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30 Vintage Photos of People in Libraries

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Library of Congress

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 Helping People 

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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.

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Until 1976, blind children had their own schools and libraries with books written in braille. Blind children collect books from the braille library at the Berlin Institute for the Blind, 1920. 

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

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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.

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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.

Checking Out the Books

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Not all of a librarian’s duties involve directly 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

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A woman inspects a map bigger than she is. The giant book was loaned for an exhibition at the Manchester Central Library in February, 1937. 

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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.

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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

See Also: 24 Awesome Librarian Tatoos

Groups of Librarians 

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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.

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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 who 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.

Librarians Posing 

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

Around the World 

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Librarians at El Azhar Mosque at Cairo in 1950. 

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Russian refugees look for books at a compact Russian library in Paris, 1906. 

Interiors

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The inside of the Gladstone Library in 1920. If you find yourself completely engrossed in a book, you can always stay the night. 

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Karl Marx was a frequent visitor of this enormous library known as the Reading Room in the British Museum. Picture taken in 1925.

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An inside peek at Mudie's lending library in 1910. 

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Here is the gorgeous personal library of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, circa 1930. 

Hard at Work

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The House of Commons Library in London has adopted the saying, "contributing to a well-informed democracy." Here are some men working to do just that, November 1919.

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A woman sorts photographs at the Keystone Press Agency picture library in 1951. 

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A librarian in the (at the time) new National Central Library places books into a dumbwaiter to transport them to another floor. The Carnegie United Kingdon Trustees poured $50,000 into the library, which was a lot of money back in 1933.

Students

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A librarian explains the progress of the war to schoolchildren at Roath Library, Cardiff, November 1939.

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Libraries often double as an art gallery for young students' creations. See children gather around a student-created model of Battersea Fair displayed in the Beckenham Central Library. It took the hard work of four Beckenham students to create in 7 months. 21st November, 1952. 

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1955: A student leafs through a book in the Bennet Library at the Wyoming Seminary, a prep school in Northern Pennsylvania

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A young boy repurposes a pile of books as a step ladder to reach a higher shelf at the Police Athletic League library in 1955. The library was designed to provide children with recreational activities to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. 

Bonus: A young boy checks out a book from the mobile library in 1955. Mobile libraries and book mobiles are still around, transporting books to retirement homes and areas with no library. 

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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