Monday, June 30, 2014

Mount Holyoke's Herbarium: Plants of the Past

Hello good readers! My name is Kimberly, and I will be writing to you from the Archives & Special Collections this summer. I am a class of 2016 Studio Art major who loves to get her hands on books and paper. I will be bringing you tales from “The Treasure Room,” as the Special Collections were once called, of rare books, odd objects, and other treasures every few weeks this summer.

Did you know we have an herbarium at Mount Holyoke? An herbarium is a collection of dried plants. The plants are usually pressed, mounted on paper, labeled, and organized by taxonomy. “Herbarium” can refer to a collection bound into a book or to cabinets full of millions of specimens, and anything in between. An herbarium could be a small book of pretty pressed flowers, or a carefully curated scientific collection.

The making of herbaria was once a common practice at Mount Holyoke. Mary Lyon herself kept an herbarium, which became the nucleus around which the college built its collection. Students collected plants for their botany classes, which were a required part of the curriculum from 1837-38 to 1897-98. They gathered and pressed plants for their own personal herbaria books and for the college collection. Collecting plant specimens was an approved activity during the daily walks required of all students in the early days of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Botany professors Lydia Shattuck and Henrietta Hooker made substantial additions to the herbarium. Emily Dickinson (a non-graduate of the Class of 1849) kept an herbarium, which is now at Harvard’s Houghton Library and can be viewed online. The herbarium was a regular part of coursework until about 1905.

In 1917 the original collection was lost when Williston Hall, the art and science building, burned down. Professor Alma Stokey, who served the botany department from 1908 to 1942, developed a new herbarium with three focuses: New England flora, plants of economic importance, and a collection of ferns and fern allies, which were Professor Stokey’s specialty. She reached out to students, alumni, professors, and other colleges for plant specimens to form the new collection. Professor Stokey also made quite a few contributions of her own, travelling all over the world to collect fern specimens and making exchanges with other institutions. The new herbarium continued to grow, despite getting less and less attention from classes. Oberlin College, Professor Stokey’s alma mater, donated over 700 specimens in 1934-35, and, in 1938-39, 1200 new specimens were added, with many of the plants being remounted and relabeled. One thousand more plants were added by Professor Ethel Eltinge in 1963-64. Despite the college’s long dedication to its herbarium, the collection was essentially forgotten in the 1970s, when the biology department was focused on new equipment and short on space.

The Mount Holyoke College herbarium still has much to show us. It is both a part of our college history and a window into plant life of the past. Herbaria can offer insight into the lives of particular plant populations over time and sometimes contain plants that no longer grow in a particular area. They provide an opportunity to examine plants from near and far in person.

These old plants will see some light again soon in an upcoming archives exhibit in the display cases around LITS. If you are curious to see these items sooner, take a look at Hannah Louisa Plimpton Peet Hartwell’s herbarium in our digital collections, or come in to the Archives in Dwight Hall and take a look at Lydia Shattuck’s herbarium, or the herbaria of Elizabeth A. Smith (a non-graduate of the Class of 1849), Francis L. McMaster (Class of 1861), and Anna R. Leonard (Class of 1869). Smith College and UMass Amherst also have herbaria that you can visit.

Images from the herbarium of Hannah Louisa Plimpton Peet Hartwell

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks: A Story in Letters

Hello there, my name is Caroline, and I’m a summer research assistant in the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections! I am a rising senior (go 2015! Yellow sphinx!) double major in Gender Studies and Sociology. My majors focus on depictions of women in the media and meaning-making through the occult – I’m all sorts of at home in the Archives, surrounded by old books and good friends. When I’m not in class or in the basement of Dwight I can be found in the Marks House, orienting new students, and blogging about the Mount Holyoke community!

The Archives and Special Collections has been tackling an immense project for the last year – digitizing, transcribing, and presenting the amazing amount of correspondence in our possession between Mount Holyoke’s own former president Mary E. Woolley and her lifetime partner and friend Jeannette A. Marks.
Our shelves are packed with archival boxes containing hundreds of letters exchanged between Mary and
Jeannette during the years prior to and following Miss Woolley’s tenure as President, as well as during her reign at the helm of MHC. Her collection also includes an unfinished and unpublished autobiography containing details of her childhood, teaching career, tenure at Mount Holyoke, and more.

Jeannette Marks’ collection is similarly housed in the Archives stacks, with correspondence and manuscripts from her time here in the English Literature department and drafts of her biography of Mary Woolley, published in 1955.

The emotion contained in the letters exchanged between them over the course of their lifetimes is palpable – the pages are full of declarations of love, plans made to spend their lives together, and the hopes and dreams the two of them shared.  Several of the letters dated after Mary Woolley was offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke but before she had taken office are particularly poignant – they hint at a revelation between the two women about their mutual affection and devotion to one another, and reading them leaves one both emotionally touched and somewhat guilty for having intruded on what was such a private and important moment in their lives.

The sheer amount of correspondence is staggering, as the women often wrote to one another daily while apart. When both Woolley and Marks took up their posts as president and professor at Mount Holyoke, one may have expected a dip in the rate of postal exchange. The opposite is in fact often true – they wrote short notes to one another frequently during the day, delivered via inter-departmental mail or, on remarkably frequent occasions, to one another while they were living in the same home. Identifying and transcribing each of these quick but meaningful messages is a herculean undertaking, and has proved a wonderfully constant challenge and source of new understanding in the Archives.

The difficulty in transcription and digitization is frequently one of penmanship – the calligraphy and flowing handwriting of a bygone era can be hard to interpret for modern scholars, and the familiarity between Woolley and Marks lends an air of informality to the sometimes-scrawl the women used to address one another. Woolley’s handwriting is large and loose; it flows a few lines at a time over the page and is easy enough to decipher, given time and careful inspection. Marks’ is definitively less so – some words and phrases in her letters have given pause to a series of archival assistants assigned to the task of deciphering them.

Work has continued nevertheless, including identifying letters to be transcribed through research of the women’s lives. Momentous occasions often produce interesting conversation between the two, and examining the historical timeline of their lives and relationship can yield a veritable treasure trove of interesting messages to interpret.

Having the papers in our possession is an enormous benefit to research. The contents depict a richer and fuller story about their life together than biographies and remembrances often do, showing one of Mount Holyoke’s most important partnerships in a frank, candid, and starkly honest form. The Archives is focusing this summer on transforming this wealth of information and hard work into a digital public exhibit, with the help of the dedicated LITS Digital Assets and Preservation Services department.

This exhibit is still under construction – plans for its presentation include an interactive web page and a future invitation for crowdsourced transcription in order to more easily decipher the correspondence.  Research into the amazing lives and fascinating relationship of these pioneering women is just beginning – the Archives and Special Collections hopes that by opening this abundance of information to the public, interest in the lives of the partners will encourage continual research, debate, and insight into this fascinating topic. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Download older Moodle materials by June 30th, 2014

In order to comply with copyright law, LITS must turn off student access to Moodle course sites a few weeks after grades are due.

If you wish to save copies of any Moodle materials from a Spring 2014 course site (or older Moodle sites), please do so by June 30, 2014. If you have an extension and require access to a course site beyond this date, please contact the course instructor.

Note that this process - shutting off access to the previous semester's course sites about a month after grades are due - will be standard procedure from here on out.

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