Tag Archives: research


photo of handdrawn whale from whaling journal

In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable. ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

One of the many things I love about doing the April A-to-Z challenge is the opportunity to discover new words, ones that I would not normally utilize but that speak to me during my quest through the alphabet. One of the many things I love about being an archivist is the opportunity to discover new “old” things — things untouched, unseen, perhaps even unknown for years, decades, centuries. The best of all possible worlds is when these two passions can combine. That is the case here.

The photograph above is from an 1850s whaling journal that I found in our manuscript materials. No one is certain how it ended up here, but we’re all certainly glad it did. For the most part, the journal tracks a ship across the Atlantic and around the coast of Africa during the 1850s. At some point, several different hands entered information or comments. Along the way, entries include descriptive information about the weather, the ship, or things they have seen. Most also include the latitude and longitude, from which we hope at some point to create a digital exhibit tracking the journey. There are also numbers and poetry. And sketches — certainly a favorite part! There are little whale tails with comments of them getting away from the ship, and then there is this specimen. The cachalot, or sperm whale, about three-quarters of the way through the book. As the entry indicates, the whale and some of his friends were spotted on January 26, 1858.

As we learn more about the ship and its journey and crew, we hope to create a digital exhibit sharing the full account of the journal. We’ve already discovered some quite interesting comments and ideas as we’ve started work on it. I look forward to sharing more as the story unfolds, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with another quote:

The heroic and often tragic stories of American whalemen were renowned. They sailed the world’s oceans and brought back tales filled with bravery, perseverance, endurance, and survival. They mutinied, murdered, rioted, deserted, drank, sang, spun yarns, scrimshawed, and recorded their musings and observations in journals and letters. They survived boredom, backbreaking work, tempestuous seas, floggings, pirates, putrid food, and unimaginable cold. Enemies preyed on them in times of war, and competitors envied them in times of peace. Many whalemen died from violent encounters with whales and from terrible miscalculations about the unforgiving nature of nature itself. And through it all, whalemen, those “iron men in wooden boats” created a legacy of dramatic, poignant, and at times horrific stories that can still stir our emotions and animate the most primal part of our imaginations. “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” proclaimed Herman Melville, and the epic story of whaling is one of the mightiest themes in American history.
― Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

[This post is #3 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please click on the button on the right side of the page for more information about the challenge or to locate others participating — there are more than 1600!]

Previous A-to-Z posts:
2012: Cooking up Something Good
2011: Chapel Cars


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Poetry in Motion

Jane Reece and Paul Shivell exhibit

Capturing the Moment: The Intersection of Poetry and Photography in the Work of Paul Shivell and Jane Reece


Photography’s own etymology connects it to writing: photography literally means writing with light. A great many poems focus on light and time, photography’s two essential ingredients. Illumination is at the heart of both, the illumination of something evanescent, intense, fleeting. The singular eye of the photographer is akin to the singular voice of the poet. How alike poems and photographs can feel, both concise slivers of the whole, blinks of time and sensation.

~ Scripps College, 2006

Part of my work as an archivist is creating exhibits which highlight our collection materials. Exhibits give us the chance to show off some of our materials, sometimes the familiar, sometimes the unknown, and to take our materials –usually copies, not originals, by the way– to different areas. Special Collections and Archives is located on the top floor of our library, a place few people head unless they know they want to see us or to find a quiet spot to study. Many of our exhibit cases, including our largest ones, are located just inside the main entrances to our library.

My colleague, officemate, and BFF Toni and I have just finished creating and installing two cases of exhibits that we both simply fell in love with while doing the project. We hatched the idea for these cases back in early winter and have been putting them together ever since. The focus –Capturing the Moment– centers on the work of Jane Reece, a local Dayton photographer from the early part of the 20th century, and her fabulous photography.

Jane Reece self-portrait

"The Poinsettia Girl," Jane Reece self-portrait, 1907.

Coupled with Reece’s phenomenal photographs are other local Dayton artists, notably the Schwarz Sisters, who founded the Dayton Ballet, and poet Paul Shivell.

Toni created the magnificent and hauntingly beautiful exhibit on the Schwarz Sisters and Reece.

Schwarz Sisters and Jane Reece exhibit

Capturing the Moment: The Intersection of Dance and Photography in the Careers of the Schwarz Sisters and Jane Reece

Reece’s photographs of the two sisters capture their beauty and elegance, their graceful movements.

