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Running amok in the libraries of the North

In which I explain what it is that I actually do at my internship with the Maine Historical Society (and my volunteer work at the Portland Public Library)

overcast 71 °F

I know it's been a while since I last wrote, and I'm very sorry, yes, but the weather has magically improved and I'm here to tell you about what I do at the Maine Historical Society, which is technically the reason I'm here in the first place.

The Maine Historical Society is kind of downtown, a block away from the public library and two blocks down from Monument Square (which is where that Wednesday farmers' market is). It consists of the Museum (on the location where my great-great-grandfather Cyrus Lowell owned a shoe store {here's some info on his son}), the Wadsworth-Longfellow House (the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and the Brown Research Library (sharing a building with the archives on what is apparently the location of the family's barn). There's also a nice little garden off to the side of the library where I sometimes eat lunch.

I work in the reading room right by the front desk, where my supervisor works (she's a reference librarian). She started me off touching up the old finding aids for some of the early collections, and it turns out I'm pretty good at it (I've also gotten pretty good a typing quickly on a Windows 7 laptop). For those of you who aren't familiar with archival systems or historical societies, a lot of our collections are just the papers and books of people long since dead donated to the library by their living descendants. Some of these people (like Joshua Chamberlain and the Wadsworth/Longfellow family) are quite famous, others (like Zebulon King Harmon and F.O.J. Smith) only for their time, and some (like Llewellyn Barton and his family) barely at all.

And yes, people did name their children Zebulon, and other names that were much, much worse. In my own house we have the portrait of a great-grandmother or other named Aphaia; we also have the lovely family story about the poor Romulus and Remus Shapleigh boys whose parents were in competition with the Clay family across the street (a mile away, of course, this is farming country in Kentucky) naming their own poor boys Cassius and Brutus. And yes, exactly like Cassius Clay, but I digress.

So these collections are generally made up of letters and deeds and things that can be put into folders that can be put into boxes that can be put onto a shelf. (Bigger items, like books and maps and things, are special.) And each collection needs an inventory to explain what is in each folder in each box (what's on each shelf is a call number thing). This inventory-thing, if you add some other information, turns into a finding aid. That's what I've been working on, starting with Coll. 1. Or maybe it was Coll. 2. Anyway, most of these haven't been updated since 1970, back when everything was still being done on typewriters. Usually to update the finding aid, I first copy the brief summary of contents in the collection's entry in the online catalog. Then I add some biographical information about the people the collection is about; sometimes the finding aid contains said information among its typewritten goodies; other times I have to look it up myself, mostly using Ancestry.com. After that I check the inventory, which is usually just a brief go-over of the folders, and then I'm done.

Of course, being me, I must format the contents and dates of each folder and make sure that the relationships all make sense, especially when everything ties back to the biographical information. For instance, why would Joshua Chamberlain's wife write a letter to her cousin addressing him as her dear father? It's because her parents sent her to live with him and his wife when she was two, and they raised her. Or why is Anne E. Gould's last will and testament in the Barton family file when she was never a Barton? It's because (after some heavy Ancestry.com sleuthing) her sister Elizabeth Newman married that Llewellyn Barton I mentioned earlier. If I'm really desperate, I go to the family genealogy books and sort through pages and pages of names and dates until I find who I'm looking for.

Currently I am (and have been for three days) working on a giant letter collection of stuff sent to or from semi-famous people from Maine, mostly from the 19th century. This is, of course, an item-level inventory and wow is it a mess. Not only are things out of order, but the order is often silly. "Don't look for me here!" a letter will say, "I was written to C.S. Daveis, so that's where you should look!" Go to C.S. Daveis, no record of said letter in sight. "I know I was written after that letter, but I want to be listed first," they say. "Really, my signature does read Reifhohvshglzsg!" Actually, it was John C. Breckinridge. (After all, how many Presidents of the Senate have there been? Also, shoutout to Wikipedia's handy inclusion of the signatures of famous people on their entry info - it's nice to know which famous person wrote the letter you're holding.)

The best part, aside from making order out of chaos, is getting to hold truly old and historical items in your bare hands. (Yes, recently-washed bare hands are better than gloved because they allow for much better fine motor control.) Like a 300-year-old letter to some English nobles. Or an original land deed from the Saco Indians (?) to Bridget Phillips. Or a manuscript copy of a petition to King George I.

I could go on, but my wrists are starting to complain.

As for the public library, I shall elaborate another day, but so far my volunteer work consists of sitting at the desk of the bookstore and occasionally selling a book or two to a patron. Much less fun than the rest of the time I spend there...

Posted by poetisa16 13:26 Archived in USA Tagged landmarks history family library genealogy names archive ancestry

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