Edinburgh’s Early Americans

Invitation from the President of the United States to Robert and Henrietta Liston, 1797 (NLS shelfmark: MS.5590 f. 43)

Invitation from the President of the United States to Robert and Henrietta Liston, 1797 (NLS shelfmark: MS.5590 f. 43)

With all eyes on Scotland this week, The Junto chats with Dora Petherbridge, International Collections Curator (U.S. & Commonwealth) at the National Library of Scotland. To learn about George Washington’s Edinburgh connection, and how NLS is “collecting the Referendum” for history, read on.

JUNTO: Can you describe the range and scope of the NLS collections?

PETHERBRIDGE: Material coming into the National Library of Scotland through Legal Deposit, donation and purchase expands the range and of scope of the collection by over 6,000 items every week. These new items join our existing collection of over 2 million maps, 32,000 films, more than 7 million manuscripts and over 16 million printed items. Joining this extraordinary wealth of material are social media streams and websites on subjects such as the Independence Referendum, which are harvested and archived. In regard to NLS’s international collections, the Library acquired its first foreign books in the 1680’s. Since this time, NLS has built up a particularly extensive collection of United States material which can be found in all formats: manuscript, map, digital and print. A particular strength is items relating to Scots in America and there is a considerable quantity of material concerning Scottish emigration to North America. While our holdings include much on Scottish-American links, there are great number of 18th- and 19th-century works relating to the US, especially travel, topography and history.

JUNTO: Any special collections items, letters, objects, or favorite “puzzles” that you’d like to highlight here?

PETHERBRIDGE: As my colleagues would attest, choosing favourites is difficult; there are so many outstanding collection items—fascinating and redolent in their different ways. Particularly special to me are the diaries and letters of Henrietta Marchant (1751-1828), who in 1796 married Scottish diplomat Robert Liston (1742-1836)—newly appointed British minister to the United States. Henrietta’s writing from her stay in the U.S. has a winning combination of personal feeling, biased opinion, and political nous. Were it not for space constraints, I would quote whole passages here. In New York Henrietta observes of Governor John Jay “His eye is penetrating, his conversation sensible & intelligent; his deportment grave &, though his Political Character is firm & decided, there seems to be a general indecision in his manner of expressing his sentiments.” And, of Alexander Hamilton: “He is lively and animated in conversation, gallant in his manners, & sometimes Brilliant in his sallies, His political conduct has created him many Enemies & brought him unjustly much obloquy, He is, however, a great support to the Federal Constitution.” From Philadelphia Henrietta writes to her uncle:

[I] must trouble you for a great many little articles, it is impossible to tell how dear any thing is here, and how difficult to get; […] you may judge of the price of great matters, and the difficulty of small-ones, when I tell you that a hank of marking silk is not to be procured in Philadelphia for love or Money” […] “of Us all advantages are taken, Foreign-Ministers are esteemed lawful Games, and there is less real principle in this Country than I expected to find […] yet, was our Door left open all night we should not, probably, be robbed, cheating not stealing seems to the error in America.”

I must also mention NLS’s unique copy of the first edition of Official Letters to the Honorable American Congress; it belonged to George Washington and bears his signature on the title page of both volumes. It also contains the editor John Carey’s ‘manuscript remarks’— notes and marginalia—designed to indicate his editorial decisions to the president. NLS recently loaned Official Letters to Mount Vernon for display in their museum. When I travelled to collect the volumes Mount Vernon curator Amanda Isaac and I discussed them and their fascinating journey to Scotland in a short video filmed in the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

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

PETHERBRIDGE: Thinking about links between Scotland and America, NLS provides exceptional resources for scholars. As well as the riches our manuscript collections hold, our printed collections are full of published personal accounts of Scots in America. We have databases on the subject—the Scots Abroad databases which contain records for published accounts of Scots in North America and Emigrants Guides to North America ranging from the 17th to the late 20th century. Collections I’d like to recommend are the Cochrane Papers, Liston Papers and Fettercairn Papers in our manuscripts collection. The Cochrane Papers include the private and official correspondence of Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane who served as Commander-in-Chief of the North American Station in 1814 and 1815 during the War of 1812. In the twenty or so boxes of documents relating to the War is material about coastal operations and prisoners, the siege of Washington, the burning of the White House, the Battle of New Orleans, and material about British dealings with Native Americans.

The Liston Papers is a wonderfully varied collection of official and personal documents from diplomat Robert Liston’s career which took him to the U.S. as British Minister in 1796. Among the numerous letters written by Robert and his wife Henrietta, are letters from Benjamin Rush and a note from Jefferson. The collection spans tiny receipts for hay or Madeira wine from the Listons’ travels round Virginia to dispatches describing the negotiations between the Americans and British about the island of Santo Domingo.

