Monday, April 27, 2015

The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History

This post has been reblogged from the Lilly Library's blog.

April 27, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the explosion and subsequent sinking of the steamboat Sultana. Death toll estimates range from 1,700 to 1,800 people, making the wreck of the Sultana one of the worst shipwrecks in American history. The number of lives lost far exceeds the death toll from the sinking of the Titanic, which killed 1,512 people; yet, few have even heard of the Sultana shipwreck.

The passengers aboard the Sultana were former Union soldiers freshly released from Confederate prison camps. The Civil War had ended just 18 days earlier, and these men--weak, malnourished, and suffering from various ailments--were desperate to get back to their families. Steamboat companies were offered $5.00 per soldier and $10.00 per officer for each man transported back to the North. As a result, many companies were eager to load their ships beyond capacity in order to make maximum profit. The Sultana had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers, but there were over 2,500 men on board at the time of the wreck.

News coverage of the shipwreck is difficult to find. It occurred at a time when the country was deep in mourning over the loss of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's assassination was still splashed across the front pages of newspapers, along with the progression of his funeral train from Washington D. C. to Springfield, Illinois and coverage of the capture and shooting of John Wilkes Booth. It seemed that the country could handle no more tragedy, and thus, the Sultana shipwreck slipped silently by, nearly unnoticed.

Harper's Weekly. May 20, 1865.
However, it was mentioned in a few periodicals. The May 20, 1865 edition of Harpers Weekly opens with more coverage of Lincoln's assassination and funeral on the front page, and much of the content within is dedicated to various aspects of the assassination. Finally, 10 pages in, there is an illustration of the Sultana shipwreck. 

 The illustration is interspersed amongst other illustrations, which depict things like Lincoln's Springfield home, more coverage of his funeral, and of another burning ship in New Orleans. There is no text to go along with the illustration of the Sultana, only a grim picture of a ship engulfed in flames surrounded by hundreds of bodies grasping for safety but finding their hands empty as the icy waters of the Mississippi pulled them down.

Illustration of the Sultana shipwreck
from Harper's Weekly. May 20, 1865.
A short article on the wreck was published in the May 6, 1865 Daily Morning Chronicle out of Washington, D. C., 9 days after the wreck occurred. It opens with the assumption that most readers had already encountered reports of the tragic incident elsewhere. The snippet blamed the crash on a "torpedo which, shaped like a lump of coal, was thrown into the furnace with the fuel, and immediately exploded."

 However, the real cause of the explosion was a faulty repair to one of the boilers. The repairman explained to the captain that it would be unwise to continue traveling upriver with a damaged boiler, but the captain ignored his warning and pushed north. When the damaged boiler could no longer withstand the pressure of moving against the strong current of the flooded Mississippi, it exploded, taking the other two boilers with it.

Front page of the Daily Chronicle. May 6, 1865.

When the boilers exploded, men were flung from the decks, and many drowned in the icy waters of the flooded river. Others died from the explosion or in the subsequent fire that consumed the ship. Of the men on board, only 25 survived, and those that did, owed their lives to the compassion of members of a nearby town, Marion, Arkansas, which had been part of the Confederacy during the war. The Fogelman family and others put together log rafts and paddled out to rescue the remaining 25 men from the burning decks of the Sultana, and former Confederate soldiers pulled men from the frigid water onto the banks. Although the Sultana shipwreck was a horrific incident, the effort of Confederates to rescue Union soldiers from the wreck was the beginning of the reunification of the United States.

"The Sultana Disaster." Published in The Daily
Chronicle. May 20, 1865.

For more information, check out this NPR story: TheShipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How to Curate an Exhibition: The Process Outlined in 8 Steps

This post has been reblogged from the Indiana University Department of Information and Library Science Student Blog, ILS Connect

As part of a Directed Readings course focused on exhibitions in special collections libraries, I curated an exhibition titled “Democracy Men: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln” at the Lilly Library, which is on display until May 11, 2015. The exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War and the 160th anniversary of the publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman wrote extensively on the Civil War and on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and both men promoted and advocated for democracy in the United States throughout their lives.

In this blog post, I will outline the steps I took as I put together my exhibition.

 Case 1: Lincoln and Whitman in popular culture.
Case 3: Lincoln's assassination and death.
Case 4: Mourning Lincoln and unity in the Nation.


