Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The First Thanksgiving: Separating Fact from Legend

Chances are, what you learned in grade school about the first Thanksgiving was a lot like the painting above: a group of very religious people called Pilgrims had a communal meal to celebrate their bountiful harvest, and shared it with a few Indians* in feathered headdresses.  But if you dig into the real history of the first Thanksgiving, it wasn't quite like that.  First of all, the "First Thanksgiving" wasn't really the first day day set aside for giving thanks in the North American colonies.  There were probably earlier thanksgiving observances in the Virginia colonies, as well as the French and Spanish colonies.  However, the celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth was a primary inspiration for the modern Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, so it's interesting to look at what really happened.  It turns out the real occasion didn't resemble the traditional images of Thanksgiving very much at all.

The people we call Pilgrims actually called themselves Separatists, because they believed in separating completely from the Church of England (unlike Puritans, who wanted to purify the church from within).  They weren't commonly called Pilgrims until the 1700's.  They were persecuted in England, so they fled to Holland for several years before sailing for the New World.  When they arrived in what's now Massachusetts in November 1620, they were amazed to find cleared fields among the forests.  They settled in one of them, and named it Plymouth.  In fact, the site was cleared because just a few years earlier it had been a Wampanoag village called Patuxet, which was abandoned after a plague killed most of its residents.  In the winter of 1620-21, it became the site of another tragedy, when nearly half the Pilgrims died of sickness and starvation.

This bleak story began to brighten the next March, when the Pilgrims were visited by Wampanoags named Samoset and Tisquantum, who walked into their village and started speaking English.  Tisquantum--better known as Squanto--was an amazing man.  He had grown up in Patuxet, on the very site where the Pilgrims had settled. He had been captured years before by English fisherman, and was brought Spain as a slave.  He escaped to England, and, in hopes of returning home, befriended some Englishmen who planned to colonize the New World.  Eventually, he joined their expedition and returned to New England.  Arriving the year before the Pilgrims landed, he found his old village inhabited only by skeletons. Devastated, he made his way to another Wampanoag village, the home of the powerful chief Massasoit.  After the pilgrims settled in his old village of Patuxet, Squanto went to live with them.  He showed them how to grow corn and catch fish, and arranged an alliance between the Pilgrims and Massasoit.  Massasoit's people were badly weakened by Europeans diseases, and they needed the Pilgrims' guns and cannons to defend themselves against the Narraganset tribe to the west.

The Pilgrims had an excellent harvest with Squanto's help, and as the next winter approached, they had plenty to eat.  Overjoyed at their change of fortune, they decided to celebrate in the fall of 1621.  One of the only descriptions of this celebration was written by a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
This wasn't just a meal--it was a three day festival.  And there were almost twice as many Wampanoag as Pilgrims.  Some historians think the Wampanoag heard the Pilgrims' guns, and came with warriors in case they needed to help their new allies.  Others think the Pilgrims fired their guns after the Wampanoag showed up, to show they could defend themselves if the uneasy alliance fell through.  In any case, the festival stayed peaceful, if not overly friendly, and the Indians contributed to the feast with five deer.

This festival wasn't much like the traditional images of the first Thanksgiving.  First, nobody knows if turkey was on the menu.  Cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie certainly weren't, because those recipes hadn't been invented yet.  The Wampanoag certainly didn't wear feathered headdresses--that was the style among plains Indians out west, not New England tribes. And the Pilgrims didn't dress in black--that was dreamed up by artists later on.  Finally, the Pilgrims didn't think of the event as a traditional thanksgiving observance. Both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags probably thought of the event as a harvest festival, a tradition with a long history in both cultures.  The pilgrims did observe days called thanksgivings (with a small t), but these were unscheduled days of prayer and fasting that were declared after fortunate events.  Two years later, Governor William Bradford declared a thanksgiving for the end of a drought, and it was a solemn affair, not like the earlier festival.

Unfortunately, the brief moment of peace at the first Thanksgiving didn't last.  Squanto had his own agenda, and he became a source of tension between the Pilgrims and Massasoit.  He died of a fever in 1622. The relationship between Pilgrims and natives soured by the late 1630's, and turned into all out war in the 1670's.  When the colonists won, they declared a day of thanksgiving that certainly didn't include any feasting with the Wampanoag.

