Libraries in the Time of Coronavirus

While people all over the world self-distancing and sheltering at home, libraries and museums have been adapting to maximize opportunities to engage and connect with patrons online. Despite challenges posed by the digital divide, information organizations have been exploring and moving towards digital and virtual services prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with public libraries offering patrons access to media through their smartphones and TVs via apps like Libby and Kanopy. Meanwhile, many archives have made it possible for people all over the world to engage with collections online through the Internet Archive and through virtual tours of museums. Others are pioneering new opportunities for engagement with innovative twists on existing technologies, like the New York Public Library offering novels through Instagram.

Last October, the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library began working to digitize their collection of over 400 logbooks and ultimately have them transcribed as part of an effort to make materials not only more available by having them online, but to make them more accessible to those unfamiliar with cursive handwriting, manuscript materials, and whaling and nautical jargon, and to make materials text searchable. 

These first person accounts offer the chance to sail around the world from the comfort of your own home. While some accounts of whaling voyages are more well known, such as those of the ill-fated Nantucket whaleship Essex, lesser known voyages can be just as thrilling. Some logs are fairly straightforward, recording only wind, weather, and whales. Others are vivid accounts of life at sea, featuring detailed illustrations, poetry, musings, doodles, and even secret code that help put a human face to history, and enable readers to connect with the keepers 200 years later. Some logs’ entries read like passages from Moby-Dick:

“I reached Nantucket and attached myself to a whaleship bound into the Pacific Ocean. This I was advised to do by my physician, who said I might take my choice, either go to sea, or go to the grave, I replied that I preferred the voyage to the former place, though I half repented it afterwards.”

“I very soon became familiar with the duty of managing the ship and if I could only have learned to chew tobacco, drink rum, swear and lie I should have made a first rate sailor.”

From the Milo Calkin Travel Memoir.

“[I] resolved to take once more to the Salt Pond, without informing my parents of my destination. There being no ships at this place that were going long voyages, I proceeded to Nantucket where I was confident they could be obtained.”

From the Moses E. Morrell Whaling Journal.

Of the over 400 logs in the NHA’s collection, only about 11 were kept by women. It was not unheard of for wives to accompany their whaling master husbands on voyages. Sometimes their children would also come along, and sometimes they were left at home. We have uploaded some of these “Ladies’ Logs” to be transcribed, as they offer a unique perspective, another lens through which to observe seafaring life.

Susan Veeder’s log kept aboard the Nauticon.

Through From The Page, a crowdsourcing transcription site, anyone with an internet connection can help transcribe. The virtual expeditions offer transcribers opportunities to escape the confines of home and explore the world in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Looking for more history and adventure? From the Page also offers many other interesting transcription projects, including the The Papers of Civil Rights Leader Julian Bond from the University of Virginia, the Kentucky Historical Society’s Henry Lane Stone’s Civil War diary, and the diaries of gold prospector Alfred Doten.

Sara David is currently finishing her last semester at Florida State University where she is working towards a Master of Science in Library and Information Studies. She currently works as the digitization archivist at the Nantucket Historical Association.

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