Before you begin selecting the items you want to include in your exhibition, you should be thinking of an important date, event, or theme that will make your exhibition appealing to the public while also highlighting materials in the library’s collections.

I chose to highlight the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War and of Lincoln’s assassination, and I paired those events with the 160th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass because the Lilly Library has a great selection of materials related to each of those events. Democracy and Lincoln were the common theme that tied my exhibition together.

As you begin thinking about your exhibition, you should be able to answer these questions: Why is this going to matter? Are patrons going to be motivated to stop and look at the materials I have selected? Will patrons be able to engage with the materials? An exhibition should facilitate and encourage patrons’ interaction with materials in a library. It should invited them in and make them want to see more.


So you’ve decided on a topic of interest, now you need to make sure that your library has enough materials in its collections to support an entire exhibition. Check the library catalogs, talk to curators, and check the stacks to be sure that the library’s collections include a diverse selection of materials that are relevant to your chosen theme.


Once you have an idea of the items you’d like to include, you need to think about the exhibition space. How big are the cases? Can your exhibition include a press kit from the premier of Star Trek Voyager or one of the Audubon volumes? Visit the space your exhibition will be going into, take the layouts with you (make layouts if they don’t already exist), and make sure you understand the dimensions of the space so that you can choose items according to those constraints. Measure the length, width, and depth of the cases and the items you are planning to include!


Most importantly, when considering the space, you need to think about the safety of each item you plan to include. Maybe it seems like the Star Trek Voyager press kit will fit into the case if you gently bend it so that it’s propped against the back wall and lying along the floor of the case, BUT that may damage the item. As the curator, you need to make the case fit the item, not the other way around. You should never consider altering or damaging an item for the sake of the exhibition. If you want to exhibit a book open to the frontispiece, be sure to consider the depth of your case and the height of the book when it’s open on supports. Measuring each item and the cases will help ensure that the items have enough space and are safe in the cases.


After you’ve started selecting items for your exhibition, it’s important to keep track of each item using an item list, exhibition flags, and case layouts. You’ll want to keep notes on the way you’d like the items you’ve chosen to be displayed in the cases, and you should note the location you’ve assigned each item on the layouts. This information will be essential for the staff members that are responsible for prepping and installing your exhibition. It’s also important to keep track of items’ housing and condition on the item list and on the flags.

The Lilly Library uses case templates, item lists, and exhibition flags (one for each item) to keep track of this information. You can see an example of an item list and the case layouts below.


You have a theme; you’ve selected your items; and you’ve decided how you want it all laid out. Now it’s time to prep the items and put them in the cases. These last two steps of the process will likely be handled by the staff members in charge of exhibitions at the library. The staff will take the notes you made on your item list, the case layouts, and on the flags you filled out for each item and turn them into the exhibition you dreamed up. The more detailed your notes, the easier it will be for the staff to translate your 2D descriptions to the 3D gallery space.


Like step 6, step 7 will generally be completed by the exhibitions staff at the library. At this point, you can sit back, relax, and watch the staff work their magic as they lay the items into their cases, set them up on supports, and make any final adjustments before installation is complete.


As you prepare to curate your own exhibition, I highly recommend checking out Jessica Lacher-Feldman’s book Exhibits in Archives and Special Collections (2013). It’s available for purchase through this link.

[ED: IUCAT now lists it as on order as of 2015-04-15, and ILL might also be possible.]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Christmas Totem Pole

From a pamphlet I came across while processing an archive:

The Christmas Totem Pole

An original creation of how the Christmas Story might have been told in the art and lore of the Ancient Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. Carving and Poem by David K. Fison

Behold the carving stranger;
Then phase and read this scroll.
You will learn the legend of
The Christmas Totem Pole.

Now the Ancient Tsimshian
Had "Books" for all to see,
But when they "wrote" a story
They'd carve it from a tree.

From the lore of these people
Then let this pole proclaim;
How "great Chief of the Heavens,"
Was their Creator's name.

Black Raven was His messenger
To bring His word it seems,
And Frog, the lesser creature,
He sent to men in dreams.

To a lowly Maid came Raven
To plan that Holy Birth;
While Frog assured Woodcarver
Her child would bless the earth.

An order for a potlatch
Was given in that day.
They journeyed there by dugout
Through inland waterway.

No place was found for shelter;
Except the forest wild.
Where Bear feeds on the berries;
Was born that Holy Child.

