Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Paper, Please!!

I think I have said this before, perhaps many times before, so I apologize but I think it needs to be repeated every so often (though this is a completely different piece of writing). I fear for the historians, curators, archivists, researchers, and other who come after us. Our devotion to email, the Internet, and text messaging is leaving a vacuum of documents. There is no paper. There is no paper trail. There is no information found in a file, a letter, or a journal for those in the future to learn about us and what we do, choices made, our thoughts. We still have books – though people do not treasure or respect them as they should. But very few still write letters or keep journals.

I rely on paper for my research into the Mitchell family, Nantucket history, Nantucket women … I rely on paper – letters, receipts, bills, 1933 specifications for the MMA’s Science Library. This particular information has allowed me to determine how the building was built, even the original color of the stucco as we move through the conservation process of the exterior of our Library building as it becomes an ecology lab/classroom and natural science collections storage space. To me, it’s not just fascinating “Stuff” to read, it is paper I learn from, words that inform me, words that help me learn, information that I pass onto others so that we may all learn, learn from mistakes, learn from discoveries made but forgotten but that are more relevant today than ever before. From paper, I have learned how the concrete roof frame of the Library Wing is attached to the walls – something the structural engineer needs for the conservation work. From paper, I see notes in the margins; see notes written on envelopes; see ephemera stuck between pages of books; and a small bloom from a rare plant found at Quidnet in 1922 that was pressed between the pages of a plant book, noting where on island it was found, when it bloomed, and how it had never been found anywhere else on island before. This information can be used by scientists – not just MMA’s but others from on and off-island.

If so much of our conversation is by text or email, what will those of the future know of us? Will they consider us to have gone backwards? Will they know why you made a decision if it was only in an email, never printed, and their future computers cannot read any computer data from 200 years before? CDs don’t last forever – and technology changes rapidly no matter the “safeguards” technology seems to think it puts in place so that we can access old computer data.

So this here is a plea for more paper – try and keep a journal, record the weather, write some letters. Because if it wasn’t for paper, I wouldn’t know what Maria thought of her travels through Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and neither would you.



I am often worried about the fact that we are now, for the most part, no longer letter writers or journal keepers.  This is even more pronounced for me as I work with Maria Mitchell’s papers and letters or I work with those of other people as I conduct research.  What will people know about us?  What will they have to read to learn about us?  E-mails are deleted, text messages or Tweets are a few words long and deleted as well and with changes in the Internet and computers, what will happen to blogs?  None of this is stored in a more stable and permanent way – yes, paper can have its issues with time but still.

I glean so much from a letter, a journal, or even a newspaper clipping.  It’s kind of like gardening.  I can simply read through a letter or journal page enjoying what I read and not taking notes but just absorbing the “surroundings” much as I might enjoy walking around my garden to see what is blooming at the moment.  Or I can take a few notes about things that I might be looking for or something else that is interesting and I was not aware I would find – sort of like picking a bouquet and finding other flowers I did not realize were blooming and adding them into the bouquet or making a new small one.  And then there is gleaning or maybe full on harvesting.  Where I find exactly what I was looking for and loads of information which will assist me in my research.

But what about now?  In the twenty-first century?  I sometimes feel like I am one of the last letter writers.  I have a few friends who I correspond with by writing real, put them in the mailbox with a stamp, letters.  One of those is a friend I have had since I was fourteen years old.  Her name is Sonja.  She is from Germany and we have been pen pals since we were in junior high school.  Now, how many children have pen pals today and how many will continue to write them letters well into adulthood?  (It’s about twenty-six years for us.)  This experience – writing to one another regularly, sharing information about oneself and one’s family and country and school, and what life is like in that country is an important one. 

Someday, if we should be so lucky, maybe our letters will wind up in an archive, and someone will use them to learn about us, our daily life as teenagers (and now adults), our families, and our everyday life and surroundings.  I think our correspondence has certainly made an impression on Sonia’s nine year old daughter who travelled with her.  You see, Sonja and I have never met face-to-face and we did so just last week for the first time.  We already knew one another so well it seemed from twenty-six years of letter writing (and now a little email thrown in – though we still write our letters!), it was almost natural to have her come and stay with us for a few days.  

It sounds mundane but you learn a lot from letters or journals.  So please, keep a journal, write some letters – you will make the post office happy! – and try sharing more than just a fleeting Tweet.  Your descendants and others will thank you for it!


Portrait of the Curator as Darth Vader

Maybe the work life of other curators can be glamorous but such is not the way of the world for a historic house museum curator among others.  This is me as I appeared on January 22, 2013.  What’s that you say?  Where are the pearls?  The glamorous outfits?  The media wanting to know about the recent finds?  A camera following me through exhibit halls looking at the latest exhibition of work by some great master?  Alas, no.  My fine clothes collect dust and moths in my closet. 

I wear many hats and glamour girl is not one of them.  As many of us in the historic house museum world (and in other venues within the museum world) will attest, we do many things and wear many, many hats.  Thus, this is what I am typically wearing – my delightfully snazzy and very flattering 3M Niosh respirator with hot pink filters (the hot pink makes it hard to color coordinate my outfits).  You have been spared my white cotton gloves, white Tyvek suit, and safety glasses (though I cannot SEE ANYTHING with them on!)

Why do I dress like this?  It is required.  I am protecting myself from dirt, dust, and any possible mold that might be on the Special Collection books that I am cleaning.  Not much mold thankfully, but unfortunately still lots of dust that has escaped the “wrath” of dusting.  But this is something you don’t want to breathe in too much of and if I did not wear this respirator in particular I would find myself with some nice respiratory problem.  It’s not like dusting or vacuuming in your home – it’s incredibly concentrated and literally in your face.

