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Libraries, Cross-Cultural Research, and Coding.

The Big Trek--what might be the biggest ever tour of libraries in the Western Hemisphere--begins Wednesday, May 16, 2018. For the historically minded, May 16 has some gravitas. My dad was in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command during WWII, and Paul Brickhill's The Dam Busters was one of the first history books I ever read as a kid--a recounting of the famous RAF raid on the Ruhr Valley dams on the night of May 16, 1943.

The feature film of the raid (which premiered on May 16) starred Michael Todd and Michael Redgrave and was a global hit in 1955 (the year I was born). Peter (The Lord of the Rings) Jackson, a vintage aircraft collector and restorer, is producing a remake of the movie. Jackson has said that the film's groundbreaking special effects (for 1955) in showing the attacks on the massive dams were an inspiration for him.

May 16 is also St. Brendan's Day. As a seriously lapsed Catholic-turned-Buddhist, this day is important in my tiny part of the universe because the Irish monk may well have established the passage west to Greenland and Newfoundland 800 years before Columbus. And the route St. Brendan took in those minuscule leather-clad boats of his--more nice symmetry here--was identified as the identical route taken by the aircraft ferry service (but in reverse) from Canada and the U.S. to England during the war for all those Mosquitoes and Mustangs that Jackson wants to collect today. Except St. Brendan had neither a compass nor a map that we know of.


My team--of volunteer librarians, naturally, plus a crack project manager, an expert mechanic, and my Spanish teacher--is superb. We're assembling a grant application from the Canada Council for the Arts and have started a conversation with one of the world's best digital mapping companies to help us build a data map of the journey as a toolkit for future researchers.

Small but important things are bubbling away: I'm building on my years as an investigative journalist to learn how to ask questions in culturally appropriate ways, thanks to the terrific team at Canada's McMaster Indigenous Research Institute (MIRI). I first discovered the power of asking the right questions back in 1997, when I studied how to interview torture victims via Jack Saul, then head of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. I was writing an investigative piece about the Cuban government's incarceration of dissident journalists in the "criminal pavilions"--the violent offender wards--of Havana's psychiatric hospital.

Saul emphasized that the first task, on the model of the Hippocratic oath physicians take, was to "do no harm." Many of the communities I'll be visiting may not want to share their stories--I fully expect I'll find out when I arrive that some folks won't want their lives examined by some guy from Canada with a camera. Others-this has already happened--are the polar opposite: The communities are keen for the media exposure, because they see themselves as keepers of a culture that can translate into a kind of cultural ecotourism.

The core strategy isn't to document every library/community I'm visiting to see how the poetry project (modeled on Canadian poet Wendy Morton's The Elder Project; is coming along, but rather to choose from a list of perhaps 10 communities and focus on no more than four or five for deep dives--to be part of the community on its own terms and just see what happens. (Journalism has far more in common with jazz than just about anything else.)

With that in mind, the companion project--what I can try to give back to the communities I'm visiting--is morphing. I'd originally thought to share a mathematics curriculum as I went, but the more I talked about the project (totally unscientifically) with folks familiar with the aspirations of indigenous young people, the more they were intrigued by the educational path my own adult children had taken.

Coding Curriculum and Library Connections

HackerYou is an intensive coding program in Toronto. It is an offshoot of the Ladies Learning Code project, the brainchild of a number of activist women coders. My elder daughter, now a product designer at Facebook, and my musician-composer son both attended HackerYou. At present, I'm exploring a partnership with the organization and its alumni to shape a simple browser-based curriculum for indigenous teens to use for building simple web experiences. The intention? To encourage experimentation with code, to support that experimentation, and to track the progress of the novice coders.

Through an Open Media Desk alumna (of Ojibwe descent) at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, I've been introduced to an extraordinary gentleman--one of very few indigenous adults in Ontario who was never compelled to attend the residential schools run by the Catholic Church and other entities in an attempt to forcibly assimilate indigenous youth into Canadian culture. Some researchers believe that the schools were little more than a way to deracinate indigenous youth. Whatever the inspiration for this dark chapter in Canadian history, this gentleman, as a young teenager, simply walked into the forest near the reservation community and lived--as his forebears had--off the land, for decades.

He is a living connection to unreconstructed Ojibwe life of the 1940s, which includes period dialect knowledge and life skills such as hunting, tracking, and trapping. His lived experience is what social scientists call a fugitive story--one untold because no one knows it exists or how to share it.

Another great story tip I'm grateful for has identified a Micmac elder in Digby, Nova Scotia, whose storytelling gifts are legendary in that neck of the woods. I've heard only one story from him so far, but it's a work of art. I can't wait to learn from him and his life. It's quite a privilege.

Brendan Howley is a veteran Canadian Broadcasting Corp.-trained investigative data journalist with roots in media design, content strategy, and digital technologies. He has created successful, award-winning multiplatform storytelling offerings for clients from Fortune 100 giants to tiny culinary microproducers. He has been involved in data-driven digital media collaborations with public and university library networks in Canada and the U.S. and with Kew Gardens in the U.K. He's at present creating Open Media Desk, a data-driven province-wide library digital newsroom network for the Federation of Public Libraries of Ontario. For more, contact Send your comments about this column to

Caption: Digby, Nova Scotia
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Title Annotation:THE RAZOR'S EDGE
Author:Howley, Brendan
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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