Write me a letter, send it by mail, send it in care of the Birmingham jail

The Birmingham Public Library archives house a wealth of treasures. That isn’t a secret; I first realized that as home-owning friends turned to the archives for historic photos of their homes. For years, the archives’ Jim Baggett and Kelsey Scouten Bates wrote a column for Birmingham magazine–a column that I enjoyed more for its historic value than for the simple fact that I’m employed by the magazine. I love learning about Birmingham’s history, but I’ve always been a bit intimidated to go down to the archives myself.

Until now. I recently became part of the BPL’s young professional board, and our first meeting included a short glimpse of rare books and a presentation from the archives. The library is 126 years old–only 15 years younger than Birmingham itself–and the books, documents and photographs it’s amassed in that time are impressive. The YP members got a glimpse of high school yearbooks from decades ago (I need to go back and see if they’ve got my parents’ yearbooks), and my friend Javacia and I stepped up close and leaned in when viewing an autographed copy of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Then we moved on to Baggett, who brought out a collection of scrapbooks of former residents. I think we were all enthralled by the stories of Edith Ward, a Birmingham teen who found freedom through her bicycle. She rode her “wheel” all over the city, a controversial act at the time. Preachers would argue that bikes were destroying young women’s morality because the freedom offered meant the women couldn’t be accounted for.

Baggett also showed us a warden’s docket from when Martin Luther King Jr. was booked in the Birmingham jail. Back to back, we got a glimpse of the ways individuals sought freedom–totally different stories, totally different means, totally different types of freedom. But both are part of our city’s history.

The archives contain an estimated 30 million documents and half-a-million photos. Researchers from 35 to 40 states a year turn to the Birmingham collection for research, some of which has shown up in Pulitzer-prize winning books and award-winning films.

My purposes probably won’t result in such grand acclaim, but I’ve got to return to the archives. My family has been in the Birmingham area for generations. There’s so much to learn about our history, both the city’s and my family’s. Part of the library’s role is to “extend the reach of news and information,” as we were told during this meeting. I’m grateful for every visit, which extend the reach of my own.

Today’s subject line is from “Birmingham Jail” by Darby and Talton. Read more about this and other Birmingham songs in Burgin Mathews’ “Thirty Birmingham Songs.” The fifth #bloglikecrazy topic was to write something from notes I’ve taken at an event. I jotted down these notes with the intention of writing this entry, which probably wouldn’t have actually happened without this challenge. I’ve already carried that scrap of paper around for weeks!

1 Comment

Filed under #bloglikecrazy, Autobiography, Hittin' the books

One Response to Write me a letter, send it by mail, send it in care of the Birmingham jail

  1. They have some really cool pieces in the rare book room. I wish we could take photos! Bookplates were insanely cool way-back-when. Glad to see this blog is getting your attention again!

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