Brooklyn Diary, 1864: Reflections on the Project
May 7, 2012
My mother’s family has lived in the Northeast United States for many generations, and those generations have left behind several artifacts of their lives. One ancestor, Julia Duncan Worthington Bulkeley of Brooklyn, N.Y., kept diaries fairly regularly for some parts of her life, especially for the period from 1861 to 1888. Diaries from almost every year in that period remain intact. My maternal aunt, Ann Sheedy Bradburd, has been transcribing various written records for the past several years, and when I approached her about digitizing some of what she has done for the term project for Digital Humanities, she suggested Julia’s diary of 1864, as it included some interesting events of the period such as the Sanitary Fair held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Having my aunt’s transcription ready gave the project some shape from the outset.
Using an Epson Perfection V30 scanner at Pratt Institute’s Manhattan campus and a cardboard light blocker, I digitized the complete diary, from the inner front cover and information pages to the cash accounts and inner back cover, as well as the front and back. The pocket diary was formatted to show six days in two pages, with no divisions for months. I established a monthly order for the digitized version, which is not entirely true to the spirit of the diary but is more approachable for new users. Within my aunt’s transcription, I highlighted people, places, events, and things, with the goal of hyperlinking the transcription on the website. I created the website using WordPress’s free platform, as my plan was to create this project as cheaply as I could, which meant no Adobe Dreamweaver for working with HTML, using Pratt’s scanners (which were better than my own, anyway), and sticking just to what WordPress provided in its basic form.
Julia’s entries were mostly written in pencil, but there were a couple weeks in August when she used a pen, and it was interesting to see that while the pen scanned much better than the pencil, it also was more likely to fade away when coming in contact with other substances (more on that below). The pencil, though faint, was readable throughout.
After some minor edits, the images were uploaded to the site and the transcriptions entered accordingly. I used an HTML table to separate each six-day period picture and transcription, and within each entry linked the people to either the Family page or Friends/Community page. The places were linked to the page showing the Google map made for an assignment, in which I either located spots that still existed, such as Green-Wood Cemetery, a common day trip, or the former location of places mentioned, such as the Brooklyn Athenaeum. Events and things were linked to outside sources – contemporaneous Google books that discussed etiquette, baking, cooking, sewing, all the things she mentions doing that a lady would do in mid-19th century, or articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (via the Brooklyn Public Library), to provide context. I also included on the site an essay written by my aunt about Julia, her family, and Brooklyn’s history up to the 1860s, for further information.
This diary is in the possession of my aunt and larger family. Even if it were not already in the public domain (which, except for its age, it would not be because it was not published, but recent copyright law has begun to include unpublished works), it is my family’s, so there should not be any intellectual property problems. There has been some work done by other descendants of distantly related cousins (if you go back far enough, everyone is a cousin), so it is not unprecedented to make public the records of family members, especially for historical and local value. Unlike archivists, I do not have to make privacy issues a main concern, though I suppose were any descendants of anyone mentioned in Julia’s diary to contact me about their portrayal in a diary of less than 10,000 words I would address that.
Several issues came up during the digitization process, both physical and theoretical. I initially scanned the complete diary at Pratt’s Brooklyn library, but found that some of the scans had a bit of dirt on them that I had not noticed at the time. Upon redoing the relevant dates at Pratt Manhattan, I discovered that the second scanner was better than the first, and as my own perfectionism demanded it, I had to rescan the whole thing. This delayed the process by a few weeks until my schedule allowed for the extra time in Pratt Manhattan before class. However, the newer scans were indeed better, clearer and brighter than the first scans, so the project is better for it overall.
Doing this project for as little expense as possible meant that I prevented myself from taking advantage of tools that could have helped save me time and frustration, such as using Dreamweaver’s HTML editor or upgrading WordPress to include CSS. I find it likely that I will at some point put some money into this project, probably at least the CSS upgrade if nothing else, because this website can constantly be improved and I do not want to drive myself crazy(/crazier) if I do not have to. I have had a fairly constant problem with HTML line-break formatting that I have yet to figure out, because every time I fix anything on a page it takes away the formatting for the first entry in each cell, which is extremely frustrating. At this point I fix it and hope for the best.
Using only Google books – free eBooks in the public domain, limited in copyright date to those published before 1865 – for object links was sort of limiting and does not ease my worries about overreliance on Google (I also made fair use of Google Docs for this paper, Google Maps for “Where Julia Went,” and Gmail to discuss the project with my aunt), but they do offer valuable access to contemporary books not easily found elsewhere.
One issue that occurred to me during the digitization process was the oddness of interacting with something so old but only to create its digital version. Though I looked through the diary with a great deal of interest upon first receiving it from my aunt, I generally only touched the diary to scan it. Of course, this was partly due to the fact that it smelled like mouse urine, a remnant of who knows how many decades past. The mouse urine is responsible for the big brown blotches at the bottoms of each page (and is what ruined the August entries in ink), and the smell got in my nose to an uncomfortable degree while scanning the diary as many times as I ended up having to. But beyond the unpleasant odor, I found myself relating to the diary more as the intermediate product than on its own merits, a series of steps to get through rather than an interesting object by itself.
A related thought was on the conflict between private and public: this was a private diary that I am now showing to the world. The back pages included space to list monthly expenses, which for most people is no more public information now than it was two centuries ago, and yet I am digitizing them so that others can see what an average middle-class household cost in 1864. Similarly, though most of Julia’s entries discuss the weather and visitors, she sometimes mentions the sadness and loneliness she was feeling. She likely kept diaries every year to keep track of expenses and events – such as how many times the stove was lit and thus how much fuel was needed – but it was also a place for her to note more personal thoughts. It is a strange position for those interested in their own genealogy to see so closely the inner dialogue of their ancestors, fascinating but sad.
Preservation in this case refers both to the website and to the diary itself. The diary is in bad shape, and though I handled it very carefully, the digitization process did not help. What can be done with it? Is it less important now that it is online? The obvious answer is that no, of course it is still important, but preserving something so old and fragile takes some effort. This diary will be returned to my aunt for safekeeping and her own methods of preservation. The website’s preservation is my domain. For now, it is on WordPress, though as I said it is likely I will invest more time and money into the site after this semester. As this project is based on two key objects, the diary images and the transcription (the added links are, I feel, valuable and useful but are also secondary to the diary itself), I hope to someday print out copies of the images and HTML of the transcriptions so that it can always be re-entered if machines in the future can still read HTML.
There are several measures I hope to take in the future to improve this site, though many of them are minor and are really more for my own satisfaction than because I think the site is unusable as it is. I plan to better arrange the diary images within the table cells so they are centered and not at the top of each cell. I want to expand the entries on family and friends so that if there is something relevant about a family member elsewhere on the web, it is included. I may spin off the main family members to their own pages; for example, Julia’s son-in-law Charles was a prolific author and there are several of his books online. Julia’s first husband, Erastus Worthington, was one of the first librarians in Brooklyn (working with volunteer Walt Whitman), which is personally relevant to my own circumstances as an LIS student living and working in Brooklyn. So this project may never be truly done, as discussed in class this semester.
Digitizing Julia’s diary and getting to know one of my ancestors has been a very interesting and rewarding experience, not only for the family history aspect but because it has shown me the on-the-ground issues that go into digitizing something fairly old. It has been frustrating yet positive, and has given me a presence, slight though it may be, in the growing world of digital humanities.