A Thought or Two About Libraries

One of the recent posts on the SDSHS Press blog was a statement on libraries across our nation closing. My own reflection of libraries might be a bit different than some. Then again, maybe my childhood library might be a start to rethinking libraries as we know them. I love to go to our local library and just hang out. Yes, I know all the employees on a first name basis. I have checked out books, computer games, movies . . . even pictures when we could not afford to buy our own. There was no library in the town I grew up in. As a kid, I guess I never thought about being deprived of it, because it just never was. What we did have, though, every Thursday night at precisely 6:00 p.m. rain, snow, or shine—and in Michigan there was plenty of the snowy and rainy nights—we had a bookmobile. It was this big old blue bus. It came and parked right by my dad’s grocery store and the kids would flock to it. I knew the bus driver’s name by heart, and he knew me. The bookmobile had one little jump-seat right behind the driver where you could sit and inspect your books a bit closer before checking them out. The “librarian/driver” would gently scoot you on out of the bus if you stayed in that seat too long. I loved to hang out in that library just as much as I like to hang out in our library today. While they did not carry pictures, and computer games and DVDs were not heard of yet—I don’t even think we had VHS then—I would hang out in the bus, collect my treasures, and head out to the public bench under an awning to soak it all in. The bookmobile was not a library in the sense we think of one now, but it was an awesome library to me. I will always love a library—but maybe what that library will look like will just change over time.


Cooperating to Make History

As you can tell from its name, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press is a program of the South Dakota State Historical Society, and we couldn’t do what we do without the other society programs.

We depend on the State Archives program for photographs and documentation. The archive has thousands of pictures, hundreds of books, and many manuscript collections, as well as newspapers on microfilm. This treasure-trove of history helps staff members fact-check book and quarterly journal manuscripts (and yes, we do fact-check) and provides us with illustrations to supplement the article or book.

The Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society houses objects from our state’s history that can be scanned and used to document publications. Sometimes an artifact is preferable to a photograph in helping to tell a story.

The State Historic Preservation Office has photographs and information on historic buildings throughout the state. The office also helps promote history and historic preservation by helping to fund books and one issue of South Dakota History annually.

The Archaeological Research Center in Rapid City lends us their expertise when the topic turns to early history.

And where would we be without the staff of the South Dakota Heritage Fund? This nonprofit partner of the State Historical Society sells our books in their stores at the Cultural Heritage Center and in the state capitol, and they help raise money so we can continue to publish books on South Dakota history.

Although writing may be a solitary profession, book and journal publishing is not. We count on our colleagues at the South Dakota State Historical Society to help us share the history of our state with scholars and the general public.


A Lexical Accelerometer!

As I work on the journal and books at the SDSHS Press I’ve noticed that merriam-webster.com has a feature that indicates how frequently any given word is looked up. It’s a little dial like a speedometer, though I suppose a tachometer really makes a better simile. (Then again, Merriam-Webster tells me that tachos is simply the Greek for ‘speed.’) In some cases, a little arrow next to the dial indicates whether the rate of lookups is changing rapidly (a lexical accelerometer, if you will). Check it out.

Anyway, it’s interesting to consider what causes certain words to be more frequently looked up than others. Merriam-Webster does a pretty good job of this, too, with its “Trend Watch” feature; the folks there keep track of sudden spikes in the lookup statistics and then look for the causes in mass media and culture. A recent example: ‘sartorial.’

For the really curious, Merriam-Webster maintains lists of the twenty-five most-looked-up words, tracking over a) the last day b) the last week, and c) the last four months. As a historian I look at events in the long term, so the four-month list is the most interesting to me. Here it is, as of 20 July 2011:

insidious, pragmatic, disposition, hypocrite, holistic, didactic, love, pretentious, ubiquitous, conundrum, integrity, debauchery, affect, effect, albeit, paradigm, tenacious, cynical, endeavor, visceral, comradery, google, democracy, succinct, empathy

Now, what could account for the popularity of these words? Trend watch: love, affect, effect, and endeavor all appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of South Dakota History. As for the rest, who knows?


Bye, Bye Borders

Today’s front page of the Rapid City Journal sent shivers through the offices of the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. Borders, the dying megalith of the bricks-and-mortar book world, is closing its store in South Dakota’s second-largest city. For a publisher that has just a handful of bona fide bookstores in its home state, losing its second largest bookstore is not a particularly positive development.

We’re sad to see Borders go. Many within the small press world will choose to denigrate Borders as a chain store, picking an independent store over it every time. We love independent bookstores as well, but Borders buys a lot of books! Rapid City has seen its bookstore numbers dwindle to the point that when Borders closes only Prairie Edge (which is really a gallery, but has a great book selection) will remain. During that times the SDSHS Press has always known that we will sell a good number of books to Borders. This knowledge was comforting, particularly when book sales are down, so we’ll definitely miss it in purely financial terms, but we’ll also miss Borders because it was a bookstore. Regardless of whether a super-chain or a mom-and-pop outfit, a bookstore is a bookstore, and to hear of another one biting the dust is an oh-too-sad moment.

Maybe someone will pick up the mantle and open a new, independent bookstore. I can’t see Barnes & Noble taking the risk, but perhaps someone will see that a locally oriented bookstore might just work. Examples of successful, independent bookstores exist in Pierre (Prairie Pages), Mitchell (Readers’ Den), and Aberdeen (The Little Professor), so there is precedent for a smaller bookstore with a regional/local ethos to do well in South Dakota.

Whatever happens in Rapid City, you can rest assured that the SDSHS Press will continue to publish great books on South Dakota history, and that you will be able to find them in various (perhaps less traditional) places throughout the city and the state. We wish all the employees at Borders the best of luck in locating new jobs, and we’re grateful that they were there for so long, telling people about our books and sharing their love of the printed word.


The demise of libraries has been a topic of conversation everywhere recently, including the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. This excellent article from The New York Review of Books is a well-written piece pointing out the wonder and worth of our libraries. Read it and remember your own memories of sitting in a quiet library somewhere. In fact, feel free to share those memories with us.

Judging a Journal by its Cover

Having a professional designer to work with in the production of each issue of South Dakota History is a luxury for those of us who recall the days of pasting up galley proofs and, perhaps worse, struggling to come up with ideas for eye-catching covers time and again. It takes a special talent to select one or two images from up to twenty-five or so possibilities, incorporate the standard design elements and fiddle with some new ones, select colors, and create a fresh look that at the same time fits with the other covers of the series.

Some issues contain little in the way of images that are good enough, either in subject matter or quality, to merit a place on the cover, while others are filled with excellent illustrations that make the selection difficult. Typically, our freelance designer accomplishes this task wonderfully with little input from us. She knows that we like, if possible, to have the cover reflect the issue’s lead article. If none of the photographs from the article are quite up to par, we will go with a good image from one of the other essays.

In the case of the Summer 2011 issue, which came off the press last month, the cover image the designer chose was arguably one of the issue’s most striking pictures—a group of five West River ranch women whose expressions and stances reflect their strong characters. But the photograph accompanied a collection of letters written during the blizzards of 1944—not quite the right fit for an issue that would reach readers at the height of summer. Fortunately, both of the other articles in the issue offered good cover possibilities, as well, and with some adjustment, just the right cover was achieved. You can view both versions here.

The first draft of the cover

The final design of the cover