Sunday, April 12, 2009

James Baldwin Early Manuscripts and Papers Collection, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

This entry adds to the two reviews of Yale’s Beinecke Library digital collections already in the blog, but I thought this collection structure worth comment. The James Baldwin Early Manuscripts and Papers Collection is the source collection for the digital archive. The paper collection has an interesting provenance, the introductory note points out: they were owned by a man who bought a building which previously housed a publishing company at which Baldwin had left a suitcase of his “materials.” The online archive makes available pieces of these materials, including early drafts of Go Tell It On the Mountain, “selected correspondence,” and photos of Baldwin by Carl Van Vechten. The website points out, “Currently, only a portion of these papers are available in digital form,” but the site does not explain how these were chosen or whether the qualifier “currently” means that in the future more will be digitized. The pieces available are made available in their entirety, so that makes them useful for more than just piquing our interest; scholars could actually use the manuscript pages here to explore Baldwin’s process (and his apparent fascination with or habit of practicing his signature).

The objects include extensive metadata. Perhaps most interesting is the implied metadata of the faulty structure of the digitized collection: when users click on “See all images” from the James Baldwin Collection page, the site goes to the Van Vechten Collection, which includes a few images of Baldwin amidst the sea of other black artists, authors, and performers Van Vechten photographed. This is a telling absorption of Baldwin and indicates the lack of attention given to his work as well as the authority invested in the white observer, Van Vechten. Baldwin is fabulous in Van Vechten’s photos, though, and relinquishes none of his authorship. If you search for “Baldwin” in the collection (in order to actually come up with the Baldwin collection!), the relevant photographs, correspondence, and manuscript pages come up. The metadata is thorough and appears to be derived from metadata for the paper collection (including summary, subject, genre, type of resource, source collection, call number, folder number, citation, etc.). The specifically digital metadata relates to the objects themselves.

The digital objects are low resolution (undiscoverable dpi) when the original is text on a full-page or near that size; the digital objects are high resolution (4000 dpi) when the original is a half-sheet of text or smaller or a photographic image. The objects allow zooming to four and eight times original size, which shows good detail. The available objects are jpegs and can be linked to their specific pages or saved by the user, thus indicating a willingness of the Beinecke for people to use these digital objects.

The intended users seem to be scholars interested in these long-lost documents from the Baldwin suitcase; however, not all of these documents are scanned. Baldwin scholars can find some useful materials here, but will most likely visit the archive. Perhaps Van Vechten scholars will have more luck!

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