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.

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: http://www.portlanddailysun.me/index.php/opinion/columns/8143-margaret-jane-mussey-sweat.

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.

The Cobweb Club of Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat

October 27th, 2011 by Catherine Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, when the sun was still managing full swing by 6 instead of remaining tucked away for nearly another hour, I noticed in my back yard a large cobweb resplendent in early morning light. So magical was it in both its size and complexity that I tried to capture its brilliance with my phone. Although the image doesn’t do it justice, it’s a souvenir of a moment of awe at one spider’s glorious expression of ingenuity, artistry and survival.

Here at work a day or two later, I went into the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat Collection for a researcher and noticed the folder containing The Annals of the Cobweb Club, a handwritten record of the meetings of a private women’s organization founded and led by Sweat in the early 1890s. I slipped the fragile journal from its envelope and began to leaf through the very detailed log, spying more than a few famous surnames and eye-catching keywords in my brief scan while hunched between the stacks.

I remembered that a few years ago Portland artist Alex Sax had created an installation piece entitled “The Cobweb Club,” inspired by this volume and exhibited first at the Portland Museum of Art and then in the smaller space of our library’s walk-in display case. Sax’s cast paper spiders and jaguars and other three-dimensional components of the installation created such a colorful, interiorizing tableau of the story of the group, and I knew I wanted to spend some time with this journal myself. She described the history of the group in her museum exhibit brochure:

So, with spiders and webs crossing my path now twice, I decided to take that more in-depth look at the annals to find out just who these women were and what went on at their weekly meetings of the mind. With the motto of  “The cobwebs of one generation make the cables of the next,” the serious nature of their collaboration was declared. The first pages of the log deliver the founding principles and mission, followed by the list of initial members:

“A preliminary meeting was held at Mrs. Sweat’s rooms at the Richmond on Saturday morning, January 11 (1890). The ladies present were Mrs. Hawley, Mrs. Hornsby, Mrs. Sweat, Miss Seward, Miss Horner, Miss Upton and Miss Bell.

The following constitution and by-laws were agreed upon:

1. The club shall be called The Cobweb Club.

2. The number of its members shall be limited to twelve.

3. Its meetings shall be held every Monday morning, at the residence of a member, at 11 o’clock.

4. Each member shall have the privilege of bringing one friend to any meeting, except business meetings.

5. The utmost freedom of discussion shall be permitted.

6. Each member is expected to furnish her contribution to the general entertainment—the subject and method of presentment to be of her own choice.

7. Conversation and discussion to be encouraged.

8. The details of the organization to be kept a profound secret from the public; and a pleasing air of mystery to be allowed to form a halo around the proceedings.

9. The officers of the club shall be a President and a Secretary – to be elected by the embers in council.

10. Vacancies in membership shall be filled by balloting for proposed candidates; one adverse vote being sufficient to exclude.

11. The duties of the President or First Eye to be chiefly esoteric – those of the Secretary or Second Eye to be chiefly exoteric.

12. The names of candidates for membership shall be proposed at one meeting and voted for at the next meeting.

List of Members:

Edith A. Hawley

Harriet B. Bancroft

Rebekah Black Hornsby

Aileen Adine Bell

Sara Carr Upton

Beatrice Hornor (returned to England)

Olive Reilly Seward

Margaret J. M. Sweat

Misina Blair Richey

Sophie Markoe Emmons

Phoebe A. Hearst

Susan H. P. Dyer

Mary Chandler Hale

Alice Worthington Winthrop

Edla Jean McPherson

As much as I was interested in getting to the intellectual papers that the women presented at these meetings (sin and remorse, suicide, George Eliot, chastity, the War of 1812, Browning and Tennyson, cremation, suffrage, personal identity…quite an array!) I was first curious about the weavers themselves who had come together to create such a circle.

A little Internet research revealed that they came from California, Washington, Maine, Connecticut, Kentucky, England, etc. In addition to being a mixture of authors (Sweat, a novelist and literary critic; Upton, the author of a book on mysticism; Emmons, a poet; Winthrop, author of a book on diet and convalescence,) as well feminists, suffragists, travelers and philanthropists, they were also mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of prominent people.

Phoebe Apperson Hearst was the mother of William Randolph Hearst and founder of what is now known as the Hearst Museum;

Aileen Adine Bell was sister to Alexander Graham Bell;

Rebekah Black Hornsby was the daughter of Judge Jeremiah S. Black, Attorney General and later Secretary of State in President Buchannan’s cabinet;

Edith Ann Hornor Hawley was the wife of Joseph Roswell Hawley, Civil War Union Brevet Major General, Connecticut Governor, US Congressman and US Senator;

Harriet B. Bancroft was an art collector and wife of John Chandler Bancroft, also known as Bancroft Davis, who served as Assistant Secretary of State, United States Minister to Germany and Judge of the U.S. Court of Claims;

Olive Risley Seward was the (controversially) adopted daughter of William Henry Seward, United States Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. She was a travel writer and author of children’s stories in her later life;

Mary Chandler Hale was the daughter of Senator Zachariah Chandler (a leading force in the founding of the Republican Party in Michigan,) the widow of Republican Senator Eugene Hale of Maine, and the mother of Republican Senator Frederick Hale of Maine.

Finally, Minna Blair Richey was the daughter of Montgomery Blair who served as Dred Scott’s attorney in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, as well as US Postmaster General under Andrew Jackson.

These women and their guests (Susan B. Anthony among them) brought to their roundtable of  intellectual probings such a richness of opinion, experience and exposure, as well as connections to an outer world of powerful doers and achievers. How might have their connections informed their opinions or impacted their selection of topics to be discussed? Did the group perhaps function as a place for them to escape limitations experienced in that outer web? Could a map be made of their constellation of ever-widening interconnections, and what might such a schematic reveal of the ingenuity, artistry and survival woven into the web from so many angles, all to arrive at a central, convening circle? Lots of think about from social, political and geographic perspectives.

And if you were to create a map of the co-weavers in your own personal web of connections, who would they be and to what aspects of the world would they connect you? Who are the members of your own Cobweb Club?