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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    Review Time

    Students could be reviewing for exams, but instead want to talk about the project. Although they have really only studied a few of the letters individually, the group shared highlights with one another and then began to offer thoughts on the people involved. I sketched a rough family tree on the whiteboard and answered questions for a while. Some were quick to see the obvious -- four marriages, four daughters. Some focused on the subtext, praising Arline and Mercy for their independent spirits, trying to break out of the confines of their 1910 community.

    Most students had finished a course in U.S. History, many also completed U.S. Women's History; they had a good overview of the battle for voting and property rights. Seen in the light of the larger scale of American history, their story is remarkable because it is "everywoman's" story. They weren't rich, famous, or privileged. They were just very ordinary women.

    The girls who want to continue this summer were especially enthusiastic; some have vowed to write letters home from their adventures this summer rather than rely only on email. The longevity of paper and ink seems to have really impressed them. Who would have thought a few years ago as we were hearing the tech bell to convert to the digital age, that we would learn paper is still preferred for preservation?


    Finishing Up

    Clearly, some students could continue this project for quite a while. Some still needed to finish transcriptions and corrections. Others were ready to talk about the letters and share their thoughts on what they discovered. We put off the discussion until tomorrow; they are anxious for answers, but I am afraid that we will mostly generate more questions.

    I finished up my slide show over the weekend. About 8 minutes of photos arranged chronologically with text and music. I decided to keep the time frame to the period of the letters we have read, birth through 1920 or so.


    Day 4 - The Transcription Project

    Today was our last full day on the project. When I walked into the computer lab, three girls came to me talking all at once about their letters and how much they enjoyed the project. Some wanted to keep transcribing and asked if they could work on it over the summer! It is exciting to see their enthusiasm.

    By the end of the class period each student had completed at least two letters -- transcribed, proofread with a partner, corrections made, and data entry sheet completed. Some girls had finished three or even four letters.

    Our final day of the unit will be to discuss what we learned. I find that they are anxious to share the letters they transcribed and want to hear the stories from other letters in an effort to put together the bigger picture. We will save that for Tuesday!


    History Class Joins the Project

    Students in U.S. Women's History are also helping with the transcriptions. With only a few class sessions to spare, they were able to work collaboratively to transcribe several letters. The instructor tells me that their curiosity is piqued.... they want the full story. We may try this again next year and work it into the regular curriculum as a unit on primary sources.


    Day 3 -- The Transcription Project

    What a difference a little experience can make. When I walked into the library today where our class was meeting, I found every student already occupied at a computer. The letters were open on their computer monitors and the girls were pouring over the archaic handwriting. I could hardly get them to look away for a moment as I held up the original photos and news clippings I brought to show.

    "Who had the letter about Mercy's kidnapping?"
    A hand shot up, "I did. It talked about white slavery too."
    "Here is the news article," I said, showing the girls the original and reading "Thinks Sister Used as Victim of Hypnotist."
    At first a few girls were listening and looking at the photos; soon the entire class was gathered around the large conference table with jaws dropped.
    "She was kidnapped?"
    "Well, the family thought so, but here is her photo with the man . . . "
    "He looks so nice," they repeated. "He looks normal."
    "Yes, he does, and she married him."
    "Were they happy? Did they stay married?"
    "Not really. He did leave her, and her daughter had mental problems."
    "What else?" They wanted to know.
    I could only answer, "I don't know. Read your letters today and see what mysteries you can uncover or solve."
    They actually raced back to their computers to continue reading.

    Students were so quietly intent on their reading that the library felt like. . . a library. After a time, as they finished transcribing their leters, the girls began to read aloud their transcription with a partner to check their work. Now they knew the stories of two letters. Some girls were ready for another and began a second or third transcription. With one day of our library time remaining, it seems likely that nearly everyone will meet the assignment of transcribing two letters.


    Day 2 - The Transcription Project

    I feel like I ran a marathon today. Fifteen to twenty students in the library, all excited, but absolutely confused by the 100 year old handwriting. I raced from student to student helping with identification, file opening/saving problems, and basic questions. They have never heard of three-and four-letter state abbreviations such as Colo. and Tex. and see them as possible words. Then, "w" looks like "m" and "o" and "e" seem impossible to decipher.

    Just as the period was nearing its end, I felt the mood in the room shift. The girls began talking about what stories in the letters, and the people revealed in the words. Now they were reading for the tale, not just the words themselves.


