An Early Mystery in Maine

August 12th, 2014 by Ann Morrissey

Would you like to write an historical novel, — or perhaps a mystery story based in Maine?  Well I have the basic material for you.  It is the Harriet A. McNeill collection at the MWWC here on the Portland campus.  It is a collection of seven letters from Mrs. McNeill during the years of 1852-1853, most to her niece Caroline.  Mrs. McNeill is from Alabama and is writing to Caroline in Lewiston, Maine.

For some unspecified reason, Mrs. McNeill thinks that Caroline should leave Maine as soon as possible.  She tells her niece to tell no one where she is going and to slip out of town and make her way to Alabama where she would room with her husband’s niece, and be Mrs. McNeill’s heir.  She would also have to do a little housework but nothing too onerous Mrs. McNeill assures her.

The sticking point comes with the $100 for travel money that McNeill keeps promising to send to Caroline.  It is dependent on the agent’s (Mr Libby) ability to sell Mrs McNeill’s northern property and to take $100 of the profit and send it to Caroline.  Meanwhile in the midst of McNeill’s letters that keep promising that the agent will send the money, she showers Caroline with requests for things that she should order and have sent to Alabama or things that she could carry with her.  The items include furniture, 100 yds of carpet, dinning room chairs, cruel canvases and a guitar.  But these requests (and the letters) stop when Caroline sends the banns of her marriage to Mr Libby, the agent.

Our letters pick up again in 1855 when Mrs McNeill writes to Mr Libby asking him to send her the proceeds from the sale of her northern property, and then she will send him the deed.  Apparently Mr Libby wants the deed first, and then he says that he will send the money from the sale.  And so the rangling continues.

But what a good writer could do would be to surround the basic letters with answers as to why Caroline should sneak out of Lewiston?, how Caroline ever met Mr. Libby?, and how Mr. Elliot of Lewiston suspected that her Aunt’s promise of the never arriving $100 was an “uncertain matter.?”  There is much here for a Maine mystery writer to flush out.

adventures in cataloging

July 30th, 2014 by Laura Taylor

Today is a big day for the library! We’re upgrading our library software, which means that, for the time being, I can’t actually do part (most) of my job. Thus, I’m going to tell you about it!

Do you ever wonder where we get our materials? How many we get? What happens once they get here? How they’re cataloged? No? Well, I’m going to share anyway.

You might think, as a relatively narrowly-defined special collection, that we wouldn’t acquire a large amount of materials regularly. To a degree, this is true. There are only so many Maine women writers and they only wrote (or are writing) so many things.

Right?

Well, yes. And no.

We’re always finding new materials. Always. We find them in some ways you might expect – being introduced to a new writer, buying newly published books, acquiring somebody’s personal papers – but also in some ways you might not expect. Like, “Hey, what’s that box over there in the corner that’s been sitting there for so long nobody actually notices it anymore?” Oh! It’s full of books nobody’s ever cataloged! Or perhaps we’re processing a collection and find a whole bunch of periodicals in it that need to be added to our online catalog.

(I am extremely glad these things keep popping up since it’s a very large part of my job – to catalog our holdings and add them to our online catalog. What would I do if they didn’t keep coming?)

As it happens, I’ve received an unusually large amount of materials over the last few weeks. Of course, this immediately followed a moment in time where I started to think I might actually get caught up on all my cataloging! Silly me.

I thought it might be entertaining to share where these books and other items have come from and give you a little sneak peek at a few things that aren’t even in the catalog yet.

Quite a few of them are books we received from a collector. Most of the two stacks on the left in the photo above are books with covers designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman. She was an artist and illustrator and was responsible for a large number of book covers for Houghton Mifflin in the late 19th century. She lived in South Berwick, Maine for a time and was friends with Sarah Orne Jewett. Many of Jewett’s covers were designed by Whitman, employing her typically simple yet elegant design principles. The books in this batch encompass a large number of writers already in our collection: Margaret Deland, Lucy Larcom, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Blanche Willis Howard, Annie Fields, Julia Ward Howe and a handful of others, including Jewett. Thus, these are books that we will keep not only for their authors’ sake, but also because of the cover designs.

Also in the piles are some books that we’ve had sitting around for reference purposes and are finally now getting around to adding to our catalog. This is another category of materials we have here that perhaps you’ve been unaware of: books that may not be written by or about Maine women writers but which are nonetheless relevant to our collection. For example, in this current batch we have books on women and nature, feminism, and digital preservation. The first two are relevant in that they pertain to women, Mainers or not, and the last one is relevant to the actual act of collecting and preserving information – an act that we here think about every single day!

