The detrimental effect on the dairy industry of lockdowns state governments have instituted in reaction to the coronavirus could have long term consequences, tipping the balance abruptly toward greater production of plant derived milks, butters, and cheeses. Traditional dairy has been losing market share to plant derived dairy for decades, with losses getting larger especially in the past decade. Now loss of revenue due to coronavirus lockdowns of schools and restaurants could mean bankruptcy for many dairy farms and a long term shift toward lower production as traditional dairy transforms into a lesser role.
There will no doubt always be demand for traditional dairy products, but if supermarket shelf space is an indicator of what consumers want, then plant derived milks have taken the largest chunk of shelf space away from traditional dairy, while butters, and particularly cheeses have been less competitive. The consumption of animal milk products has always been a peculiarly human practice. The desire for milk and associated products is so great that people will go to great lengths to produce and consume ersatz milk derived from nuts and grains. It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate why that is; it is enough merely to point out that consumption of milk fulfills for many people a deep-seated need, a need met for all other mammals in infancy, and then forgotten.
Different brands of oat milk available in a German organic supermarket in September 2015. Photo by Fretdf.
“Milk. n.s. [meelc, Saxon; melck, Dutch.] 1. The liquor with which animals feed their young from the breast. 2. Emulsion made by contusion of seeds.”
— fromA Dictionary of the English Languageby Samuel Johnson.
It follows then that animal milk production for human consumption is an artificial activity, consequently involving some pain and suffering by the animals, both mothers and their artificially weaned young. We have done these things for so long, for centuries going back ten thousand years or more to the beginning of agriculture, that we think the activities are natural. They are not. The closest parallel in the rest of the animal kingdom can be seen with how ants tend to aphids in order to secure for themselves the aphids’ honeydew secretions. Those secretions are not intended for consumption by the aphids’ young, however, but are merely a byproduct of their ingestion of plant juices. The relationship is closer – but not entirely the same – as our relationship to honey bees than it is to our relationship with dairy animals. The relationship we have with dairy animals is mere exploitation, closer to that of vampire bats with their prey, or to bloodsucking insects with their victims, or even to a virus with its host.
When the nineteenth century German-Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet (pronounced Toe-net) turned his attention to making furniture using bentwood, he perhaps had no inkling his technique for producing strength through elegant design would not be surpassed by other manufacturers in the ensuing century and a half. Some have made chairs just as strong, and others have created furniture attractive in the eyes of many beholders, but none have combined the two features as well as Herr Thonet did with his café chairs and other pieces. The furniture making business he established with his four sons in the mid-nineteenth century is still in production today.
The strength of seating matters more than ever presently because of the increasing amount of people who are overweight or obese. Bariatrics is a medical term related to the ramifications of obesity, from preventing it to curing it to all the methods and practices in between for treating the condition and coping with it. Adults under 200 pounds probably pay little attention to a listed weight capacity for a chair, sure as they are in the knowledge that any reputable furniture maker will engineer their chairs to uphold them securely. Adults over 200 pounds do not have similar confidence.
The original 1859 design of Chair No. 14 by Thonet did not have braces between the seat and back, which they incorporated into the design in later years. This particular model is in a museum in Nuremberg, Germany. Photo by Daderot.
There are no government regulations requiring furniture manufacturers to list weight capacity on their products for one thing, and for another, when a manufacturer does voluntarily list a weight capacity, they often do not specify whether it is for a static or dynamic load. Almost universally, the listed capacity is for a static load. A static load limit does not account for the uneven distribution of weight as a person shifts about in a chair, or when the person gets in or out of the chair. The seat may be listed for 250 pounds, but what happens when a sitting 225 pound person braces himself or herself against one arm of the chair in order to stand up? Now the arm and one side of the chair are under an extraordinary strain they may not be built to withstand.
Thonet Rocker No. 17, from 1870, in a museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo by Wikimedia user FA2010. The bentwood rocker has been a mainstay since Thonet introduced it in 1860, however since it has always been a piece more for private residences than the No. 14 chair, it has not been subject to the same standards of commercial use in a variety of settings, and therefore there are many more cheaply made knockoffs that are not as sturdy as the original. Buyer beware!