In later years, Pilgrims and Puritans in New England continued to observe solemn, unscheduled thanksgivings, although they grew less stern as attitudes loosened in the 1700's. Eventually, the custom spread beyond New England, and the first few presidents sometimes declared national days of thanksgiving (though Jefferson declined to do so, believing it would violate the separation of church and state).  Presidents after Madison stopped making these proclamations, but in 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a magazine called Godey's Lady's Book, convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  Lincoln hoped the new holiday would help unify a country torn apart by the Civil War.  Many of Ms. Godey's recipes became standard Thanksgiving dishes.  Around the same time, some of the original Pilgrims' writings were rediscovered, sparking a great deal of popular interest in their story.  By the late 1800's, people were associating Thanksgiving with the pilgrims, and the story of the Pilgrims and Indians sitting down for a communal turkey dinner began to take hold.  This was a time when immigrants were pouring from many different countries, and the story of Thanksgiving became a way of assimilating many cultures into a distinctly American tradition (other countries have Thanksgiving holidays, but they're based on different traditions). In 1941, Congress established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to be observed on the 4th Thursday of November.

As much as the image of the first Thanksgiving differs from the real thing, there's no doubt the Pilgrims had a great deal to be thankful for.  Massosoit had given them food, and Squanto had helped them feed themselves.  They could expect their second winter to be far better than that first, lethal one.  The Pilgrims were celebrating the fact that, for the first time, they could reasonably expect to survive, and perhaps even prosper, in the New World.  Things didn't turn out so well for the Wampanoag, many of whom still observe a day of mourning on Thanksgiving.  Like many other holidays, Thanksgiving can be controversial, even today.

Of course, we librarians try not to take sides in controversies.  We help people look past spin and legend to find facts, and we carry materials on all sides of controversial issues.  We're here to help our patrons exercise their freedom to decide for themselves what to think. As for this librarian, I'm thankful for that freedom, and for the privilege of helping preserve it.

Happy Thanksgiving to Everyone!

Recommended Resources:

1621 : a new look at Thanksgiving / Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac with Plimoth Plantation ; photographs by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson.  This young adult book is an excellent source-for adults as well as teenagers-for learning about the first Thanksgiving.

Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower.  An A&E video, available for streaming through Access Video on Demand.  Call the Reference Department at 876-5861 for login information

Mayflower : the Pilgrims and their legacy / Nathaniel Philbrick.

The Thanksgiving ceremony : new traditions for America's family feast / Edward Bleier.

The First Thanksgiving.  Elizabeth Armstrong. Christian Science Monitor. 2002 

Plimoth Plantation Website: Article about Thanksgiving 

Pilgrim Hall Museum 

* I'm using the term Indians instead of Native Americans, because that seems to be the way most of them refer to themselves.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Google-Fu: Little Known Tricks for Google Searching

There are over 600 million websites in the world right now.  To put this number in perspective, if you started trying to count all the websites that exist today, it would take you about ten years of counting around the clock.  The internet is a pretty big place.  To find your way around, you have to know how to use search engines such as Yahoo, Bing, and Google.  Google is by far the most popular but, even though people use it every day, most of them don't know the tricks that help to narrow their search down to exactly what they need.  In other words, they don't know the basic moves of Google-Fu.  There are dozens of these, but in this post we'll just talk about a few of the most useful ones.

One basic trick everyone should know is to use quotes when searching for an exact phrase. If you want to know how to use the phrase "fine as frog hair" in a sentence, you don't want a page that just happens to have the words "fine", "frog", and "hair".  Putting quotes around a phrase will tell Google to search for the full phrase, instead of searching for each word separately.  However, this may not be necessary with common phrases, because Google is able to recognize those. For example, if you type in lord of the rings, Google will recognize the phrase, and give you results related to the books or movies first, instead of pages that just happen to have those individual words in them.


A good way to get exactly what you're looking for in your search is to use special commands called operators.  For example, if you want to search within a particular site, such as this blog, you can use the operator "site:". If you're looking for information related to Thanksgiving, you would enter:

thanksgiving site:bayoureference.blogspot.com

This will show you results just from within this website, as shown below.  Notice that you don't have to capitalize "Thanksgiving", or any other word in a Google search.  Google isn't case sensitive--it treats capital and lower case letters the same way.

