Tag Archive for Correspondence

(Digital Collections) Choose Your Own Civil War Letter Adventure!

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“Choose Your Own Adventure” book covers, image via Google image search.

We’re currently processing a couple of Civil War letters collections – to be unveiled soon! – and getting them ready for online access  inspired this week’s blog post. After reading and/or transcribing dozens of examples of 1860s correspondence, certain patterns in their organization and content began to emerge. And for whatever reason, that reminded me of a beloved book series from my childhood: the Choose Your Own Adventure series! So, after an examination of the content and structure of these letters, we’ll let you get in on the action with a Choose Your Own Civil War Letter Adventure!

The Internet of the 1860s

Putting yourself in the shoes of a person who lived in centuries prior to your own existence can be extremely difficult. It’s as hard for us to consider what daily life was like for someone alive in the 1860s as it would be for someone in the 1860s to picture life in the 1710s. So when you start to examine material like someone’s written correspondence – something that was created as an intimate conversation between two distinct individuals with a shared history and their own inside jokes, casual references, etc. – it can be hard to separate the person from the artifact.

One thing that jumps out immediately as you work with these kinds of resources is their repetitive nature. They open almost without fail on a statement like, “I’m taking a moment to sit down and write you these lines to tell you …” and then a modifier like, “… I am well” or “I am tolerable well” or “I am very sick” and the like. To a contemporary reader in 2015, this can quickly become boring – “We get it! You’re sitting down to write a letter and are feeling okay! Move on!” – but to a reader in 1860s rural America, just seeing something comforting like a documented case of someone taking time to sit down and use their resources to write a letter would be cause for celebration, especially in a time of war.

The letters tend to be a mix of mundane daily details (“I slept well last night”), updates on health (“I am well except for a terrible cold”) and news on shared acquaintances (“Johnny is with a new regiment, Bill is dead”). And there’s almost always news that someone has died. It was, after all, the 19th century and the middle of the bloodiest conflict in American history; what else would you expect?

Unexpected jewels I’ve come across include a repeated request for cornbread (the writer is eating plenty of beef and white bread but asks repeatedly for cornbread – a true Southerner!), a story about soldiers killed while playing cards near an outhouse, and the statement, “I am almost bare footed but its [sic] a free country.” Considering that last one was written by a Confederate soldier in 1863, it carries a particularly poignant irony.

All of this works together to create archival resources that are at times repetitive, often surprising, and always informative, the kind of thing you hope for from a favorite blog or website today but written in iron gall ink and hastily scribbled on a piece of scrap paper procured in the heat of 19th century combat.

Choose Your Own Civil War Letter Adventure!

Now it’s your turn! Read through the template below and fill in your favorite response from the list of options, nineteenth century battlefield spelling and punctuation preserved (mostly) for authenticity. No pen or iron gall ink required!

(NOTE: many of the choices are drawn from actual letters in the collections we’ll be posting soon. Others are purely for my own enjoyment. See if you can guess which are which!)

Click to Enlarge!


(Digital Collections) “Unquestionably the Most Elaborate and Complete, of Any Which I Have Seen” – An Update on the Browning Letters Project


Letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd, May 28-29, 1828. Source for the quoted text we used for our blog title this week. See the full letter at http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ab-letters/id/23271

If it’s Valentine’s Day, it must be time for another update on our most love-centric undertaking, the Browning Letters Project! Two years ago, we announced the unveiling of the first phase of the project, wherein 1,400 letters digitized from the collections of Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library and Wellesley College were placed online for the first time, including the “love letters” capturing Robert and Elizabeth’s courtship years (1845-1846).

Today, we’re excited to announce another major milestone: the addition of the entirety of Wellesley’s collection of correspondence, a total of 1,624 letters! This brings the total number of digitized letters to a shade over 4,500, the balance of which come from Armstrong Browning Library. All of the “phase III” Wellesley materials are full-text searchable, and the percentage of full-text capable items from ABL continues to grow, with a goal of reaching 100% searchability by May 31 of this year.

When we announced the addition of the love letters in 2012, we experienced more than 1,000,000 hits to our server in the course of a little under three days. While we’d certainly welcome a repeat performance this time, we’re equally interested in letting our readers – and users, and Browning scholars, and fans of 19th century correspondence in general – know that the next major phase of the project is complete. We’ve got our eyes on two other major collaborative partners (more to come when we can formally announce their participation!) but for now, this 4,500+ collection is already a major resource in the world of Victoriana, Browningiana and other related fields of study.

