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.

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:  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.

Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat: Author, Patron, Reformer

November 29th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

Over the last few weeks, prompted by a visit by a researcher, I have worked on rehousing the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat collection.  Periodically, this kind of work allows me to get to know a collection, and gives me the opportunity to assess the condition of materials.  In this case, I knew that many of the volumes had leather covers that were deteriorating.  What I found was that a large portion of these covers were splitting because of the age of the leather.  Since this collection has received a good deal of attention over the last few years, I am going to have some of the volumes conserved.  It seems, too, that this collection is an excellent candidate for digitization.

The travel diaries in this collection chronicle Sweat’s journeys across many continents; some, like the journal from Mexico above, contain fading photographs of the locales that she visits.   In one of the early entries to the Mexico journal on March 7, she describes the scene in towns through which her party travels.

“The group of  shop umbrellas shone white in the sunshine at one of the way stations + the slender stock of wares did its best to attract our attention.  At every pause in our journey there is something picturesque, beautiful or grotesque + novel.  The foliage is unlike our own, the sunlight is more vivid, the towns more huddled.”

She goes on to make all sorts of judgements about the people in the towns, writing, “Children + dogs + hens give a lively effect to these otherwise forlorn shelters.  I fancy no native ever invents anything or develops any improvements in his surroundings no matter how devoid of comfort they may be.  They all seem to accept privation + filth as necessary + inevitable human conditions.  The mortality among them is frightful, chiefly from lung diseases__”

While these entries offer little to admire in her attitudes toward the villagers in the towns through which she travels, the diaries chronicle a way of seeing the world that was characteristic of her class and time.  They help us understand a certain way of being in the nineteenth century,  and, when contrasted with other diaries in our collection by women of ordinary means in Maine, we can begin to see the fuller picture of life in that time.


The Maine Women Writers Collection acquired the Sweat collection in 1964 and 1965–the first acquisition is listed in the administrative files of the Collection as a purchase, the second is listed as a gift from the Portland Society of Art.

These two newspaper articles describe the collection as “a most valuable acquisition” and “a valuable addition to its collection of manuscripts.”  This is true because the collection so richly documents Sweat’s life and her varied activities, including the founding of the Cobweb Club, which later became the Washington Club, “a woman’s literary club of much prestige.”  The Sweat collection continues to garner interest from researchers both in Portland and across the country.

Sweat’s novel Ethel’s Love Life, published in 1859, is a piece of interest because of its outspoken depiction of love between women.  As I’ve met more people researching Sweat, this is one of the points of conversation that inevitably arises.  For more on this, see Cliff Gallant’s recent article in the Portland Daily Sun:

She is an intriguing figure, and one who seems to be getting more and more attention.  We will be working to make her papers even more accessible to researchers outside of Maine, and I will certainly post updates as that process gets underway.

Access to archives is a feminist issue

July 6th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

On Saturday, June 25, Jennifer Tuttle and I had the pleasure of hosting a luncheon and roundtable discussion on “Assessing the Stowe Archives” as part of the Harriet Beecher Stowe at 200 conference, which was held at Bowdoin College.  I was lucky enough to share the table with noted scholars Susan Belasco and Joan Hedrick; Katherine Kane, who directs the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center; Judith Ann Schiff, who is the Chief Research Archivist at Yale; Margaret Gaertner of Barba + Wheelock Architecture, Preservation + Design, who assisted in compiling the Historic Building Report for the Stowe House in Brunswick; and Adena Spingarn, who is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard.

Our discussion began with an expansive conception of what constitutes the Stowe archives: archival material, built environments, material culture, graveyards, locations influential to Stowe’s writing, and other such traces of Stowe’s life and work.  Each panelist was free to discuss the archives as broadly or narrowly as they liked.

Adena Spingarn discussed the challenge of access during renovations at the Stowe Center, which took her research in another direction as she waited for collections to be reopened.  She began looking at newspapers for traces of performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and though access was a major issue for Spingarn during the early stages of her research, in the end, this difficulty enhanced her work and understanding of her subject.

Judith Ann Schiff spoke primarily about connections of the Stowe family to Yale, and highlighted materials that were related to Stowe’s wider family lineage.

Margaret Gaertner shared photos taken of the Stowe House in Brunswick during the research for the Historic Building Report.  She highlighted traces of the house as it looked in Stowe’s day, which are mostly hidden behind fireplace mantles and odd remodeling choices by former owners.  Gaertner discussed the history of the house itself–when it was remodeled and updated, and how they traced various pieces of that history. She remarked that the future of the house is still under consideration by Bowdoin College.

Katherine Kane began her comments by stating that everything is archives–the built environment, artifacts, ephemera, manuscript material, etc.  She talked about a recent acquisition from the Connecticut Historical Society of an antislavery petition, which was an historic transfer from one institution to another.  CHS deeded the petition to the Stowe Center because of its connection to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and because, as Kane explained,  CHS does not collect Stowe since the Stowe Center does.  She also discussed some of the programs at the Stowe Center, and their efforts to make Stowe’s work accessible and engaging.

Susan Belasco’s remarks pointed to the fact that we still have much to do in the realm of infrastructure and access of the Stowe archives.  She discussed her work with the Walt Whitman Archive and the intense digitization efforts that has entailed, and she pointed out the many issues involved with digitization (human labor, funding, permissions, etc.).

Joan Hedrick echoed Susan Belasco’s comments about access, and elaborated with a story of the difficulties she had as a Ph.D. student traveling to archives during her first pregnancy, and later, as a young mother.  Hedrick stated that she deliberately chose a dissertation subject that would not require archival research, and later settled on Stowe as a research subject because of the proximity of the Stowe Center to her work at Trinity College.

There were many good questions about collaboration between institutions (and the associated territoriality), about the importance of digitization (and the related costs), and the question of how to build infrastructure.  There was so much to say, in fact, that we had to cut off discussion.  I think we could have talked about these issues for hours.  There were questions I wanted to ask, but did not.  I thought perhaps I could start to ask them here.  Joan Hedrick’s story about access highlighted for me a series of questions that we never had time to delve into:

How are some women scholars (or men, who are similarly restricted by their obligations to family members; or researchers with limited financial means) negatively impacted by difficulty accessing places to do primary source research?

Are archivists doing a disservice to women researchers by not digitizing more material?

How is the field of knowledge limited by the inability of women scholars to travel to far-off archives?

How can archives, libraries, and museums be more friendly to the often unique needs of women scholars with young families, or who are committed to caring for family members?

I had never before considered the irony inherent in the fact that while we make available collections of materials that highlight the voices of women, we might be shutting out women who cannot make the journey to visit our collection.  My work as an archivist suddenly took on a feminist mission.  I don’t know the answers to the above questions, but I would like to start a conversation about this issue.

What could archives do to make access easier for women scholars?  Short of digitizing everything, which we can’t afford to do?