Bite of a Gadfly 

Public Library's New Calendar Draws Fire

It was with expectations of adulation that the Chicago Public Library recently released its 1996 engagement calendar. It featured pictures of memorabilia from the library's special collections and a day-by-day recital of significant events from the city's past.

Well, the first serious appraisal's in, and it's not what library chieftains expected: the calendar's a poorly written collection of irrelevant information, marred by spelling, factual, and grammatical errors. So goes the assessment of Richard Bjorklund, a northwest-side community activist who took the time and trouble to carefully read the calendar's 100 or so pages.

"They misspelled Michael Jordan," says Bjorklund. "It's true. In their entry for March 19 they spell Jordan as J-o-r-d-o-n. Now, please, in this day and in this city, how can you misspell Michael Jordan? That's just the least of their mistakes."

Indeed, Bjorklund seems to discover new mistakes every day (the most recent count's at 30). The calendar, for instance, spells Allan Pinkerton as Alan, Don McNeill as McNeil, Florenz Ziegfeld as Ziegfield, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson as Tenneyson. It says the White Sox lost their opener in the new Comiskey Park 16-1 (the real score was 16-0); that Eddie Collins swiped six bases in one game in 1912 as a member of the White Sox (he played for Philadelphia at the time); and that on August 16, 1913, "40,000 people came to Grant Park to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry's victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in the Revolutionary War."

For their part, library officials brush off such mistakes as trivialities and dismiss Bjorklund's criticisms as meaningless bleatings from an incorrigible sourpuss with too much time on his hands. "I guess Mr. Bjorklund has nothing better to do," says library commissioner Mary Dempsey. "These are typographical errors that were missed. It's the spirit of the calendar that's most important. I won't criticize or chastise the reference librarians for coming up with a wonderful idea."

That explanation astounds Bjorklund as much as the calendar's mistakes. "Mistaking the War of 1812 for the Revolutionary War is a typo?" he exclaims. "They should share my outrage; don't they take their work seriously? The tragedy for the taxpayer is that they have people in the system who could have protected them from these mistakes."

The calendar, on sale at libraries and bookstores for $12.95, "represents several years of planning, checking sources and locating appropriate illustrations," according to the introduction written by Emelie Jensen Shroder, assistant commissioner for the central library. "All facts in the calendar have been verified in at least two sources and if these disagreed, a third source."

That claim set up a challenge to Bjorklund, who is among other things a former newspaper editor, an avid reader, an amateur historian, and an ace speller and grammarian. He's also a prickly critic of library finances who attends virtually every board meeting, frequently taking the floor to demand more money for books and branches and less for central office salaries. It was, in fact, at a library board meeting that he learned of the calendar. "I was there when Dempsey said we should all buy it," he says. "So of course I went out and bought it. I support the libraries. It's certainly a handsome calendar. The illustrations are marvelous."

The errors, however, hit him almost from the start. "In Shroder's introduction they misspell Tennyson--any schoolkid knows how to spell that name," he says. "For July 10 they write: '1982: Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was appointed Archbishop of Chicago.' In fact, he was a bishop when he came here; he was elevated to the College of Cardinals after his appointment. For August 28 they write: '1818: Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (1745-1818) was born.' Well, which one is it? Did he die or was he born in 1818? "For September 26 they write: '1833: 76 Indian Chiefs from the Nations of Potawatomie, Ottawa and Chippewa Indians signed the Treaty of Chicago, which was the final selling of native lands in what is now Chicago." I count three errors in that one sentence alone. They misspell Potawatomi, and they're tribes, not nations, who probably belong to the Algonquin nation, although I'm not sure about that. And they didn't sell their land, they ceded it, probably by force. Oh, and by the way, it's also an atrociously written sentence."

Many of Bjorklund's complaints have to do with style as much as substance. "They're inconsistent in style, and as an old copy editor that bothers me," he says. "Sometimes they capitalize City Hall, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they use a hyphen between parts of a modifying phrase, such as 'African-American publisher'; other times they don't. Commas are sprinkled about as if from a saltshaker, without any rhyme or reason. They use the wrong words so many times. For May 30 they write that the opening of the Shedd Aquarium 'allowed' the aquarium to transport a million gallons of saltwater, when they mean it required them to do so. They're always writing 'first ever'--as in 'The Chicago Cubs played their first night game ever at Wrigley Field.' Well, it's unnecessary to write 'ever' once you've written 'first.'

"My personal favorite may be for April 14: 'Chicago artist Francis Davis Millet died at sea on the S.S. Titanic.' What? Did he die from dysentery? Did he have a heart attack? Don't you think it's relevant to mention that some 1,500 other people died when the Titanic hit an iceberg?"

Bjorklund also says that the calendar wastes too many dates on out-of-town events. For instance, the October 27 citation reads: "Ziggy, the often rampaging bull elephant who had been chained for 30 years until contributions built him a private enclosure, died at Brookfield Zoo."

"Why go to Brookfield Zoo? Why not go to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where we had Bushman, the most famous gorilla, or Mike the polar bear?" says Bjorklund. "I'll give you another example. For September 3 they say that Michael Witkowski won $40 million in the lottery. So what? He used the money to build a house in the suburbs. Who cares about him? For December 13 they mention that [journalist] Drew Pearson was born in Evanston. Again, that's not Chicago. And what's the big deal about Drew Pearson? John Gunther was twice the writer Pearson was, and he was born in Chicago and went to Lake View High School.

"They even screw up sports. They mention the day Jordan retired and the day he came back. Enough. Do they think that sports in Chicago began with Jordan? What about Leo Durocher taking off from the Cubs to vacation at Camp Ojibwa in the middle of the pennant race? That's a great moment in Cubs history. He left his club high and dry. It's probably why they blew the pennant. It's funny, it's important, it sums up the futility of the Cubs."

Most embarrassing, Bjorklund says, is the calendar's "reverence" for Mayor Daley. "They mention his 1991 election on April 2, and his 1989 election on April 4," says Bjorklund. "They were so elated about the [1989] victory that they mention it again for April 30, as if the same thing happened on different dates. I could argue that nothing this mayor's done merits special attention--he's only one of 40-something mayors--but at least don't mention the same thing twice."

The printer, Dempsey explains, was responsible for repeating Daley's election victory. As for the spelling errors, please, no one's perfect, she says, digging deep into memory to recall a 1994 Reader headline that ended Bulls star Toni Kukoc's first name with a "y." (For the sake of full disclosure, I must confess: when it comes to spelling, Reader editors and proofreaders save my butt all the time.)

"The purpose of this calendar is to remind people of beautiful treasures in our special collections," Dempsey says. "There were seven different eyes that looked at this. They missed a few things on spelling, which is not uncommon. It happens."

And what about Bjorklund's complaint that many important moments were missing? "Of course, there were important dates missed. But there will be other calendars. You can't put all the great events in one calendar."

And the factual mistakes?

"Different sources say different things. It's a question of which source you believe. One has to look at the magnitude of what goes on paper. Will any little children die because there's a typographical error on this calendar? I think not."

Dempsey, Bjorklund contends, misses the point. "Of course this is not the same as a child being killed. But if you have that attitude then why make an attempt to get the calendar right in the first place?

"I think it's a moral outrage that they put this out. An error recorded in an authoritative source never really goes away. It keeps getting repeated. Oh, and by the way, I'd like to know which source they've got that says the Revolutionary War was fought in 1813?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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