’re just that unrelatable. But when he picks up a Goosebumps book, he gets scared, much like when he watches a movie that has a particularly difficult scene or two. He closes his eyes at the movie or puts the book down when it becomes too much.

Why bother with these books anyways, if they are clearly too much for our kids to handle? Is it traumatizing that I offer these options to our son? He knows I love horror culture. He is aware of the serials I review, and the movies I watch, though he doesn’t read or watch them himself. So why then does the sight of flesh eating zombies and monsters devouring the innocent make him giggle and cheer while a quiet, dark hallway awakens a sinister primal fear within him?

Horror becomes real when we make the horrific event entirely plausible. This is when the real fear creeps into the child’s psyche, when we lend credibility to the impossible. For example, a mask that a child wears for Halloween is haunted and turns them into a demon-monster that attacks their friends. This part of the book isn’t particularly scary, says our 7 year old son. It’s a mask that turns you into a monster. Pretty clearly fantastical.

Fast forward to the second half of the book and the story changes from killer masks to killer pumpkins. But the kicker is these pumpkins come for you when you’re all tucked in and snuggled under your blankets and it’s dark and the night is cold and no one believes you when you tell them the killer pumpkins are trying to kill you. This story freaked him out way more than the haunted mask because the night is endless with possibilities and the warm bed is so familiar.

Children’s horror should be embraced on the grounds that it encourages problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and ingenuity.

For her work, Dr. Shryock Hood uses examples like the left behind series for children. That’s the Christian series where the rapture leaves behind non-believers. I haven’t read or reviewed the children’s version of these books so whether or not this constitutes horror, or even children’s literature, I’ll leave that up to your discretion; but my thinking on the whole matter is as follows:

If, as a parent, you find yourself curating your child’s collection of books (the beloved children’s bedtime bookshelf is iconic), then it will be entirely up to you as to what you wish to censor, and what you will let them experience. For our home, It has always been our belief as parents that we would be honest and open with any queries our son would have. As a general rule, we follow standardized guidelines like the motion picture rating system, the comics code authority, and the entertainment software rating board (ESRB) to make quick, uneducated decisions when in a pinch. Of course, nothing can replace proper research and parental due diligence, but these guidelines are in place for a reason. This way, we believed we wouldn’t need to hide anything from him for protective purposes so long as we provided context and rationale behind whatever it was he consumed, witnessed, experienced, etc.

In addition to these important discussions and industry rating systems, selection and curation have remained two of the most important functions for successfully managing any potentially stressful or harmful content. So, with that being said, it’s my purview that dangerous, hostile, uncomfortable, and perhaps even deadly scenarios are important to understand and to contextualize. Children’s horror should be embraced on the grounds that it encourages problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and ingenuity.

The face of incurable trauma.

Of course, I agree that there should be some limitations to what children are subjected to in media. I’m not a complete monster. I also think that happy endings in horror books should be encouraged, so that children with softer resolves can enjoy the genre too. But I honestly encourage storytellers to aim higher, avoid patronizing solutions to pedestrian problems, and make the fear real. Our children are not as delicate as we think and challenging reads should be encouraged in order to diversify their emotional tool kits for when they need to face real world problems, in very real ways.

This season really brings out the frights!

Keep reading and happy horrors, kiddies.