Poet at Work: Walt Whitman Notebooks 1850s -1860s

Library Scans Whitman Items - Preserves Them

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By Gail Fineberg
Reprinted from the
Library of Congress Gazette, March 24, 1995

Seibert and Wallis work at a computer
While a Whitman notebook is in its 'disbound' state, each single folio is placed on a scanner for digitization. Anne Seibert, senior paper conservator (left), and Terry Wallis, senior rare book conservator, perform the scanning operations for the project. Photo by Merrilee Love Oliver

Digital images of poet Walt Whitman's pencil-and-ink jottings in four small notebooks and his cardboard butterfly — back in LC's protective custody for the first time since the 1940s — soon will be accessible via the Internet.

To make these early Whitman materials available as soon as possible for world-wide research, and to preserve the fragile originals for posterity, LC is scanning them as part of an intricate conservation process (see Photo Layout).

"I think there is no more appropriate way to celebrate their return to the Library after 50 years than to preserve them in the digital format that will be the surrogate form served to researchers in the years to come," said Winston Tabb, associate librarian for collections services.

Small enough to fit in Walt Whitman's pocket or rucksack, the four worn notebooks contain early pencil drafts of his poetry, cryptic observations on life on the battlefield and death in Civil War hospitals, and detailed notes such as a reporter would make for later reference. Whitman posed with the butterfly for a portrait as a public-relations ploy. LC regained possession of these items on Feb. 24, when they were given a FBI escort to Washington, D.C., from Sotheby's in New York, where they surfaced in January.

The four notebooks, the butterfly, and six other Whitman notebooks disappeared from LC's archives during the war years in the 1940s, when crates of precious materials were stored at five depositories outside the Washington area for safekeeping.

The FBI and Alice Birney, LC's American literature manuscript specialist, are working to solve the mystery of the six still-missing notebooks, which were part of a 3,000-item collection deposited at LC in 1918 by Thomas B. Harned, a Philadelphia lawyer who was one of Whitman's three literary executors (see Gazette, Feb. 24, 1995).

By involving skilled book and paper conservators early in the scanning process, Tabb and LC's conservators hope to minimize handling of LC's delicate artifacts, such as the brittle little notebooks and the butterfly. "This project, for the first time, dovetails preservation with the work of the National Digital Library to digitize our collections for electronic dissemination via the Internet," said Diane Kresh, LC's director for preservation.


Protecting the Notebooks

Terry Wallis, senior rare book conservator and Conservation Office liaison to the Manuscript Division, joined Birney at Sotheby's in New York City on Friday Feb. 24. Their mission was to certify that each of the four Whitman notebooks and the butterfly did indeed belong to the Library, to note the condition of the materials, and to pack them for a safe journey home to the Library.

Present at Sotheby's were three FBI agents, one from Washington and two from New York. One photographed each notebook after Birney verified its identity by comparing notebook pages with LC's photostatic copies made from the originals before they disappeared in the 1940s and with descriptions in a 1955 Whitman exhibition catalog published by LC.

Conservator Wallis recorded their condition: Torn leaves and faded pages of one notebook, limited opening capability of another, and loose leaves — "very likely out of order" — in another. She wrapped the notebooks in mylar, encased them in "sandwiches" of flexible styrofoam and corrugated plastic covers made to fit them, and secured them in a hard-cover attache case. "Our goal was to ensure no alteration of the objects en route to the Library," Wallis said.

Birney said that during the hour allotted them at Sotheby's, she was too busy working to experience much emotion. But Wallis said it was exciting to listen as Birney and one of the FBI agents, a Whitman enthusiast, discussed their discoveries and pieced together a trail of where the materials may possibly have been during the past 50 years. They turned up in January at Sotheby's, where a lawyer settling his father's estate presented them for appraisal; he said they were a gift to his father some 30 years ago. Sotheby's notified LC, which in the 1950s had circulated descriptions of the missing materials.

With the Whitman materials legally tranferred to FBI custody, the three agents escorted Birney, Wallis, and the attache case to Penn Station, where the Washington agent joined the LC team for a quick lunch before all three boarded an Amtrak train for the trip back to Washington. At 5:30 p.m., the trio with the attache case arrived at LC's Conservation Office, where Doris A. Hamburg, head of the Paper Conservation Section, secured the materials. Birney said she and Hamburg signed for their transfer to LC from FBI custody.


Advocates for Preservation

The first order of business the following Monday morning in the Conservation Office was to assess the condition of the materials, plot a course for their preservation, and decide how to make surrogate copies for researchers. "The originals cannot be safely handled by the general public. They need conservation," Wallis said.

The Conservation Office jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the National Digital Library effort. "We would expect the Conservation Office to be involved in custom work with fragile materials, their handling and security," Kresh said.

