THATCamp, me, and Virginia Tech Libraries


This is a “book.” That is, an audio cassette. This other “book” is a screen
and a microchip. This other “book,” the sky.

–Albert Goldbarth, “Library,” Saving Lives, Ohio State University Press. Originally published in The Iowa Review 29.1 (Spring 1999). Reproduced by Poetry Daily by permission.

 

Going to the second-ever THATCamp at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media back in 2009 was definitely one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made. It was exciting, and interesting, and informal, and generally one of the most fun, productive, and collegial academic experiences I had ever had. I was therefore thrilled when Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt asked me to come to RRCHNM to serve as THATCamp Coordinator on a two-year grant from the Scholarly Communications program of the Mellon Foundation. Building on the work that Jeremy Boggs, Dave Lester, and Josh Greenberg had done in creating THATCamp was easy, not least because other visionaries like Ben Brumfield and Julie Meloni and Erin Bell and Daniel Chamberlain and Ethan Watrall and Marin Dacos had begun to organize THATCamps of their own in Austin, the Pacific Northwest, Columbus, Southern California, and Paris before I ever entered the picture officially. Seemingly without any effort on my part besides the obvious (cough website), THATCamp spread and spread and spread, and more and more people told me that it was fun, productive, collegial, and, above all, useful.

It’s been just over a year since I left RRCHNM upon the expiration of the second two-year Mellon THATCamp grant, a grant whose primary purpose was to make sure that THATCamp could sustain itself through volunteer efforts. I joked fairly often from 2012-2014 that my job was to eliminate my job, and I’m actually quite proud of the work I did in that period to make THATCamp mostly self-sustaining (although I must admit that a fair amount of work has fallen on Patrick Murray-John in the last year as RRCHNM appointee and as Chair of the THATCamp Council in the last year: you rock, Patrick!). I always believed that THATCamp should be a community-run project: the last thing I wanted was to milk the funding agencies for unnecessary money just to keep myself employed. But, of course, personally, I was getting very tired of bouncing from term-limited job to term-limited job. It would be nice to say that I’ve spent the last year writing a book or developing software, but in fact I’ve spent the last year doing freelance grant-writing (notably for the Modern Language Association’s new alt-ac Connected Academics initiative), running the second instance of Northwestern’s Arthur Vining Davis Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop, participating in a couple of book sprints, working a little bit on my online catalog of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s personal library, and, of course, job-hunting.

I’m therefore very pleased to announce that after a long search (46 rows in my job-hunting spreadsheet, 39 cover letters written, 14 or more phone or online interviews, and 4 on-site interviews), I’ve found a position I’m really excited about. I will be joining the Virginia Tech Libraries as Director of Research and Informatics beginning Wednesday, April 22nd. The Virginia Tech Libraries are clearly heading in a great direction under the leadership of Dr. Tyler Walters, who is also the founding director of the new and interesting SHARE project, and I can’t wait to work with him and with Associate Dean of Research and Informatics Julie Speer (to whom I’ll be reporting). The announcement was made at Virginia Tech last Friday, on the first day of THATCamp Virginia 2015, where I got to meet and re-meet many of Virginia Tech Libraries’ terrific team of librarians and archivists as well as many smart and friendly Virginia Tech faculty and grad students from English, History, and Computer Science. A more perfect welcome for me is impossible to imagine (obligatory “closing of the circle” reference, gratuitous link to corny Joni Mitchell song).

Virginia Tech is the place where Electronic Theses and Dissertations got their first strong start; it’s the place where the universally-used ILLIAD system for Interlibrary Loan was invented; and it’s the place where I plan to spend my own foreseeable and unforeseeable future, helping to develop and implement all kinds of libraryish and libraryesque technologies and initiatives. Libraries are my happy places, and this library in particular, I’m certain, is going to be a particularly happy place for me to spend a good long time. I’ll do my very best to fulfill the tremendous early promise of this promising beginning.

Special thanks to Trevor Owens, who suggested I apply, and to Dan Cohen, from whom I’ve borrowed a title.

On some books in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s library

When my mother and I first entered the library at Steepletop in 2010, the first book I saw was Ulysses, lying flat and nonchalant upon a table as though it had a perfect right to be there. “!!!!” I thought, though “thought” is not the right word for that moment of éclat. It would be difficult to think of two writers more different than Joyce and Millay, though of course they were near contemporaries; the only thing more astonishing than seeing Ulysses in Millay’s library might be seeing A Few Figs From Thistles in Joyce’s.

The rest of the Steepletop library created almost as great an impact on me, though mostly for its volume of volumes. It’s rare for a writer’s personal library to remain posthumously intact, and even rarer for the books to remain in the very place where the writer read them. Looking at them, I had a thought that did manifest in actual words: “This should be a database.” I therefore wrote to Peter Bergman, then executive director of the Millay Society (which operates Steepletop as a historic house museum), and he put me in touch with retired librarian Maureen O’Connor, who with other volunteers had begun to catalog the books at Steepletop. Maureen provided me with the initial 1950 inventory of books given to her by Millay’s one-time literary executor Elizabeth Barnett and, later, the set of index cards from the more recent (daunting) effort to catalog the library. I spoke briefly about the project, and about some initial conclusions I had drawn from my work entering the data and building the online catalog, on a panel at the Modern Language Association in January of 2014. After several years of on-again off-again work, we do now have a provisional online catalog that lists over 1200 works available at steepletoplibrary.org.

Much remains to be done, however. The initial typed inventory of 1950 appears to lack some pages, and in any case it lists only authors and titles, lacking all edition information. Since Steepletop first opened to the public in 2010, volunteers have quite rightly focused on other efforts than the catalog, and so the card index is also incomplete. But more urgent even than ensuring that the books properly cataloged and described is ensuring that they are preserved: Steepletop lacks climate control. The Millay Society has therefore launched a fundraising campaign to save Millay’s library at Steepletop by raising money to install an HVAC system to keep the books in good condition.

In support of these efforts, I have undertaken to write a few brief squibs about some of the books in the library at Steepletop while the fundraising campaign continues, using the “Exhibits” feature of Omeka (which is the platform for the catalog) to feature some interesting works. I’ve started with a few books by prominent modernists, including that very Ulysses that first grabbed me. Pardon the emphasis:

See the exhibit on Modernist Books at Steepletop Library

There are probably swathes of information about Millay’s relationship to these and others of her books in various archives, in the attics at Steepletop, or in the margins of the copies themselves, but I haven’t yet been able to explore these beswagged chambers of potential knowledge; these hasty efforts are provisional drafts that I hope to revise in the future. But in any case, to me the significance of a library like this isn’t only what the books say or imply about Millay and her works, but also what the books reveal about their historical moment: they are “a way of happening, a mouth”, things that have survived that are worthy in themselves of consideration. I’m enjoying researching them, and whether you enjoy what I write or not, I hope you’ll consider contributing to the campaign and passing the word along to others who might also contribute.