Exploring Labor in Sheet Music

As the topic for this Themester, labor has been a focus for many undergraduates across campus. Courses explore the intersections of labor with race, gender, history, technology, the legal system, and art. I am sure each course takes a vastly different approach to this topic, but there is one resource that provides a provocative insight into how labor might have been viewed in the early twentieth century. While photographs and primary documents can be extremely helpful in understanding these intersections in a somewhat more objective manner, we can also look at the popular image of these issues through other relics of the time.

I’d like to introduce you to IN Harmony, a digital library project that provides access to popular American sheet music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries held at the Lilly Library, the Indiana State Library, the Indiana State Museum, and the Indiana Historical Society. In their era, these pieces of music could be found in many homes throughout the country, bought both for their entertainment value in a time of limited sound recording and for their eye-catching covers. The combination of the colorful cover pages and the rather frank lyrics (along with the occasionally startling melodic turn) spurs thoughts about what these lyricists and artists thought would be topical and popular enough to sell. By examining the objects these creators thought would sell well, we can start to piece together what that era might have been like.

Images abound on topics of labor, and here are just a few.

Cover art to
“Why Shouldn’t They Be Good Enough Now?” Lyrics by Kate Elinore and Sam Williams, Music by William Tracey, Cover art from the Barbelle School. New York: Shapiro, Bernstein and Company, 1919.

The song “Why Shouldn’t They Be Good Enough Now?” highlights the fact that the role of women as workers while men were at war precedes the overshadowing discussion of the return of soldiers from World War II. Sample lyrics:

“If they were good enough before/To help us win the war,/Why shouldn’t they be good enough now?”

Cover to Cotton Time
“Cotton Time.” Lyrics by Earle C. Jones, Music by Charles N. Daniels, Cover art by the Frew School. New York: Jerome H. Remick, 1910.

In the song “Cotton Time,” plantation owners happily dance to the music of African Americans who sing while they pick cotton. The music is very syncopated and reflects a common stereotype of African American music. Sample lyrics:

“In cotton time, the love bells chime./Then you will be my honey in the sunny cotton time.”

Cover page to
“This Grand Countrie,” Lyrics by Mabel Ervin, Music by Ione T. Hanna, (Chicago: Clark Ervin, 1894).

“This Grand Countrie” celebrates Eugene Debs, a prominent American socialist who would go on to found the Industrial Workers of the World and would be the socialist candidate for five presidential elections. The hymn-like setting of the song celebrates the working man, and the poem envisions an America that benefits all its citizens. Sample lyrics:

“Behold a million working men, their banners lifted high!/You can see the fire of battle in each patriotic eye!/You shall hear their shouts of vict’ry in the coming jubiliee/For these men shall be the rulers of this grand countrie!”

Cover to
“College Life March and Two-Step,” Music by Henry Frantzen, Words by Jack Drislane (New York: F. B. Haviland, 1905)

Jack Drislane’s added words to Henry Frantzen’s popular, dance-able (and apparently whistle-able) two-step celebrating the leisure of college life as opposed to the work of the real world. Sample lyrics:

“Bring back the days of the golden past,/Those good old college days,/Those days we never knew a care or strife”


The length and purpose of this blog post doesn’t really permit me to examine any of these songs in depth, but each does beg several questions: When does entertainment become political? When does labor become entertainment? How might this sheet music have been used? Why would people be interested in hearing this kind of music?

Sheet music is often neglected in many studies, but it can provide an impetus to all kinds of questions about the relationships between entertainment and pressing subjects during different points in history. Hopefully this exposure to the treasures of popular sheet music will spur some new thoughts as to the uses of all kinds of documents.

– Bret McCandless

Further resources:

The Sheet Music Consortium

Holmes, Robyn., and Ruth Lee Martin. The Collector’s Book of Sheet Music Covers. Canberra, Australia: National Library of Australia, 2001.

Walas, Tony. Visions of Music: Sheet Music In the Twentieth Century. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2014.

Wenzel, Lynn, and Carol J. Binkowski. I Hear America Singing: A Nostalgic Tour of Popular Sheet Music. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.

Librarians in Cinema

Librarians in film is not a subject on which you often encounter studies. I’ve personally seen only a few movies on the subject, as well as one book, a rather slow-moving tome titled The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999:

51W54rBCi1L._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_This book lists every movie featuring a librarian character available at the time and in the English language. The book reached some interesting conclusions. Almost all the librarians in these films were female, and they were very “typically” so. In addition, many of the movies were romantic comedies: the couple would exchange verbal barbs and humorous scenes, eventually marrying and living happily ever after. Being a gainfully-employed working woman was not the end game for these characters; in fact, it was the leaving of the library that brought about their happy endings.

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Donna Reed as Mary from It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

The spinsters of the library were also well-documented. These were usually rather frumpy background characters: mid-thirties or older, modest clothes, glasses, and buns (if they were women) or balding domes (if they were men). In most cases, these characters tended either to be mistreated or to themselves be unpleasant.