You can also use the "site:" operator to search by domain (.com, .gov, .org, etc).  This is useful if, for example, you just want sites from the US government.  These have the domain .gov.  Let's say you're looking for information about hurricane protection on government websites.  Type in:

hurricane protection site:.gov

You can also use operators to define a word.  Let's say you're trying to remember what the word "calaboose" means.  Simply type in:


Google will give you a definition at the top of the page, and let you choose between definitions from different online dictionaries:

Incidentally, Google and other search engines are a great way to quickly check your spelling, because they can usually recognize the word you're trying to type, and suggest the correct spelling.

Another useful operator is the minus sign, which you can use to find sites that don't contain a certain word.  For example, if you want to find websites about Spam, the meat product, instead of spam as junk email, you could enter

spam -email

This will leave out webpages that contain the word "email".  Of course, it may be better to simply make your search more specific, by typing in "spam meat" or "fried spam casserole recipes".  Still, the minus sign operator can come in very handy sometimes.

Have you ever looked at a website and thought, "I wish I could find more websites like this".  Here's how you do that:  use the operator "related".  If you want to find websites similar to Pinterest, for example, enter:


Another way to do similar searches is to use the website SimilarSites.com, which is a more powerful tool for finding related websites.

Advanced Search

If you prefer not to remember a bunch of operators, an easier way to use some of the most common Google tricks is to use the Advanced Search page.  Just scroll to the bottom of the search results and click the Advanced Search link there.

One of the things Advanced Search lets you do is search for recent information by specifying when the page was last updated.  If you're searching in a rapidly changing field, such as science or technology, it's useful to be able to exclude older webpages. I was recently searching for reviews of digital cameras.  When I typed in "best digital cameras", some of the websites were from 2006 and 2007, which is ancient in the digital camera world.  So, I used Advanced Search to specify that I wanted a review from within the last year.

Advanced search also lets you specify the language and region of the webpages you want.  If you want, say, French language websites from Canada, Google can do that.  You can also specify what file format you're looking for, if you're looking for PowerPoint or PDF files.  The best way to get a feel for Advanced Search is to simply go there and try it out. 

I've just talked about a few of the great tricks you can use to make your Google searches more rewarding.  There are many others, as well as many specialized search pages within Google, such as Google News, Google Image Search, and Google Books.  We'll talk about those in future blog posts.  But remember, not everything online is Google-able.  A lot of the information on the internet is hidden away behind pay walls and passwords.  For example, what if you're buying a new computer, and want to read reviews in Consumer Reports?  If you go to the Consumer Reports website, you'll find that you need a paid subscription to read the articles.  Does that mean you have to get a subscription?  Not if you have a library card.  Just go to one of our databases, enter your card number, and start reading. 

Just because you can't find something through Google doesn't mean it's not available online. It may be available through the library.  To find out if we have what you're looking for, just give the reference department a call, at 876-5861, Option 2. Google is great, but the combination of Google and your library is even better!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Early Voting and other Voter Resources

"Vote early and often!" goes the old election day joke.  Well, you can't really vote often, but you can certainly beat the election day crowds by voting early.  Early voting for the November elections started Tuesday, October 23, and will run through next Tuesday, October 30.  If you live in Terrebonne Parish, the location for early voting is the office of the Registrar of Voters, in the Courthouse Annex.  The address is:
7856 Main St., Suite 110
Houma, LA 70360
Early voting hours are from 8:30 AM to 6:00 PM.  The office will be closed on Sunday.  For more information on early voting, click here to go to the Secretary of State's website.

To view sample ballots for your district, or to find your polling place for election day voting, go to www.geauxvote.com.  This is a very useful website, and if you need some help using it, check out our blog post here. If you would like to find out more about the state constitutional amendments on the ballot, the non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana has put together a guide for voters.  
For other information about finding facts and non-partisan information on the issues, we put together a blog post on fact-checking sites here.   Since that post, we've also found some other good voter information sites.  One is Public Agenda, a non-profit and non-partisan policy research organization.  Their Public Agenda for Citizens web page has excellent guides to issues, with charts, statistics, and explanations of views from all sides.  The page also offers more in-depth research reports, as well as links to other useful websites.
Another great resource is Project Vote Smart.  Their website lets you easily search "biographies, voting records, issue positions, ratings, speeches, campaign finance information" for all the candidates, and has guides to the issues with up-to-date information on key votes, interest group ratings of politicians, public statements by politicians, and ballot measures.  All this information is available at the national and the state level.  

