March 20, 2021

FTV: Speaking of Libraries . . .


     My source for what “National This or That Day” it is, the Jan Tucker Show, planted the idea for this FTV when Jan mentioned that one of the things designated for April 4 is ‘National School Library Day’.  With only so many days in a calendar year, there are usually multiple ‘National This or That’ things listed for each day, but this one stuck with me because it is also our daughter’s birthday.  This topic spurred Jan and her co-hosts into a discussion of why many schools no longer have librarians and what a terrific job the Ontonagon Township LIbrary is doing beyond a library’s traditional role of just being a book repository.  Naturally, this led me to start thinking about my personal experiences with the various libraries I have had the pleasure to use over the years.

     Willard Whitman Elementary school had a small library located in the middle of the main hallway, but this is not the first library I remember visiting when I was young.  That honor would go to the Children’s Library wing at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette.  When my older brother and sister had to do school projects at PWPL, I would be directed into the Children’s wing where I would while away the time cruising the book stacks.  It was a perfectly nice library setting, but I kept wishing away the time until I was old enough to go into the ‘big library’.  

     Overcrowding forced the school to convert the library at Whitman into a classroom when I was in fifth grade.  The bookshelves were moved into the hallway so there was still a library for us to use while a new wing was being built on the south side of the building.  I remember taking the ‘band readiness’ test in the old library room in fourth grade, but any other memories I have of the Whitman library are of finding books from the shelves once they were located in the hallway.  My favorite reads in those days were a blue, cloth covered historical series that told the life stories of great American pioneers like Eli Whitney, George Washington, and so on.  To this day, I have a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart for my early library experiences . . . except for one particular incident which I won’t blame on the library itself.

     My memory files label the one negative library remembrance as ‘The Encyclopedia Salesman’.  Apparently a company donated a set of encyclopedias to our school library in exchange for an opportunity to do a sales pitch to families via their students.  A man wearing a rumply suit came to our sixth grade class to invite us all to join the ‘I Don’t Know, But I Can Look It Up’ Club.  The club had a logo featuring that phrase written in a circle around a large question mark.  Mr. Salesman began his presentation by walking around the class and randomly selecting his victims (I mean, ‘volunteers’) by asking them things like, “Do YOU know how high Mount Everest is?”  We had been prompted to respond with the catch phrase, “I don’t know, but I can look it up”.  Upon hearing this, he would hand the ‘volunteer’ a pin-on logo button and then recite the correct answer (29,032 feet if you are wondering about Mount Everest).  It was all going swimmingly until he stopped in front of my desk, pointed at me and asked, “Do YOU know how big a baby kangaroo is at birth?”

     Looking up with a smile on my face, I replied, “About the size of your baby finger nail!”   I even held up my own little finger to illustrate it for all to see.  The poor man was so stunned that all he could think to do was reboot and start again:  “Do YOU know how big a baby kangaroo is at birth?” to which I again held up my little finger and repeated the answer.  Unbeknownst to Mr. Salesman, yours truly had just written a report about Australia and that piece of information was  one of the things I learned during my research.  He smiled back at me, looked over to our teacher for some help, only to see Mr. Arnsen raise his eyebrows and smile back.  Meanwhile, my classmates were helpfully whispering none too quietly, “Say ‘I don’t know but I can look it up’!”  Having reached an impasse, I reluctantly offered up what he wanted to hear, he handed me a button, and read off his cheat sheet, “At birth, a baby kangaroo is the size . . .ummm . . .” and then he trailed off without finishing the answer before moving on to the next victim.

     At the end of the session, we were given a booklet of questions that we were expected to research at the public library.  When we returned the booklet, we would get a coupon for a certain amount off the price of a new set of encyclopedias for our home.  What a concept:  if mom or dad had to bring us all the way to the library, they would see the wisdom of having a handy reference set at home.  We already had an older set of encyclopedias at our house and my mom often brought us to the library, so I knew we wouldn’t be buying one.  Mr. Arnsen gave the booklet out as homework and I was miffed that I had to spend a Saturday morning at PWPL doing ‘homework’.  I was doubly miffed when the ‘How big is a baby kangaroo at birth?’ question appeared in the booklet.  I filled that one in without bothering to look it up.  On the plus side, the story about my first lesson in library research served me well over the years as an introduction to library research with my own classes.  It probably got better every time I retold it.

     The library at Graveraet Junior High was memorable because the librarian was the mother of one of my classmates, John LaVoy.  It was also the only escape we had from study hall in eighth grade.  As a band student, eighth grade was the only year I ever had a study hall.  The sheer boredom of it all meant whenever we could get on the list, we would opt to go to the library.  It was more of a place to escape to than a place to get any work done, but at least there were plenty of magazines to look over so Mrs L wouldn’t boot us out for malingering in her library.  Oddly enough, I can count on one finger the number of times I worked in our high school library on a report so my recall of who the HS librarian was is cloudy at best.  The only way to report on who was in the Library Club would be to look it up in my old yearbook.  By the time high school graduation arrived, I was familiar with libraries, but it would take one college course to elevate my indifferent attitude about libraries in general to ‘dedicated user of the library’ status.

     Fillmore Christopher Ferdinand Earney was his name.  We called him ‘Dr. Earney’ to his face and ‘FCF’ for brevity when discussing his Geography classes.  My freshman year at NMU put me in a large lecture hall class called Cultural Geography hosted by Professor Ivan Fende.  The class included a one day per week small group discussion section.  By now you have probably already guessed who my small group discussion segment moderator was:   Dr. Earney.  Dr. Earney was a professor who wore a suit and tie to work every day and his idea of casual dress was a Nehru jacket.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect as I had never had a class with a lecture/discussion format before.  FCF told us at the first meeting that this wasn’t going to be a normal discussion group.  “Instead of going over the same topics from the lectures, I would like to try something different,” he told us.  “The Geography Department is going to start a new two credit class called Geographical Problems and Literature that will be required for all Geography majors.  We are going to test the outline for this class before it is added to the departmental requirements next year.  I am going to have you pick a research topic and then we will spend time learning how to do research in the college library.”  He even arranged to have our section meet in one of the library conference rooms.