    Day 1 - The Transcription Project

    D-Day! The first group of my English classes is ready to begin. Last week I showed them a short PowerPoint Presentation on working with primary sources. It included slides of an actual letter and the students were surprised by the handwriting. We read it aloud and discussed the conventions of early 20th century social correspondence such as beginning each letter with date and place, referring to recently received letters, etc. I think the email, texting generation found the idea rather antiquated.

    We met in the library today where we were able to spread out on the large tables and also have access to the computers around the room. It was an ideal space. Fortunately, I had taken the time to make a listing of all the letters with a few notations: File Number, Handwritten or Typed, Number of Pages. I decided to initially assign one letter to each student, and selected shorter pieces that I hoped would not be overly difficult.

    When they opened the files on the computer screen I could hear the sighs. The girls were looking at another language, one they could not begin to decipher. I raced from student to student throughout the 50-minute period, deciptering words, making suggestions, coaching guesses. By the end of the class, they seemed to have caught on but I was exhausted.


    Scanning Update

    I am running out of time for scanning letters as I also want to scan some photos and put together a presentation. Haven't been able to process the letters in the AskSam database, but have worked up a Data Entry Form for the students to complete. It should help organize their thoughts about the letters as well.

    I now have over 100 letters in the archival folders, and am scanning hit-and-miss style to catch ones that are a) suitable, and b) interesting.

    Total now 93 letters. May need to complete more.


    Reading the News

    In thinking about how to present the story of Arline's life to the students, I began looking through some of her news clippings. What a treasure. I will have to save some it for this summer when I have more time, but for now I can at least scan the most glaring headlines-- "Girl in Power of Hypnotist," "Forces Chauffeur to Aid Kidnapping," and my personal favorite "Husband's Language Too Vile to Mention."

    Total News clippings scanned, 16.


    Photo Scanning

    Took a break from the letters and started scanning photos yesterday; it certainly goes quicker than 6 and 7 page letters. They are beautiful and so fun to see in a larger size.

    I came across some loose pages from a photo album and have been able to reconstruct some of the original photo displays. Evidently a few photos fell off or were taken off the pages; too bad for us today.

    Total photos scanned 26.


    Scanning Continued

    I figure that I need about 100 letters for the students to work with because I plan to require that each student complete at least 2 transcriptions. The U.S. Women's History teacher heard me talking about the project and wants to have her students work on it as well. Our total is about 50 students, so 100 letters may not even be enough. More scanning. . .

    Total letters scanned is now 89.


    Establishing a Transcription Protocol

    In just a few weeks I will be at the mercy of 35 eager 17- and 18-year-old young women eager to read Arline's mail. I have decided that we need a very streamlined method for the madness for the project to succeed. The seniors should have the least difficulty, but some of the younger students may have problems with complicated instructions and reading the 19th century handwriting.

    I've developed an handout that gives the overall objective of the project and establishes a few guidelines:

    • read the letter through completely before beginning the transcription
    • be true to the text; don't add or subtract words or phrases
    • reserve judgment about the subject matter
    We will be using a Clear Text procedure; word-for-word transcription with notations on the author's corrections placed outside the text itself. This should make the transcripts more enjoyable to read, and be easier for the students.

    I'm also working on a PowerPoint presentation to give an overview of the project and the procedure.


    Square Bracket Workaround Doesn't Work

    Ugh, it just doesn't work to use alternate characters for square brackets. They look WEIRD. I think they will work in the transcriptions, and I will have to use curly brackets in the database fields if necessary. At least { and } look a little like [ and ].


    More Scanning

    I feel like a scanning machine. Thank goodness for Multi-TIFF format. It saves multiple pages in one file and it can be opened on the PC or Mac. Now I just have to find a program to convert images to JPG so I can have smaller files for presentations and printing.

    I have now scanned 55 letters!


    Scanning Success!

    I am working on catching up with the scanning and have completed 33 documents. I am scanning all docs in Multi-Tiff format (this allows multiple pages to be saved to one file), at 300 dpi, in 24-bit color. I am not sure if this is too much or too little color resolution, but the images are clear and bright and sometimes easier to read than the originals.

    The files work equally well on my PC running XP and on the Mac computers at school. They open in Media Image Viewer on the PC and in Preview on the Mac. Both allow for printing.

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