Happy voting!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Swamp Lights, Jack O' Lanterns, and Pirate Treasure

"Yes, they are all around us," he whispered. "The tricksy lights."
- Gollum; from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien
It's that time of year again.  There's a chill in the air, the jack o' lanterns are grinning from the windows, and people are telling scary stories.  We certainly have our share of those down here--Louisiana has a set of spooky legends, creatures, and spirits all its own.  Perhaps the most famous Louisiana boogieman is the rougarou, or loup larou, a kind of werewolf that haunts the swamps, and is said to hold rowdy balls on the banks of Bayou Goula.  Of course, now Houma has its own werewolf ball: the first annual Rougarou Fest will be next Friday, October 26.  We covered the rougarou in this blog post from last Halloween.  This year, we'll take a look at another Louisiana apparition:  the fifollet.

The fifollet is a ghostly light or flame that appears in the swamps. In some parts of Louisiana, it's known by its original French name: feu follet, or "foolish fire". Whatever you call it, people say that if you try to follow it, the light will retreat, leading you deeper into the swamps until you are hopelessly lost.  Some say the fifollet is a "bad angel", and others say it's the wandering soul of an unbaptized child, or a baby who died while still nursing.  Some old Cajun stories say the fifollet likes to return to the nursery.  If a baby wakes up with unusually rosy cheeks, that means the fifollet has visited in the night, stealing some of the baby's breath (where I'm from, in the mountains of Arkansas, people used to think cats or snakes would suck the breath from babies).  To ward off the fifollet, mustard seeds can be scattered on the floor--the spirit will try to count them, lose track, and stay distracted all night.*  

Out in the swamps, there are other ways to ward off the fifollet.  One is to stick a three-bladed knife in the ground or into a tree.  The spectral light will be trapped by its own reflection in the knife blade, and unable to work its mischief.  Others say that if you hold up a needle, the light will be sucked through its eye, coming out the other side as harmless sparks, or even fireflies.

A (Possible) Portrait of Jean Lafitte
There are those who say the fifollet is associated with buried treasure.  Here the legend of the fifollet intertwines with legends of Jean Lafitte, the mysterious and flamboyant buccaneer.  In the early 1800's, Lafitte and his men did a brisk business robbing ships in the Gulf of Mexico, and then selling the booty in New Orleans.  Lafitte is said to have known all the waterways between New Orleans and his base near Grand Isle, so if the authorities were looking for him along one bayou, he could disappear down another.  Many legends say Lafitte left treasure buried along those bayous, perhaps on Ghost Island, now in Jean Lafitte Preserve, or along the appropriately-named Contraband Bayou, which flows through Lake Charles.  Judging from the number of legends, Lafitte must have left buried treasure along every bayou in Louisiana.

The more lurid versions of these legends say that when Lafitte buried his treasure, he would kill one of his men, and then bury him with the treasure.  The dead pirate's spirit would then guard the site as a fifollet.  Some people think that if you can follow the fifollet without getting lost, it will lead you to the treasure.  In other legends in Louisiana, a rooster's head is buried with the treasure.  When you try to dig it up, the rooster opens its eyes and crows at you to scare you away (that would work on me).  Other legends tell of treasure being guarded by fire-breathing bulls or horses, or snakes big enough to look you in the eye.  To deal with these guardian spirits, you need bring a "spirit-controller" on your treasure hunt: someone who knows how to appease the spirits long enough to get away with the treasure.  Some of these spirits can be tamed with a Bible, while others prefer to be bribed with strong liquor.

Louisiana isn't the only place where ghostly lights are said to lead people astray in the swamps. There are stories from around the world of mysterious lights in swamps and marshes.  These lights have many names: ignis fatuus (Latin for "foolish fire"), will o' the wisp, hinkypunks, foxfire, and many others. In Great Britain they are sometimes known as corpse candles, because they were once thought to be omens of death.  J.R.R. Tolkien adopted this legend in The Two Towers.  When Gollum leads Frodo and Samwise through the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor, the hobbits start to see ghostly flames hovering over the marsh.  They realize with horror that in the water below each candle, there is a dead face staring blindly back at them.  Gollum tells them to be careful, "or hobbits go down to join the Dead Ones and light little candles."

