Saturday, November 21, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #4

Our fourth arguably-long-forgotten writer commemorated on the library's rotunda is Francis Parkman. Parkman was an American historian from Boston who lived from 1823 to 1893.

One of Parkman's more widely-known works is The California and Oregon trail: being sketches of prairie and Rocky mountain life. This book, more commonly known as The California and Oregon Trail or The Oregon Trail, is an eyewitness account of his 1846 trek across the West. Parkman in this, his introduction to the reading public, revealed a writer of sharp focus on detail & one of great literary style & accessibility. The work also established him as an important historian and chronicler of soon-lost societies and traditions.

While this book is still highly regarded for its vivid depiction of the landscape of the West & as a record of the peoples of that era, the book has also met criticism for its stereotypical representation of Native Americans & for an overarching contention of the supremacy of European or civilized people which lead to the inevitable demise of the less civilized native peoples.

Of course, part of these difficulties with this work are simply the result of the prevailing attitudes of the time. Many critics & scholars note these deficiencies & biases in reviewing Parkman's writing here (and in other works), but these reviewers still hold high esteem for The Oregon Trail and other Parkman publications.You can judge The Oregon Trail yourself by checking out a copy at Bangor Public Library or from another library in state. The book continues to be reissued 160 plus years after original release and remains readily available. Alternately, you can view the book online at

Parkman's crowning achievement as a writer & historian, however, are his multivolume France and England in North America. This work is now available in many forms, but upon original release, was published as follows:

Pioneers of France in the New World

The Jesuits in North America
La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West
The Old Regime in Canada
Count Frontenac
A Half Century of Conflict

Montcalm and Wolfe

According to Michael J. Mullin,
France and England in North America "shaped the conventions of colonial, frontier, and Native American history until World War II." Mullin acknowledges Parkman as the first scholar to seriously investigate the colonial frontier as a subject for historical review. Further, Mullin concludes that "his writing illustrated the continuity between America's attempt to subdue the area west of the Mississippi and England's effort at taming the American continent east of the Mississippi a century earlier." Mullin further notes that "his strength as a writer lay in his ability to convey the immediacy of historical events to the reader" (source for all: Dictionary of Literary Biography volume 186, 1997).France and England in North America faces historical criticism as well. Many scholars have found Parkman staunchly pro-Protestant, decidedly anti-Catholic. He also has been criticized for writing centered upon what is called "the great man theory" of history.

However, as with The Oregon Trail, most of the faults of France and England in North America are superseded by its strengths in the minds of most historical scholars. Richard Vitzthum, in an exhaustive review of each of the books in this series, notes that the "strength is its extraordinary unity of subject matter, style, and argument. From beginning to end, it is dominated by a conservative, romantic artist who is writing for an assumed audience of conservative, romantic readers about a gallery of conservative, romantic heroes. Its setting is a wilderness of virgin forest and water, of primal sun, sky, and storm, that will be no less vibrant and appealing a century hence than it is today" (Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 30, 1984).
France and England in North America remains readily available in various editions at the Bangor Public Library and at other libraries in Maine. A few volumes of the work are also available online through Project Gutenberg.

One last quick note about Parkman:

The Society of American Historians offers a yearly award for
the best nonfiction book in American history known as the Francis Parkman Prize. For a list of past winners dating to 1957 & how to nominate a book, visit

The next post in this series will shed light on who Prescott is.
Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Byki Language-Learning System

Thanks to a generous contribution from the Friends of the Library, Bangor Public Library is pleased to offer the Byki language-learning system.

Byki offers interactive language-learning activities in over 85 languages. The system functions in short online lessons taken at each individual's pace. These activities quiz a user in recognizing foreign languages by sight & sound, including giving the user the ability to slow down pronunciation.