As time progressed, both the older librarian, with her tightly-wound bun and stern expression, and the young, pretty, romance-seeking librarian became staples of these movies. Both hailed back to the silent film era, and both tropes continued long into color films. Truly, the background female characters were almost always less attractive in some way, thereby making the star female stand out all the more. It just seems telling that librarianship should so frequently be shown in this dichotomy.


Most interestingly, however, are the positive relationships portrayed between librarians. In many early movies, women could not overcome their various stations to build friendships, and there were not many close relationships between women shown on screen. While there were many strict or difficult bosses, more often than not librarian coworkers were shown getting along and supporting each other. These were often pleasant, supportive female relationships that continued throughout the movie, whether or not the younger girl left the library to get married. There were even a few platonic relationships between coworkers, allowing women to display they could have and maintain friendships with their own gender as well as non-romantic relationships with men. This portrayal is impressive both for classic films and modern ones.

Overall, however, these films featured women waiting around for their happily-ever-afters. They may have been respectfully employed, but they were not truly happy with it. Sometimes, in pursuit of their happy endings, these sheltered female librarians made the poor choice of going for the first man they saw. They were often given glasses, buns, and modest clothes to easily identify them as librarians, and younger librarians would only wear their glasses for short periods of time.

At first, women were shown as moral in the librarian role, then overbearing about their rules, then finally as intellectual equals to (or betters of) their romantic partners. Being the brains and the eye candy is a very common trope in movies today, especially for women, and librarians are no exception to this rule. As for men in the libraries, they are often shown as incompetent, bumbling, even comedic.

While The Image of Librarians in Cinema may have stopped at 1999, it’s hard to say depictions of librarians in cinema have really changed much in the last sixteen years.

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Rachel Weisz as Evelyn from The Mummy Returns, 2001

-Margaret Agnew

Tevis, R., and Tevis, B. (2005). The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Humanizing Librarianship: A Reflection on the Need for Reflection

IM Patron, Hear Me Ask: Hi, I was trying to access an article from the Journal of Underpaid Adjuncts called, “I Wrote This: Hire Me, Please? Pretty Pretty Pwease?”, but OneSearch keeps turning up thousands of articles–just how many articles like this can there be?? Halp!!

IM Librarian, Destroyer of Weeds: Hi there, thanks for holding. Could you repeat your order?

No doubt, online services like our “Ask a Librarian” chat reference can be very convenient in a pinch. Need help finding an article or two for a paper on the fly? You’re in luck–reference operators are standing by, eagerly awaiting your next text or instant message! Yet, speaking for myself, I have to wonder what can get lost in the process of making reference services maximally convenient and efficient, whether it be in the name of promoting “information access” or some other favorite pastime. I ask, in particular, how some of our ideas on librarianship–our reasons for being librarians; our values, our visions, and our ambitions–contribute to the dehumanization and devaluation of librarians and patrons alike.

For me personally, the IM reference service merely foregrounds the impersonal, transactional form of exchange that characterizes much of our social interaction, a state of affairs for which IMs alone are hardly responsible (as anyone who has worked in retail or customer service knows first-hand). I find myself recalling a particular passage from Franz Kafka’s Amerika.[1] As the protagonist Karl Rossmann is about to get thrown out of Hotel Occidental (where he had just been fired from his job as a lift-boy), he ends up in the porters’ lodge. He observes the assistant porters, whose duty it is to dispense information of all kinds to the frenetic shuffle of the manifold hotel guests, with arms outstretched and hands grasping or signing impatiently. With guests always speaking over each other to get out this question or that demand, the assistant porters cannot afford to pause: They dare not stop the deluge of information spilling from their mouths, not even for the sake of clarity, until an exhausting hour has passed and they must rotate out, with nary a guest noticing the switch until much later. Behold, in all their glory, our information specialists avant la lettre!

In the porters’ lodge, we witness a perfectly efficient and bustling information system–along with the mutual dehumanization of guests and workers: Everyone is equally replaceable, equally disposable, as far as this system is concerned. What’s more, the system is not entirely imposed from without; rather, it comes into being, and stays in being, through the hurried exchanges that occur between myriad guests and overburdened workers.

I can’t help but suspect the current devalued state of librarianship is in no small part the product of the ideas and assumptions we ourselves have allowed to shape the profession: ideas on librarianship, on our social and historical circumstances, on human nature and the ways of this world of ours. How might we humanize librarianship? We cannot begin to answer such a question until we engage ourselves in thought and reflection. Almost 40 years ago, André Cossette wrote in his Humanism and Libraries, “Library science is still in a time of pragmatism. Librarians know how to do their work, but do not respond in a systematic way to the primordial question: why do this work?”[2] That question continues to endure for good reason. In striving to answer it, we might not simply reinvigorate our work with renewed purpose and meaning, but humanize it as well.

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: Franz Kafka, The Man who Disappeared (America), trans. Ritchie Robertson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 129-31.
[2]: André Cossette, Humanism and Libraries: An Essay On the Philosophy of Librarianship, trans. and ed. Rory Litwin (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2009), 17.

Who is Ada Lovelace?

