Editing Modernism in Canada


October 5, 2010

Diary of a Digital Archive: Part One

Dean and I thought that it might be useful for other people to read about the process of creating a digital archive from start to finish. I’ve just begun the process of getting started on an archive of the work of Anne Wilkinson, and I’ll continue sharing stories, problems, and helpful information about the project as it progresses. Here’s Part One.

Sometime in the spring of this year, I was sitting on a bench outside Trinity College, on the phone with Dean, when he proposed an idea that I thought was brilliant: I should edit a digital archive of the work of Anne Wilkinson. For those of you who don’t do much modernist poetry, Wilkinson was born in 1910, lived quite a privileged life in Rosedale (an upper-class neighbourhood of Toronto), published two collections of highly mythical, metaphorical, and allusive poetry (The Hangman Ties the Holly and Counterpoint to Sleep) and a children’s book (Swann and Daphne), was involved with The Tamarack Review and Here and Now, and died of cancer in 1961. Dean edited Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson, which was published in 2003.  I wrote my master’s thesis on her, and I think she’s fantastic, so of course I was thrilled with Dean’s idea. And then I promptly forgot about it.

A few months later—a comprehensive exam passed, a trip to Victoria for DEMiC over, an EMiC RAship complete—I’m finally beginning the archive in earnest. If you remember back to the list of things to think about when planning a digital archive (you can find it here), the most obvious first thing to do is figure out where the papers you want to work with are held, and talk to the librarians there. I very nervously sent an email to Anne Dondertman at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, and crossed my fingers that my hopes for the project wouldn’t be dashed by nay-saying archivists who didn’t want to hand their valuable papers over to a mere graduate student.

I met with Anne this morning, and it turns out that my fears were entirely unfounded—she has been nothing but lovely and incredibly enthusiastic. Fisher used to have a department devoted to digital special collections (you can check them out here), but presumably for lack of funding, it has been disbanded. As we all know, librarians and archivists are driven by the oft-conflicting impulses to both protect and make available their holdings; since she no longer has the resources to do them herself, Anne is happy to help  me with my project which will make Wilkinson’s work available and keep the physical papers safe.

Not only has Fisher granted me unlimited use of their book2net camera to create the page images that will be the basis of the archive (and have waived the usual $0.50 per page fee), they’ve also given me access to three boxes of as-yet-unsorted material donated by Wilkinson’s family in the 1990s. Moreover, they’re training me in manuscript sorting so that I can organize them for inclusion with the rest of the Wilkinson papers, and they’re letting me write the finding aid. As Anne said to me today, “Isn’t it wonderful to be a graduate student?” Yes!

I’ve got three next steps to do/figure out simultaneously. One, I’m going to get trained in how to organize the manuscript material and write the finding aid and then sort those three boxes. Two, I need to figure out an effective numbering system for my scans before I begin creating digital images of the manuscript pages. As Anne emphasized to me, this step is crucial because being organized from the start will save me a lot of work and hassle down the road. Three, I need to decide if and how I’m going to limit what I choose to include in the archive. Will it be just poetry? Poetry and letters? Poetry, letters, and juvenalia? Poetry, letters, juvenalia, and journals? What I choose to include is mostly constrained by the need to limit the scope of the project—I’ve only got so much time to complete the archive, and I’ve also got a dissertation to write. Considering that I spent four unplanned hours in the archives this morning discovering all sorts of interesting things in those unsorted boxes (A play based on Maria Chadelaine! The real-world location of the tree from Swann and Daphne! Literary squabbles!), time management is definitely going to be a recurring topic of discussion in these posts.

I’ll be back with another post when the project has progressed a bit and I’ve got more issues and exciting discoveries to discuss. Stay tuned!

4 Responses to “Diary of a Digital Archive: Part One”

  1. […] Wondering how digital archives are made? Here’s the first of a blog post series. […]

  2. S.S. says:

    Paradoxes always fascinate me, as do the people and ideas that resolve them. Thanks for pointing to the “oft-conflicting impulses to both protect and make available their holdings” – I had not thought of it quite like that previously. I’m looking forward to seeing you “safely” resurrect and make available this material…as well as… being witness to your juggling act of professional, academic, personal and hobby-horse obligations. If anyone can accomplish this with grace, a.k.a. meticulous planning, it is you, Ms. Dalgleish.

  3. Hannah McGregor says:

    Like your conference presentation this weekend, I really appreciate this post, Melissa. It is incredibly exciting and useful to hear a play-by-play of another graduate student working through the practicalities of their work, and I appreciate the spirit in which you share this with the larger group. I can’t wait to read more!

  4. Melissa says:

    Thanks Sonia, and Hannah. I do think that it’s important to discuss not just the theoretical aspects of our work, but the very practical ones as well. It’s really basic questions like the one I emailed Dean with recently–“What do I do after I’ve finished scanning everything?”–that often don’t have obvious answers. Dean and Meg jokingly call EMiC “where we get it wrong the first time,” and I’m happy to share my false-starts and wrong choices so that other people can avoid them.

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