To access Byki, first go the library's website at Then, click this icon:
Online, all you will need to do is click the green Sign Up Now link (shown below). Enter your name, select a username & password, and ... you're ready to go!Give Byki a look; we think you will be impressed. Feel welcome to ask the library staff (or me) if you have any questions about this new library service.Patrick Layne

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #3

John Gorham Palfrey is another writer featured on the Bangor Public Library rotunda whose name & publications may not hold the high stature each held in 1912 during the library's construction.

Palfrey, an ordained Unitarian clergyman, editor, historian, & U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, lived from 1796 to 1881. Palfrey has an extensive list of accomplishments in each of these roles, but our focus here will be on his achievements as a writer. [For a complete biography, have a look here]. Palfrey's most famous work would have to be the five volume [originally planned as three volumes as shown in the above image] History of New England. This set is "an encyclopedic study of the political, intellectual, religious, and social origins of the region from it discovery by Europeans to the eve of the American Revolution" (source: Alexander Moore, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 30, 1984). Bangor Public Library owns this behemoth collection, which totals over 2400 pages, including a nearly one hundred page index in volume 5.

This set, published between 1859 to 1890, faces & has faced mixed reviews for most of the nearly 120 years since its completion. In 1984, Alexander Moore noted, "Palfrey displayed the best and the worst aspects of nineteenth century historical writing. His scholarship and attention to detail were unquestionable, but his regional chauvinism and racial theorizing have placed his work in disrepute. In this regard, Palfrey's obscurity is a result of changing trends in historiography, not the datedness of his research or lack of historical insights."

Moore continued: "In the twentieth century writers have ... consistently cited Palfrey's History as the worst example of a bad school of historical writing they call 'filiopietistic' [wow! what a word! its meaning is "of or relating to an often immoderate reverence for forebears or tradition"], 'apologetic' and even 'clerical.' Unfortunately, by attacking Palfrey's ... biases, they [his critics] have not addressed the historical quality of his work. Palfrey's History of New England is a dense, multilayered work, prodigiously researched and annotated with footnotes that stretch, in approved nineteenth-century style, for pages in length. The work contains lists of major political officeholders for all the New England colonies from their founding until 1775."

Moore concluded that Palfrey's History of New England is "despite its bulk, quite readable." He also opined that Palfrey's set discussed every aspect of New England's natural, political, religious, and social history and that Palfrey's "insights into the Puritan mind as well as historical events have proven largely to be correct." Perhaps Moore's greatest compliment to Palfrey was that he felt History of New England (and other Palfrey publications) were "to all historians ... examples of the power of historiographical labels to conceal more than they reveal." In other words, Moore felt that too many historians & readers may be dismissing Palfrey due to over a century's worth of pigeonholing of his work, but in doing so, are missing out on the quality of it.
Yet another reviewer, James Truslow Adams, makes note of the extensive use of the footnotes, which Adams calls "a convenient and useful mine of information as to events and characters in the period" [James Truslow Adams, Dictionary of American Biography, 1931, volume 7, page 170]. In looking at the library's copy of volume I of History of New England I see a footnote on nearly every page (including page 191 which is essentially all footnoted). If nothing else, one gains an appreciation for both the amount of detail & the complexity of organization Palfrey put into his major work.

The first volume of History of New England can be viewed online here.

Another important Palfrey work (also owned by Bangor Public Library, but in our non-circulating collection) was the widely distributed abolitionist pamphlet, Papers on the slave power. In 1843, Palfrey's father died in Louisiana, leaving Palfrey an inheritance which included twenty slaves. While he had been for years a vocal advocate of abolition, the potential of slave ownership sent Palfrey into action. Despite legal difficulties, heavy financial loss, and fractured relations with his surviving family members, Palfrey traveled to Louisiana, claimed his slaves, returned to Boston and freed his slaves. Palfrey had hoped to keep his actions private, but they became public & Palfrey found himself thrust into a greater stature within the abolitionist movement [source: a paraphrasing of Alexander Moore's account in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 30]. In this role, Palfrey published a series of essays in the Boston Whig in 1846, which were later collected & published as Papers on the slave power. These essays, according to Moore, contained the narrative of the history of slave trade in the U.S., including a recounting of the compromise on the issue of slavery at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Palfrey also issued in this work a call to stop the spread of slavery and an aim to undermine it in state is already existed.

