By Michael W. Harris
As part of my day-to-day job in Norlin Library Special Collections and Archives at CU Boulder, I work as a member of the Stainforth Library of Women Writers digital humanities project (the site is in the process of being migrated to a new platform, so please excuse our mess). Simply put, we are taking a handwritten catalog of the library of Francis John Stainforth (we will hopefully be updating and expanding the Wikipedia entry soon) and transcribing it into a searchable database.
Why? Because his library is one of the most complete records of poetry and drama (and some prose) by women and includes writings from the 16th to the 19th century. There is a whole lot more we want to do with the project and the data we create from the catalog database, but for the past two or so years, we have been simply focused on the task of transcribing the catalog and editing the data. And we are almost ready to release our first data set to the public.
It is exceedingly cool and interesting work, and the emerging field of digital humanities (DH) is quite engaging. I can really see myself diving deeper into more DH style projects (which is what I view my film music archival database project as…sorta) in the future. However, I was not always so enthusiastic about DH and the Stainforth Library.
You see, when I came to the Stainforth Library project back in 2014, I admit I was more than a bit skeptical about jumping in. I had only the vaguest notion of what “digital humanities” were, and my interest in poetry written before the turn of the twentieth century was about on par with The Joker’s interest in not causing havoc and trying to burn Gotham to the ground just because it was a Tuesday. But then I sat down with project director Kirstyn Leuner, or rather Skyped with her, and she described to me what the Stainforth Catalog was and what it represented. More importantly, though, I began to identify with Stainforth and his impulses. For you see, Stainforth was a nerd, and so am I.
While the word “nerd,” and especially its modern usage, did not exist in the nineteenth century (its earliest usage as tracked by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1951, #LanguageNerd). However, as we now think of and, more importantly, self-identify as nerds, is exactly what Stainforth was in his day. And though the first definition of the word in both the OED and Merriam-Webster is not the most flattering—they both use the traits of social awkwardness or ineptitude with personal interactions as key characteristics—the second definition show a different quality and conception of “nerd,” one is perfectly applicable to Stainforth and myself.
OED: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”
Merriam-Webster: “one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.”
Here is the thing: nerds, especially collecting nerds like Stainforth and myself, have a laser-like focus on our pursuits and hobbies, especially in trying to acquire everything within our personal “collection development policy,” to borrow a term from libraries. Call it the Pokémon mentality of “gotta catch ‘em all.” We get intensely interested in one thing, one idea, one subject, and then have to learn all we can about. When this interest manifests in collecting, or fandom, we have to try and acquire all objects that represent said interest. In his lifetime, Stainforth acquired, and then got rid of, as his focus changed, collections of stamps (helping to found the Royal Philatelic Society), seashells, and lastly poetry by women authors. This last collection was tracked in the Stainforth catalog that has now been transcribed by the members of “Team Stainforth,” including myself.
It was the catalog itself that drew me in. It represented Stainforth’s singular focus, his drive to collect, and his “obsessive or exclusive dedication” to his chosen topic. And then for Stainforth to catalog and track both his acquisitions along with those that he had yet to acquire…well that was something I understood immediately because I have been doing the exact same thing with Fantastic Four comics since I was around ten years old.
Over the past twenty-six years I have been systematically trying to acquire not only all issues of the main (and now on “hiatus”) comic series of the Fantastic Four, but also all spin-off books, mini-series, one-shots, miscellaneous appearances, novelizations, movies (including the unreleased 1994 movie only available in bootleg format), variant covers, and so on. I currently have it all typed up in a Microsoft Word document that stretches to 56 pages, along with a “wants list” (just like Stainforth) that has thirty-four comics on it—including my “white whales” of the first five issues of the series from the 1960s. In total, since I bought my first issue of the series in 1990, I have amassed a collection of over 2000 comic books and related objects. Not as impressive and Mr. Stanforth (whose total volume count is being tallied as I write this), but not bad for me.
While Stainforth’s collecting focus may be seen as more “legitimate” now, while mine is so much “pop culture,” I wonder how Stainforth’s might have been seen back in the 1860s? If his interest in poetry by women was met with as much skepticism as my pop culture interest is today—though as we all know the perception of pop culture has rapidly changed in just the last ten years.
I view Stainforth as a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler in the circles of nerdom, and by helping to preserve his bibliophilia, I am also learning more about my own. By examining his obsessions, I am also examining the roots of mine. It is almost a way of self-healing as I think back over all that I have done and how my obsessive collecting and cataloging of said obsessions has informed my fifteen year work history as a librarian.
Now I just need to convert my Fantastic Four Word document into either an XML/DACS compliant finding aid or maybe a MySQL database…
To which my family and many friends will just laughingly and lovingly say, “NERD!”