Overweight people and people with limited mobility often need to brace themselves in some manner when getting in and out of chairs. The weakness of some cheaply made chairs these days becomes apparent under these shifting load conditions. A 250 pound person may be perfectly safe and comfortable seated in a chair listed for 250 pounds, as long as he or she doesn’t move erratically. Even a chair listed at 300 pounds may in that event have its flaws exposed. Flaws such as weak wood joined inadequately in the structure, and all that flimsy construction hidden by overstuffed upholstery.
The beauty of furniture made by Thonet and other similar manufacturers lies not only in the graceful curves of their bentwood structure, but in the strength inherent in those curves of superior pieces of wood and in the simplicity and effectiveness of their joinery. It is difficult to imagine the manufacturers of highly padded living room recliners using the same pine sapwood for structure, and brads – brads, of all things! – for cheap, rapid joinery, if their handiwork were open for all to see the same as it is with a Thonet Number 14 café chair, a timeless design that continues to sell.
Thonet still makes the No. 14 chair, though now they call it the No. 214.
There have been other factors figuring into the enduring popularity of the No. 14, such as how its simplicity lent itself to mass production, lowering costs, and how the paucity of joints, which were strong yet simple, allowed buyers to assemble the chair themselves, saving space and freight costs since the Thonet company could ship the chairs flat, as a set of constituent parts. Perhaps the largest factor in the success of the No. 14, as well as similarly designed and constructed bentwood pieces of furniture, was that even in the days before independent bodies tested chairs for strength and durability, buyers knew these pieces were stronger than they appeared, a vital consideration for shop owners serving customers who could tip the scales anywhere from 40 to 400 pounds.
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.
February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.
This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.
There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.
What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?
Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.
For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.
Mr. Vonnegut was most of all a Humanist, as he himself proclaimed, and the last thing any Humanist would claim is to also be a Saint. On looking back at Vonnegut’s work, the one feature that stands out as discordant from our modern perspective is his treatment of female characters, whom he usually portrayed without much depth, and sometimes unsympathetically for no good reason. That again is viewed from our perch 50 years in the future. Mr. Vonnegut was not out of step with his times in regard to men’s views about women, sad and embarrassing as that may seem to us now. 50 years from now, who can say how people will view us for opinions and attitudes we hold in keeping with our own time?
An anonymous painting, possibly by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774), of a fire at Dresden Castle.
We must remember that until Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, nearly every book and movie in Western culture depicted the Allies in World War II as the good guys, and the Axis as the bad guys, with little shading of gray to add any moral nuance. The Humanist in Mr. Vonnegut could not abide that state of affairs, particularly since he had been present as a prisoner of war at the Allied fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, a target which had virtually no military or political value. The primary reason Allied command ordered the fire bombing was to terrorize the civilian population. In doing so, the Allies sought to deal out righteous retribution for German bombing of English cities earlier in the war. Atrocities, in other words, were perpetrated to one degree or another by both sides, and that is the nature of war and part of human nature and cannot be avoided, no matter how much books and movies gloss it over and glamorize one side over the other. And so it goes – to borrow a phrase from Mr. Vonnegut.
Slaughterhouse-Five was not revisionist history, but a necessary corrective to over two decades of mostly superficial accounts of World War II, at least in the popular media. It joined John Hersey’s 1946 non-fiction book Hiroshima in telling of war’s cost in suffering and the capacity for cruelty, alongside acts of kindness. In 1970, a non-fiction book written by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was published and changed the national discourse about relations with Native Americans, a discourse which had been dominated for over a century by white people of European descent demonizing them.
American prisoners caught in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 march to their quarters in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945, Allied air forces fire bombed the city, killing as many as 25,000 Germans, mostly women and children. The 1972 film, directed by George Roy Hill, starred Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, the character based on Kurt Vonnegut, and Eugene Roche as his friend Edgar Derby, the ranking soldier among the prisoners.
Important works by great writers and historians come along infrequently and, while nothing and no one is ever perfect, their overall worth to humanity becomes even more apparent over time than at initial publication. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another great work that has stood the test of time, has also been subjected to periodic bouts of righteous indignation and banishment by different groups for divergent reasons over the years. Certainly we cringe today at some of its language and at the attitudes Mr. Twain portrayed, but many readers, perhaps most, understand that at the heart of the novel is the growing respect and friendship between a white boy and a black man, which in its day was a radical idea that undermined social conventions. We are all prisoners of our time and cannot, like Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five, become unstuck in time. But we can be charitable and preserve and cherish the greater Humanist vision given us by Kurt Vonnegut and other writers whose works have stood outside of time, imperfect as the writers and their works, like we and our works, will always be.