Irish Jack O' Lantern, carved from a turnip
While most people today think of carved pumpkins when they hear the term "jack o' lantern", this was originally one of the names for swamp lights.  In Ireland and Scotland, there is an old tradition of carving turnips and potatoes into small lanterns (when people from these areas came to North America, they discovered that pumpkins are easier to carve). In an old Irish legend, there was a man named Stingy Jack--a mean-spirited character who drank too much.  Jack was fiendishly clever; clever enough to trick the devil into buying him drinks, and then into agreeing not to take his soul.  But Jack was too horrid to be allowed into heaven either, so when he died, his soul was doomed to wander the earth forever, amusing itself by luring people into the marshes.  Wherever he goes, Stingy Jack carries a lantern carved from a turnip, lit by an eternally-glowing ember the devil gave him.  Over the centuries, Stingy Jack came to be known as Jack o' the Lantern, or Jack o' Lantern.

Glowing Mushrooms
Whether you call them jack o' lanterns, will o' the wisps, or fifollets, the fact that swamp lights appear in legends all over the world suggests there's something to the legend.  People really do seem to see mysterious lights in swamps and marshes.  Some scientists have proposed that these lights could be caused by swamp gases such as methane or phosphine, which can spontaneously glow or ignite, causing ephemeral flames.  Swamp gas is the most common explanation for the lights, but another is that the ghostly glow could come from...mushrooms.  Strangely enough, some mushrooms really are bio-luminescent--they glow, as the long-exposure image to the right demonstrates.  

But neither of these ideas explains why the lights seem to recede if you approach them.  And if the swamp gas theory is true, you would think someone would have captured glowing swamp gases on video.  In fact, it's hard to find hard evidence of swamp lights. I've looked online, and I haven't been able to find any convincing photographs or videos of them.  Maybe the lights are tricks our minds play on us, when we stare into the dark and let our imagination fill the void.  That would explain why there are no photographs of swamp lights.  But then, why do people mostly seem to see them in swamps? If the lights were just in our minds, people would see them in other places, too (they do, but not nearly as often).  Whatever swamp lights really are, it seems that the explanations for them are like the legendary lights themselves: the closer you look at them, the more they retreat into the shadows.


Library Books for Further Reading

The encyclopedia of ghosts and spirits / Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Gumbo ya-ya : a collection of Louisiana folk tales / compiled by Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, Robert Tallant

The haunting of Louisiana / Barbara Sillery ; photographs by Oak Lea and Danielle Genter

Swapping stories : folktales from Louisiana / Carl Lindahl, Maida Owens, and C. Renée Harvison, editors.

Jean Lafitte.  American national biography / general editors, John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes.


History of the Jack O' Lantern

Luigi Garlaschelli & Paolo Boschetti. On the track of the will-o'-the-wisp

* Similar tactics are said to work against the rougarou.  If you leave a colander hanging on your door, the rougarou will try to count the holes, and never come through the door.  This also works on the cauchemar, an extra-creepy witch spirit, which jumps on your chest and holds you down, so you wake up paralyzed and unable to breath.  A worse fate awaits those who sleep on their stomachs: the cauchemar may jump on them, grab their wrists like a pair of reins, and ride them around the room.  Maybe a colander is a pretty good investment...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Get Ready to Vote with GeauxVote.com

The 2012 election is coming up soon, and the deadline to register to vote is October 9.  If you’re trying to find out where to vote, what’s on the ballot, or whether you are registered to vote, the state of Louisiana has a website designed to help called geauxvote.com.  

To find your voting information on geauxvote.com, click the “Are You a Voter” link in the middle of the home page.   

This will bring you to a page offering several links with useful election information.  To find personal or local voting information, click “Am I a Voter?”  

Click “By Voter” from the choices on the right, and then enter your first name, last name and either your birth month plus year or your zip code.   

You should now see a page that displays your name, political party, voting parish, ward, precinct and voting status.

To view a sample election ballot, click the Ballot Information tab located on the same page just above your voter information.  Click “What’s on My Ballot” on the next page, and a sample ballot should soon load. 

Geaux Vote is also offered as a mobile application for both Apple and Android smart phones.