This historical importance of this publication of Palfrey's is worth noting on its own merit. However, I would also like to point out how important (and cool) it is to be able to say that I held this publication in my hands today -- all thanks to the fact that the Bangor Public Library owns it & has owned & maintained it for more than 160 years after its publication.

Bangor Public Library's books, as well as its architecture, represent and reflect a culture and tradition of commitment to scholarship, reading, and social significance in the history of Bangor. While people today may not know who John Gorham Palfrey is or what he has added to American & New England culture, it is a comfort and source of pride to know that the people of Bangor did care in 1912. Even more reassuring is that such a commitment by the citizenry of Bangor has continued & flourishes a century later.

The next post in this series will shed light on exactly who Parkman is.Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #2

John Fiske is another writer featured on the library's rotunda whose name seems to have diminished in recognition over the last century.

Fiske, a philosopher & historian born Edmund Fiske Green in Hartford, Connecticut, lived from 1842 to 1901. As a child, he was already quite the scholar, noting in his adult writings that by age eight he had read about two hundred books, across a wide spectrum of topics, primarily philosophy. By the age of twenty, he could read in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and so on (the list continues with another thirteen languages, including something called Zend, which turns out to be Zoroastrian-based).

Fiske was a supporter of the theory of evolution well before it had gained any measure of popular validation with Charles Darwin's publication in 1867 of On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Darwin's position, however, was not (and often still is not) without controversy, and those supporting it could face professional hardships. Fiske, for example, had been deemed an atheist so he was not admitted to the faculty of Harvard despite having being a well-regarded lecturer & writer. Fiske, instead, in 1872 was given the position of assistant librarian at Harvard. While this was meant to be a demotion, Fiske found the work rewarding and beneficial to his career. [Fiske included the forty page essay, "A Librarian's Work" in his book Darwinism and Other Essays] .

By 1879, Fiske had resigned his post at Harvard, taking to delivering a course of lectures on American history at the Old South Church in Boston & across the Atlantic in London. During this period in his life, Fiske developed a reputation as the most popular lecturer on history America had even known to that point. The majority of Fiske's writings during this time, however, were primarily philosophical volumes such as Myths and Myth-Makers, The Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, The Unseen World, Darwinism and Other Essays, Excursions of an Evolutionist, and The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.Fiske began to focus on historical writing in the late 1880s, a focus which continued into the early 1900s. His works during that time include The Critical Period of American History, 1783-89, The Beginnings of New England, The Discovery of America, and New France and New England. Fiske had made this transition, according to some, based on financial need, and according to others, based on "his wish to study America from the standpoint of an evolutionist" (Source: Dictionary of American Biography, Volume III, page 422].
I asked my brother, a history doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, about how Fiske is viewed by today's history scholars. Below are his comments:

"Fiske isn't read by historians too much today. I don't recall reading anything written by him. However, I am sure, given the dates of his writings and his life, most anything he has written has been debunked by modern historians. He was entering the profession just as it was becoming 'professionalized and most of those guys are looked upon differently now. Not that they were generally bad historians, which some were, but that they didn't have to tools and skills that have been developed since their time. I also know that he was a Social Darwinist, and that theory has pretty much been debunked as well, so if that tinge is in any of his writings, then he would get attacked for that has well."

