Catching my breath, taking stock

May 13th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

As I near my one year anniversary here at the Maine Women Writers Collection, I can’t quite believe that almost twelve months have passed.  We are doing so many things that it is sometimes hard to articulate “the work.”  Administering the daily operations of a collection is so different than I imagined it to be.  I am constantly amazed that I can keep all these balls in the air.

Looking back on the past few months, I find that I have become more of a part of the university.  I am now serving on UNE’s Women’s and Gender Studies and LGBTQ advisory committees, as well as on the Maine Women’s Studies Consortium.  I am learning who to call with what question, what office does what piece of the large puzzle that keeps the university functioning, and which colleagues are there for you no matter what.  All in all, I’m entirely pleased with my choice to come here.  I couldn’t ask for better colleagues or a more beautiful place to work.

But back to the question of defining “the work”–for me this is the slippery part of this job.  As a writer, I’m naturally interested in other writers’ publications and readings.  It’s a wonderful thing to be able to buy books for our collection, and to actually read some of them.   I get to some readings, but others I realize I must forego so that I can get some collection processing done or some emails answered.

Recently, we have been getting a fair number of donations, which has been quite exciting.  I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Harriet H. Price when she donated manuscripts and publication proofs for her book Blackberry Season.  After our conversation, I realized just how lucky I am to be let inside of people’s intimate stories of creation.  I am in such a privileged position to get to talk with writers about their passions and fears, their concerns and joys.  I build relationships so that writers feel that their work is coming to a safe home at the Collection.

Here’s a quick look at what goes in to processing each collection (each line is one collection that needs to be completed):  

I have the opportunity to work with researchers, editors and publishers on a regular basis, and find great pleasure in being able to help someone find that thing they need to flesh out their story.  Over the past two weeks, we had a wonderful researcher visiting us from Germany, and over that time, we built a relationship.  While I won’t be able to read her book (sadly, German is not in my linguistic toolkit), I can make it available for others to study.  This work with researchers allows me to dig into collections that I often don’t have an excuse to give more than a cursory look.

Over the past few months, the Josephine Diebitsch Peary papers has been our most popular collection.  Not only did we just receive Josephine’s gun back from the Peary Museum, we lent some of her silver accessories to the Saco Museum for their exhibit “Voyages and the Great Age of Sail.”  Several researchers also worked with her collection.  I enjoyed the chance to look at all of the material culture treasures we have to document her life, both in North America and Greenland.

Creating exhibits allows for the same kind of deep looking that I so rarely get to do.  Our most recent exhibit on mother and daughter pairs and sisters in the collection was a wonderful opportunity for me to explore ten collections I had little familiarity with before choosing items for the case.

I encourage you all to come in and peruse the letters of Kate Barnes, the diaries and letters of Elizabeth Coatsworth, the rich scrapbooks and diaries of Marie Peary Stafford, and the witty writings of A. Carman Clark (among the other gems in the exhibit).

We had many visitors and classes in the collection this semester.  Dr. Cathrine Frank brought her research methods class to the collection.  We hosted a class from SMCC.  I took materials from the Perdita Huston papers to Dr. Helida Oyieke’s class on women and the environment.  Last week, I enjoyed another great visit from the Coastal Studies for Girls.

students from Coastal Studies for Girls

This Spring has even afforded me the opportunity to go outside of the collection.  On April 29, I presented a workshop for the Maine Art Educators Spring Conference at USM on using poetry in the art education classroom.  It was really fun to meet educators in K-12 classrooms and to get to hear about the amazing things that people are doing all around the state.  I learned about the Wabanaki curve design, practiced drawing symbols from beadwork, and reveled in using my hands instead of my head.  I even got to make some books.

More good things are to come!  Next week, we’ll be hosting two poetry readings–one to celebrate accomplishments of Lulu Hawkes, who competed in the national “Poetry Out Loud” competition; the other reading will be “A Celebration of Writers” who participate(d) in the Gathering of Writers and Craft and Critique workshops at the Collection.  We will be participating in the Harriet Beecher Stowe at 200 conference in late June.  The Fall 2011/Spring 2012 schedule is shaping up to be quite dynamic, so stay tuned for more about our upcoming events.

