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15 Vintage Photos of Libraries

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Here are some old photos of librarians showing both the diversity of their duties and the diversity of the workers themselves. All images courtesy of the Library of Congress, unless otherwise mentioned.

Helping Others

Here are a few images of librarians being their wonderfully helpful selves.

Story time duty is nothing new for librarians, as you can see in this image, taken by Jessie Tarbox Beals in 1910. A librarian is sharing a Native American legend about the Northern Lights with an audience of youngsters from a nearby Jewish school.

Librarians are vital in helping people locate and check out books. Here we see a 1941 image of two different librarians struggling to keep up with the crowd of youngsters at the Brooklyn Public Library’s children’s room.

Here’s a view from the perspective of one of the same librarians, as we see her help a young girl check out a book.

This Woodrow Wilson High School student librarian doesn’t look too excited to be learning the ropes for her new position, does she? The image was taken by Ester Bubley in 1943.

During WWII, rationing registration often took place at local schools. Here we see one such event occurring in a school library in Lititz, Pennsylvania. The school principal, M.C. Demmy, handled the registration while the town librarian, Mrs. Searle, overlooked the process and kept a watchful eye on the library itself. This image reminds us that libraries often play important roles in communities that extend beyond the simple lending of books. Photo taken by Marjory Collins in 1942.

In the Library Alone

Not all of a librarian’s duties involve helping the public though. They also must organize new additions to the collection, put back books taken from the shelves and otherwise keep things running smoothly. Here is Dr. Giles E. Dawson, a reference librarian at the Folger Library, inspecting a new collection of 9,000 rare, antique books valued at $2.5 million. All of the books were printed before 1640, and 787 of them were the only copy known to exist at the time the titles were purchased. 1938, Harris & Ewing

Remember that before television became the norm as a means of entertainment, books were a critical part of a person’s recreation. That’s why even Farm Security Administration camps developed during the Great Depression would often feature libraries, like this one at the Arvin camp for migrant workers. Here is the librarian for the small collection, as shot by Dorothea Lange in 1938.

Similarly, here is a librarian at work for the small library built for the Casa Grande Valley Farm Collective that was created as part of the New Deal. 1940 image by Russell Lee

Group Photos

Just like any occupation, librarians have a number of trade organizations to represent the interests of their profession, and many of these organizations are over 100 years old. In fact, the American Library Association has been going strong for over 136 years now, helping to fight censorship, support libraries, and promote literacy all the while. Here’s a shot of the association after a big 1919 meeting at the New Monterey Hotel in New Jersey. I’ve broke it into multiple sections so you can actually see the entire image, but if you want to see it all assembled, click this link to see the whole thing on The Library of Congress site.

This smaller group shot features members of the Special Libraries Association and was taken after their 20th annual convention in Washington D.C. in 1928. While the Special Libraries Association currently represents a number of information professionals that do not even work in libraries, at the time they differed from the ALA in that the members of this group all worked for business, government, law, finance, non-profit and academic organizations and institutions, whereas members of the ALA could work in any type of library anywhere.

Notable Librarians

While most librarians operate on a local level, a few reach national positions like the Librarian of Congress. Here is one such success story, that of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the sixth Librarian of Congress, photographed sometime around the time his term ended in 1897.

His successor, Dr. Herbert Putnam, was relatively young when he started working in the position. Here he is around 1900.

And here is Dr. Putnam again near the end of his 44 years of service in the Library of Congress in 1939.

All the way over in Australia, in 1901, the two houses of Parliament decided they needed to establish a library where all records of parliamentary hearings could be stored. Arthur Wadsworth, Head Librarian of the Victorian Parliamentary Library, was named as a temporary librarian for the new Commonwealth Parliamentary Library until it found a permanent home – and he kept the position for 26 years. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

While it might not be as big of a deal as the Library of Congress or the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, I’m sure most librarians would jump at the opportunity to serve as the Librarian of the Smithsonian National Academy of Science. Here is the 1924 librarian in the position, Paul Brockett.
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Now, I know we have plenty of librarian readers. Is there anything else you’d like to add about being a librarian? Also, how have things changed in the profession since these images were taken? Obviously card catalogs are out and computers are in, but what other changes have been made?

And for you non-librarians, take this article as a reminder of just how important the profession is and go thank a librarian near you!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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