     My old drummer buddy from high school, Wayne Maki, was also in this discussion section.  When we stopped to talk outside after the first class, he commented that he already had an idea of what he would research.  We had a week to come in with our idea and put them on an index card.  We would be expected to share our topic with the class, including why we wanted to research that particular subject matter.  Dr. E instructions were simple:  “Make us want to learn more about your chosen topic.”  The index cards were to be left with Dr. Earney who would return them the next week with his critique of our idea.  

     Wayne always had a sense of humor about things so he tweaked our interest in his topic by asking,  “Do you know there is SALT in Finland?  Not the mineral type.  What I am talking about are the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that will be taking place in 1972.  I am interested in this topic because I kind of like the idea of the world not being consumed by a nuclear holocost.”

When he sat down, Wayne reminded me about something we had learned giving speeches in our high school English class:  Always go first and set the bar high for everyone else to try and jump over.”  The nervous shuffling around me was a good indication that Wayne had done just that.

My topic seemed rather dull in comparison but I pressed on:  “I am going to research the reclamation of stripped mined land.  We live in an area with open pit iron mining so I would like to learn more about the process.  What happens to the land when the mining is done?”  As would be expected, Cultural Geography covered a host of topics and the fifteen of us all came up with radically different topics to research.

     When Dr. Earney arrived for the next class, he plunked a large banker’s box of books and pamphlets in front of me.  Before I even asked he said, “I like your topic.  I just finished writing an annotated bibliography of books and articles about the reclamation of strip mined land so I thought you might be able to use some of my research for your paper.”  In other words, I picked a topic that Dr. Earney himself had compiled enough information about to be considered somewhat of an expert in the field.  I soon found out that he was also considered the bookworm of the Geography Department and his specialty was writing annotated bibliographies of various geographical topics.

As I thumbed through his newest tome, I could not help but wonder how deep I would have to dig into my topic to find something that Dr. Earney didn’t already know.

     We spent the rest of the semester digging into every nook and cranny in the NMU Library.  By the time we had submitted our final research papers, we knew more about research, writing, and the documentation of sources than we probably needed to know.  I said a little ‘thank you Doc E’ in my head any time I found myself doing a research paper in my other college classes.

     At the end of my junior year at NMU, I was scheduled to do a class audit with Dr. Hughes, the acting department head (it was a job that rotated through the department faculty every few years).  Looking over my transcript, he said I was in fine shape for graduation but I was missing one class:

Geographical Problems and Literature.  I explained that I had already done the same class work when Dr. Earney had us test fly his new class.  Dr. Hughes reminded me that I got credit for Cultural Geography that semester, not GP&L.  GP&L would need to be on my schedule in the fall if I expected to graduate on time the next spring!

     On the first day of class, Dr. Earney reminded everyone else about my participation in the test class.  FCF said he was looking forward to seeing what I remembered.  Great, no pressure!  My plan going in was to pick a topic that was so new there would be no way FCF would have just compiled an annotated bibliography about it.  I picked the newly emerging theory of Continental Drift.  The week after he approved my topic, Dr. Earney brought in TWO boxes of information and informed me that, “I am currently working on an annotated bibliography about Continental Drift.  There is a form in one of the boxes so you can order a pre-publication copy for $50 if you want – that is a pretty good price for a five hundred page reference volume.”  I was thunderstruck, but not really surprised.  Continental Drift was a new topic for me, but not Dr. Earney.

     The class was easy.  I got a good grade on my final paper because I already knew the research gig inside and out.  I am sure that the other students (mostly freshmen) got tired of me being ‘Mr. Know-It-All’ whenever FCF stumped them and nodded my way so I could enlighten them.  Remembering Wayne’s sage advice from our freshman year, I also made sure I volunteered to be the first presenter.  I can now look back and laugh at having my college career bookended with the same research class, albeit being taken under two different class names.  I am also thankful that I landed in the first test run of Dr. Earney’s proposed class – it was one of the most useful college classes I ever had.  It also made a great follow-up story to the ‘I don’t know but I can look it up’ tale I repeated to my students more than a few times when introducing research projects.

     Now that Jan Tucker has announced her retirement, I would like to add my congratulations.  A few years ago, I asked her to do a presentation about her early days broadcasting for a meeting of the Ontonagon County Historical Society.  To introduce Jan’s talk, I went back to the summer of 1973 when I was working at the Huron Mountain Club.  We normally came to work in June but that year, I was asked to come as soon as classes at NMU ended the first week of May.  The cook and kitchen worker (Betty Thorton from AuTrain and Illmi Saari of Eben) were both up there in age (Ilmi was over 80).  I was asked to be the dishwasher, busboy, and go-fer until we moved over to the bigger kitchen in the main clubhouse.  Betty and Illmi listened to Jan everyday while we cleared the employee dining room and cleaned up between breakfast and lunch.  A full two years before I applied for a job in Ontonagon, I knew about the comings and goings of a town I had only previously been through once when I tagged along with my dad one summer.  Dad was on a two day detective case road trip so we ate lunch at the old A&W across the road from the pulp mill and spent the night at his brother’s camp at Lake Gogebic.  It was deja vu all over again when I had lunch at the same A&W on my job interview trip in July of 1975.

     Thank you Jan.  I would like to add my congratulations and this remembrance to the growing list on Jackie’s desk at WUPY. 

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