Men tending village fishtraps
Had heard the Raven's song,
And ran to find their Saviour
Expected e'er so long.

Then traveling to that village
Came leaders from afar;
With gifts for a newborn Chieftain;
Being guided by a star.

Yet there were those who feared Him,
And one who wished Him dead,
But great Chief of the Heavens
Had a plan of love instead.

So He sent Frog to warn them;
They hid with another clan.
He became the Great Chief, and
Fulfilled His Father's plan.

Yes, He comes to every people
No matter where they live;
Just as they are, accepts them;
His Holy love to give.

Take Him as your Chief my friend,
And He shall make you whole.
This fulfills the purpose of
The Christmas Totem Pole.


Read more about my progress as I process the archives of the Archdiocese of Anchorage here:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Artist Books at the Lilly Library

The Lilly Library has an incredible collection of artists books. Many of them are singular in that no other copies exist. This afternoon, I spent time look at two of them: The WunderCabinet : the curious worlds of Barbara Hodgson & Claudia Cohen and The Deep by Kevin Steele. 

The WunderCabinet almost resembles a board game or treasure chest more than a book, but it does include textual components. The box includes drawers made up of compartments each of which houses various items that are detailed in the handwritten catalogue. Only 30 copies of The WunderCabinet were produced, and the first 10 copies form a deluxe issue, which features two drawers at the base of the box filled with myriad treasures not included in the regular version. The copy held at the Lilly Library is number 3 of 30.

This item is meant to mimic similar cabinets of curiosities that were popular from the 16th to 18th centuries. The artifacts included in the volume come from the authors' own collections, and the images are presented in a variety of forms including hand drawn, hand colored, layered, or collaged.

The WunderCabinet. Heavenly Monkey Editions, 2001.

The Deep by Kevin Steele (2012) is unusual in shape and style. This accordion-bound pop-up book unfolds to reveal an oversized eight-point compass rose. The copy held at the Lilly Library is number 2 of an open edition. The Deep is dedicated to the maritime tradition and to nautical exploration, meant to remind the reader of how immense and mysterious the ocean would have seemed to sailors at a time when being at sea was an experience of isolation from civilization. 

In addition to these artist books, the Lilly Library also has works by Timothy C. Ely and Daniel E. Kelm. Like Steele, Hodgson, and Cohen, Ely and Kelm have created masterpieces that are unique and intricate. Works by each of these book artists are incredible, one of a kind, and well worth an hour or two of your time. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou

This past week, I put together a single-case exhibition in honor of Maya Angelou at the Lilly Library. In an attempt to represent the diverse and incredible life Angelou led, I selected items that represented a variety of her works, which can be seen below. 

Dr. Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014) was an American author and poet. Born in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, Dr. Angelou led a colorful life as she fluttered from one profession to another. She was a civil rights activist, actress, and filmmaker, the first African-American female cable car conductor in San Francisco, a waitress, a cook, a dancer, and a writer. Dr. Angelou performed with Alvin Ailey on television, traveled to Cairo and to Ghana, where she met Malcolm X. She supported Malcolm X’s cause as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. appointed her the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dr. Angelou’s autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), was enormously popular and received international acclaim. She went on to publish over 30 bestselling works. In 2000, Dr. Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts. She was also awarded the Lincoln Medal (2008) and received three Grammy Awards. She was the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.


Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul. New York: The Limited Editions Club, 2003. Etchings by Dean Mitchell. Audio CD by Wynton Marsalis. Lilly Library.

The images in this volume are incredible. Unfortunately, this photo doesn't do this image of a bassist justice. The blues are vivid and enhance the emotions Angelou expresses in the corresponding text:

Blues may be the life you've led
Or midnight hours in an empty bed,
But persecuting blues I've known
Could stalk like tigers
Break like bone
Rivers heading north
But ending South,
Funeral music
In a going-home mouth
There is my spiritual.

Music was an important part of Angelou's life: “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Angelou’s poetry reflects her love of music, especially in this volume. Dean Mitchell writes in the afterward, “Maya Angelou wrenches her poetry from her heart and sets it free to sing the pain and the joy, not of one heart, but of humanity. This is her jazz.”

Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House, 1974. First Edition. Lilly Library.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969. First Edition. Lilly Library.

And Still I Rise. New York: Random House, 1978. First Edition. Lilly Library.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.