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.

Professional Correspondence of Sarah Orne Jewett

June 13th, 2013 by ksquire

My name is Kelsey Squire, and I am Assistant Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. I specialize in American literature, and like many professors, I use my summers to conduct research; thanks to the support of a research grant from the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England, I spent a week in Portland examining materials related to Sarah Orne Jewett, the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs. I collected my first souvenirs unintentionally – a series of four boarding passes from canceled connections out of Philadelphia. Armed with a good book (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild) and some snacks from Au Bon Pain, I enjoyed my hour-turned-ten-hour layover; but I was very happy when I finally arrived in Maine!

Sarah Orne Jewett has been most recognized as a regional writer through her sketches of unique characters and environments inspired by her birthplace, South Berwick. Although her fiction is vividly local in its content, Jewett herself traveled frequently. As an adult, Jewett divided her time between South Berwick and Boston, where she often resided with close friend Annie Fields. The letters in the MWWC reflect Jewett’s movements between Maine, Massachusetts, and beyond as she wrote hundreds of letters, many to her sister Mary or to Annie. These letters are often long and playful as Jewett recounts the events of her day, her visits with friends, and her future traveling plans. Due to the depth and intimacy of these relationships, the letters between Jewett and Mary and Annie have received significant attention. In addition to short stories and novels, Jewett published numerous essays, poems, and even works for children from 1868 until her death in 1909.

In my time at the collection, I focused on Jewett’s professional correspondence, such as letters to editors and fans. In contrast to the intimate, chatty letters Jewett sent to close friends and family, her professional letters are often short, and may consist of a single letter exchange rather than hundreds. Despite their occasional nature, however, Jewett’s professional correspondence can provide us with intriguing snapshots into her life and development as a writer.

One such letter is #131, from Jewett to James R. Osgood, the publisher of her first novel Deephaven in 1877. Letter #131 is assumed to be written in the following year, 1878; the letter captures the voice of a young (Jewett was 28 years old) but confident writer. Addressed to “my dear Mr. Osgood,” Jewett opens her letter with the following request: “I want some money for something very particular and I should like to draw on the Deephaven bank, if you have no objection – Will you please tell me how much I could have, though I may want more and may want less!” The publication of Deephaven provided Jewett with financial freedom and stability; she enjoyed being able to provide for herself and her sisters and nephew as well. This letter reflects her self-assurance (“I want some money”), her politeness (“Will you please tell me how much I could have”), and her youthful inexperience (“I may want more and may want less!”). Jewett does not reveal the “very particular” plans for her funds. She does indicate, however, in the closing line of her letter that she is “going home fairly soon” to begin a new writing project. Letter #131 highlights a link between financial stability and artistic production; Jewett also seems to remind Osgood that she continues to be capable of providing work to be published in the future.

Two contrasting letters showcase Jewett’s further perceptions of herself as a writer through responding to fan mail. Although Jewett certainly did not reach the level of literary celebrity granted to her contemporary Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Jewett’s writing was widespread, with many of her short stories appearing in periodicals such as The Atlantic and her novels selling well. Jewett’s fans wrote with praise for her stories, questions, and also requests for autographs. In letter #143, dated 23 June 1885 to “Miss Remann,” Jewett responds simply and gratefully: “I can send the autograph for the fair without adding a word of thanks for your most kind and cordial note.” A decade later, however, Jewett responds to “Mr. J. D. Lee” a self-described autograph collector with force. “I suppose that you mean by ‘an autograph fiend’ a person who troubles a busy person unnecessarily – for his own profit,” Jewett opens. She goes on to say:
Letters are like questions which one delights to answer if they show real interest and hates if they are simply urged by curiosity:

I am afraid that I must confess to a belief that most requests for autographs come under the latter ignoble heading. Certainly the time taken up in asking for them and replying on the author’s part does not seem very well spent on writers [sic] side.

Jewett’s chastisement seems counter-productive, as the length of her reply contradicts her directives. The overall spirit of the letter, however, reflects many of the values from her writing, where the best human relationships are pursued through genuine interest and grounded in manners and courtesy.

Another fascinating series of Jewett’s professional correspondence at the MWWC can be found in the 24 letters from Jewett to Abbie S. Beede, a woman from North Berwick who served as a manuscript typist about 1900 to 1903. Little is known about the relationship between Jewett and Beede, and details about Beede herself can be gleaned from the few letters in the MWWC. Records suggest that Beede never married – like Jewett – and lived with a female cousin. Jewett’s earliest letters to Beede are quite short, sometimes only a sentence or two; it often focuses on inquiries about Beede’s willingness to take a job, if a manuscript was finished, or keeping Beede informed about Jewett’s travel plans. As correspondence progresses, however, the letters become longer and reveal more personal details. One of the most touching includes Jewett’s condolences to Beede on the recent death of her uncle. Although this correspondence never reaches the intimacy of the letters to Jewett’s sister or to dear friends like Annie Fields, the Beede letters present us with an intriguing snapshot of professional women; while their letters became more personal, Jewett’s work requests still drive the exchange. This area of professional correspondence, particularly between two women, remains unexplored; I hope to continue investigating the dynamics of this relationship in my future research.

Grateful for the Vibrance of Youth: Coastal Studies for Girls

November 24th, 2010 by Cathleen Miller

Last Saturday, I was extremely grateful to have the privilege to work with a group of students from Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, Maine.  They came with their English teacher on a field trip, after having spent the semester studying nature writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett and Rachel Carson, whose work we have in the collection.  They came in, dropped their coats in my office, and moved into the reading room.  A group of them sat down on the long couch we have against one wall.  I told them that they were sitting on Sarah Orne Jewett’s couch, which thrilled them.  It made me smile, too.  Their enthusiasm and energy made coming into work on a Saturday completely worth it.

The group from Coastal Studies for Girls

They were kind enough to write about their experience in the collection:

I am the English Teacher at Coastal Studies For Girls, and recently took my class on a field trip to the Maine Women Writers Collection. After having read many Maine women writers during the semester, the students were thrilled to see the collection and dove into it with enthusiasm and questions. I had to drag them out of the rare books room, almost two hours later, when it was time to go. When the class returned from the field trip they wrote about their experience at the collection. The following passage is from one of my students.

~Leah Titcomb, English Faculty, Coastal Studies For Girls: A Science and Leadership School

This is probably the happiest sight of my professional career!

I stepped into the rich, old smell of books. In the small rare books room, there were several shelves lined with books, all by woman writers of Maine. I walked to the last row of books, and breathed deeply, running my fingers over each precious binding. The book I paused at was small and tan. Bhisma the Dancing Bear, was neatly typed in black letters on the spine. I carefully opened the rough cover, and sank down onto the floor, where the other girls had done the same. I lowered myself onto the pig-pile without taking my eyes off the print. There, I slipped into a trance of the story of the dancing bear.


I hope that this will be an ongoing partnership.  As I told my colleagues earlier this week, I feel so strongly that the more we reach out to youth, the more we will find that they are engaged, excited, and far more thoughtful than we sometimes give them credit for.  These girls were pure joy to work with.  I wish them all well on their life journeys, whether in Los Angeles, New York, or Maine!