My contribution was the side of the exhibit pictured at the top of the post – the Jane Reece and Paul Shivell connection. Shivell’s poetry is a mix of religious works, folksy dialect poems, and –what I think are his best works– his pastorals, many of which were written about the Stillwater River near Dayton. His first book was published in 1898, but it was his second one, Stillwater Pastorals, which attracted the most attention. Indeed, it caught the eye of one famous American poet, Robert Frost. As I noted in a post last fall about Frost, Frost sent a letter to Shivell, complimenting him on the book, mentioning two poems by name. When I saw that letter, I knew I wanted to create an exhibit about this little-known Dayton poet. When Toni raised the idea of doing an exhibit using Reece’s photographs, I knew it was a winner. Part of the new Shivell collection we have are portraits of Shivell and his family taken by Reece. Between the Shivell collection (which is still being processed) and the Reece collection, there were many portraits available to work with. Reece took portraits of Shivell, including a stunning study of just his hands. She also took family portraits, photographs of his children, and there are Reece photographs of Shivell’s daughter from about the age of 4 or 5 all the way up into adulthood. In return, Shivell had written several sonnets to Jane Reece, including works about her cottage, the art of her photography, and several on specific images, including his own portrait by her. And in a strange, final connection, I discovered that Reece had taken a series of portraits of Robert Frost as well. I love it when things come together.

So, especially since April is National Poetry Month, what better way to celebrate Poetry in Motion than by looking at the unique blending of dance, poetry, and photography, each an art of capturing the moment.

[Note: This post is #16 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button on the right of the page for more information.
Last year’s “P” post: Peacock in the Park.]

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Reading Photographs

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.

~ Dorothea Lange

I love a good mystery. From my childhood days of reading Nancy Drew to my current fascination with reading good mystery stories and indulging in crime shows on television, I simply adore getting caught up in trying to solve a set of clues. One of the many things I love about my job as an archivist is that I occasionally get to try to solve a mystery. Okay, not really a cool *mystery* like a crime or some unsolved cold case. I wish! But I do run into regular things that come in to us as “unknown” that require a bit of historical detective work. That’s a challenge I enjoy digging in to solve.

The archives I work at deals with a lot of aviation-related items, so we frequently get unidentified aircraft photographs. Thankfully, we have a wonderful crew of volunteers, many retired from spending a lifetime working at the nearby Air Force base, who come in and spend hours identifying aircraft information for us. But the other half of our collections pertain to local and regional history, so we also come into contact with many unidentified local and family history items. Oftentimes, the staff or student responsible for organizing the collection and making it available for researchers gets the task of trying to solve some of these unknowns in the collection. In the spring, I teach a course for undergraduates on working with primary sources in their research projects and presentations. One of the assignments I most enjoy is when we get to working with photographs.

Learning to read photographs is much like reading a good detective story. At first look, there may not be very many clues to help solve the mystery. But sometimes a bit of detective work will help give at least a partial solution to the mystery. By using the type of photograph, items in the photograph, and other sources, a bit of research can oftentimes prove worthwhile in figuring out at least some identifying characteristics. Here are a few of the tips and tricks we use in the archives to help us solve the mysteries of unknown photographs.

What do you see?  This is an obvious but important first step.  What things are in the photograph you’re looking at?  Can they give you any clue as to the date or place the photograph was taken?  If you can identify the kind of photograph you have, that can give you a probable date range for when the picture was taken.  Is it in a case, like a daguerreotype or ambrotype?  Is the photographic material metal like a tintype?  If it is printed on paper, what kind of print might it be?   The Library of Congress has great resources to help with this, including sample photographs and a chronological chart of when different photographic processes were used. Clothing, hairstyles, and objects or scenery in the picture can also help find an approximate date for when the picture was taken. But also look beyond the main subject of the photograph. Sometimes the best clues as to when or where the photograph was taken are hidden in the background or along the edges. This photo of a local business is a great example. We knew from other photographs that were with this one that it was taken in 1905, but by using the calendar hanging on the office wall, we were able to discover that May was the only month in 1905 that started on a Monday!

Why this photograph? Photographs are taken for a reason, so looking at a photograph’s composition can also help in solving photographic mysteries. Why did the photographer chose this angle, this pose, or these items? What about them does the photographer want to show or to hide? What is the context of the photograph and its setting? What happened just before or right after this moment? Is there something missing, things outside the frame of the photo? Here’s a favorite example from my stash of family photographs. Now for those readers who know me personally, it probably comes as no surprise that I have a wee bit of a stubborn streak. One my mother documented in this photograph, where my long-suffering violin instructor was trying to persuade her very stubborn pupil to continue on with her lesson after making a mistake. I like to caption this picture as “Pretty please?”