Bonus Content

To answer a user’s inquiry about reading the entire back-and-forth exchange between Robert and Elizabeth from their courtship phase in plain text, we added a link to a work published in 1900 titled The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett on the Project Gutenberg site. This will allow readers to follow their unfolding love story in a single, continuous website and makes for a nice complement to the high-quality images provided via the Browning Letters Project.

Also, here’s a great story put together by our campus media folks all about the latest news!

For more information on the Browning Letters Project, visit the collection’s homepage. To learn more about Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library, visit their homepage. And to learn more about Wellesley College, visit their homepage


(Digital Collections) Hot and Bot-hered: The Joys of Moderating Spam Comments

The Eternal Struggle for Bloggers

One of the unexpected joys of writing this blog is filtering out the spam comments we receive on almost every post. Many are garden variety garbage gathered by spambots and spit back out as “comments.” These get caught by the spam filters and deleted routinely. Others are from people hoping to use the blog as a launchpad for their own interests: “Play my music on your blog!” or “Check out my book on this subject!” That sort of thing.

But there is a truly special kind of spam comment that I call the “almost reads like it was written by a human being – but not quite” comment. We received four such comments in a row (on four different posts) from an IP address based in Germany whose spambots used commenter names related to payday loans. Let’s read them together and laugh, shall we?

Contact One: Short and Sweet

Excellent article! We are linking to this great post on our website. Keep up the great writing. <URL redacted>

Well, that makes this author feel all warm and fuzzy! Too bad this same comment was probably posted to every possible blog post in the United States.

Contact Two: More Effusive Praise

I was extremely pleased to discover this web site. I need to to thank you
for ones time due to this wonderful read!! I definitely really liked every
little bit of it and i also have you book marked to check out new things in your web site. <Same URL, redacted>

The ego boost from this “commenter” was marred somewhat by the poor grammar. Then I remembered it was generated by a German spambot, and I cut it some slack.

Contact Three: Attempts at Lingo and Self-Disclosed Amnesia

Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after looking at a few of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back often! <Same URL, redacted again>

Nothing gets a Texan’s attention like the use of a prime piece of regional vernacular, and the lead-off “Howdy!” here sure grabs the eye. But the admission that the writing on this site wasn’t interesting enough for the spambot to remember it fully takes some of the bloom off the rose, so to speak.

Contact Four: The Honeymoon is Definitely Over

Next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn’t disappoint me just as much as this one. After all, I know it was my choice to read through, nonetheless I genuinely thought you would probably have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something that you could possibly fix if you weren’t too busy searching for attention. <Same URL, redacted – probably for the last time>

Oh. Oh, my. It seems we’ve done something to upset our semi-sentient German friend. This comment was submitted for the post related to the Browning Letters Project, a post which I thought was uniformly happy and positive, given its focus on love poems. I guess the hive mind behind the commenting spambot has little care for the creative works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning!

Of Robots and Social Media

Sure, these comments are funny, but what’s the harm? So what if some chunk of code from a Germanic website is blasting our inbox with semi-coherent “responses” to our blog’s output? For the end user, it’s probably not a big deal; if we don’t approve the comment, you’ll never see it. And the Word Press platform (administered by Edublogs) catches all of them, so there’s no real possibility that one will slip out into the general populace to wreak havoc.

The problem is this: these unending automated attacks will only get more sophisticated, and they are not going away. There are plenty of people who would use tactics like this to entice the unwary to click on a link that looks legitimate, enter in their personal information, and find themselves swindled out of the contents of their bank accounts. And while an academic blog related to digital collections may seem like a strange choice for such an attack, it is indicative of the no-holds-barred approach taken by unscrupulous people in their quest for ill-gotten gains.

The unfortunate side effect for archives, libraries and museums (especially small ones) is that these hassles can have a chilling effect on their efforts to use social media to promote their collections to the world. If an institution with little to no Web presence believes these kinds of spam attacks can do real harm to their institution’s computers (to say nothing of its reputation), how many will choose to forgo blogging, Facebook, Twitter and the rest simply out of fear? And ultimately, how many amazing pieces of our cultural heritage will remain unseen online as a result? While we may chuckle about these blatant forgeries, can the time be far off when they become so sophisticated that even major institutions fall prey to their wiles?

A Plea for Human Contact

While these robotic missives may be entertaining (and/or potentially destructive), they are no substitute from well-formed, enlightening, written-by-humans comments. So if you find a post on our blog interesting, informative, enlightening, even enraging, please don’t hesitate to comment. Your voice helps us make this blog – and by extension our digital collections – better every day.



