Once upon a time there lived a man named James Merrill Linn.
He was a lawyer, a member of a prominent family in town, a soldier, a collector of historical factoids and memorabilia. He wrote. And wrote. He wrote letters and journals and memoirs and essays. He wrote contracts and deeds and wills. And, it seems, he saved everything. He saw himself as a witness to history, as someone whose actions and observations were of value in the documentation of that history. After his death someone in his family gathered all of these life papers together and donated them to his university, thinking – perhaps – that someone else would recognize the importance of his words and deeds.
Once in a great while, such intention is transformational to those of us who come after. More often than not, the documents of a lifetime are truly only of import to the person who saved the documents in the first place. I’ve been saving letters from and photos of family members and friends all my life, and have kept a journal pretty regularly since 2005. I’m pretty darned sure no one will ever read any of those words or look at those pictures after I’m dead.
But once in a while an opportunity arises that can offer us the chance to review and analyse the value of someone’s reflections upon their life and its place within a historical framework. I’m about to take advantage of one of those opportunities.
James (or Merrill – depending on his correspondent) Linn was one of the first graduates of Bucknell University in 1855. His family had settled in Lewisburg in the latter half of the previous century. There seemed to be a tradition in the family of chronicling the area and the family’s association with it (his father, grandfather, and then brother all wrote histories of the Buffalo Valley, Union County and Pennsylvania more broadly). James was a captain in the Civil War, serving in H Company in the 51st Pennsylvania Regiment. He spent the rest of his life shaping and reshaping the perception of his role in the war.
There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of Civil War veterans who wrestled with their experiences and tried to make sense of what had happened to them and how the grim war changed irrevocably their and our view of America. All you need to do is go back and watch Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary to realize how many of these soldiers and their families experienced the war as it happened. Linn’s letters and diaries just add another voice to that chorus.
Bucknell has a collection of these papers (we also have the writings of his brother John and several other family members, but those will have to wait for another time.) We have letters he wrote to his family from various camps throughout the Middle Atlantic and Southern states and to the Lewisburg Chronicle (he seems to have fashioned himself as a war correspondent for the local paper as early as ten days after the fall of Fort Sumter in April, 1861.)
We have letters his family and friends wrote to him (which I find to be unusual, considering he would have had to save them while on the march.) We have his personal and regimental journals. We have drawings and doodles and hand-drawn maps of troop locations that he sent back to his family. And that’s just the war stuff. We have Linn’s essays and business records and more correspondence stretching (I think) until his death in 1897.
Last winter I asked Bucknell’s Head of Special Collections & University Archives Isabella O’Neill if I could take a look around our collections to see if there might be something that we could experiment with in terms of digital editions or resources. We have special collections with historical or literary or cultural resonance, as well as gifts of family members and friends who wanted to do something with a set of papers, and donating them to Bucknell seemed the right thing to do. So – honestly because I had a relatively quiet day – I fumbled through a bunch of boxes and stumbled upon some of Linn’s letters and drawings. And I read more and started trying to sort through the unprocessed papers. And I wondered whether this might be interesting to play and experiment with. I’m sure some archivists will grimace at what seems like my nonchalance about this. But I thought, too, that among the things I’m trying to do here is model ways in which research can be reconsidered through digital approaches, and to find ways for students to participate in those research experiences. And Linn’s papers also resonated for me because of their potential connection to the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley digital humanities research project that Katie Faull, Alf Siewers, Brandn Green, and other faculty, staff and students have been working on since 2009. Here might be another way to think about this area and its historical and cultural relevance.
This fall I will teach a section of a new course called “Digging into the Digital” which will serve as an introductory research-based learning course using digital methods and approaches. As Katie Faull and I described it when we presented at the DH2014 conference three weeks ago, the course is aimed at first- and second-year students and will serve as a kind of experiment to see how Digital Humanities can be incorporated into the curriculum. When I started looking at the boxes of Linn papers I thought that the letters and diaries might offer an opportunity to have students think about material artifacts and digital transliteration – markup, geotemporal analysis, visualization. The course description reads, “Through a project based approach, students will engage in the research process typical for a humanities scholar: namely, the discovery of artifacts, the formulation of research questions, followed by the analysis and synthesis of findings culminating in the publication of initial findings in a digital medium. Class time will be divided between discussion of critical issues, group projects, sharing of findings, and the creation of an ongoing collaborative writing environment that will allow students to develop, reflect upon and share/publish research in-parallel with their work.”1 It’s important to note that I do not have a research background in 19th century American history, and that will add to the challenge in teaching these materials. My hope is that I can provide the framework for students in terms of how to conduct archival research, analyze and ask their own research questions about the papers, and then present their preliminary findings through digital means. That in itself is important – to teach students to understand what it means to think critically about the intersection between place and history, and to be active rather than passive consumers of technology.
I have read only some of the letters; I’ve worked a bit with Linn’s diary; I’ve asked a summer work-study student to experiment with transcription of the manuscripts to see how much of a challenge that process is. So far it’s been encouraging: I asked the student to look at one letter and see how long it would take him to work on it. When I came back two weeks later he had already transcribed many of them and wanted to go down to the archives to see what else he can find. A lot of what Linn writes about in 1861-2 is his boredom waiting for something to happen, and what he experiences in Washington while he waits (for fun he and his friends would sit in the gallery and watch as members of Congress debated how to conduct the war). What I’m excited about is to see what the students are going to make of all this: what questions they’re going to ask and how (if?) they’re going to make sense of what they read. Will they find his daily life boring or will they be intrigued by his experiences? Will they find those intersections between Linn’s experiences and the larger context of people, places, and events during the war? The collection’s value may ultimately only be to this course; in December we’ll store the digital files and put the boxes back where we found them. But perhaps the students will find this really interesting and want to look at a wider swath of the materials, both in terms of Linn’s Civil War experiences and his longer life in Lewisburg. It could provide students with opportunities to do what Katie and I talked about in our DH paper – to work with these types of materials outside and beyond the classroom. Either way, I look forward to the next few months to see how it plays out.
- Bucknell Online Course Guide ↩