Additionally, not pictured, there are two large boxes of periodicals sitting beside my desk – various journals that started out in our manuscript collections and were found in processing. We add journals, magazines and newspapers to our online holdings so that our patrons will know exactly which issues of which periodicals we have! Often, though not always, we are also able to tell why we have a particular issue – for example, perhaps one of our writers published a short story in a particular issue of a particular publication. We do our best to make a note of these things, since the more information we include, the easier it will be for us (and you!) to find what we’re looking for.

We also have, not yet cataloged, some delightful one-of-a-kind artists’ books by the Ant Girls. Artists’ books appear on my desk not infrequently and are one of the most interesting, yet challenging, parts of my job. Many, though certainly not all, are one-of-a-kind. Even if they aren’t, there are maybe only a handful of others out there and those may or may not have been cataloged (or even purchased!) yet by another library. Normally, with a mass-produced book, someone, somewhere, has cataloged it before I do. This means that when I catalog it, I get to piggyback off of their information, using what I want to, deleting what I don’t, and adding a few things specific to our institution. But with these, that’s not possible, so I have to start from scratch. (And that would be why they aren’t done yet…)

There you have it! A small sampling of some of the things that come across the desk of a cataloger.

 

Comparing experience: the diaries of two Maine women

July 16th, 2014 by Sophie Glidden-Lyon

Despite the fact that Portland native Mary T. Perley rarely wrote more than one or two lines in her diaries per day, which span the decades between 1860 and 1904, it is clear she led a rich life. With an appetite for learning and close with her four sisters and three brothers, Mary traveled extensively throughout her life, taught herself French, attended plays and concerts; she also attended the 1888 International Women’s Council in Washington D.C.

The contrast between her diaries and those of Lucy C. Williams is stark. Lucy was writing on Vinalhaven in the 1980′s and 90′s, and her diaries paint a much more isolated and unhappy picture than those of the well-traveled Perley. As I worked on processing Mary’s small collection of journals, I found myself wondering at the differences in their lives. Mary had seen her fair share of tragedy, having lost both her husband and young son, and she never remarried, but this did not stop her from engaging fully in the world, in a way Lucy – who also faced loss in her personal life – never seemed to manage.

Mary T. Perley

The first of Mary T. Perley's two diaries,

Age could certainly be a factor. Mary was a good deal younger than Lucy when she began traveling, but she was 54 when she went on a three month trip to Bermuda in 1885 – a time when Bermuda was not a plane ride away – and at the time of her last entry in 1904, she was 73 and still traveled up and down the eastern seaboard to visit friends. Rather, I think it was a combined barrier of class and depression that kept Lucy so isolated. She often wrote of her worries over heating bills, and relied heavily on her garden, as well as the support of her community, to keep herself afloat during long Vinalhaven winters. Mary, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Portland area judge and counted people like U.S. senator William Pitt Fessenden, who was also Secretary of Treasury under President Lincoln, amongst her traveling companions. Despite living during a time when women were not even allowed the right to vote, Mary was likely afforded a good deal more privilege and agency than Lucy.

An open page of Mary's diary
Mary’s second diary, opened to February, 1898

Comparing the two women feels a bit like apples and oranges, considering the different eras in which they lived (although Lucy was born only 8 years after Mary’s death), but as I read Mary’s sparse entries, I found myself thinking about Lucy a lot. Her diaries were often extremely personal, leaving the impression that the pages of her daily planner were the one place she felt comfortable sharing these thoughts. I doubt she talked openly of her depression to many people. Mary was the opposite. As I mentioned, her entries rarely exceed two lines and, for the most part, simply relate an event – a visit, a letter, an event. On the day of her husband’s death, she wrote only, “Alone today and forever on Earth.” Perhaps she was not a particularly emotive person, but my speculation is that whatever thoughts she had concerning the events she recorded were thoughts she shared with the many people in her life. Lucy had an extremely layered internal life, while Mary was perhaps more the extrovert, spending all her time out in the world and surrounded by people. Ultimately, both collections provide remarkable insight into the lives of two Maine women who lived generations apart and both are valuable examples of why it is so important to be saving the diaries and journals of ordinary people.

Coming to terms with digital preservation

July 11th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller


It has been nearly a month since I visited Smith College for a week-long digital preservation management workshop taught by Nancy McGovern and Kari Smith.  I’ve been meaning to sit down and sift through my reflections since then, but it’s been a busy month.

The workshop’s schedule itself was incredibly packed–we arrived on Sunday evening to a nice reception and introductions/overview of the week.  Monday morning, we wasted no time getting to the heart of the work–the 5 organizational stages of digital preservation.  I found out quite quickly that we here at MWWC are just at the beginning of a long road of planning and preparation.  Daunted, but not discouraged, I took in as much as I could, feeling optimistic about having so much information to work with to create a plan for our institution.

