Access: it’s our business!

August 29th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

One of the exciting (and sometimes frustrating) parts of my position as curator is the opportunity to think through our policies and procedures so that we are providing the best service to patrons and offering the broadest access to our collections possible given our small staff.

As we begin to think broadly about digital preservation (not just digitization), I am starting to look at all of our policies with an eye to access. All of our collecting is done with a two-fold goal: preservation and access, and our digital initiatives are taking a similar form. Because travel to Maine is not always possible, I hope to make more of our collections available online in the coming years, but to do that we have to implement appropriate preservation strategies for our digital objects. That is what has been occupying my mind for the past year, and will continue to be my major project in the year to come. We are beginning to identify our digital preservation needs and will then design an appropriate system to handle our data (both born-digital and digitized materials). It’s a big job, but it’s crucial to being able to make our digital materials accessible to researchers anywhere.

As I’ve begun to think through everything involved in creating a digital preservation program, I am following a lot of other threads related to archival policies and procedures. Lately this thread has been weaving through my mind: our own digitization procedures have historically been connected to access requests and there has been little that is systematic in our approach. As we digitize more material for use purposes, it is apparent that we need clear policies and procedures to govern file naming conventions, metadata, and storage. Then there is the whole question of copyright, which has been dropping into my consciousness through many channels. Essentially, we really don’t own the copyright to much of anything that we have in the collection, so we need to focus on digitizing material in the public domain to start and then move to more contemporary materials.

This past week, I got two articles delivered to my inbox on copyright and libraries/archives. The first was published on Library Journal called “Asserting Rights We Don’t Have,” which discusses the question of how researchers may cite/publish material they find in an archive or library and how many archives ask patrons to get permission to use materials when it is not our place to give permission. The second is a response by Nancy Sims called “Contracts & Copyright,” which goes into more detail about the questions Rick Anderson raised in his post. Both of these are worth reading if you are at all interested in copyright issues.

As a new archival administrator a few years ago, I worried that we should have some clear policy regarding publication of materials that came from our collection. I personally feel passionately that archives have a responsibility to provide unrestricted access whenever possible (i.e., not restricted by the donor or some other legal agreement to confidentiality), so when I was looking around at other institutions’ policies, I found myself unable to settle on something that felt okay to me. In the end, we just charge a nominal fee for our scanning and copying services and offer mostly unrestricted access to our collections, asking only that people who publish material they found here cite the collection as being in our holdings.

One of the other policies that I’ve been thinking a lot about is a digital camera policy for our reading room. This summer, I came across the OCLC report “Capture and Release,” which discusses cameras in the reading room and suggested best practices. I have happily allowed researchers to take photos during their visits primarily because it saves staff time and it is easier on the materials than scanning. I witnessed the relief experienced by researchers when they realized that they could capture much of the material they needed to review later when they were back at their home base.

I look forward to working on comprehensive policies and procedures for our digital collections and our digital surrogates while considering how these procedures and policies affect researchers’ ability to access our materials. I’m sure there will be much more to say on this matter soon.

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!