My brother's sentiments are largely echoed in the Fiske biography written by James Truslow Adams from the Dictionary of American Biography copyrighted 1931 [the source of much of this blog post's content]. "In the historical field," Adams wrote, "Fiske was solely a popularizer ... far from making any original contribution of material or interpretation, he merely narrated conspicuous facts, and he did that not authoritatively, but with a charm of style rare among American historians." Adams, however, did view Fiske's role as a historian as "the prime cause of not a few of the distinguished scholars of to-day first turning to history as their life-work" [both quotes page 423]. So, in other words, Fiske is seen as vital as legitimizing & elevating the study of history, but not as all that great of an historian.

While history, Adams, my brother, or I have not been particularly kind to John Fiske, the architects of our library in 1912-13 did not have the benefit of knowing how our society was to change in the next century. One hundred years into our future, some of our most revered scholars & writers inevitably will be seen as outdated as well. But with their efforts, as with Fiske's, each will have played a vital role in the advancement of thought & scholarship in our country. We can celebrate all who have & will continue that cause.

Up next in the Who Are These Writers Series, Palfrey.Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who Are These Writers?

The rotunda above the second floor lobby & just outside the Bangor Room & the Lecture Hall features the names of twelve writers. At the time of the building's construction circa 1912-13, each of these writers held enough public interest to be worthy of current (and presumably future) reverence. Several of these authors, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson and Whittier, for example, remain easily recognizable to readers today. A few, however, required some light detective work to identify.Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Thomas Bailey Aldrich is one of the authors deemed prominent enough for etched-in-stone status when our building was constructed between 1912-13, but whose fame has apparently been fleeting ever since.

Aldrich, a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was a poet, novelist, & editor born in 1836 who died in Boston in 1907. Ferris Greenslet's biography of him (available at Bangor Public Library) characterizes Aldrich as "the exquisite lyric poet, the inimitable story-teller, the accomplished editor, the witty, urbane man of letters." Aldrich's work as editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1881-1890 established him as a mentor to many writers, including other writers such as Lowell, Longfellow & Holmes listed with him on the library's rotunda.
Aldrich's work was regarded as witty and humorous, which contributed to his being quite popular during the peak of his career. He was, in fact, at one point during his lifetime determined to be more popular than Mark Twain and Walt Whitman (source: That Aldrich is linked to Twain is noteworthy since perhaps Aldrich's most famous book, The Story of a Bad Boy, is considered a forerunner to Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Story of a Bad Boy
, published in 1870, was a semi-autobiographical fictional story about growing up in Portsmouth, which Aldrich calls Rivermouth in this book. The book predates Huckleberry Finn by 14 years, leading critics to call "this novel ... the first realistic depiction of childhood in American fiction" (source: . Twain himself commented that The Story of a Bad Boy was his inspiration for creating Tom Sawyer (source: .
Greenslet's biography includes several letters written between Twain & Aldrich. These letters have a playful tone, that of two men who knew each other well. So well, in fact, that in an 1871 letter Aldrich makes fun of Twain having a pen name. Aldrich teases Twain that if Twain were to come to Boston & not come to see him, then Aldrich would "put a paragraph in 'Every Saturday' [a weekly illustrated Boston-based magazine which folded in 1874] to the effect that through you are generally known as Mark Twain, your favorite nom de plume is 'Barry Gray.'"

Bangor Public Library owns The Story of a Bad Boy and several other Aldrich works if you'd like to take a look. Aldrich would presumably be happy to have his works revisited since he is credited as saying, "Books that have become classics - books that have had their day and now get more praise than perusal - always remind me of retired colonels and majors and captains who, having reached the age limit, find themselves retired on half pay." [Source: unknown, but referenced extensively on the Internet]

Another Aldrich-attributed utterance, one which seems an apt axiom for adjourning this Aldrich analysis: "What is lovely never dies, but passes into other loveliness. " [Source: Aldrich poem, A Shadow of the Night]

Next up on the Who Are These Writers? series: Who is Fiske? Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Book about a Thousand Things

Last week, I was stopped at a traffic light on Exchange Street in Bangor on the way to work. Across the street stood Cornerstone Barber Shop, the place where I usually go for haircuts & where I always take my oldest son.

