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.