Collecting Connecticut

After enjoying the festivities of the Fourth, why not make it a whole weekend of early American history research? The Junto asked Barbara Austen, Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society, to introduce the institution’s collections and digital projects.

JUNTO: Can you describe the scope of the CHS collections, and how researchers  can access materials online/onsite? Any special collections items and  letters, or favorite “puzzles” that you’d like to highlight here?

AUSTEN: CHS collections include letters, diaries, financial records, account books, family papers and some business and organizational records from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), nearly all of our manuscripts have a basic catalog record in our online catalog. We also have a number of finding aids available from our catalog main page, the social diaries of a Hartford woman, Mary Morris, and a description of Civil War collections (static since about 2000) online.

One of my favorite collection pieces, aside from the Charlotte Cowles letters, is the diary of Hannah Hadassah Hickock at age 18. She lived in Farmington, Connecticut, and is perhaps best known as the mother of the Smith sisters who protested taxation without representation in Glastonbury, Connecticut, and had their cows seized in payment of those taxes. Reading Hannah’s diary, one gets an idea of where the “sisters” got their spunk. Although her entries are rather brief, she does not hesitate to express her opinions of other people, in particular one young man whom she really could not abide. One other gem is a diary/receipt book kept by Nathan Hale, which unfortunately does not reveal anything about an assignment as a spy. There are undoubtedly many other treasures that wait to be discovered since during the cataloging project we undertook over the past four years, quantity was more important than detail; we know we missed some things using the approach of More Product/Less Process, the idea that getting the word out there about a collection is more important than analyzing it in detail. We hope that as researchers use the collections, they will let us know about what they are finding so we can refine our descriptions.

JUNTO: It’s exciting to learn of the Cowles-Amistad letters finding a good home at  the CHS. Can you talk about the digital workflow and metadata standards  that you developed, in order to make them available to researchers online? What are some of the challenges and opportunities of launching a digital project?

AUSTEN: To be honest, this was the first major digitization project we did in-house and I did not have time to develop a workflow due to a self-imposed deadline. All of the letters were scanned in color with an overhead scanner at 300 dpi as tiff’s. Charlotte’s handwriting is very small and light, and I knew the letters would be difficult to read online. Three dedicated volunteers assisted in transcribing all of the letters in just over a month. The decision to have them hosted by Connecticut History Online was to be able to have the transcript available along with the image, something that its software, ContentDM, can provide. Our major challenges with digital projects is staff time and expertise, and long-term preservation of digital “assets.” The library does not at present scan to a particular standard, except for the size and format (even file naming is a bit haphazard), and one will need to be developed in the very near future. This will be forced upon us if we are successful in winning another NHPRC grant to digitize 11 manuscript collections that focus on the years around the Revolutionary War. We have papers for Jonathan Trumbull Jr., Oliver Wolcott Jr.the artist John Trumbull, among others. Two other significant collections, Samson Occom’s papers and an artificial collection entitled “American Revolution Collection are also included. Once again, we are turning to Connecticut History Online as our host. Most of the selected collections have online finding aids that will be linked to the images of the documents in each folder.

JUNTO: How can CHS resources open up new avenues of scholarship for early  Americanists? Any pre-1865 collections you’d especially like to  recommend for research?

AUSTEN: One underused collection that I think has an amazing wealth of information is the Jeremiah Wadsworth Papers. Wadsworth was Commissary for the Continental Army for a time and then was Commissary for the French troops during the Revolution. He was also a merchant and a speculator; he had his hands in many different ventures. His correspondents include all the “big names” in the Revolutionary era, including George Washington. Not to get stuck on great white men, but there are two other collections that do not get used as much as I could hope. One is the papers of Gov. Thomas Fitch, who was in office during the French and Indian Wars, and the Wyllys family, who dominated Connecticut politics in the early 18th century. Some of our earliest documents can be found in the Wyllys papers.

JUNTO: Can you reflect on how digital resources are changing historical scholarship and the daily life of historical societies?

AUSTEN: We are finding that researchers expect to find materials online and are often very disappointed that we cannot provide instant access. However, even with the Cowles letters online, some scholars still want to see the real thing, which is heartening. As we develop an institution-wide technology plan, I hope we will be able to address our researchers’ needs with a well-thought out and comprehensive approach to digitizing more of our collections. How we proceed needs to take into account our development/fundraising, external affairs/outreach and education programming as well as collections.  We are slowly expanding our digital resources by opening up our blog to all of the CHS staff, putting up stories on the site “Your Public Media” hosted by Connecticut Public Television, and exploring Pinterest and YouTube projects.

JUNTO: What’s next for digital/special projects at the Connecticut Historical Society?

AUSTEN: Through several grants, we are currently scanning and making available on our public museum catalog, E-Museum, all of our maps. Museum objects are regularly photographed and/or scanned and made available online. I have not developed a efficient way to scan our manuscript collections to put on Connecticut History Online, which is currently the best way to make these available. In our cataloging, we make every attempt to connect manuscript items and museum collections through notes fields. Like many institutions, we wish there were a better way to link the online library catalog with the museum catalog. We are taking baby steps and hope to be fully engaged in more digitization in the coming years.


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