Eliza Scidmore has made her debut on LibriVox, the free online service of audio books in the public domain. LibriVox has started adding back volumes of National Geographic, some containing articles by Scidmore.

LibriVox NatGeoMag Vol. 5I discovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. The selections consist of only older works — but so many! A lot of them are works I knew about and am happy to read for the first time, with access is so easy, and free. Some books by John Muir, for example, and by the British traveler Isabella Bird (a contemporary of Eliza Scidmore).

The concept of LibriVox warms my heart because volunteers from around the world record all the works. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.

As a lover of print books, I’ve never wanted a Kindle. I love the very feel of physical books — the paper stock, typography, cover, and overall design. I started my editorial career working for the art director of National Geographic (the late, brilliant self-taught designer Howard Paine), and it gave me a real appreciation for the whole book-production process.

Classics Redux

I’m sure I’ll subscribe in time to a service like Audible for access to newer works. But for now, I find LibriVox a great resource to ease my resistance to gym workouts on the bicycle or treadmill. It also offers a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.

LibriVox struck me as a perfect way to catch up on some of the classics I missed (like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in a brilliant reading). Or to revisit some old favorites (see: Willa Cather’s My Antonia). Elizabeth Klett, one of Librivox’s most popular readers, has recorded a series of Edith Wharton novels I enjoyed for the first time (including the memorable The Custom of the Country.)

Middlemarch was a tough slog. It’s not an easy book to grasp under the best circumstances because of the complex language, huge cast of characters, intertwining plots, and considerable length. The LibriVox readers changed every few chapters. Some had heavy accents that made it hard at times to figure out certain words. I found the perfect solution was to follow along in a paperback. The combination of listening and reading made me stick with it.

Scidmore in Chicago

Seeing Scidmore’s work pop up on LibriVox came as a surprise because I’d previously found none of her books available. I’d love to narrate a couple of her books myself. My favorite: her first book on Alaska.

The selection on LibriVox seemed odd: a speech Scidmore gave in July 1893 at the International Geographic Conference in Chicago. She spoke on Alaska, and the address was printed in National Geographic. Apparently LibiVox has started adding early volumes of the magazine to its selections.

The geographers, like many other professional groups, held their conference that year to coincide with the Columbian Exposition — better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Eliza attended the fair, reporting for Harper’s Bazaar on Japan’s exhibits.

Women's Building at 1893 Columbian Exposition

Women’s Building at Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago (Source: Radford University website)

At the same time, Scidmore had books on display in the Women’s Building. The pavilion included a library of 8,000 books by women. Three of Scidmore’s titles were included. Her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan, now a classic of travel literature, had been published two years earlier. Also on display was her first book, Alaska: Its Southeastern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago.

That first Alaska book, published in 1885, launched Scidmore on the path as a globetrotting author of travel books.

Check out my video on Scidmore’s inaugural trip to Alaska in 1883, a voyage that made history when she and her fellow passengers became the first tourists ever to visit Glacier Bay.

I also have a photo gallery on this site that shows briefly the birth of Alaska tourism in Eliza Scidmore’s day.

Alaska Expert

Appletons Alaska 1893Scidmore’s new book on Alaska hit bookstores in 1893 when she was en route to Chicago. Published by Appleton’s, it remained a popular guidebook to Alaska well into the 20th century.

By the 1890s, Scidmore’s reporting in Alaska had gained her wide recognition as an expert on the region. Leading scientists in Washington took note of her work. After she joined the newly established National Geographic Society its leaders elected her corresponding secretary in 1892. The position made her the first women on the Society’s governing board.

Today, Scidmore’s legacy lives on in Alaska. Mount Ruhamah and Scidmore Glacier were named for her.

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