Mapping cemeteries

Several of our Youth Community Informatics sites are mapping cemeteries. What sounds like small project, or even a gloomy one, soon opens up into far-reaching explorations of history, geography, health, families, technology, mathematics, literacy, and more.

At Iroquois West Middle School, youth started with a story about a primary school’s project to study cemeteries: Learning from graveyards. The “Map Masters” soon expanded this by incorporating technologies of GPS and GIS into their mapping project of the Onarga Cemetery. They have already made many discoveries and are continuing to do more. They’ll also connect with cemetery mapping projects in Cass County and East St. Louis.

One interesting tombstone that we found at the Onarga Cemetery was in the shape of a tree trunk. The name of the person buried there was Emory Gish. According to our reseach on symbolism the tree trunk showed a life cut short. The number of broken branches might symbolize the number of deceased family members buried nearby.

The Women Who Went West

Under the leadership of its first Dean, Katharine Sharp, Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science sent the first librarians west.

As pioneers immigrated to the western towns of Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon, graduates of Illinois set up libraries to educate the growing population. Often the only women for miles, these librarians created literacy programs with very little resources. –Here & Now: Videos

The video, The Women Who Went West, features Betsy Hearne, re-telling some of the stories of these early librarians. These early librarians showed courage and resourcefulness in spreading books and literacy. As Betsy says, “democracy depends on an informed population,” and they clearly did more than most to make that happen.


Des Garennes, Christine (2008, November 23). Video shows UI librarians’ quest to settle the West in 1908. The News-Gazette.

Bill Ayers interview

Bill Ayers gave his first interview after the election on NPR’s Fresh Air on Tuesday. It’s very interesting,  providing some context on a bizarre aspect of the Presidential race this year. Terry Gross gets him to speak freely and also asks probing questions about the war in Vietnam, the 60’s, terrorism, means v. ends, politics, imperialism, and the personal impact.

Fresh Air from WHYY, November 18, 2008 · The name of former anti-war activist William Ayers was brought up twice in an attempt to discredit Barack Obama during the recent presidential campaign — first by Hillary Clinton, and then by the McCain campaign. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Obama — who served on two nonprofit boards with Ayers — of “palling around with terrorists.”

The accusations stemmed from Ayers’ involvement with the Weather Underground, a radical group responsible for bombings on the New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the U.S. Capitol building in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972. The federal case against Ayers was dismissed in the early 1970s.

Ayers is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of ‘Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist.’

Ayers will be a guest-in-residence on the Urbana-Champaign campus this coming March 8-12.

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

Loper's restaurantToday marks the 100th anniversary of the Springfield race riot. The riot was a shameful episode in America’s history. It occurred in the Illinois State capital and the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Anti-black riots followed in East St. Louis and Chicago. There was one positive outcome: In 1909, reformers called a small meeting to address the violence and racism, out of which grew the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

The riot, and the subsequent rationalizations, is an event that I’ve found especially disturbing. It’s a frightening reminder of the consequences of racism and mob violence. It may touch me more not only because I live nearby, but also because my father’s family was from Springfield. Although the events happened long ago, they remind us to look closely at our contemporary beliefs, attitudes, and values about race, immigration, and people we see as “other.”

Roberta Senechal writes (Illinois History Teacher, 3(2), 1996):

On the evening of August 14, 1908, a race war broke out in the Illinois capital of Springfield. Angry over reports [later revealed as a concocted allegation] that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman , a white mob wanted to take a recently arrested suspect from the city jail and kill him. They also wanted Joe James, an out-of-town black who was accused of killing a white railroad engineer, Clergy Ballard, a month earlier.

Tree where man was hangedLate that afternoon, a crowd gathered in front of the jail in the city’s downtown and demanded that the police hand over the two men to them. But the police had secretly taken the prisoners out the back door into a waiting automobile and out of town to safety. When the crowd discovered that the prisoners were gone, they rioted. First they attacked and destroyed a restaurant [top left] owned by a wealthy white citizen, Harry Loper, who had provided the automobile that the sheriff used to get the two men out of harm’s way. The crowd completed its work by setting fire to the automobile, which was parked in front of the restaurant.

barber shopIn the early hours of the violence, as many as five thousand white Springfield residents were present, mostly as spectators. Still angry, the rioters, minus most of the spectators, next methodically destroyed a small black business district downtown, breaking windows and doors, stealing or destroying merchandise, and wrecking furniture and equipment. The mob’s third and last effort that night was to destroy a nearby poor black neighborhood called the Badlands. Most blacks had fled the city, but as the mob swept through the area, they captured and lynched a black barber, Scott Burton, who had stayed behind to protect his home [hanging tree, above right; barber shop, left].


The pattern of attacks supports [one black resident’s] opinion that black success brought danger. The first area targeted was the black business district. The two blacks killed were well-off, successful businessmen who owned their own homes. All of those targeted for hit-and-run attacks were also well-off. Although what triggered the riot may have been anger over black crime, very clearly whites were expressing resentment over any black presence in the city at all. They also clearly resented the small number of successful blacks in their midst.

See more at The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 and A Minute With Clarence Lang.

“I Came a Stranger” by Hilda Polacheck

I Came A StrangerI just finished reading I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl, by Hilda Satt Polacheck, and edited by her daughter, Dena J. Polacheck Epstein (University of Illinois Press, 1991). It’s a fascinating account of Polacheck’s journey from Wloclawek, Poland to Chicago, and the role that Jane Addams of Hull House played in her life.

The book is interesting on many levels: Hilda’s life is filled with many compelling, poignant, and humorous stories; she makes the immigrant experience in late-19th, early 20th century Chicago come alive; and she shows what Hull House meant to a girl like her, who “came a stranger” to Chicago, knowing no English and learning to survive by doing. The labor and feminist politics of the era have immediate meaning for her, and she recounts stories about Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Alice Hamilton, and other great figures of that time. She describes her struggles, romance, triumphs, and tragedies.

It’s a pity then, that the book wasn’t published in her lifetime, as there was no interest in the life of an “obscure woman.” But I was drawn in by her honesty and commitment to the ideals she saw in Jane Addams. I also gained a deeper understanding of the remarkable role that Hull House played in the effort to, as Addams says, “make the entire social organism democratic.”

GSLIS canoe trip

Photos from a GSLIS canoe trip on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River (Wabash River tributary). There was another GSLIS trip on the same river the previous June.

The Middle Fork is the only river in Illinois designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by US National Park Service. It flows through Kickapoo State Park near Danville.

Professor, GSLIS


Still at the University of Illinois, I became a Professor in what was known then as the Graduate School of Library & Information Science (GSLIS) in the Spring semester of 2000. You can see what attracted me to LIS here. The School is now known as the School of Information Sciences, or simply the iSchool.

In 2004-05, I had a sabbatical in Europe, mostly around Paris, in Germany through a joint NSF/DFG project, and through Fulbright Specialist grants in Finland and Sweden.

In 2007-08 I held a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the National College of Ireland in Dublin. At other times, I’ve had extended projects in Turkey, China, Romania, Nepal, and other places.