Additionally, a guide to the proposed state constitutional amendments on this year’s ballot can be found here, courtesy of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

Remember, you must be registered by October 9 in order to vote in this year’s election. 

If you need additional help finding your voter information, stop by the Main Library across from the Civic Center or call the Reference Department at 876-5861, option 2.

Robert Jenkins
Reference Associate

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cool Science Websites

You often hear that we're living in a golden age of scientific discovery.  That's true, but  it's also true that we're living in a golden age of science communication and education.  These days, innovative websites and visualization techniques have made it easier than ever to understand the basics of science.  The web is loaded with great free sites for learning about science and nature.

If you're interested in science in general, or in keeping track of the latest discoveries, the online versions of magazines are a great place to look. Discover Magazine has excellent articles written for laypeople, while Scientific American gets a little more into the technical details.  Science Daily is a great place to catch up on breaking news in science.  National Geographic covers more than just science, but its website has an excellent section devoted to science and nature. Public television networks are also great for science information.  PBS has a science and nature section of their website, while the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has separate sections for science and nature.

Science and natural history museums also have some great websites.  Some of the best are the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, home of the famous Hayden Planetarium.  If you're especially interested in fossils, dinosaurs, and such, the University of California Museum of Paleontology has great online exhibits about the history of life on earth.  The museum with the best online exhibits may be the Exploratorium in San Francisco, "The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception". 

If you like watching videos about science and nature, the first place we recommend is one of the library's databases:  Access Video on Demand, or AVOD.  AVOD has thousands of streaming videos about all kinds of topics, including hundreds about science and nature.  There are videos from BBC, PBS, Nova, National Geographic, Scientific American Frontiers, and more.  If you like to hear great thinkers and scientists talk about their discoveries, TED offers hundreds of fascinating 20 minute lectures by some of the world's great minds, available for free online (and on AVOD).  The people at TED have also launched a site for young people, called TED-Ed.  TED-Ed's video are shorter than TED videos, and many of are beautifully animated.  Here's one that explains just how small atoms are (they're really, really, really small).

The Open Culture website has links to all sorts of free educational material online.  Their webpage on great science videos has enough links to free videos to keep a science buff entertained for weeks.  Another great way to find science videos is to look at science channels on YouTube. National Geographic, Scientific American, and NASA all have channels with fascinating videos.  If you or your kids like science experiments, Sick Science is a great channel to check out.  Finally, Hulu has a page devoted to shows about science and technology.  You may also be interested in their documentaries page.

Now let's look at a few of the best websites that focus on the different branches of science:

Astronomy and Cosmology
An Atlas of the Universe: This amazing site lets you see where the Earth fits into the universe; allowing you to jump to larger and larger views:  from nearby stars, to galaxies, to the entire visible universe.
Eyes on the Solar System: This interactive website lets watch a "you are there" simulation of the Mars Curiosity landing, and virtually fly around all the planets in the solar system!
HubbleSite - Picture Album: Another stunning website, which lets you look through all the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. 
The Scale of the Universe 2:  This interactive animation lets you zoom inward and outward to visualize just how small atoms are, and just how stupendously gigantic the universe is. 
The Particle Adventure: A nice overview of particle physics from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Physics.org: A great website about general physics topics, with links to a wide range of other good sites.
Web Elements: An online guide to all the elements in the periodic table.
What's That Stuff?  If you've ever wondered what's in wasabi that makes it so hot, or what Silly String is made of, here's the place to find out.
Earth Sciences
Geology.com: "News and information about geology"
Global Climate Change: A good website on the topic from NASA
Encyclopedia of Earth: An online encyclopedia covering all the earth sciences.
Encyclopedia of Life: "Global Access to Knowledge About Life on Earth"
Learn.Genetics:  An informative website about one of the fastest-changing areas of biology.  From the University of Utah.
MolecularMovies.com:  A little more technical, but this site features amazing animations of the the molecular machinery inside of us all.
Brain and Behavior
The Secret Life of the Brain:  A great site from PBS, with an interactive 3-D model of the brain, and amazing optical illusions.
 Exploratorium: Mind:  A wonderful resource for exploring the mind and its quirks.
We'll cover technology websites in depth in a future blog post, but here are a couple of interesting ones.
 How Products Are Made: An online encyclopedia with hundreds of articles about how everyday products are manufactured.
 How Stuff Works:  A good website explaining how all kinds of things work.  There are a lot of ads, but many of the articles and videos are worth wading through them.
This is just a small sampling of the amazing variety of science websites out there.  If you look around and find some other great ones, tell us about them in the comments!  Have fun exploring!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Looking Beyond the Rhetoric: Finding Non-Partisan Political Information

