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.

George Borup’s correspondence with Marie Peary: friendship, love and tragedy

October 7th, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

Every now and then, I get the opportunity to dig in to an already processed collection in a way that allows me to understand the people and issues represented in a robust way.  A researcher calls up a collection or writes with a question, and I am often compelled to explore further than the original query demands. Every time I do this, I get a richer sense of the collection at hand, and I am much more prepared to help the next person who asks about connections in the materials.

Such was the case when an out-of-state researcher wrote to ask for copies of the correspondence from George Borup to Marie Peary. While I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Marie Peary’s diaries and souvenirs from her travels, I had not explored much of her correspondence.  I knew Borup’s name, but did not know much about him. At first, the letters were simply friendly cheerful notes that contained some teasing and references to her family.


In addition to letters, there are some postcards documenting Borup’s travel across the United States for the American Geographical Society.

Some of the letters were short missives that inquire about Marie’s day or relay information to coordinate visits, and others were accounts of his adventures out in the “wilds” of America.


While I stood at the photocopier, skimming letters as I went, I began to see a developing love story. Borup was deeply infatuated with Marie, yet I know that he was not the man she ended up marrying.

In all the folders of letters, this is the only correspondence from Marie to George.

In several letters, Borup referred to the expedition he was about to embark upon, telling her that if she falls in love with another guy during his time away, he will find some way to go on without her.



Borup’s letters became more and more intense, as in this one, where he tells Marie that he could not imagine life if she did not love him, that she brought life back to him lost when his mother died. He offers his heart-wrenching story with such earnestness that I worry Borup might die of a broken heart.


At this point, I decided to do some research about Borup, and what I found was a tragic ending.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/199892
Borup’s star was burning bright and he was set to do what so few men of his time had the opportunity to do when he drowned while canoeing with his friend. While taking in Borup’s unfortunate death, I found myself a little relieved for him because his letters documented Marie’s cooling attention and his increasing bewilderment at her distance. I became curious about Marie’s position, whether her diary recorded her feelings about Borup or reflected upon his death.

I was pleased to see a diary from 1912, pages full of Marie’s neat script. I skimmed through and found a few references to spending time with George, but they pale in comparison to George’s cloying letters to Marie. As the winter was coming to an end, Marie wrote that George’s constant attention was annoying, and she mentioned many other men who caught her eye. She seems like a teenager (which she was at this point) with her many infatuations, none of them becoming serious. At one point she caught herself, reflecting that a girl who is “good as engaged” should not be looking around so much, but this observation does little to stop her roving eye.

In the weeks leading up to George’s death, she barely mentioned him in her diary. Her entry on April 29 began as any other entry did, with a description of her day, then she recounted learning of Borup’s death. Her dismay was clear.

On April 30, Marie ordered flowers and talked about her father going to the funeral, but she decided not to attend Borup’s funeral, writing that she wanted to remember him as he was in life. I looked through other dates of the diary to see if she reflected on the funeral, her decision to remain home, or anything else about Borup, but it appears that she says little. She seemed to move on quickly to shopping and traveling with her family.

With my curiosity satisfied, I resumed reading about Borup, glad to have learned more about this interesting man, who helped to flesh out my understanding of the Peary family’s story.