Historical Libraries Closing Nationwide

My local historical society (Oregon Historical Society) has fallen on hard times lately, and recently closed its research library, temporarily permanently laying off most of its librarians (update: 15 were permanently laid off, 4 were later hired back). Oregon isn't alone in this -- as our local NPR station pointed out, historical societies in New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia have been cutting hours and staff, if not closing entirely. The Oregon Historical Society has managed to keep its public museum open, but not the research library. The society's collection includes "2.5 million photographs as well as maps, newspapers, audio recordings and other historical items," many of which are now inaccessible due to the library closure.

Our regional issues talk show, Think Out Loud, covered the issue yesterday and framed the issue as library users (researchers, academics, genealogists) versus museum-goers (4th grade classrooms, tourists). In this case, the 4th graders won: the historical society's museum is open, but the research library is closed. Responding to the cutbacks, a bunch of library supporters staged a protest on the last day at work for the librarians. A few of the librarians were rehired, but the whole thing is far from over. (There's also a save the library petition with nearly 700 signatures and a Facebook group with nearly 900 members.)

Full disclosure: I work at a company that does work for museums, and I have many friends who have used the OHS library for research (both for work and personal projects). I want that library open, partly because I can use it for work! But this issue had me wondering about what we're prepared to sacrifice in times of economic crisis. It's hard to argue for art when people are hungry, but what about history and research? What kinds of scholarship are important enough to continue even in tough times? If asked to prioritize a museum -- a public space for direct learning -- versus a library -- a space for researchers, who might then create museums, books, films, etc. of their own by using the library -- how do we choose?

Have you seen cutbacks in the arts, humanities, or sciences in your community? What would you take to the streets for? Share your experiences in the comments. Also, if you're a fellow Oregonian with a local perspective on this issue, speak up!

(Image from the Library of Congress on Flickr, "Annual flower fete, Portland, Oregon," circa 1910-1915. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Oli Scarff, Getty Images
How a Particle Accelerator Is Helping to Unearth Long-Lost Pieces of Art
Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

A particle accelerator is revealing the people in 150-year-old photographs whose features had been lost to time, Science News reports.

For the first time, Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. candidate at Canada’s Western University, and a team of scientists used an accelerator called a synchrotron to scan daguerreotypes, an ancestor of modern photography.

before and after image of a damaged dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

Invented by French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre, daguerreotypes were popular from around the 1840s to the 1860s. They were created by exposing an iodized silver-coated copper plate to a camera (the iodine helped make the plate's surface light-sensitive). Subjects had to sit in front of the camera for 20 to 30 minutes to set the portrait, down from the eight hours it took before Daguerre perfected his method. Photographers could then develop and fix the image with a combination of mercury and table salt.

Because they’re made of metal, though, daguerreotypes are prone to tarnish. Scientists can sometimes recover historical daguerreotypes by analyzing samples taken from their surface, but such attempts are often both destructive and futile, Kozachuk wrote in a study published in Scientific Reports.

Kozachuk found that using a particle accelerator is a less invasive and more accurate method. While some scientists have used X-ray imaging machines to digitally scan other historical objects, such instruments are too large to scan daguerreotypes. Reading the subtle variations on a daguerreotype surface requires a micron-level beam that only a particle accelerator can currently produce. By tracing the pattern of mercury deposits in the tarnished plate, the researchers were able to reveal the obscured image and create a digital photo of what the daguerrotype looked like when it was first made.

before and after image of a recovered dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

“When the image became apparent, it was jaw-dropping,” Kozachuk told Science News. “I squealed when the first face popped up.”

Scanning one square centimeter of each 8-by-7 centimeter plate took about eight hours. The technique, though time-intensive, may allow museums and collectors to restore old daguerreotypes with minimal damage.

“The ability to recover lost images will enable museums to expand their understanding of daguerreotype collections, as severely degraded plates would not otherwise have been able to be studied or viewed by interested scholars,” Kozachuk wrote.

[h/t Science News]

Courtesy of October Films
This Scientist's Idea of the 'Perfect' Human Body Is Kind of Terrifying
Courtesy of October Films
Courtesy of October Films

The perfect human body has the legs of an ostrich, the heart of a dog, and the eyes of an octopus, according to anatomist Alice Roberts. And it’s utterly terrifying.

With the help of anatomical artist Scott Eaton and special effects designer Sangeet Prabhaker, Roberts created a life-size replica of herself that fixes many design flaws inherent to the human body, Motherboard reports. Roberts unveiled the sculpture on April 23 at the Science Museum in London. On June 13, the BBC released a documentary about the project.

Among the flaws Roberts’s sculpture corrects are humans’ inferior ears, spine, and lungs. Roberts borrowed anatomy from reptiles, birds, and other mammals to create a Frankenstein-esque creature straight from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The sculpture of Alice 2.0, left, with Alice Roberts, right
Courtesy of October Films

The sculpture has legs like an ostrich because, as Roberts says on her website, the human knee is complex and prone to failure. Like humans, ostriches are bipedal, but they are far better runners. Bird-like lungs that keep air flowing in one direction, not two, make running and other aerobic activities easier for the perfect human to manage. And a chimpanzee’s sturdier spine and a dog’s heart (which has more connected arteries, leading to lower heart attack risk) make Roberts’s alternate self more resistant to injury and disease.

Roberts’s ideal human body also has skin like a frog that can change shades based on the environment, and large, bat-like ears that amplify sound. Roberts also fixed humans’ backwards retina, which produces a natural blind spot, by borrowing from octopus eye anatomy.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the baby head poking out of the sculpture’s marsupial pouch. Roberts says marsupial pregnancy would be far easier on the human body and more convenient for parents on the go.

“This could be a human fit for the future,” Roberts says at the end of a trailer for her BBC documentary.

[h/t Motherboard]


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