“Believe we’re gliding down the highway When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
— from “Slip Slidin’ Away”, a 1977 song by Paul Simon.
Recently the Virginia House of Delegatesrefused to vote on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), defeating it perhaps for good. If Virginia had voted in favor of the Amendment, that would have been the 38th and deciding vote among the states, and then the measure would have returned to the United States Congress for reconsideration of whether the time limit for ratification should be extended.
The State Seal of Virginia. On February 21, on the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, two pro-ERA activists posed as the figures depicted in the seal, and one was arrested.
The Equal Rights Amendment is meant to constitutionally protect women’s rights and should be a common sense addition to the country’s legal framework, but anti-abortion activists and those who cling to traditional gender roles have long suspected the amendment would be used as grounds for protecting abortion rights of pregnant women besides guaranteeing women’s rights when they are at odds with men’s long standing privileges, and consequently they have done everything in their power, high and low, to defeat the amendment.
Meanwhile, in an official ceremony for a high school in Wisconsin, female cheerleaders were given “joke” awards for their physical attributes, such as largest breasts or butt, or skinniest body. When some parents and faculty objected to singling out emotionally immature girls this way, the cheerleaders’ coach, Patti Uttech, expressed dismay that “politically correct” people couldn’t understand how the awards were all in good fun. Last year another Wisconsin high school made national news after people became aware that a photographer posing a group of boys for a prom picture had encouraged them to raise their arms in what can only be viewed as a Nazi salute, and almost all the boys appeared to comply with enthusiasm.
Then there’s Goodloe Sutton, 80-year-old owner and editor of The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Alabama, who in a February 14 editorial railed against Democrats he supposed were plotting to raise taxes in Alabama, and called for the Ku Klux Klan to raid the homes of Democratic legislators in Washington, D.C.. He added even more hateful remarks when asked later for elaboration by other journalists from Alabama and elsewhere once his editorial became notorious. In 2019, Mr. Sutton’s beliefs and attitudes are more in tune with those from the year of his birth, 1939.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel perform “Slip Slidin’ Away” in the September 1981 Concert in Central Park in New York City.
Did those beliefs and attitudes ever go away in the intervening years? Perhaps partially, although mainly they went underground. Now with encouragement from the current resident of the Oval Office, ignorant and hateful talk is bubbling back to the surface across the land, and here and there action has followed. In the current environment, it will only get worse. The Ku Klux Klan of 1939 is resurrected by a bitter old man with a newspaper in Alabama. The Nazi Party of 1930s and 40s Germany is evoked by laughing schoolboys in Wisconsin. Again in Wisconsin, a high school cheerleaders’ coach hands out awards that would not have been out of place in 1950s America, though even then most people might have deemed them in questionable taste given the age of the recipients. And in Virginia an amendment to the United States Constitution goes down in flames because even in 2019 there are people – not all of them men – who cannot step away from controlling all women as if it were their right.
Animal shelters in Germany are imposing a ban on pet adoptions this Christmas in hopes of discouraging the poorly thought out and whimsical decision to give a pet as a gift. Animal shelters in Germany and in other countries celebrating Christmas have always had to cope with a surge in animal drop-offs after the holidays, as families come to grips with the realization their decision was poorly thought out and whimsical. As always, it is the animals who suffer. Don’t add to the problem this Christmas by giving a pet as a gift. A pet is not a gift to be returned after the novelty wears off, but a living being deserving of and requiring commitment to his or her care.
Perhaps animal shelters in other countries will follow the excellent example set by the German shelters. Unfortunately there are still pet shops and breeders who will sell animals to nearly anyone who has the money. It’s more likely that the kind of person who visits an animal shelter to adopt a pet is not the kind of person who is as cavalier about that pet’s well-being as someone who purchases an animal from a pet shop or breeder and considers the creature a commodity or toy. Animal shelters often charge to adopt a pet as well, but in their case the fee is not for profit but to help offset costs of running the shelter, and as a hurdle, however low, to impulse adoptions.
Child with Cat, a painting by Otto Scholderer (1834-1902).