What else do you have? Are there other photographs of the same people or similar places? Are there letters or diaries or newspaper clippings or any other kind of documents that may help understand the context or subject of the photo? Is there anything in the image that would lead you to other sources of information? One great possibility is to check with a local historical society or archive to see if they have any similar items or other historical materials that may help in your quest. Here is one of my favorite photographs from our collections, an image of four generations of women in a family. Thankfully at some point, someone had identified the women in the photograph, but we didn’t have a date for when it was taken. But, because we knew who was in the picture, we were able to narrow down an approximate time frame by using the known birth date of the youngest girl and the death date of the oldest women, the great-grandmother. As it turned out, there was only a period of a few months when this image could have been taken.

If you are interested in learning more about reading photographs, there are a lot of materials available online. One of the best resources for the conservation and preservation of family photographs and papers is the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC). Also, be sure to find a copy of Maureen A. Taylor’s book, Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photography, an excellent resource to walk you through the steps of working with family photo collections. Finally, there are a lot of fabulous genealogy sites and networks available, and the resources they provide are outstanding. Many public libraries subscribe to Ancestry.com, so if you are not a member, you can still gain access to the millions of resources they have available as well. Local historical societies and family sites are also great resources to contact for help in identifying photographs and documents.

Reading photographs is a challenging and time-consuming thing to do. But if you are on the hunt to identify family photographs, sometimes you can get closer to your goal with a bit of research. A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. But after all, anything you can find out about the photograph will be more than where you started. And if you’re like me and love a good mystery to solve? You’ll get addicted to the process.

Have you found some challenging photographs to identify in your family photograph collection?


Filed under Archives, History, Life

RWA Workshops

RWA Workshop panel

Each day learn something new, and just as important, relearn something old. ~Robert Brault

One of the greatest benefits of conferences is the ability to attend workshops to learn new things and rethink things you already know. RWA provides an astounding amount of workshops to pick from, and, like most conferences, oftentimes there are several engaging ones all at the same time. Luckily, RWA records many of the sessions and makes them available for purchase, so attendees can have access to nearly all the content after the conference. RWA also tags sessions into various tracks, such as Craft, Publishing, Writer’s Life/Muse, Research, and Career, to help attendees focus on a particular area during the conference if so desired. Some of the most informative sessions are done by the publishing houses, offering spotlights on their lines presented by editors of the house, highlighting upcoming releases and talking about what they’d most like to see in submissions. And the signings, where authors of specific publishers sign free books. If desired, attendees can end up with extremely large amounts of books to haul home!

On the first afternoon, workshops I attended focused on making the most of your pitch appointment and a fun and engaging session on “Can You Do that in an Inspirational?” which covered what you can and can’t do when writing inspirational romance. The last session of the day was an editor discussing the importance of romance fiction, and she was full of practical advice for writers at all levels. And keep in mind, each of these sessions were just one of nine or ten options being offered each hour!

Thursday brought workshops all day, from 8:30 in the morning until 5:30 that evening. Sessions I went to included information on world-building, e-books, contracts, and romance review websites. This day was also the Harlequin book signing and the spotlight on Harlequin single title books. One of the sessions I most enjoyed was the one by Beth Adams, Senior Editor at Guidepost Books, who presented on “Using True Facts from History to Spin a High-Concept Story.” Not only was the topic intriguing, but I was totally unfamiliar with Guidepost Books prior to this session. I was also able to contribute a comment about the benefits of using and partnering with archives when writing historical fiction, a topic I previously discussed here on the blog. Without question, however, the highlight of the day was the Awards Luncheon and the very emotional keynote given by Sherrilynn Kenyon, which left many in tears. In contrast to the emotional highs of the day, Thursday also brought the moment where I left a session going, “Did she really just say what I think she said?” In one of the sessions, the presenter unfortunately chose to introduce her comments –not just once, but twice– with the phrase: “Well, let me put this in dumb people’s terms…..” I was certainly not the only one offended by that one. But overall, an amazing day!

