UMASS Amherst Emily Esten has just completed her internship in the Research Library. Below are her reflections on the experience:
The New Bedford Whaling Museum has always been a fascinating place inside – you’ve got the Lagoda, the forecastle, and the whale skeletons hanging over you. The exhibits detail answers to every question about whales and whaling that could ever be asked. But there is so much research and materials that the Museum can’t possibly display and discuss them all – for those stories, you have to visit the library.
I interned in the Research Library over the summer, looking for an experience that would allow me to further my interests in New Bedford whaling as well as teach me some new skills, like library management. I enjoyed my experience, and I certainly learned a lot in just a few months.
- Organization: My tasks primarily focused on organizing Manuscript (Mss) collections. These collections can have all sorts of items – correspondence was common, but there could also be business records, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, pictures, or various mementos. Many of these collections had been accessioned by the Museum (purchased or donated) but not processed (organized with a complete finding aid). This is where I came in – to process the collections. First, I would take a thorough inventory of what was initially in the boxes, taking notes on the content I came across. Next, I’d review my notes and attempt to think of a series arrangement in which to sort the content – whether that was by type of content, time period, or individual associated with the materials. Once running my organizational ideas by Mark, I’d typically start arranging the materials and folders in chronological order. When all the folders were organized, I’d have to officially process them, writing descriptions on each folder. Finally, I’d write the finding aid, have it checked by Mark, and code it for the website. It wasn’t always easy to do, especially as the collections became larger and less organized. It required attention to detail, focus, and great organizational skills – all of which I was able to perfect.
- New Bedford (Whaling): Working with unprocessed manuscripts was like a crash course in Old Dartmouth history, jumping from century to subject in a matter of pages. And unlike most history courses, which provide overviews of a topic or period, I was able to use primary sources of a particular individual or family to begin to understand what life might have been like. In regards to the whaling industry, the Mss collections covered more than just the experience at sea. I read about whalers writing home to their wives and children explaining day-to-day activities on board; I analyzed records of businessmen managing their vessels and crew; I saw the cards and drawings from children and wives detailing their lives as they waited for fathers and husbands to return. These primary sources served as guides to the stories of whaling I already knew. Through the Delano Family Papers (Mss 134), I saw the beginnings of whaling as various young businessmen traded ships amongst themselves. I saw a wife in the Eliza Russell Papers (Mss 136) writing to her husband on voyage in the North Pacific. I saw as the Matthew Howland family triumphed in the business and then failed disastrously in the Arctic disasters of the 1870s in Mss 135.
- New Bedford (Outside of Whaling): I also got to view New Bedford as a city of its own – sometimes in its heyday, sometimes long after. Within the Akin Family Papers (Mss 140), I saw the success of industrial businesses, such as the Howland Mills or F.T. Akin & Company, come into power. And from a social perspective, I was able to some of the work of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society through the papers of Charles Gardner Akin, Jr., as well as the sales and exhibitions of Winfred W. Bennett and his Old Colonial Antiques Shop (Mss 138). I even read things entirely different from whaling, like Walter Teller’s research of Joshua Slocum (Mss 131) and Walter Rounsevell’s quest for gold in California (Mss 126). In general, though, I learned a lot about the people that made New Bedford and the surrounding community important.
- The Library: Other than New Bedford history, I discovered what it takes to work in a library. It’s nowhere near as impersonal as people make it out be – with all the activity, every day was a different experience. While I’d often be in my own little corner working on the project of the week, I’d see all sorts of people looking at all sorts of materials and for all sorts of reasons. Unlike the way people portray or talk about libraries, it’s not this still or stationary place. A library is a haven and a home, ever-growing and shaped by the needs of the researchers. A librarian or an archivist has to be able to think about information differently – not necessarily on linear terms, but in a form that allows you to link ideas and people together. You have to know where to find things off the top of your head, and how to help people find exactly what they are looking for. It’s not an easy job, but it certainly seems like an interesting one.
I’d like to thank the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the opportunity to work in the Research Library, especially Mark Procknik as my supervisor, and Michael Dyer and Michael Lapides for support.