For a number of years now, I’ve been meaning to get to fully processing our administrative files, which document the past 50+ years of collecting at the Maine Women Writers Collection. In some ways, though, it is good that I have waited. Now I understand how I use the collection, what kinds of documents we need to find easily, and how best it might serve us to organize it. It’s a bit daunting, but the time has come.
For several days this week, I have taken advantage of the slow, snowy energy and put our focus on these papers. Laura and I have been pulling out all the boxes, looking through all of the folders, and stacking everything in rough series to be more thoroughly organized later. I have enjoyed the opportunity to look through the incredible correspondence that Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy carried on with numerous authors, donors, and other friends of the Collection. I have been confused and dismayed by some of the odd things we’ve saved–the question “Why?” often hanging in the air between Laura and I throughout the process. But the real “Why?” is the reason we are doing this at all–so that we can find the gems amidst the invoices and randomness; so that we can trace provenance and answer questions of how we acquired each collection.
It is an interesting process to look through the eyes of people who were not trained to think in terms of subject headings and organizational schema. Grace and Dorothy built an amazing collection with little experience to guide them. They were pioneers–warm, generous women who believed in the power of women’s words and women’s ordinary realities. As I read through the letters that fill many a box, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for these two thoughtful, determined women.
The tenderness and friendship that existed between the former curators and their correspondents always reminds me to write more thoughtful emails, to devote more attention to the ways that I portray our work in words, and subsequently causes me to lament the fact that volume has replaced quality in our communications.
I pulled this letter from one folder and the first line grabbed me right away. “The trouble is, before starting a letter to you everything has to be just right, sun shining, outlook relaxed and still with it,” Florence Burrill Jacobs writes to Dorothy Healy in 1973. She continues, “And that happy conjunction doesn’t often come about!” Imagine if we waited for a sunny day to write an email to a friend! (Well, this winter, we’d never write at all — let’s be honest here!) Later in the letter, the conversational tone pulled me in further, making me just love Mrs. Jacobs’ style of corresponding. “And the stars! Have you been where you could see the evening sky since September? Hour after hour we have stood out back where no street lights intrude, and just gazed up. Jupiter, Venus, M[a]rs, myriads of smaller ones, more brilliant than I ever saw them. I am sometimes awakened in the night by a blazing west.”
I am looking forward to getting to a place in the processing when I can start to relabel folders with titles that will point to the contents clearly so that I can put my hands on these letters more easily. The amount of information about acquisition procedures that resides in the correspondence alone is quite astounding. That the letters are an incredible pleasure to read is just a bonus. If you want to start up a correspondence with me, write to me about how the stars look when you go to bed at night, and I will write back to let you know that the stars here are sometimes dimmed by streetlights, but that your poems light up my world. Yes, this is what keeps me in the archival profession, these beautiful private moments between people.