Sophie Leveque 2017-11-13 11:57:55
I was lured into my first processing project by hand-carved plates. The project was for the Dolmen Press, an Irish publishing house active from 1951 to 1987, and founded and run by Liam Miller and his wife, Josephine. The Z. Smith Reynolds (ZSR) Library at Wake Forest University acquired the Dolmen’s design work, printing plates, correspondence, and administrative papers in the late 1980s. Although niche, it’s a treasure trove of work by famous artists and Irish poets, including W.B. Yeats. The goal of the project, headed by ZSR Preservation Librarian Craig Fansler, was to create a directory of images so that the library had a handy guide to the vast collection of art. My motives were less pure. I wanted to touch the plates, to feel the metal, linoleum, or wooden hand-carved plates and hold them in my hands. “Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold” When I encountered the collection as a student, there were 15 heavy boxes of printing plates. Over time, we divided the plates into 37 boxes so that each was easier to lift and sort through. Our first box contained materials from Tate Adams and his book Soul Cages. That was pretty straightforward. Then things got tricky. The next box contained artists beginning with the letter “B,” but also plates from unknown artists and publications. Eventually, the loose alphabetical order gave way completely. Six boxes in, when I should have been mid-alphabet, I was finding more of Mia Cranwill’s plates alongside Bridget Swinton’s work, in addition to a lot of unlabeled chaos. We realized that when the original finding aid was created long ago, some plates had not been counted, so we didn’t even know how many plates there were altogether. Excel became my friend. I made categories for the material of each plate, the image depicted, the artist (if known), and its publication (if known). I also recorded any notes from the back of the plate and the call number of the publication. Then I numbered each plate and its print. Finally, I took a picture of the print to later link to the photos in the Excel sheet. After 500 plates, I got into a rhythm. When the glare of the computer screen got tiresome, unpacking boxes kept me engaged. I loved the warm feel of the wooden plates as opposed to the thin, unmounted metal plates. Fansler’s immense knowledge of the collection allowed him to hunt down images in their publications so we could cite them. The Dolmen XXV: A Bibliography 1951–1976 by Liam Miller helped us tremendously, and the detective work balanced out the monotony. Personally, holding the works of Tate Adams, Pauline Bewick, Leonard Baskin, Louis le Brocquy, and Juanita Casey felt intimate and precious, like I had a museum all to myself. “The World Is Full of Magic Things” After eight months and more than 1,200 plates, I delved into metadata standardization, also known as sheer insanity. After a hundred hours of creating data, I had to clean up my work. Our archivist, Stephanie Bennett, was patient with me as I toiled with a monster of my own making. How could I use a comma so inconsistently? I thought. My gusto for the project was challenged by the sheer grit it took to sort through everything. I began to wonder why the collection mattered. I thought about the most unique thing I had seen over the course of the project. The book, Yeats and the Noh, details the poet’s attempt to bring the themes of traditional Japanese theater—Noh—to the Irish stage. The plates from this book were bizarre to me—images of Japanese masks alongside western Christian imagery and Irish landscapes. What did Yeats want with Japanese masks? From my Western perspective, the masks were so different than what I was used to seeing, and I realized that viewers in 1960s Ireland probably had the same sense of surprise I did. I see why Yeats pursued the complex mixture of confusion and curiosity in his work. The Dolmen Press Collection is a form of material culture we can study to see the overlap between poetry, Irish values, publishing, and sometimes, as in the case of Yeats and the Noh, interaction with other cultures. As I deleted extra spaces in my spreadsheet, I had a thought: archival processing is an act of homage. “Let Us Go Forth, the Tellers of Tales” Within the ZSR Library, that meant making this collection from a different culture accessible (all plates accounted for) and usable (able to be studied without damage done to the irreplaceable object). It would have been excellent to have a digital exhibit. I tagged images to create two exhibits: one for women or genderless figures and the other for overt Christian imagery. These tags still exist in the metadata, but it was a little disappointing that my hopes for a digital collection were dashed. I’d spent a lot of time resizing images and trying to figure out what kind of link would work to upload them in something like Omeka, which ultimately didn’t turn out to be the right tool for the collection’s specifications. It took introspection to understand that this collection was going to survive long after my time at the ZSR Library. A bow to wrap the project up in the short term wasn’t feasible—and isn’t with many archival processing projects. As a novice (I haven’t yet earned my MLIS degree through the University College Dublin in Ireland), I learned some things the hard way. I wish I had thought more carefully about the vocabulary I was using. Considering Dublin Core metadata standards before I began would have been easier than making my data fit the other way. I’m also more aware of archivists’ important tasks. Collections don’t often get a second pass, and it wasn’t until I was almost finished that I appreciated the gravity of my choices, whether it be how I described an image or if I had interpreted a detail correctly. Now that the collection has been processed, I hope that researchers use it, that someone studies the gender breakdown (14 women artists versus 39 male artists) or sheds light on the 600 plates we couldn’t connect to an artist or a publication. And I have an earnest appreciation for processing requirements. After all, if materials cannot be found, they cannot be used, studied, or enjoyed. We process to protect. This article originally appeared as a series of blog posts, which can be found at https://zsr.wfu.edu/2017/dolmen-printing-plates-processingadventure-part-3. Subheadings are lines of poetry by W.B. Yeats.
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