By Tuesday morning, I had already begun to see the enormity of the task at hand and worried that this would be like many other trainings I have attended–I would return home energized to do something and realize that I was a bit alone in my fervor for progress.  It’s not that people here don’t care about digital preservation, but there is a certain kind of paralysis that comes up with technology-based initiatives.  We don’t have the expertise, we don’t have the money, we’ll wait until other people have figured out a good solution…  these are all excuses that I hear (and sometimes find coming out of my own mouth) to put off dealing with our born-digital content.

So, instead of returning back to Maine and slipping into a state of near-paralysis, I decided to be proactive.  I’m going to give a presentation to key stakeholders in our unit and lay out the picture of where we are and where we need to be.  I am going to be honest about how much time it will take and how much it will require of us.  I’m convening working group meetings with my staff to figure out what we need to do step by step.  And even if I am the only one who cares about it, I’ll still carry on as best I can because the time is now.

I can’t sit back and wait for anyone else to figure it out.  I’m going to make myself read through the stacks of white papers and power point slides on my desk until I understand how to make this all happen with limited resources and limited staff.  It’s my digital year, and I’m going to make it count, despite our firm place at stage one (see the full article here):
Policy and planning: the preservation policy is often non-existent or may be implicit. Technological infrastructure: may be non-existent or, if it exists, is likely to be heterogeneous…and decentralized…. Content and use: the focus may be reactive to specific collections rather than encompassing the potential scope of materials that need to be preserved.”

We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I look forward to advancing us in our efforts, and to examining the ways that we can use collaboration to solve some of our problems.  Onward!

Up to the light: the photographic slides of Lael Morgan

July 3rd, 2014 by Catherine Fisher



So, I’ve just laid down my gloves. Over the last couple of weeks, the soft, white cotton gloves that we use to protect precious materials from the oils of our hands have touched nearly every one of the thousands of slides contained in the collection of author, journalist and photographer, Lael Morgan. Her papers also are rich with correspondence, clippings, manuscripts, photographs and scrapbooks, but the slide portion of this processing project is a big one.

Morgan was born in Maine (1936) but has based most of her professional life in Alaska and California. These slides, now slipped into rows and rows of little pockets on pages of archival protectors, show the places she visited, the people she met, the moments she captured on film and wrote about during the mid-1960s to the early-1990s. Her stories and images have been published in the Juneau Alaska Empire, the Fairbanks News Miner, the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Northwest Publishing, the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and National Geographic Magazine.

Now, I have to say, even with the fun of the special white gloves, tucking slide after slide into the archival sheet protectors was, at times, a tedious endeavor, and so every now and then I had to lift a sheet up to the light to catch a glimpse of the stories living in there. Just to take a peek, make a quick scan, but try not to get so drawn in that I strayed from my task. But that was a challenge. Each tiny slip of film framed in cardboard is a portal to this explorer’s wide-angle view of the world—miles of ragged snow and ice dotted with dog sled teams, icy waters rocking hand-hewn whaling boats, and wide open ocean with fish processing ships—or her artistic zoom-lens focus on the hands of a basket maker, the drying hide of a polar bear, the eyes of a child in a fur-lined hood. From the most remote of villages in the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea, Borneo, Fiji, Tonga, Italy and California—these plastic pages with bits of film connect us with the eyes, mind, heart and hands of Morgan.


Over the course of working with the slides, I was especially struck by the absence of judgment that I found in Morgan’s images. I must confess that, in a kind of morbid curiosity, some of the slides I held up to the sunny window bore labels such as “polar bear hunt” and “cock fight” and “oil rig,” and I approached them with my own trepidation and politics. No such bias of hers is present in these images, however. Her work is respectfully curious, bearing positive witness to whatever fills her lens. A good example for me.

And speaking of the labels, so many images come to us without any identifying information, but Morgan is such a pro. She not only wrote captions on most of the individual items but also organized her papers so thoroughly before passing them to us, typing out lists and pages of information to help us navigate the rich evidence of her huge life. That she lived all of this astounds me. A woman who sailed halfway around the world with her husband on a 36-foot schooner, authored countless articles as well as 10 books (whose subjects range from Alaskan Native Peoples to Alaskan gold rush prostitutes to the art of tatting lace to a bio of an Eskimo film star), taught at two universities, edited and published a weekly newspaper, founded a publishing house, and been a private detective, Morgan has lived large. These slides tell us as much about her as they do about their subjects. Makes me want to set up a projector and take it all in…

To learn more about Lael Morgan, visit laelwarrenmorgan.com.