Charting the Divine Plan: Orra White Hitchcock in the World

Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.

One of the things we often say about the archival materials we are digitizing and adding to ACDC is that we never know what researchers will do with our materials once we release them into the world wide web. The Papers of Edward and Orra White Hitchcock and Orra White Hitchcock’s Classroom Drawings were among the earliest collections we made available through ACDC in late 2012/early 2013. It is amazing to see just how far Orra White Hitchcock’s works have traveled since then, both digitally and physically.

The news of the moment is that the largest exhibition ever mounted of Orra White Hitchcock’s artwork (and manuscripts and fossil specimens) is now on display at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The exhibition, titled “Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863)” opened on June 12 and runs through October 14, 2018. Nearly all the works on display are drawn from the collections in the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. It was curated by Stacy C. Hollander, acting director and chief curator at the American Folk Art Museum. Unlike earlier scholars who had to visit Amherst to explore the world of the Hitchcocks, Stacy did most of her research from the comfort of her office in New York thanks to the materials available in ACDC. She paid a visit to the collections in 2017 to view some of the materials and discuss exhibition options, but the bulk of her research was conducted remotely.

Over the past five years we have seen Hitchcock’s artwork pop up in a variety of places, so I took a little time to pull together some links to other examples of the digital spread of her works.

The Paleontological Research Institution launched the “Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology” website that has been in the works since 2013. Naturally, Orra White Hitchcock features prominently in this story – her rendering of Cuvier’s Megatherium is at the top of the section on “A Brief History” and she received a page of her own. All the images on this site are drawn from the Hitchcock material available in ACDC.

In March 2017, Hitchcock was the “Scientist of the Day” at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology in Kansas City, Missouri. In their brief description of her work, they were kind enough to mention the exhibition mounted at Amherst College in 2011: “Orra White Hitchcock: An Amherst Woman of Science.” Former Head of the Archives & Special Collections, Daria D’Arrienzo, collaborated with Robert L. Herbert, professor emeritus of humanities at Mount Holyoke College, on an exhibition at Amherst’s Mead Art Museum and an accompanying book. Professor Herbert’s work on Hitchcock began years before that exhibition with his publication of A Woman of Amherst: The Travel Diaries of Orra White Hitchcock, 1847 and 1850 in 2008.

After the Amherst exhibition, we realized we needed to improve the physical storage of Hitchcock’s large classroom illustrations on linen, so we worked with the amazing team at Museum Textile Services in Andover, MA to do some light cleaning and build custom housings for them all. Their blog includes this post and this post from 2012 about how one goes about cleaning illustrations on textiles that are nearly 200 years old. When Stacy Hollander visited Amherst to examine the classroom charts, it was clear from the reports prepared by Museum Textile Services that many of them required additional conservation treatment before they could be publicly exhibited. Fortunately, we were able to put the funds together to send the most at-risk items back to Museum Textile Services for another round.

Orra White Hitchcock artwork on display at the American Folk Art Museum in New York

The latest blog posts about Orra White Hitchcock from Museum Textile Services highlight the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum (“A Natural Legacy, Part 1”) and another deep dive into the details of their conservation treatments to prepare these materials for display (“A Natural Legacy, Part 2”).

Closer to home, Orra White Hitchcock, her husband Edward, and other local figures are the focus of the 2017 web project developed by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, “Impressions from A Lost World” which explores the history of the many fossil footprints found throughout the Connecticut River Valley.

This page on Amherst Archives & Special Collections’ website includes more information about Edward & Orra White Hitchcock materials available at Amherst.

Mike Kelly is the Head of Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College.

What is Digital Programs Doing About Born Digital Material?

Throughout the past year or so, the staff of the Digital Programs department have been working regularly with our colleagues in Archives and Special Collections regarding born digital material. We define born digital as material that was created and is stored electronically. Examples can include emails, websites, social media posts, and digital photos, just to name a few types. As technology develops, and our cultural record becomes increasingly web based, this type of archival material will only become more common, and more important to properly preserve. We are in an interesting and dynamic moment at Amherst right now, as we develop workflow and methods to best preserve born digital material. We are exploring and reexamining our practices and focused on collaboration, not only within Frost Library but with the Five Colleges and the broader professional community.

Last year we formed a born digital working group, with members from Digital Programs and Archives. In this group, we have developed goals, ambitions, and plans of how to approach collecting and preserving born digital material, with the focus being on accessibility and learning the most appropriate preservation methods for the materials we have. A large part of this initiative was to purchase the equipment and software needed to properly read and image files, as well as transfer archival material from analog to digital formats. We now have a FRED system, which stands for “Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device,” and is typically used by law enforcement to lift evidence safely from hard drives, phones, flash drives, and other devices. While we aren’t battling the bad guys here in the library, we have been using the FRED to extract born digital files from hard drives so that we can properly read, store, and preserve their content. We have also been working to extract data from floppy disks, and transfer video files from VHS tape to digital. There is so much to learn here, and we are fortunate to be able to welcome an Amherst undergraduate student to our department this summer, who will be able to explore this technology in new and exciting ways.

The FRED in action!
Sarah Walden McGowan using the FRED to view files from a hard drive accessioned by Archives and Special Collections.

We have also been working with Archives and Special Collections as we continue to expand and refine our web archiving initiative. I have been working closely this past year with Sarah Walden McGowan, Digital Collections and Preservation Librarian, and our web archiving group to establish regular web crawls using Archive-It. We have traditionally captured the Amherst College website and the Athletics web page, some student publications, as well as events such as the Amherst Uprising and several digital student theses. The process has now become better organized, with clear workflow and scheduling. While we are still capturing Athletics and the Amherst College website, we are dedicated to capturing more student theses and student publications in a reliable manner, and are now beginning to capture the Amherst Press as well. We continue to improve our capture abilities and data management.

As a department, Digital Programs staff always look for ways to make connections. That often means working closely and collaborating with others in Frost Library, as well as looking beyond the gates of Amherst College. We took two field trips last summer to learn how other institutions are actively managing their born digital archival material: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Yale University. It was helpful and informative for us to speak with the digital archivists there and learn from them, as well as build and foster relationships. The Five College Born Digital Group has also been formed, and had its first meeting in March. We look at this as a way to learn  from each other, communicate our successes and concerns, and collaborate with the other four colleges in the Pioneer Valley.

This has only been a brief overview of some of the born digital work that Digital Programs has been involved in over the past year or so. Stay tuned for more in-depth posts on our digital equipment, preservation methods, and activities!

Jessica Dampier graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2015 with a B.A. in English Literature and Medieval Studies. She is now a Simmons LIS graduate student with a concentration in Archives Management, and works in the Digital Programs department at Amherst College. Her current focus is on digitization projects and digital archiving. Jess’ personal interests include creating art, travelling whenever she can, collecting antiquarian books, animal rights activism, and gardening.