Don’t Put Up My Thread and Needle: a few thoughts on archives, unbinding and digital books

Of course, unbinding is about the process of breaking down-- of designating what does and does not belong, what is kept in, what is left out; or what is left in, what is kept out.

This year, while working on The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, I have been exploring the possibilities of unbinding material and digitally publishing archives that are nimble and can freely circulate.

I turn to  the work of translating notes on Lucy Martin Donnelly (1870-1948): a biographical research project which began with a small collection of citations and material in Special Collections, was then collated into a ten-page paper, and is being currently re-envisioned as an iBook.

Figure 1. Title Page of iBook (see notes below for further information)

Unbound
While researching Lucy Martin Donnelly, who was first an alumna of Bryn Mawr and then ended her tenure as head of the English Department, I began sleuthing through the files in Special Collections. I chose to work on constructing a small biography of Lucy Martin Donnelly, because it seemed that many of the history books and biographies I was reading on Bryn Mawr College’s history had glints of Donnelly’s influence though never more than a paragraph or two. The chosen epigraph for the title page  (shown in Figure 1) reads, "For many years hers [Donnelly's] was the most influential voice in the planning for the English Department--and none the less influential because it was a quiet voice." The words are in the "Memorial Introduction" honoring Donnelly's career given by former Bryn Mawr President Katherine McBride. My foray into researching Donnelly's life began with the question of how to highlight this powerful voice in a fashion that complements McBride's description.

Binding
Donnelly’s archival material mostly consists of remnants from relationships through recollections of friends, saved dinner invitations, and letters that were sent to her. These documents were in most cases related to prominent figures in  Bryn Mawr’s history: Helen Thomas Flexner, Bertrand Russell, Edith Hamilton, Edith Finch, M. Carey Thomas, Marianne Moore, or the Bryn Mawr English department.

Instead of pulling apart these facets, I found myself following the desire to bind; to create a collation of these materials which could provide a composite portrait, to provide depth through the heft of compilation. My process began with collecting the materials, references, and citations to create a fuller portrait of Donnelly.

Figure 2. A screenshot from the iBook with a group photo including Donnelly

I began to think about how the work of unbinding requires us first to recognize the necessity of boundaries. Before I could imagine what digital possibilities were for the materials I was working with, I needed to understand them in the context of one another; I had to bind them together in a narrative.

What I found when constructing these pieces through an analogue biography, is that rather than following a chronological narrative, the materials seem apt to push against the boundaries of a linear chronology. The different references to Donnelly were specific to each person and privileging one account over another would only overshadow what I saw as a core facet to Donnelly’s history: her ability to reach out to many people and ideas and to connect them. Donnelly’s impact arose out of a desire to create ties between people long before social media 2.0. She was in a sense, the creator of a 19th century Facebook-type network. For example, Bertrand Russell was quoted in the July '36 Alumnae Bulletin article "Miss Donnelly Retires" as saying: It is nearly forty-two years since I first met Lucy Donnelly and during those years we have discussed many topic literary and other. We disagreed about Matthew Arnold and the first sentence of The Golden Bowl but, passionate as the argument was on those two weighty subjects, it did not impair our friendship. It was from Lucy Donnelly that I first heard of [Joseph] Conrad, who afterwards became my friend and my son’s godfather.”  
This brief praise from Russell illustrates his affection for Donnelly's friendship, her breadth of knowledge and intellect and also her ability to connect.

It was through the constraints of the page that I was able to better grasp why Donnelly’s biography seemed so intangible and resisted archiving on a traditional page. The kaleidoscopic narrative of Donnelly’s life, a life tangled with serendipitous meetings, threads of interwoven tête-à-têtes, and lasting influences, was one that required a networked representation.

Figure 3. A screenshot of the iBook side bar displaying multiple pages

Re:binding
I wanted to think about how to create a record of Donnelly’s life that echoed its vibrancy through many strands. Part of the benefit of the multi-vocal, sometimes conflicting accounts is that we see the multiple versioning of Donnelly as the archives of her life are constructed through the memories of others. Some, like Russell, may remember Donnelly's passion for literature and philosophy, others might recall her work in an administrative capacity like founding the Chinese Scholarship committee but all accounts provide a rich rendering of her impact.

I turned to the iBook-- a newly developed platform by Apple which would allow me to collage pictures, sound, and hyperlinks. As Figure 3 demonstrates, the iBook platform allows me to create a series of portraits that would recount Donnelly through the profiles of people she worked with and influenced. Through this dynamic text, it was possible to design a flexible path that would illustrate multiple accounts and perspectives for the reader to tie together--binding and unbinding her portrait of Donnelly as she read.

Yet, even with the new flexibility of these features and their platform, I created an area of boundedness:  one of hardware. Even while the interface became haptic and multimodal, it necessitated an iPad to circulate and MacBook to create.

While the kinds of binding may have changed, even with fluid, digital networks, we are creating ties and facing fixed boundaries. It is then our work to do the unbinding and rebinding so that we stretch wider towards the possibilities that are just beyond their margins.

Notes on this blog:

The images above are screenshots from the iBook in progress "Lucy Martin Donnelly and the Power of Female Networking." All materials featured  are courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.

These thoughts were inspired by a symposium recently held at MIT, Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book. It is the conversations and presentations resulting from this symposium that influenced my sense of boundedness and the productive processes which tether and unravel it. This blog is cross-posted on the Unbound blog.

Don’t put up my Thread and Needle is from an Emily Dickinson poem, 617, “Don't put up my Thread and Needle --”

Of course, unbinding is about the process of breaking down: is a an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opening line in his essay, The Crack-Up: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down”

One thought on “Don’t Put Up My Thread and Needle: a few thoughts on archives, unbinding and digital books

  1. This is really fascinating. Thanks all for putting this together. Also glad to hear about the ibook platform and see how it can be used.

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