In a recent interview with Erica Heilman, librarian Jessamyn West remarked:

“Certain ways of thinking about things make it more easy for you to adapt to a world that technology has a role in…You have to understand that the operating system is abstracting this in a way that’s supposed to make it easy for you, but you have to be able to understand the metaphor: ‘When I click and drag this thing,’ there’s actually not a physical thing that’s happening…the computer’s showing you a picture to help you understand and help you get organized…”

For most users, this is a given. We do our computing in a lush, hyperlinked world of streaming video, .gifs, and audio, where the metaphors are understood and made invisible by that understanding. Programs make the metaphor work. A far cry from computing’s humble origins, which go as far back as 2400 BCE with the Roman abacus or the Greek Antikythera mechanism of the second century BCE. In fact, we can trace the origin of the word “computer” to a 1613 text, The yong mans gleanings. In the 18th century and beyond, “computer” referred to the people, often women, who compiled tables of mathematical calculations for astronomy and navigation. In the 19th century, before the advent of digital computing, Charles Babbage was working on his Analytical Engine, a theoretical machine that could execute complicated equations—if it were ever built.

Ada Lovelace corrected mistakes in Babbage’s designs and wrote an algorithm that would allow the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers, computing’s first program.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to Anne Milbanke, a mathematician, and Lord Byron, the notorious rock star of 19th century verse. Shortly after her birth, her parents separated and Byron exiled himself to Greece where he died in 1824. Ada was raised by her mother and tutored almost exclusively in math. As a young woman, she befriended Babbage, as well as Mary Somerville (a well-regarded mathematician, scientist, and suffragette), Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday, and Charles Dickens. In 1842, she set to translating Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq., an 1840 lecture delivered by Babbage in Turin, in Italian, as recorded by Luigi Menabrea. She expanded this translation nearly threefold with notes, which include the first computer program. Unfortunately, Ada never got to see her program in action, as Babbage’s machine was never built. Ada died in 1852 of cancer.

Almost a century later, Alan Turing cited Ada Lovelace in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Turing posed the question, “Can machines think?” While outlining the limitations that others have posed to the question of thinking machines, he described what he called Lady Lovelace’s Objection. In her words: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.” Turing’s paper posed the Imitation Game, often referred to as the Turing Test, in which a human talks to two interlocutors—one of whom is human, the other machine—and tries to determine which is which.

Ada Lovelace’s translation of Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. was republished in 1953. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer programming language ADA as tribute to Lovelace, and the British Computer Society annually awards the Lovelace medal for notable contributions to computer science and holds Lovelace lectures given by those awarded.

Jean Jennings (left), Marlyn Wescoff (center), and Ruth Lichterman program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, by plugging and unplugging cables and adjusting switches.
Jennings (left), Wescoff (center), and Lichterman program ENIAC. Corbis Images.

There are a number of wonderful women whose contributions to the history of computing, like Ada’s, are not often discussed but deserve celebration. Grace Hopper, a Yale Ph.D. and Navy Admiral, developed a compiler for the UNIVAC computer that translated source code into machine-readable language and helped develop the programming language COBOL, still used in business, finance, and government computing. Hopper also popularized the term “debugging,” coined after she removed a moth stuck in the Mark 2 computer at Harvard University. While Hopper was working at Harvard, Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman—all former human computers, calculating trajectories for firing tables—were programming, debugging, and maintaining the ENIAC computer for the U.S. Army. At the time, photographs of the six working with ENIAC circulated without identifying the women or their roles. Jean Bartik, then Betty Jennings, remarked in a 2010 interview it was not until 1986 that they received recognition for their accomplishments.

Graph paper with notes by Grace Hopper with moth taped to paper, below the moth a note reads "First actual case of being found."
“First actual case of bug being found.”

This year, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 13th, to remember Ada but also to celebrate the hard work of a number of women whose contributions to computing, science, and technology have gone unsung. Learn more about Ada Lovelace Day at findingada.com.

-Thom Sullivan

For more information, please check out:

Abbate, Janet. Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation In Computing.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Available online.

Gleick, James. The Information : a History, a Theory, a Flood. 1st Vintage Books ed., 2012. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Available at Wells.

Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators : How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition. 2014. Available at Wells.

Misa, Thomas J. Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley , 2010. Available online.

“The Ada Lovelace Episode: Who was the Enchantress of Numbers?” Stuff You Missed in History Class.

Woodfield, Ruth. Women, Work and Computing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Available online.

Sustainability Themester | Big World, Big Library, Big Resources

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This photograph was taken by an astronaut in the International Space Station, and shows thunderstorms in Brazil. Image Credit: NASA website for the Earth Observatory (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/)

Many people have seen An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s film on global warming, and societies around the world are recognizing that the planet’s future depends upon actions taken today. To help the IU Bloomington community understand these issues on a deeper level, the University’s Themester is a transdisciplinary approach to the issue of sustainability. To help people find resources on this topic, one of the Reference Librarians (Nels Gunderson) has created a webpage devoted to researching “the practices, concepts, and issues associated with environmental sustainability including waste recycling, the conservation of water and energy resources, alternative forms of transportation, and the wise use of natural resources.” This webpage compiles in one helpful location online databases, books, articles, and websites devoted to sustainability issues.

Continue reading “Sustainability Themester | Big World, Big Library, Big Resources”