In a better world, there would be no pet shops and breeders selling animals. In a better world, the necessity for animal shelters would dwindle because responsible people would take care of the first priority in pet adoption and have their pet spayed or neutered. But until a better world comes into being, reconsider giving a pet as a Christmas gift and consider instead making a financial donation to an animal shelter. The youngster whose heart is set on adopting a pet can, with the help of an adult in the family, volunteer a few hours a week at an animal shelter to help with the care, feeding, and socialization of the animals. Once the youngster gets a real grasp on the commitment required, then it may be time to consider adoption as a responsible and giving way to bring a new member into the family, not as the equivalent of a toy under the tree on Christmas morning, without needs or feelings.
“troll – verb definition 2c: to harass, criticize, or antagonize (someone) especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts.”
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
At a partisan political rally in Mississippi on Tuesday, the Troll-in-Chief entertained his audience of trolls with mockery of Christine Blasey Ford, who had testified before a Congressional committee the previous Thursday about an alleged sexual assault Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, had perpetrated against her in 1982. The crowd of trolls at the rally revived the “Lock her up” chant from the 2016 presidential election campaign, this time referring to Ms. Ford rather than to Hillary Clinton.
What did Ms. Ford have to gain by giving her testimony and subjecting herself to sneering from the Oval Office Oaf and his cadre of morally warped minions? What does Mr. Kavanaugh have to gain by avowing his innocence other than the crown jewel of his ambition, a seat on the Supreme Court? Encouraged by their Chief Manipulator, the trolls at the Mississippi rally laughed at Ms. Ford and her testimony while taking Mr. Kavanaugh seriously. It’s difficult to fathom the hardness of heart and smallness of spirit it must take to attend one of these rallies and show support for such a Cancerous Leader.
Before this political and social nightmare progresses to its foul end, there will be divisions within families and among friends and neighbors on a scale not seen in this country since the Civil War. If Cancerous Leader manages to consolidate his power in the elections of 2018 and 2020, then the divisions will be more like those in Nazi Germany, where a minority of sociopaths cowed the majority of decent people into silence about their casual cruelties and major abuses of power.
A compilation of clips from a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”, written by Rod Serling, and starring William Windom as the Major and Susan Harrison as the Ballerina.
There will be similarities, but not exact resemblances as the United States fashions its own brand of totalitarianism based on worship of the Almighty Dollar. People will have to ask themselves, as some no doubt already have done, how can I possibly remain on good terms with that family member, that friend, that neighbor, when they support such foul rhetoric and willingly follow such despicable and cruel policies? Why should I, and how could I, without abandoning my principles, my self-respect, and the defense of their victims, among whom I can eventually almost certainly number myself?
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil has been showing up on the shelves of pharmacies, grocery stores, and health food outlets around the country over the past few years, and yet there remains some confusion about the legality of the product. CBD oil is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, the same plant that produces hemp and hemp-derived products, as well as marijuana and all its psychoactive derivatives. The difference between hemp and marijuana is in the strain, or variety, with plants bred for hemp production being much lower in the psychoactive property of marijuana known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD oil is typically very low in THC, often less than 0.03%, sometimes 0%, and the easiest way for manufacturers to keep THC content low in their CBD oil is to produce it from hemp plants, which are naturally deficient in THC but flush with cannabidiol.
Cannabis sativa plants growing in the Botanical Garden at Karlsruhe, Germany, in August 2009. Photo by H. Zell.
Many users and manufacturers have been touting the benefits of CBD oil for treating epileptic seizures, inflammation, and arthritic conditions, among other conditions. People are eager to use the product, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been holding up progress because they classify anything even remotely connected with marijuana as a controlled substance, and therefore illegal. The DEA has rules defining what is marijuana and what is not which are byzantine in their complexity and which can conveniently be applied at their discretion. Meanwhile, states have been passing laws, not just rules, related to marijuana and hemp products, and some of those laws contradict DEA rules. Do the mere guidelines of a federal agency supersede state laws? In a manner of speaking, that’s no way to run a railroad.