The Fettercairn Papers contain letters to Loyalist Dr. Myles Cooper written from America between 1775 and 1784. Charles Inglis writes evocatively to Cooper about events in New York during the revolution. We were delighted to talk to Christopher Minty from the University of Stirling about his work on Loyalists using NLS collections in the short film Loyalists in Revolutionary New York 1763-1785.

Other notable collections of interest are the Hugh Sharp Collection of first editions with American authors, which includes the signed copy of George Washington’s Official Letters to the Honorable American Congress, as well as works of travel and exploration in America; the Combe Collection of over 600 19th-century books on phrenology; the Birkbeck Collection of works dealing with professional and amateur printing also contains a significant number of American items.

JUNTO: It’s been exciting to watch NLS digital projects and crowdsourcing initiatives develop. Can you talk about the digital workflow and metadata standards that you developed, in order to make NLS resources available online?

PETHERBRIDGE: Gill Hamilton, NLS Digital Access Manager explains: We have procedures in place that cover the life cycle of the selection, digitisation, publishing and preservation of digital resources. The procedures include for example; what we select, addressing rights management issues, describing the resources, licensing, publication and distribution of resources, and their long term storage and preservation. We have not developed any metadata standards but rather we follow internationally recognised metadata and vocabularies; description rules we use are RDA and vocabularies include The Getty Research Institute thesauri for Geographic Names (TGN) and Arts and Architecture (AAT), Library of Congress vocabularies, Subject Headings (LCSH), Name Authority File (LCNAF) and Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGMI).

JUNTO: What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities of launching a digital project?

PETHERBRIDGE: Speaking to NLS Digital Access Manager, Gill Hamilton, the challenges of launching a digital project include the sheer volume of collections the Library has and how to select appropriate material for digitisation from this volume. Given limited resources, we must be sure that what we digitise meets customers’ needs but is also in keeping with the Library’s needs, for example preservation and digitisation for exhibitions. Rights and copyrights issues are also challenging as they may limit and constrain access. There is an organisational tension between licensing out of copyright materials as open access (public domain) and the (alleged) loss of potential income. A further challenge lies in identifying whether something selected for digitisation has already been digitised by another organisation, and is accessible.

The opportunities of launching digital projects are many: we are able to bring the Library’s collections and, through them, Scotland’s cultural heritage to a wider, global audience. We can contribute to the democratisation of knowledge and culture by allowing the collections to be used, re-used, mixed and remixed. We can enable new knowledge production by making collections available and, through international partnerships, we can widen distribution. Such partnerships include, the Wikimedia Foundation, The European Library, Europeana, and OCLC. NLS content at Europeana can be seen here. In 2013 NLS appointed Scotland’s first Wikimedian in Residence and NLS content at Wikimedia, from Jacobite broadsides to images of 19th century pantomime characters, can be viewed here.

JUNTO: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers about what’s on for early Americanists at NLS?

PETHERBRIDGE: Over the next few months we’ll be uploading content to our website on the Liston Papers. There will be a series of three short videos focussing on the Listons’ stay in the US and particularly their friendship with George and Martha Washington. Digital images of letters and diaries from the Liston Papers will appear online and in the videos. With this work I hope to highlight the depth and breadth of insights the Liston Papers can offer researchers. The National Library of Scotland is looking forward to hosting a Fulbright Scholar for the academic year 2015-16; it is expected that the Fulbright-National Library of Scotland Scholar Award will be run for four years. A display of special NLS collection items relating to the American Civil War will open in January 2015 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment.

JUNTO: How has the referendum debate affected the Library?

PETHERBRIDGE: The National Library has a responsibility to collect all material of Scottish interest produced in Scotland and internationally. The NLS is undertaking the huge task of ‘collecting the Referendum’. To preserve a documentary history of the landmark events taking place in Scotland, the NLS is acquiring material to create an unbiased, representative and inclusive collection of items relating to the Scottish Independence Referendum 2014. The collection will be a unique resource containing everything from ephemeral material to official publications. A Referendum Curator, Dr. Amy Todman, has been appointed to oversee the collection and is working with other members of staff and crucially, with the public to preserve the unique material circulating locally and nationally. The NLS has fascinating printed items from the first and second devolution referendums of 1979 and 1994, but in 2014 campaign material and commentary is often born digital. Sound, moving image, websites, blogs, and social media streams will all be collected. Developing an unbiased Referendum collection that will be useful to future generations of researchers requires pro-active work and collaboration in order to respond quickly and flexibly to what is undoubtedly an extremely significant event in Scotland’s history.

One comment on “Edinburgh’s Early Americans

  1. […] This is a truly epic blog that examines all kinds of history relating to early America, featuring guest posts by academic contributors. Again, while it is not devoted to the study of Loyalists, it does regularly feature content on Loyalist history. Some blog posts that would be most useful to educators include James Rivington: Printer, Loyalist, Spy? and Edinburgh’s Early Americans. […]

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