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The Lasting Legacy of the Librarian

In an article titled “Uncovering the History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” published in Smithsonian magazine, author David von Drehle details his journey through the data wells of New York, where he was trying to uncover details for a book about the factory fire that killed 146 workers in 1911. Though the tragedy spurred policy reforms that are the underpinnings of building design and worker safety laws today, finding actual records that fleshed out the full picture of that period in time was a herculean undertaking. What von Drehle discovers in his ordeal, and in the subsequent publishing of the records he finally locates, speaks volumes about the past, current and future state of information.

The first thing that was striking is that valuable data illuminating an important part of our history was all but lost but for luck and perseverance of the author. Tagging, cataloging and preserving information is critically important so that we can learn from our past through as accurate and thorough a view as possible.

The second was that the Internet and social channels now make it possible for anyone and everyone to access data that’s been preserved. What had almost vanished from the world is now available to -- and being used by -- anyone who wants to see it. The website which publishes the data that von Drehle discovered receives six million visitors every year! Preserving and cataloging our data and giving people access to it gives us such a richer, more nuanced picture of our history and connects the dots between policies and mores that are now in place, and the events of the past that caused them to be.

But perhaps most poignant of all is that von Drehle met dead end after dead end in his search until the day that an elderly librarian recalled a volume of information that was not catalogued, but became the basis for von Drehle’s book. Technology is a powerful and empowering addition to the world of information management, but the importance of a great librarian cannot be underestimated. 

 Read David von Drehle’s account of his search and discovery of the last records of the triangle shirtwaist fire.


1 comment:

bbk said...

This is cool!
Inmagic, thanks for your sharing.


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