The Power of Words: Archival Advocacy and Storytelling

May 13th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

Why do archives matter to you?  What value do they have in your life?

If you have no idea how to answer these questions, you are not alone.  Most people have no idea what an archivist does, let alone why what we do matters.  Beyond the experience of seeing or handling “cool old stuff,” very few people could relay an example of how archival materials changed their lives.  That is part of our problem as a profession.

These were some of the rallying points that Kathleen D. Roe, Vice President and President-Elect of the Society for American Archivists, made when she gave the plenary talk at the most recent Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference a few weeks ago on the theme of the future of the archival profession.  Her talk got us all fired up (see the tweets for #marac).

It was 9am and I was staying off-site, so I made a conscious decision to go to the talk, despite my body’s desire to move slowly that morning.  I’m so glad I got myself there.  I felt my energy toward this profession change in the course of an hour. I got there just after the talk began, and was struck by the standing-room-only crowd.  I found a seat close to the front, balancing my coffee cup and my smart phone so I could #livetweet.  Kathleen Roe stood behind a podium draped with a Hunger Games poster to give her talk “Catching Fire: Moving the Profession Forward.”

Over and over, she urged us to have conversations with each other, with her, with our colleagues, with our stakeholders.  She asked us to collect data about how our collections are used, about just why the materials we collect matter at all.  She urged us to go beyond telling the stories of the cool stuff we have in our collections.  “Who cares?” she asked.  Instead, how is the stuff being used to make a difference?

She offered examples of how archives can actually save lives, make significant personal impacts, and change policy.  (You can read a bit about this in an article Kathleen published in Provenance in 2010.)  She challenged us to light a fire to change the profession for the better.  She had helpers handing out matches at the door to anyone who was willing to talk about archives and advocate for their importance.

While it is difficult to think about stories of lives saved by literary archives, I certainly feel a passionate spark for advocacy emerge when I talk about how our archives preserve the voices of women who might otherwise have been forgotten.  Through collections of women’s private and public writing, we are filling in major gaps in the historical record.  Women’s experiences of everyday life tell very different stories than the published accounts we read in history books.  These stories have the power to change people’s minds and to change the ways that we teach history.

I will be asking researchers from now on, “why do these records matter? how did these materials change something for you?”

So, now, let me ask you:  Why do archives matter to you?  What value do they have in your life?

Going slowly into the digital world

November 21st, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

It seems it is always a matter of how to begin.  If we wait for the infrastructure to be in place, we will never start.  If we wait to know enough and have solid standards in place, we will never start.  There are millions of excuses.  We have more pressing projects.  We have to process our backlog.  Whatever it is that holds us back, many of us (by “us” I mean small institutions) have waited to move into digital preservation and curation.  My institution has been no exception.  We have minimal support for our initiatives from our in-house IT department, and most of us have only a broad brush stroke kind of understanding of what is needed to create and maintain a successful digital preservation program.

Believe me, I’ve done a lot of reading and even spent an amazing week last summer at Rare Book School with Matthew Kirchenbaum and Naomi Nelson learning about born-digital materials.  Still, I feel the “I don’t know enough about this” voice hammering away in my brain as I work with others in special collections to develop good metadata standards and think about how we manage all of this digital material we’re planning to create.  And then there’s the stuff that we already own sitting on floppy disks in our stacks.

Oh, god…what about that 8 inch floppy disk?  The anxiety about all of this can be a bit much for a timid archivist’s heart.  (Yes, that timid archivist is me.)

Luckily for us, there are some really great resources available that bring it down to the babiest steps.  SAA sponsored the Jump In Initiative this year to encourage institutions to just start surveying our collections for extant digital material: http://www2.archivists.org/groups/manuscript-repositories-section/jump-in-initiative.  This page includes a link to Ricky Erway’s report “You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media”, which walks you through the steps of surveying your collections.  I did this last summer, and then promptly put it down.  Other things came up.  I had lectures to host, books and manuscripts to buy.  Now, however, I am pushing myself to get back in the saddle of preservation.

One great and terrifying push was being asked to test out BitCurator.  As soon as I said yes, I thought, “Why did I do this?  I don’t even understand the technical description of what hardware I am going to be receiving for the test.”  The excellent thing about making this leap is that it pushed me to acquire an external floppy drive to read disks in our collections.  I even got a drive for memory cards.  I haven’t yet purchased a 5 1/4 inch drive, but I guess that will be coming soon after.  Small steps, my friends.  It’s all I can do right now, but I’m committing to the small steps, which will eventually lead to a comprehensive policy and plan for preservation of born-digital materials here at the Maine Women Writers Collection.

Maine Women Writers Collection

Another push to think about digital preservation was the launch of our Digital Commons site DUNE:DigitalUNE.  While not the most ideal software for interactive display of archival materials, we are working with it to make more of our collection materials available digitally.  It is an exciting prospect to think that people are able to page through the Annals of the Cobweb Club from the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat papers online, giving the poor crumbling book a bit of a break.  Of course, we still hope that researchers will come to check out our collections–these digital surrogates certainly do not replace the experience of handling original materials–but I am grateful that our digital materials will broaden our reach in significant ways.

We are just beginning to populate DUNE.  Soon, you will be able to page through one of Sweat’s photograph albums that documents how the McClellan House looked during her years living there.  We will also be making all of our old conference programs available on the site.  Soon, I hope to build pages that display materials from the Marie Peary Stafford papers.  We are almost there–just a few copyright and use statements to write and a little quibbling over metadata to go!  All of this is preparing us for a larger project that will involve collaborating with other institutions to make Sarah Orne Jewett’s correspondence available digitally.  We have crept toward the digital universe ever so slowly here, but the momentum is building.  We are finally taking the steps needed to effectively steward our collections in this digital environment, and I am both exhilarated and terrified of making some huge mistake.  Thankfully, I am not alone.  Collaboration is precious.

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.