 “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” - Mark Twain

Actually, that's a lie itself:  Mark Twain didn't really say it.  Most people who have heard the quotation think he did, but it really comes from a British Minister named C.H. Spurgeon.  The fact that it is so commonly attributed to the wrong person just shows how true the quotation really is.  It's a lot easier to spread a lie than it is to figure out what's really true.

As a librarian, I know this all too well.  One of the most important parts of my job is helping people find accurate, unbiased information. Needless to say, this is a real challenge when it comes to politics. Any time an issue is politically-charged, people start trying their best to convince everyone their stance is the right one. The more opposing interests there are, the more spin there will be, which makes it harder and harder to get a clear view of the real facts and issues.

In a situation like this, it's very important to find information sources that strive to be nonpartisan and fact-based. It's doubtful that any observer can be completely unbiased, but there are some sources that do a very good job of walking the tightrope between one side and the other. One of these is a website called FactCheck.org, which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center; a non-partisan organization dedicated to providing voters with accurate information about politics and politicians. FactCheck investigates claims by politicians on both sides of the aisles, and points it out when they have their facts wrong.

There is also a column at the Washington Post called The Fact Checker, written by Glenn Kessler. Kessler gives claims a rating of between one and four "Pinnochios", with four being awarded for the biggest whoppers.  Claims found to be completely true get a "Geppetto Checkmark."  These don't seem to be given out very often.

Another good fact-checking site is PolitiFact.com. Run by the St. Petersburg Times, PolitiFact.com won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its fact-checking coverage of the 2008 elections. PolitiFact rates the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of political statements by showing a reading on their "Truth-O-Meter." Statements are rated True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, and False. Statements judged outrageously false are slapped with a rating of "Pants on Fire". PolitiFact.com also gives the sources used in researching claims, and explains their rationale for the rating given.

If you're an iPhone user, you may want to check out the SuperPAC app, which can identify political ads on TV by sound, and then direct you to sites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com.

Finally, Snopes.com is a slightly different kind of fact-checking site.  This site started out investigating the origins and truth of urban legends.  However, as more and more people got on the internet, false rumors about political figures came to be circulated widely through email.  The stories would change and grow over time, much like urban legends.  So, Snopes.com became a fact checking site for political rumors.  It's gotten so well known that some of these email rumors, even though they're false, will claim in the email that they have been found true by Snopes.com.  Apparently, this keeps people from actually checking Snopes.com, and that helps keep the rumor going.  So it's probably a good idea to check Snopes, especially if the email suggests that you don't need to.

Of course, when you are talking about fact checking, the question that eventually comes up is:  who will fact check the fact checkers?  In other words, how do we know the fact checking sites aren't biased?  That's tough, and all of the sites listed above have been accused of bias, often by both sides of the political spectrum (which suggests they can't be that biased).  Perhaps the safest bet, if you really want to evaluate a claim or rumor, is to try to check it on multiple sites.  Another strategy is to look at the links and sources the fact checkers cite, and check them out yourself.  Figuring out the truth can be a challenge, especially when it comes to complex political issues where different people want you to think different things. 

All the websites above are very good for up-to-the-minute coverage of issues in the news. For more in-depth coverage of controversial issues, Terrebonne Parish Library has two very good resources. One is a database called Issues & Controversies. This database, which can be found under the Social Sciences heading on our database page, has a wide range of articles giving a balanced overview of controversial issues. Most articles start with a short summary of the arguments on each side, and then go into a more detailed explanation of the history of the controversy, and the points of view of the opposing sides. This database is excellent for high school and college students studying politics or debate, but it is also a good way for adults to get some balanced background on today's overheated quarrels. Access Issues & Controversies directly from within the library, or call the reference desk (985.876.5861, option 2) for the username and password to use it from home or work.