(Digital Collections) “How do I love thee?” Let Us Digitize the Ways!

They were written between two of the most famous names in Victorian poetry, spanning a famous courtship, an elopement to Italy, and a widower’s final years. They were preserved by two institutions of higher education in the United States, one a private liberal arts college in the Northeast, the other a private Baptist university in Texas. And now, for the first time, they are available online in the same digital collection for the world to experience.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are two of the most recognizable names in the world of poetry. Their work – like the partial line in our title, which comes from “Sonnets from the Portuguese” Number 43 by Elizabeth – is quoted by English majors and schoolchildren alike. Their storied romance is celebrated to this day as the uniting of two kindred souls brought together through mutual love of the poetic muse. And over the course of their lives, they wrote thousands of letters: to each other, to family members, to admirers and casual acquaintances alike.

Now, thanks to a collaboration between Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library and Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, we are excited to announce that 1,411 letters written by the Brownings are available online as a collection called The Browning Letters. This is the first time the digitized letters have been made available to the public via the Internet, and they represent the largest single digital repository of Browning correspondence in the world.

The Baylor-Wellesley Collaboration

The project came about through an interest expressed by Baylor’s Dean of Libraries and VP of Information Technology, Pattie Orr. Dean Orr, who came to Baylor after serving as director of user services at Wellesley, knew of the holdings of Browningiana at both institutions and initiated a conversation between the two that focused on creating a collaborative collection. After extensive talks between both parties, the agreement was made to include images of Wellesley’s letters in a digital collection created, hosted, and preserved at Baylor.

Wellesley’s major contribution to the collection – 573 letters – contain what are called the “Browning love letters,” a series of letters exchanged between the two poets from the earliest days of their courtship. In fact, the first letter written by Robert to Elizabeth, which begins with the line “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” is included in the collection, as is the final letter from their courtship, written by Elizabeth to Robert just prior to their embarkation to Italy in 1846. Wellesley submitted preservation copies of the letters to Baylor’s Digitization Projects Group, where staff and graduate students reformatted them into items for display and access in CONTENTdm, the software that houses and displays Baylor’s Digital Collections.

Elizabeth Barrett’s first letter to Robert Browning, January 11, 1845. Courtesy Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, Special Collections via the Browning Letters Collection

Baylor’s Browningiana contribution to the collection has so far included more than 800 letters written by Robert Browning. Drawn from the Browning correspondence held at ABL, the letters represent almost one third of their total collection of approximately 2,800 letters. Rita S. Patteson, Director of Armstrong Browning Library, chose to begin the digitization of Baylor’s letters with the Robert Browning correspondence; the plan is to eventually digitize all of the letters at ABL, including those to Robert Browning and those written by and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The Digitization Projects Group’s Efforts

For the staff at the DPG, a great deal of time and effort has gone into image reformatting, digitization, data management, and online display configuration for the 1,411 letters available on day one of public release. More than 200 combined staff and graduate student hours have been dedicated to the project since December, and the DPG has committed to preserving 340GB of data for the first phase of the project, with an estimated 1.2TB of total file space necessary to finish the project.

With every image in the collection requiring a complex blend of digitization, image editing, metadata cataloging and quality control checks, the investment in this project has been substantial, but the importance of giving worldwide access to these invaluable resources is of great importance to Browning scholars and casual fans alike. The team of DPG staff, graduate assistants and undergraduate students for The Browning Letters project included:

  • Darryl Stuhr, Manager of Digitization Projects: Project lead
  • Allyson Riley, Digitization Technology Support Specialist: Digitization and data mgmt.
  • Eric Ames, Curator of Digital Collections: Contextual research and user interface
  • Austin Schneider, Library Information Specialist III: Metadata cataloging
  • Hannah Mason, Rachel Carson and Natalie Fiegel, graduate assistants: Digitization and metadata
  • Katy Poteat and Kayla Zollinger, undergraduate student workers: Metadata mgmt.

The project team envisions future partners in the Browning Letters collection, as there are an estimated 11,500 pieces of Browning correspondence scattered across dozens of institutions around the world. The processes and systems put in place by the DPG during this phase of the project will ensure future collaborators have a smooth integration of their materials into the growing digital collection.

Digitizing and making the letters available is a huge step in the process, but we hope to unveil additional functionality for this collection in the near future. For now, we invite you to take a moment to discover the timeless story of Robert and Elizabeth’s lives as revealed through their voluminous correspondence.

View The Browning Letters at www.baylor.edu/lib/browningletters and visit www.browninglibrary.org for more information on the Brownings, their works, and the Victorian era.