By Deb A.
Before smart phones and WiFi made it nearly impossible to not be able to find immediate answers for anything from burning questions to useless trivia, there was the library.
The New York Public Library (NYPL) has generously intertwined the new and old, offering us an entertainingly bizarre look at some of the queries it received in the years before we had the luxury of settling debates with a quick (and often, thankfully anonymous) swipe. #letmelibrarianthatforyou is the library's endearingly cumbersome hashtag for its new Monday feature in which some of the strangest archived query cards from its reference desk see the light of day once more.
The series began with a lucky find: an old recipe box labeled "interesting reference questions". As the NYPL notes, "in a world pre-Google, librarians weren't just Wikipedia, they were people's Craigslist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Instagram all rolled into one." The library was as much a place for a songwriter to fact-check her bluebird-related lyrics or a Swiss stroller manufacturer to ask for a list of expectant mothers as it was for students or bookworms.
Unlike typing "what does it mean when" into a Google search and being confronted with the most popular searches that start that way (currently, "what does it mean when you dream about someone" is the top suggestion, hinting at a world heavily populated by lovesick dreamers), these cards represent the specific questions of a very small minority; in this case, we can't imagine that being chased by an elephant ranks high on the list of typical dreams.
#letmelibrarianthatforyou offers us the quirks of daily life as part of the bastion of human knowledge that is the New York Public Library, and reminds us that no matter what we can find online, we still need our libraries.
By Deb A.
Happy new year, dear readers! This week we combine old and new, revisiting a favourite theme from a different perspective.
We've talked about the power of oral storytelling traditions in North America; this week we take a cue from Africa, where Badilisha Poetry X-Change is documenting the previously undocumented, without sacrificing the poignancy of the spoken word.
Badilisha ('badilisha' is a Swahili word meaning 'change, transform') began in 2008 as an international poetry festival, and evolved in 2012 into an audio archive and radio show that, together, strive to keep African identities inextricably linked to the present and future of the continent and beyond.
The online archive of poets from Africa and the African diaspora tackles a complex issue that begins with the fact that much of the continent's oral poetry goes unpublished: Badilisha notes that works by African authors make up only two percent of all published books. This puts African poetry at risk of being lost before it reaches a wider contemporary following, let alone a future generation. A universally accessible collection of African poetry was required in order to enable Africans and a global audience to be inspired and informed by their histories, their cultures, and each other.
A printed anthology, however, could never be the answer. When the spoken word is translated into a new medium, the essence of its character may not survive the transition. So even those stories which do find their way to print may lack the magic of their aural origins.
The solution Badilisha offers is effective: by including podcasts and audio files along with transcripts of poems, the site does more than preserve poetry for posterity. It helps to bring African voices to life for a modern public, in particular Africans themselves: a mobile-friendly version of the site is geared specifically to addressing the needs of a continent where phones are the primary tool for internet access.
With themes ranging from activism to humour, the works of the over 350 poets (including 169 from South Africa alone, and 57 from outside Africa) featured on Badilisha Poetry X-Change represent a major step toward ensuring that Africa's diverse voices are heard more clearly by its own people and the rest of the world.
Listen in. (Badilisha's got a top ten list to get you started.)
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