Another excellent source for understanding both sides of various issues is a series of books called Opposing Viewpoints, published by Greenhaven Press. These books have the following motto: "Those who do not know their opponent's arguments do not completely understand their own". Each book includes several essays, both historical and current, arguing on either side of the debate. They also provide lists of articles, books, and even organizations that address the issue. Terrebonne Parish Library has a wide range of Opposing Viewpoints titles. If you want to try to understand the arguments on all sides of today's big controversies, this series is a great place to start.

- Ross Mays, Reference Librarian

Monday, August 27, 2012

Keeping an Eye on Isaac

As Isaac makes its way across the Gulf, Louisiana prepares for possible landfall.  Below are links to help you keep an eye on the weather and stay safe should the storm head our way.

Weather Monitoring

The National Weather Service's Hurricane Center

Wunderground Tropical Weather and Hurricanes

Preparedness Links

Terrebonne Parish Emergency Info (TPCG)
Latest news on school closures, sandbags, shelters, and other important Parish emergency announcements.  At the time of this post, schools for Terrebonne Parish will be closed on Monday, August 27, 2012.  Click here for the latest updates.

Southeast Louisiana Evacuation Guide

Louisiana Governor's Office: Get a Game Plan

Louisiana Department of Transportation Interactive Contraflow Map

National Hurricane Center's "Be Prepared" Website

Hurricane Supply Checklist

The Red Cross Hurricane Prep Resources - includes link to a Hurricane App for iPhone or Android to help you and your family prepare, find shelter, and stay in touch should a storm strike

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mars Rover Landing @ 12:31AM!

The Mars rover Curiosity is set to begin its landing at 12:31am CDT on Monday, August 6th -- less than 7 hours at the time of this post.

The countdown clock is ticking, but there is still time to learn about Curiosity's mission and how you can follow this historic event at home. Check the NASA Mars Science Laboratory web site for pictures, news, links to the different ways to follow the landing, and a variety of interactive games and lessons for all ages.

NASA's Mars home page is a good quick stop for a look at the countdown clock and links to Curiosity mission images.  You can also follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter.

NASA TV will be streaming the event live via cable and online.  A continuous UStream broadcast leading up to the landing has already started and will continue through the landing.

Free live streaming by Ustream

Universe Today and the SETI Institute will be hosting a pre-landing Google+ Hangout this evening from 10pm - 2am CDT.  This Google+ live feed and interactive web page will feature an all star lineup of scientists, available to answer questions and provide a variety of perspectives on the Curiosity mission and search for evidence of life on Mars.

According to Gaming Age magazine, you will even be able to watch the landing via Xbox 360!

The first photos from the surface aren't expected until 2 hours after landing, but if the landing is successful, we will be treated all week to a stream of new images as the mission progresses.  If you missed the video NASA produced to explain the perils of the rover landing, see the 7 Minutes of Terror video below.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

The EBSCOhost Mobile App: Databases on the Go!

Some of the databases we use most often at the library are part of EBSCOhost.  EBSCOhost is a service that allows you to see and search many different databases, including MasterFile Premier, Academic Search Complete, and many more.  Now, courtesy of Terrebonne Parish Library, anyone can access EBSCOhosts’s databases on the go on their mobile phones and devices.  Below is a quick set of instructions on how to download and set up the EBSCOhost mobile app.

On your computer, type "mytpl.org" into your web browser’s address bar.

On the home page, move your mouse cursor over "research” on the top menu bar.

When the drop-down menu that appears, click “Databases by Name.”

On the next page, click the “M,” and then click “MasterFile Premier” from the drop down menu that will appear.

A new window or tab will open.  Click on the link at the bottom of the page that reads: “New: EBSCOhost iPhone and Android Applications.”

A pop up window like the one below will appear on the page.  Enter an email address you can easily access on your mobile phone or device.  Then click send.

 At this point, you should open your e-mail on your mobile phone or device.  You should have an email from “ephost” that looks like this: 

Follow the instructions in the email (which exactly match the example above).  The quickest way to find and download the app in the iTunes App Store or Google Play is to search for “ebscohost.”  Once you tap “authentication key,” the app will open up ready to use for a 9 month period.  After the period ends, you simply have to re-authorize. 

If you need any help, please call the Main Library at (985) 876-5861 and select option 2 to reach the Reference Department.  Or, you can stop by and see us on the second floor at 151 Library Drive behind the Houma Civic Center.