Ordering Chaos: A Virtual Archive of Whitman Poetry Manuscripts

  1. 1. Mary Ellen Ducey

    University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  2. 2. Andrew Wade Jewell

    University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  3. 3. Kenneth Price

    University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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Ordering Chaos: A Virtual Archive of Whitman Poetry


University of Nebraska-Lincoln


University of Nebraska-Lincoln


University of Nebraska-Lincoln


University of Tübingen







Walt Whitman's manuscripts as a whole are poorly understood and, curiously, the
most important group of them, the poetry manuscripts, have never been collected
and edited, despite his foundational role in American culture. Whitman's poetry
manuscripts are found in approximately thirty different repositories, and the
quality and depth of description varies across these repositories. Because the
materials are dispersed and irregularly documented, scholars interested in the
development of Whitman's poetry-through multiple drafts to finished work-cannot
locate and examine the relevant documents without great expense of time and
Our paper reports on our early successes and ongoing efforts to create a unified,
item-level guide to all of Whitman's poetry manuscripts held in the US and the
UK. Our work is an unprecedented use of Encoded Archival Description (EAD), a
standard supported by the Society of American Archivists and the Library of
Congress. The depth of our item-level description and our ability to pull
together disparate collections to create a single virtual finding aid make this
project distinctive. This guide, or Virtual Archive, will soon be incorporated
into, and will be maintained by, the Walt Whitman Archive (), an NEH-supported project
organized and affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Technology at the
University of Virginia (IATH).
Thanks to a grant of $10,000 given to the Whitman project from the Gladys
Krieble Delmas Foundation, we have established the framework for this project at
the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Delmas Foundation funding has supported
the development of an encoded finding aid to poetry manuscripts in the Charles
Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman at the Library of Congress. The next steps
for our project will be, first, to link and coordinate our EAD finding aid to
ones developed by the New York Public Library and Duke University, and, second,
to collect, organize, and present records from various smaller institutions that
currently have only paper-based or HTML records of their Whitman holdings. The
Whitman Virtual Archive is conceived as an attempt to provide universal access
from the collection to the item level for all Whitman manuscript resources
distributed in over sixty repositories. It will provide a centralized online
finding aid that will pull together and regularize information that now exists
in these different institutions in partial and inconsistent forms, and it will
provide a search interface adapted to the particular nature of the Whitman
manuscripts and the special needs of their users.
This work is crucial because Whitman frequently left his manuscripts untitled,
and when he did title them, he often used a title different from that employed
in any of the six distinct editions of Leaves of Grass.
It is thus difficult for anyone but a specialist to correctly identify and
categorize Whitman's manuscripts, a difficulty compounded by the fact that
Whitman's poems sometimes began as prose jottings and only gradually evolved
into verse. In such cases, specialists can help identify manuscripts that are in
fact the working papers contributing to poems. That identification can, in turn,
be encoded into the EAD finding aid, enriching access and understanding for a
wide network of archivists, scholars, and students.
Our project builds upon work done by the American Heritage Virtual Archive and
the Research Libraries Group. One of the goals of the American Heritage Virtual
Archive (funded by NEH) was to integrate "collections that have been dispersed
among two or more institutions (such as the Mark Twain collections at Virginia
and Berkeley)" and to experiment "with cooperatively creating a single finding
aid, in which separate components are used to describe each of the separate
collections held at separate repositories" (). However, because of
its broad scope-American heritage materials of all sorts-the goal of creating a
single, integrated finding aid was not reached. This remains an important
research objective, and we believe that a project involving scholars with a
focused interest in a more limited subject area (Whitman, rather than all of
American Heritage) can attain it.
For Whitman studies, what is needed is a single index in which one can find all
the various manuscript drafts and notebook versions of any single poem. Our
paper will detail the processes and struggles of creating such an index. From
collecting finding aids and creating partnerships with other institutions, to
developing a proper encoding standard and establishing good cross-department
working relations, our project has embodied many of the benefits and challenges
of integrating computing into the humanities. By identifying our procedures, and
by laying out our future hurdles, we will contribute to a broader discussion of
how scholars and archivists can collaborate effectively and of how the potential
of EAD can be realized.

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Conference Info

In review

"New Directions in Humanities Computing"

Hosted at Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

Tübingen, Germany

July 23, 2002 - July 28, 2008

72 works by 136 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website: http://web.archive.org/web/20041117094331/http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/allcach2002/

Series: ALLC/EADH (29), ACH/ICCH (22), ACH/ALLC (14)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None