Breathing Life into a Bewildering Decade: The ‘60s Come Alive at the Library

America recently went on “a Woodstock binge” due to the 50th anniversary of the fabled pop festival. Once again, the library enabled patrons to satisfy their curiosity about something in the news: we have plenty of photo-laden books and video content celebrating the event. However, this blog is not about just that: it’s about, “How can the library reveal what it was like ‘back in the day?’” Woodstock was a blip: people carried on before and after that phenomenon as the 1960s drew to a close. How can someone born long afterwards discover what it was really like to live then? How can library resources make a distant decade come alive?

The Sixties are awash in history-making mystique: Vietnam, Civil Rights, space travel, Rock music, assassinations (two Kennedys and Dr. King), and so on. However, from the viewpoint of a student born post-9/11, it might as well be an ancient America twice as long ago: our 1969 nation still didn’t have a digital and online life. Missing, for example, were:

  • Cell phones. Telephones were bulky gadgets tethered by curly plastic cords. (Weird? Kids may think so.)
  • Streaming video. Television was three channels: CBS, ABC, and NBC. (PBS came later.) Also weird.
  • Computers. For ordinary people? No way. The government, universities, and corporations had ginormous room-sized “computation machines” (soon to shrink to the size of refrigerators), but the idea that they could ever be small and everywhere was unimaginable. (No Apple or Steve Jobs yet.)

So imagine how 1969 looks to digital kids: ancient at best. It falls to great books and videos to push past the surface. What did ordinary people do, say, believe, love, and even die for? Then it takes on three dimensions.

Pick up a copy of the DVD The Sixties and—bingo!—you are there! Producer Tom Hanks really gave this subject the deluxe treatment: three discs totaling 8.5 hours. Isn’t it nice to be able to access such great content for free, even if you don’t subscribe to a streaming service?

Even the most jaded student is likely to sit up straight at the sight of President Kennedy being felled in Dallas, Civil Rights marches, helicopters flying over Vietnam, antiwar protesters speaking their minds, and popular music rapidly morphing into Psychedelic Rock. The kaleidoscopic effect can be overwhelming: even without today’s sleek electronic gizmos, those people lived large. A boring decade it was not.

The right book can also do the job. Countdown, the first of author Deborah Wiles’s Sixties Trilogy, packs quite a punch. There’s a growing-up-in-the-Sixties story embedded in it, yes, but its most notable assets are real-life graphics and quotes taken from posters, magazines, song lyrics, etc.

To understand what people worried about back then, look at the book’s graphics: for example, a photo of a nuclear bomb explosion and another of missiles sent to Cuba by the USSR. (It was an anxious time: having missiles so close to the US really rattled people.) The most unusual graphic may be the animated cartoon “Bert the Turtle” showing kids how to “duck and cover” if a missile were to detonate near their school. (Being a kid in an adult world was never easy – in any decade.)

Another book worth picking up is Turbulent Years: The Sixties. The triumphs and the tragedies are balanced: we went to the moon in that decade, but also lost three astronauts in a tragic NASA fire. The section “A Different Kind of War” really puts a face on the Vietnam War, while “The Look of the ‘60s” shows a much lighter side of the decade – and how wildly exuberant fashions were, from Mod velvets to gaudy Paisleys we wouldn’t dare wear today!

They say you cannot understand the present (much less the future) if you don’t understand the past. People serious about knowing how other people lived—and loved, worked, dreamed, feared, rejoiced, and soldiered on—should head to the library. The sights, sounds, and realities of the past can be found there.

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