Calculus and Ice Cream Cones

May 6th, 2011 by Gay Marks

I am sad to say that this is Gay’s last post, as she left us to pursue her retirement on May 31.  I had hoped she would write a farewell post, but there is never enough time to do all that you plan.  We wish Gay a very happy new beginning, though we’ll miss her insights and all of her help at the MWWC.  –Cathleen

As I opened and began to ready Katharine O’Brien’s book of poetry, Excavation and Other Verse, I simultaneously looked out the window into a fogged-in parking lot on an April morning and I was struck by the coincidence of the view and the book’s first poem “Spring Song” which began “By April mist be not misled….”  Very quickly I became enamored of O’Brien’s poetry as I read on, but then just as quickly, the titles of some of the subsequent—“The old oaken Calculus problem,” “Mathematician,” “Einstein and the ice cream cone”—echoed the Katharine O’Brien, brilliant mathematician, with whom I was more familiar.

What led me to discover this talented woman writer were enclosures found in her important work, Sequences, here in the Maine Women Writers Collection—small, aged clippings from newspapers, a page of quotes and a half-page of edits, both in her hand, and a few other items she had left in the books she had donated to the Collection.  But upon discovering her published poetry collection, I realized I was mistaken to think her world was made up only of ciphers, equations and formulas.  And O’Brien herself writes of the intersection of her two passions in “The old oaken Calculus problem.”

O’Brien’s Sequences was published as one of Houghton-Mifflin Mathematics Enrichment Series and received many positive reviews from which O’Brien had hand-copied excerpts:  “a wealth of material,” “very well written,” “attractive contribution” onto a sheet of paper and left behind to be found.  (I will observe here that it is not a book to be enjoyed lightly!)

And seeing among the inserts the clipped articles that trumpeted the progress in the 1980s in unraveling “pi” and “prime numbers,” we can assume the world of mathematics was never far from her thoughts.

But I have to believe O’Brien softened and balanced her passion for math by creating light, personally revealing and sometimes humorous poetry—for her soul and for ours.  We thank her for both!

Last day

May 2nd, 2011 by billie

Well today is my last official day as an intern in the Maine Women Writers Collection and the University of New England’s Special Collections department.  Not only am I leaving UNE, but also Maine for a time and I would like to share a quotation from Elizabeth Foster (The Islanders) which so captures how I feel about this, my adopted state:

“Maine is also a state of mind.  If the coast, with its yellow rocks and dark trees, or the mountains with their deep blue lakes, have once laid their spell on you, there is no escape.  For a lifetime, when you dream of home, you conjure up the mountains or the rocky shore, talk of them incessantly, and get back to them as soon as possible…I am glad to have been part of this Cloud-Cuckoo Land, this magic country which gives its children such a full life.  I was taken there at the age of eleven months, and have been there– except for a few distressing intervals – ever since.”

— Elizabeth Foster,
back cover of The Islanders, 1946

It is bittersweet to say the least.  While I am going on to, hopefully, become a professional librarian, I will miss both the material and the people I have worked with here.  Everyone was welcoming and helpful, giving me advice on both professional matters and my personal life.  I hope I’m setting off to find a job where I can delve into new collections and have new adventures but can’t imagine that I’ll find a place to work where I’ll meet such great friends as I have here.

When I began my internship, unofficially, last May I had just finished my first year of Library Science graduate school and was unsure of what type of librarianship I wanted to pursue.  I started the internship thinking that I wanted to be an academic librarian but soon discovered the world of special collections.  Now, I don’t know if it is all special collections departments, or if this one is, well, special but I have learned far more from this work and the people than I ever expected.

During my year here, I have learned what goes in to creating and maintaining archival collections; the organization, the research and the arrangement so that they can be used effectively.  I have also learned a lot about databases; that most have their unique quirks that have to be figured out and then worked around, that consistency in data is essential and that, at least with ReDiscovery, there is someone at the other end of a phone line who knows more about the inner workings of the database and the data entered than I ever will.

I got hands on experience from taking inventory to processing entire collections on my own and have gained confidence in my abilities.  From Mildred McKinley’s letters and Nora Archibald Smith’s papers to sorting a collection of shells and rocks and creating a list of furniture and artworks around the library, I feel that I have had my hand in most of the different types of collections here in Maine Women Writers.  I am very thankful for the experience.

For an interactive view of my internship, please go to my presentation: