WPRP Phase 2: Stop Reading, Start Curating

On my calendar I had listed for January 3 “Stop Reading WPRP” — a phrase that meant that my allotted time to read, browse, and skim through all 450+ works in the Women Poets of the Romantic Period Collection (at CU-Boulder’s Special Collections) was up. I had spent 10-12 hours per week the previous semester (Fall 2011) handling, taking photographs of, reading through, fondling, blogging about, tweeting about (#wprp), and falling in love with the WPRP collection. I managed to read parts or all of half of the books in the collection — about 225 works. And while doing my best to at least look at such a large selection of books and materials, all of which need to be handled delicately and without rushing since they were at various stages of falling apart, I gathered a group of favorites that I kept coming back to either for research, teaching, or pleasure. Without trying, I memorized the WPRP # shelfmark for these. I was entrenched.

The timeline for the phases of the WPRP project was pretty straightforward from the beginning, when I started the project in the summer of 2011. Phase 1: Fall 2011 – get to know the collection by getting a broad sense of its contents, skimming and handling a large quantity of the works, and picking a few particular works to spend a lot of time with. Phase 2: Spring and summer 2012 – curate 2 exhibits, an in-house exhibit for BWWC 2012 (June 7-10) as well as an archive-quality digital exhibit. Learning how to keep moving through such a fascinating and, to me, large collection that I would not have time to read through completely was a learning experience in itself — I can’t emphasize how much I wanted to linger with volume 2 of Ann MacVicar Grant’s Letters from the Mountains since I allowed myself to read all of volume I, or how much I wanted to re-read Charlotte Bury Campbell’s The Three Sanctuaries of Tuscany, Valombrosa, and Camaldoli after I read it the first time. I spent way too much time transcribing a letter we have written by Mary Cockle and mailed to Jane Porter, containing an elegy on Anna Maria Porter that has never been published (as well as some very hard to decipher correspondence on the edge of the letter). Distractions abounded, but I kept plowing through right up until winter break.

When I returned from break in early January, I knew that nestled between phase 1 (read) and phase 2 (curate) was a point at which I would have to stop reading, processing, and envisioning. Stop browsing the spines on the shelf, the online catalog, and the special collections card catalog for buried treasure and items to tweet about and ponder for dissertation material. I’m reminded of a piece that Mark Sample recently published in the Chronicle called “The Cure for Thinking is Work”. While learning the WPRP archive was certainly not spinning my wheels and was, in fact, mandatory for the curation phase of the project, it would have to end in a transition from reading and researching to different kinds of doing: collaborating, modeling an exhibit, coding, and troubleshooting. How did this transition happen? How did I stop the strong impulse to keep reading?

1. Project planning & gathering collaborators for phase 2 in advance: Toward the middle and the end of fall semester, the WPRP team grew and held a number of meetings that helped me transition my thinking away from research and discovery and toward the “making” part of the project. Happily, our team grew to include Amanda Brown, a new hire who serves as the education director for Special Collections, as well as Danielle Forte, a graduate student with experience curating museum exhibits. The WPRP team meetings began to coalesce more detailed visions for how both in-house and digital exhibits would come together and support longer term scholarly and pedagogical projects — like the Stainforth catalog digitization project that is a small part of the uber project: digitizing the entire WPRP collection. It was this evolving series of collaborations and meetings in the fall that looked ahead to the spring phase of the project that helped me prepare to stop trolling the WPRP stacks. Project planning meetings and teammate gathering helped me start to apply the brakes early, so to speak.

2. Understanding the enormity of my spring workload: It was also somewhat easy to stop reading because I had no illusions about how much work it was going to be to TEI encode a selection of works and publish them in time for the June 7-10 conference, all in addition to preparing the in-house exhibit and co-organizing this 20th Anniversary major conference. Encoding is both intellectually challenging and rote — if you have a model established, it’s easy to make progress, but editorial decisions — especially when encoding a variety of genres, longer works, and with a giant archive in mind — can be very, very tricky. Once you make a decision, you need to treat all similar scenarios in the digitization process the same way for consistency, and I am documenting all of these decisions for the longterm WPRP encoding project. Also, though I have had very good training in TEI encoding from having worked closely with Laura Mandell for several years, and though she continues to so generously mentor me remotely, I work slowly and carefully and fret about making poor decisions. (I actually see this as a good thing. Fast and furious is not the way to go, in my opinion.) I am very devoted to creating a platform digital collection of WPRP works that will catalyze the longterm project of digitizing the entire WPRP collection — all 450+ works. It is a collection that scholars rave about when I describe it and making it freely available in digital format for research and teaching purposes would be a valuable contribution to romanticism scholarship and, more broadly, to the Humanities. And so, with so much work ahead, it was easier than I expected to put the cradle away and stop reading when I returned from Christmas break. I updated my version of Oxygen and got down to it.

Going Forward: Or, The Importance of Great Headphones: Special Collections is a joyous, and sometimes raucous, intellectual place to work. The librarians are extremely friendly and helpful, but most of all, excited about the artifacts they catalog, display, and talk about with visiting scholars and classes working in the collection. We even keep a little bound journal, just for fun, of the books and items in the collection that we fall in love. We’re aware of how fully we romanticize rare books. Stopping reading through the WPRP collection opens the door for distraction by the other amazing items in the collection and goings on in the rare book room — you should see the pop-up book collection, for example, or the artists books on display. But thanks to my headphones, Pandora, and a collection of Google Docs (shared with my WPRP teammates) that contain to-do lists and documentation, I have so far staved off distraction. Already, I have a working draft of our teiHeader and taxonomy for the full WPRP and have started encoding Mary Alcock’s The Air Balloon, lined up a colleague to be a second transcription witness for the Mary Cockle letter/elegy by mid-February, have a colleague to help with XSLTs for the TEI files, and have my working list of items for the in-house and digital exhibits. More updates on progress will follow in the coming months.

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