I brush the cover, spine, and the text block of the book first with a brush.  Then I wipe those same areas with a vulcanized rubber sponge.  At all times I am working away from the spine so that I am not depositing dust or other particles into the spine.  Then, I vacuum those same areas with a HEPA vacuum that keeps all of those particles inside.  I do this for each and every book.  Sometimes, I need to tie the book up because the cover or spine is in rough shape.  Othertimes, I have to build a small box enclosure with special acid free board or cardboard or encapsulate it in a Tyvek envelope because of the condition of the book or cover.  Once I have a box full, I move the books to our new climate-controlled storage area and place the books on special enameled shelves made just for the storage of Special Collection books.  No off gassing here – books must be protected as best as we can from all sorts of elements.  And then, I return to the Wing and clean more.  I do spare my colleagues my mask when I move the books over to the other  building – but I do give them a fright when they come in to see me and I am in my mask.  Today, I am going for the preppy look – green sweater to go with my hot pink filters!

I say (some of) this in jest.  What I am doing is crucial to the preservation of these books.  And, being able to handle and look at each book helps me to better understand the extent of our amazing collection and also its condition.  And in some cases, as you have seen in the past on this blog, I share some of the amazing finds with you.


A Red Rose from Whittier


William Forster Mitchell, daughter Anne Maria Mitchell, and Charlotte Coffin Mitchell; and the red rose from Whittier.

It used to be that in schools children were asked to memorize significant portions of famous speeches, poems, plays, or other well-known written pieces.  It seems that this is not as popular as it once was although I think it helped students on many levels – from memorization skills, to recitation, to public speaking, and more.  My great-grandmother, even in her later years, remembered many of the pieces she had memorized, reciting them aloud to my mother to help her fall asleep.  My mother remembers many of those herself, in part because of hearing them so often, but also because in high school and college, she also memorized many pieces.  An English teacher, my mother always has a poem or a quote at her lips to respond to a situation or a word or phrase someone may mention.  It is something of which I am envious – most of my teachers never had us memorize anything.  One piece my mother learned from her grandmother is “The Barefoot Boy” (1855) by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892) so imagine my surprise – on a multitude of levels – when I came across what you see above. 

In the MMA’s collection, we have John Greenleaf Whittier’s autograph, as well as letters he wrote to Maria Mitchell.  What a surprise then to find this single rose inserted into a book of pressed seaweed created by Charlotte Coffin Mitchell (1823 – 1901), the wife of Maria Mitchell’s younger brother, William Forster Mitchell (1825 – 1892)!  A treasure!  I was so stunned to see a rose inserted in a book of seaweed and more stunned to see that Whittier gave it to Forster (in August 1880 – Forster’s birth month).  Forster was named for the famed English Quaker who visited Nantucket around 1824.   Like the Mitchells, Whittier was a Quaker and an ardent slaves’ rights supporter.  Forster had for many years worked for the Freedman’s Aid Society, as had other Nantucketers including Anna Gardner (1816 - 1901) who went into the South to establish schools and teach the children of newly freed slaves.  Forster also was the superintendent of the Quaker college, Haverford, and once the war was over he helped to establish the Industrial Arts program at Howard College, teaching the craft of tinsmithing which he had learned as an apprentice to his Uncle Peleg Mitchell, Junior.  

While more research needs to be completed to understand the Whittier-William Forster connection, I think the rose itself illustrates a close connection.  There was a great deal of overlap in whom Whittier knew and worked with and whom Forster and the Mitchell family knew and worked with.  The Quaker connection is a step but also the anti-slavery connection.  Nantucket also serves as a connection since Whittier, a descendant of Nantucket Coffins, wrote at least one poem about the island – “The Exiles” in 1841.  Another research project to add to the list!


The Fascinating World of Research

I came across this fantastic short clip that advertises the use of the New York Public Library for genealogical research through its Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy.  A lot of effort went into this one – and it shows how relevant such archives still are – and will always be.  Research is fun and exciting – it’s a mystery and a process of digging and uncovering all sorts of interesting tidbits.  And when you find what you are looking for or make a connection that no one else has or uncover some new and exciting information – it is like you are Indiana Jones or Sam Spade – just without the whip or the rod!  Your weapons to slosh through the materials are instead a pencil, your brain, and paper.  Other libraries within the system have made films – quite clever – but this one is my favorite.  History is fun – and the people who are there to help you along the way are knowledgeable, friendly, and very willing to help – not cranky people who have never seen the light of day!  Enjoy!


Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

From time to time, I will post Maria Mitchell’s own thoughts from her journals, notes, and letters which are a part of the Maria Mitchell Association’s Archives and Special Collections.  I will try and make sure that the month she has written in coincides with our present month.


From Maria Mitchell’s Journals:

March 21 [1855 Nantucket] … The world is sadder to me than before.  I feel as if I must be lonesome, but I thank God that my home circle is still whole.  It has been a winter, which I cannot soon forget, for I have lost three friends whom I valued.  I feel as if I must cling more closely to those who are left, for how, at my age, can one form new attachments.  I have held the tears just behind my eyelids for a month, not being able to cry because of the danger of affecting mother and being ready to do so, at every moment. 

Maria Mitchell lost three of her closest friends in 1855 and this during what became a long, and extended illness of her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, which would take life her in July 1861.