"We should be developing the protocols and making recommendations for the kinds of equipment to be used, work flows, and procedures for handling to minimize damage to LC's rare and valuable materials," Kresh said. "We feel we can make a contribution to the National Digital Library." She noted that conservators are skilled at reformatting fragile materials for microfilming, a service provided by Photoduplication since 1939.

Ann Seibert, senior paper conservator and the Conservation Office liaison to the National Digital Library effort, took charge of scanning the four Whitman notebooks and the butterfly.

In a March 6 memorandum to the Manuscript Division, which wants microfilm copies of the Whitman materials for reader use, Wallis recommended that scanning be part of the conservation process: "Due to their physical condition, these Whitman-Harned materials should be designated to a Handle Only Once category within the Manuscript Division's collections access policy. Upon completion of scanning, the digital version of the notebooks will be used to create a microfilm copy for reference. The digital reformatting of these materials will provide LC with the ability to restrict access of the originals through production of surrogates."

Wallis prepared detailed descriptions and condition reports for each of the four notebooks and the butterfly and prescribed conservation treatment for each according to its need. For example, for the Whitman notebook that Harned labeled "earliest and most important" (Birney said scholars now say it may not be the earliest or necessarily the most important), Wallis proposed these steps:

  1. "Photographic documentation.
  2. "Disbind by separating text blocks, leaving cover intact.
  3. "Paper treatment — remove residual spine adhesive, mend and reinforce spine folds with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, determine pH of paper, and deacidify if necessary.

    [At this point in the process, after disbinding, mending, and washing, this and one other bound notebook were to be scanned. Forcing bound brittle pages to lie flat — 180 degrees — on the flatbed scanner would break them as well as the spines. Leaves of the two other notebooks already were loose and could be scanned without further damage.]

  4. "Consolidate and reinforce original spine to flex independently of text block.
  5. "Resew text block and reinsert in original case.
  6. "Final housing with other notebooks in a double tray box."


Pioneering Digital Storage

Seibert and Carl Fleischhauer, an American Memory project pioneer, said the technology exists to make microfilm from digital images, but there still are problems in achieving the image resolution necessary for high-quality microfilm reproduction. "We need a far-higher-resolution image than we customarily produce," Fleischhauer said. "We don't have the recipe fully figured out yet."

Digitizing materials for preservation as well as reference purposes "really points to the future," Fleischhauer said. "Today we understand how to make a microfilm copy to preserve materials, and in the future we will make digital copies; we feel certain that digital images will be the medium of the future for reformatting materials."

He said digital images have to be refreshed periodically. "We know a digital image can last forever — so long as you can copy it from one medium to another. That's where the anxiety comes in; we don't know that the storage medium of today, for example the optical media used in Information Technology Services (ITS), will be compatible with the technology of the future," Fleischhauer said.

Digital images can be copied again and again without the loss of quality that occurs with analog copies from microfilm, which also has to be replaced as it becomes scratched and worn from reading room use. "However, the need to recopy digital images becomes an administrative and technological challenge when we plan backing up LC's vast archives in digital format," Fleischhauer said.

The Whitman notebook project will serve as a "testbed" for new ideas in preservation and also will yield a digital collection for the World Wide Web. The Conservation Office, Manuscript Division, and American Memory are producing digitally compressed versions of the Whitman images and an intellectual framework, consisting of a "Home Page," selection menus, and explanatory texts. Researchers will be guided to digital images of notebook pages, a color image of the cardboard butterfly, and a description of how the notebooks were conserved.

"I think scholars are going to love the digital medium," Wallis said. "Digitizing can improve the image, and users will be able to click on a detail and enlarge it onscreen for closer examination."

However, there is no substitute for the originals, which is why conservationists take care to preserve them. "The textual information is not the only thing of value.... The object itself has information for cultural historians," Wallis said. For example, they can learn something about the history of papers and printing and Whitman himself by examining the papers that Whitman cut and bound to make two of the notebooks.

"The artifact connects you to the person whose these were," Wallis said.

Looking at the notebooks Whitman kept while he made his rounds of Civil War hospitals in Washington, one can imagine the poet bending over the bed of one wounded man to hear his whisper, then fishing for his notebook and a stub of pencil to write: "20 years of age/ down with pneumonia/ talks in a whisper/ has been sick two months — one month here. 7 have died since he has been here/ is pretty weak now from lying so much in bed/ would like some oranges...."

On another page, he noted "The Comic Side of Death," and described a brave man's last night. Now and then he said to his nurse: "Give me another chew of tobacco" and "Give me some more toddy."

In another book, Whitman wrote in pencil: "You know now the one brain includes those beautiful wonders and converging [he lined out wonders and converging] perceptions or senses the subtle processes of thought and reason and causality...."

Mended, strengthened, deacidified, rebound, and returned to LC's archives — the country's largest repository of Whitman materials, some 98,000 manuscripts and books — these notebooks will repose in acid-free boxes for centuries to come.