Friday was the last workshop day, again filled from morning to early evening with more sessions than I thought possible to absorb. If you aren’t familiar with Deb Dixon’s book, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC), it is worth every penny. Dixon presented a condensed workshop focusing on the “Big Black Moment” that offered suggestions on building and creating the BBM in your writing. Other great sessions focused on one-page plotting, revisions, submission packages, critique partnerships, punching up the emotion of your story, and historical clothing. Finally, Tara Taylor Quinn packed the house for the last session of the conference with her highly informative workshop on creating a successful blog tour. After her Chapman Files tour and the recent tour for It Happened on Maple Street, she was full of excellent advice, and attendees peppered questions to take advantage of learning the best practices of creating a successful promotional blog tour for their own books.

Friday night brought an end to the conference with the annual RITA and Golden Heart Awards Ceremony where the best of both unpublished and published works are honored. For romance writers, this is our Emmy, Oscar, and Tony awards all wrapped up into one big evening. Emceed by Meg Cabot, the evening always brings emotional speeches and memorable moments.

Each year always brings, as the above quote suggests, the chance to learn new elements of romance writing as well as the opportunity to relearn (or better learn) things writers already do. I come away inspired to do more and to do better. And looking forward to next year’s conference.

Tomorrow I’ll share some of my favorite moments and a RWA 2011 wrap-up, including my visit to Broadway!

What kinds of things do you take away from conferences? Do you think they’re worth the money and time to go?

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Peacock in the Park

Peacock in the park

Peacock in Campo Grande

People are crying up the rich and variegated plumage of the peacock, and he is himself blushing at the sight of his ugly feet. ~ Sa’Di

This peacock and I became pretty good friends one spring. Or maybe he just tolerated me invading his space on a regular basis. But I’d like to think we were, on some level, friends. After the first week, he would always be hanging around my favorite bench when I showed up. We ate lunch together nearly every day for four months. Well, I ate lunch. I think he mostly watched to see if I was going to drop anything. Feeding the peacocks wasn’t encouraged in the Campo Grande.

I met Pea when I was living in Valladolid, Spain, doing historical research in the Archivo General de Simancas, about 10 kilometers outside of town.  I spent an amazing four months there, spending hours every day immersed in the documents of ambassadors and diplomats and of kings and queens of the late sixteenth century.  Valladolid was a bustling, modern city, yet one replete with history around every corner.  The Plaza Mayor dates from the very early 1500s.  The town was the birthplace of Spain’s future king, Philip II.  Ferdinand and Isabella were married there in 1469, and Christopher Columbus died there in 1506.  The Casa de Cervantes was home to Cervantes and his family between 1603 and 1606, as he labored to finish his masterpiece, Don Quixote.  And Semana Santa, or Holy Week in Valladolid is one of the most spectacular celebrations in all of Spain.  I was fortunate enough to experience Holy Week activities there and in Madrid during my stay.

Palm Sunday in Valladolid Spain

Semana Santa parade

Simancas is amazing all by itself.  The town is small, with the unmistakable signs of having been there seemingly forever.  Around one corner, visitors can find a glorious bridge, with more than fifteen arches, which sits amid older, less-fortunate remains of old walls. Ruins look as though they could easily be from falling under attacks during the battles between Moors and Christians in the tenth-century. Weather-worn stone buildings dot the small streets, and there was a charming little bar that served a marvelous brandy and frittata, followed by a very strong coffee, in the mid-mornings.

Archivo General de Simancas

Archivo General de Simancas

But the village is dominated by the Simancas Castle, which houses the archives. The building itself is historical, as it was the first modern building –and note by modern I’m talking the late 1400s– designed to house the important state documents of the kingdom. Philip II, understanding that history was best remembered in written form, made Simancas the active archives of his global empire. At best estimate, the Archivo General houses more than 33 million documents, containing both private and state papers significant to the history of Spain.

That’s why I was there, to research in those marvelously old papers. Once in the morning and once again after the noontime break visiting Pea, I’d walk up the stairs that people had walked on for more than 500 years, duck through the old wooden door, and find a place at a table in the old Great Hall to immerse myself into stories centuries old. One of the first days I was there I opened up a folio of letters and discovered one penned by Queen Elizabeth I of England, complete with fanciful signature and her symbolic crest embedded in red wax over the ribbon which had once sealed the letter for travel.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that moment was one of the reasons I later became an archivist. At the time, I was simply a history geek, talking to a peacock in the park about what I learned and saw that day. I don’t think Pea cared much, but he listened well.  Even to the crazy American woman who spoke English to a peacock in the park on her lunch hour.

[Note: This post is #16 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]

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