Anyway, while stopped in traffic, I noticed the barber pole on the building. I had thought before that I knew or vaguely knew the origin of the stripes on the barber pole. It was something I thought I should look up.

That morning at work, probably not even an hour after thinking about that question, I was standing in the book stacks here & a book title caught my eye.

That book, A Book about a Thousand Things, by George Stimpson, copyright 1946. I suppose I wondered what the thousand things were, so I pulled the book from the shelf to take a look. I opened the book. Curiously enough, I opened the book to pages 94 & 95, page 95 containing the phrase "how did the barber pole originate?"
Call it kismet or dumb luck or simple coincidence, whatever you want, I had found the answer to my question without even knowing (at least not consciously) I was searching for it. Another beauty of this is that is that as I looked elsewhere in Stimpson's book, I found answers to questions I might not have thought to ask, but that I was nonetheless happy to have casually discovered. For example, do you know that Boycott was a person & it was he that was the first to be boycotted? He was a landlord who wasn't very nice to his tenants during the 1880s.

This anecdote well illustrates what I would like to think are the strengths of libraries: either by design or chance, a person will more than likely discover his or her answer here. Or will think to ask here. Or will learn here. Or just happen to find out because a book title or jacket catches his or her eye. One need only be curious.

So, according to George Stimpson, how did the barber pole originate?

"The barber pole with spiral stripes is a relic of the days when barbers were also surgeons. As early as the fifth century A.D. the barbers in Rome extracted teeth, treated wounds and bled patients as part of their professional work. When the London barbers were incorporated in 1461 they were the only persons practicing surgery in the city. In the reign of Henry VIII Parliament passed a law providing that barbers should confine themselves to minor operations such as bloodletting and drawing teeth, while surgeons were prohibited from 'barbery and shaving'. It was not until 1745, only thirty years before the American Revolution, that the barbers and surgeons of London were separated into distinct corporations, and the practice of surgery by barbers was not abolished in France, Germany and other European countries until much later. The barber-surgeons generally bled their patients in the arm, and, in the days when few people could read and pictures and emblems were used as shop signs, the emblem of the profession was a spirally painted white and red pole from which was suspended a brass basin with a semicircular opening in the rim. The white ground represented the bandage used in bloodletting, the red stripe represented the blood, and the basin represented the vessel used to receive the blood. Strangely it has been the barbers and not the surgeons who have retained, it a modified form, this ancient symbol of their profession. In the United States the brass basin is generally omitted from the barber pole, but it is still common in Britain. American barbers also added a blue stripe, perhaps to make the color conform with those of the national flag."
If you'd like, here is a link to another fan's opinion of Stimpson's book:

A Book about a Thousand Things and related books can be found in the 030-032 Dewey section of Bangor Public Library. If you need help finding a book, always feel welcome to ask me or another reference librarian here at Bangor Public Library. You can ask us in person, by phone (947-8336 x130), or by email (

Patrick Layne

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Best Websites for Writers

The May/June 2009 issue of Writer's Digest, in addition to containing a cover story it bills as an "epic conversation on writing" with Stephen King & Jerry B. Jenkins, has a feature article about the 101 best websites for writers.

