Sorting out traces of our history

February 21st, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

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.

Buying Some Old (and not-so-old) Books

October 15th, 2010 by Jennifer Tuttle

A Portland institution is going out of business.  Cunningham Books, in Longfellow Square, is closing.  This is a great loss for our community.  One reviewer on yelp sums up why: when shopping there, “I nearly always find something I can’t live without.”

Recently our curator happened to notice the 50% off going-out-of-business sale sign in the window,  and this spurred us to pay the store a visit.  We hauled in my laptop, found an area wireless connection, pulled up the UNE Library catalog, and proceeded to while away two hours, shopping.

I love books.  Especially old books.  In fact, I can get a little bit crazy if left to my own devices in a store with old books, and I usually have to ask someone to hold on to my wallet and not give it back until I’m well clear of the door.  In this particular case, however, I could actually buy some things.  This is, I think, the very best part of my job as the MWWC Healy Professor.

Cunningham Books did not dissapoint. We managed to fill in some of the few vacancies in our Elizabeth Coatsworth Collection, including first editions of Away Goes Sally, The Fair American, Cricket and the Emperor’s Son, and The House of the Swan.  My favorite was the adorable children’s book Dancing Tom.

We found a copy of Ina Ladd Brown‘s More of the Same with a charmingly whimsical inscription.

And we found what appears to be an English 389 class project by Westbrook College student Bonnie Studdiford, who apparently interviewed Sue McKonkey on several occasions and wrote about the substance of those interviews, incorporating insights on McKonkey’s poetry.  While skimming through this lovely artifact, I was pleased to find this passage:

“On March 27 I visit the Maine Women Writers Collection at Westbrook College and meet Dorothy Healy, director, who will be coming to class to talk about Sue McKonkey.  After showing me around the collection and telling me about many of the people I have met in my English class, dead and alive, Mrs. Healy talked of Sue McKonkey.  She finds her one of Maine’s most extraordinary women of this century” (n.p.).

Our more contemporary acquisitions were no less exciting.  We picked up an anthology of plays from the Portland Stage Company’s Little Festival of the Unexpected.

And we rounded out our collection of work by Jennifer Finney Boylan with a first edition of The Constellations: A Novel, published when she wrote as James Finney Boylan.

The periodicals were similarly enticing, and we were excited to fill a few gaps in our holdings of Harper’s Magazine, Scribner’s Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, The Century Illustrated Magazine, and McClure’s Magazine from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

We picked up an issue of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine from 1872.

And right as I was getting ready to walk out the door, I found a whole stack of Our Young Folks from the 1860s.  The one on top included an installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Little Pussy Willow,” so I hungrily grabbed the whole bunch.

It was only as I was leafing through that issue later that I found a previous owner had used it to press several autumn leaves, which are beautifully preserved.

As we paid for our purchases, we spoke with Nancy, the owner of Cunningham Books.  We commiserated about the bleak outlook for independent booksellers and the difficulties she had finding a buyer for her store who could actually obtain the necessary financing.  Finally, she decided simply to close the doors for good.

“I am glad,” she told us, ” that these books, at least, have found a new home, where people will be able to continue to enjoy them.”