Congress needs to pass legislationrestricting the reach of the DEA so that it is not constantly in conflict with state laws and causing confusion among the citizenry. Like any bureaucratic agency, the DEA will fight to maintain its budget and its relevance. Congress must drastically curtail the DEA’s mission, however, because the agency has long overstayed its welcome as society has moved on. Over the long term, the DEA and the regulations it enforces have had the same deleterious effect on society as Prohibition and Prohibition agents in the early twentieth century. The peculiar thing about the foggy legal status of CBD oil caused by the DEA standing in the way of progress the states are trying to make is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is having a difficult time regulating the CBD oil market because of its status in limbo. Any policy that continues on the books after it has lost the support of the populace needs to be eliminated before it becomes subject to abuse by an irrelevant agency seeking to hold onto power using selective enforcement on behalf of its own entrenched bureaucratic interests and those of powerful pharmaceutical companies.
Male flowers of a Cannabis sativa plant growing in the Botanical Garden at Karlsruhe, Germany, in August 2009. Photo by H. Zell.
A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.
Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.
Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.
The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.
Because scientists have found traces of glyphosatein the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a public library in Cologne, Germany, which they surmise was built in the second century of the common era by the Romans or the workers of the Roman client state in control of the region. The architecture follows the model of other large Roman libraries of the period, such as the one in Ephesus, on the western coast of modern Turkey. The reason for thinking it was a public library rather than a private one is the great size of the structure and its location in the public forum of the ancient city, where all buildings were public.
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925). Bookplates are labels people paste into the frontispiece of their books to declare ownership. They were more popular a century ago than now, and as seen here some readers contrived custom bookplates.
A public library of two thousand years ago was not the same as a public library now, offering books on loan to members of the general public. Because books were hand copied into scrolls or codices, they were limited in number and expensive to produce. No one could walk in to a public library of two thousand years ago and expect to walk out with one or more books under their arm, to be returned after several weeks. People read the books in the library and the books never left the premises.
The meaning of “public” was also limited at that time to those who were literate and therefore had a reason to be there accessing the books. These would have been scholars of one sort or another, whether in the employ of government, academia, or a wealthy individual, and they would have been almost certainly all male. Lending libraries did not come about until the Renaissance, after the invention of the printing press made available large numbers of copies of books at lower cost.
Even then, the number and type of people who could borrow books was limited. Universities and colleges had their own libraries, with their collections available not to the general public but to students and faculty of the institution. That model persists to this day. Private societies lent out books to their members, who also contributed books. They were lending libraries, but in no sense were they public. It was not until civic groups and prominent citizens in Boston, Massachusetts, created the Boston Public Library in 1848 that the institution of the lending library as we know it came into being. The Boston Public Library was the first institution in the country that was open to all and was funded largely by taxpayers, with some assistance by private endowments and gifts of books.
An 1855 engraving showing the future building of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street. The library moved into the building in 1858 and stayed there until 1895, when it moved into the grand building on Copley Square where it has remained to this day.
The model caught on, obviously, since today there are over 16,000 public libraries around the country. In the past 30 years or more, two great changes have affected those public libraries, and they are no longer what they were during their heyday in the twentieth century. The first change came from the effects of cutbacks in social programs starting with the Reagan administration. Homeless numbers increased as politicians undercut the social safety net and as mental hospitals could no longer afford to house indigent patients, setting them loose on the streets. Shelters that took in homeless people overnight often turned them out during the day, and the homeless gravitated toward public libraries for safe daytime shelter with access to bathrooms.
Boston Public Library Reading Room in October 2013. Photo by Brian Johnson.
The second change came about with the rise of computers and the internet. Public libraries have gamely kept up with the technological changes despite cutbacks in taxpayer funding, and for the most part they have successfully integrated patrons’ interest in checking out electronic books as well as traditional paper books. Where conflict has arisen it is in affording access to library computers to patrons, some of whom had little interest in setting foot in their local public library until it installed computers with free internet.
With the influx of people who are not readers as much as internet users and are likely as not indifferent to norms of behavior in the library, and homeless people who sometimes abuse library facilities and even other patrons, librarians now have their hands full with duties that have nothing to do with their traditional training in library science. Patrons who are readers and have used their local library’s services in person for decades no longer feel comfortable there, and now often prefer checking out electronic books from the library’s website rather than visiting the library in person. Pity the unfortunate librarians then, who cannot escape the loud cell phone users, the raucous children who have been dumped by their parents in the young readers’ room as if it were a free day care center, and the homeless people who, often through no fault of their own, have been thrown on the good graces of the librarians, but who complicate the work day for those overburdened librarians by the criminal or mentally unstable acting out of some of their number.