The article lists a handful of recommended sites that may be of interest to you. Writers from across the world have posted sharply honed stories that, you guessed it, are no more than six sentences in length. These stories can be read in just a minute or so, but can provide an insight or perspective that lasts much longer. Anyone can try his or her hand at this story telling format as well, as the blog features a link detailing how to make submissions. Readers can browse months of submissions to the blog or set up an RSS feed to receive newer posts. This site features the rules for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, & much more, as well as links to video lessons for almost 70 English-usage issues. Even better, there are dozens of interactive & free online quizzes for various grammar concerns. This site may be particularly beneficial to those learning English as a second language, those returning to school after some time off, or anyone else who loves grammar. Note: the site is commercial in nature, so it does advertise for subscribing to extra tests or features. But, anyone can scroll down on the pages, specifically the Free Online Quizzes page, to find the free content. After setting up a free account, users can upload samples of their own writing to get critiques of the work. The site also has many book discussion or author discussion forums to join. The Writer's Digest best 101 list has about a dozen sites similar to this which offer similar content & functionality. If you have writings you feel are ready to be published, this site of "the Internet's largest and most current database of literary agents" might be your source for finding representation. On this frequently updated site, you will find information about a parade of writing contests, focusing primarily on short story, flash or micro fiction & poetry. This site also allows users to set up RSS feeds to receive newer posts. Features what is called a writing prompt generator, which randomly selects topics to help start your creative writing engine. Two examples of these random topics are "She seemed like such a sweet old lady. Who would ever believe that she was really . . " and "You have to babysit a pet chimpanzee. Write about your experience." An excellent source for finding the most well regarded books across a wide spectrum of genres, topics & age groups.

Again, these are but a few of the 101 resources recommended by Writer's Digest. You can find the complete list in the May/June 2009 issue of Writer's Digest -- available at the Bangor Public Library for checkout -- or online at

Let me know if you have other recommendations. Feel welcome to comment to this blog post if you would like. You can email me directly at also.

Patrick Layne

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Economic Stimulus Information

The good folks at the Maine State Library Reference Department have created a timely & detailed quick list of links to information about the economic stimulus package, more formally known as The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

To access this information, go to
Or, you can individually view each of the links Maine State Library features in its review. Each is listed below with a brief explanation of each.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

The official American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 page can be found at From this page, you can click a link to a PDF of the final text of the legislation as reviewed by Congress. You can also leave any comments you may have about the legislation on this page.
The U.S. Economic Stimulus Plan

A much more common language version of the plan, created by the Council on Foreign Relations, can be found here --

Keep Track of How Economic Stimulus Money is Being Spent is, according to its website, a site "that lets you, the taxpayer, figure out where the money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is going. There are going to be a few different ways to search for information. The money is being distributed by Federal agencies, and soon you'll be able to see where it's going -- to which states, to which congressional districts, even to which Federal contractors. As soon as we are able to, we'll display that information visually in maps, charts, and graphics." You can view the site at

State of Maine / American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Governor John Baldacci has released a statement about the stimulus plan on the Office of the Governor website at This page also features links to the latest updates, press releases, and other information about Maine government's involvement with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Want to Balance Maine's Budget?

Also on Governor Baldacci's website, you will find an amusing &
informative tool which will "allow you to view the most current budget projections, adjust expenses and revenues to see the results, and send me your own balanced budget proposal." In other words, you'll get to try your hand at balancing the budget. I made a slight increase in the education expenditure, quickly putting the state at a $100 million deficit (shown below). This tool, along with other Maine budgetary concerns, can be found at

I would like to thank the Maine State Library Reference Department for making me aware of all this information.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

New Search Engine


LeapFish is a new alternative to the Google, Yahoo!, & other search engines that has been getting quite a bit of press coverage & rightfully so. LeapFish has two quickly apparent advantages over current search engine models. One, LeapFish will automatically update the page as you type your search term. In other words, you will not need to press enter or click search for results to be displayed. Sure, pressing enter or clicking search are not terribly time-consuming, but LeapFish has simplified this process in a way that I think most people can appreciate, especially after seeing it for oneself.

The second advantage of LeapFish is that search results are in varied formats. With Google & Yahoo!, a single search can currently only be done for text or images or video, not with all at once. LeapFish will simultaneously find text, video, & images. My search for guitar lessons found, for example, links to websites on the left-hand side of the page, links to videos on the right, links to images on the right, as well as other specialty links.

Bangor Public Library

Bangor Public Library
Bangor Public Library,
145 Harlow Street,
Bangor ME 04401