Interview with Melissa Watterworth Batt (2012)

Melissa with writer Michael Rumaker, whose collection at the Dodd Center officially opened on April 10, 2012

During these past two semesters, I have worked as an intern in the archives at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, first blogging for the SideStream section of the Fresh Pickin’s blog and, more recently, writing biographies for the finding aids. As an intern I have had the privilege of being mentored by Melissa Watterworth Batt, Curator for the Alternative Press, Literary, and Natural History Collections. Additionally, as a Long River Review staff member, I also had the pleasure of browsing through many of the little magazines and art books available at the Dodd Center, which Melissa put on display for us on April 3rd. My fellow staff members and I were very impressed by these magazines, many of which served to inspire our own small magazine/art books projects in the latter half of the semester. We were, of course, also eager to feature Melissa on our blog. The following interview was conducted via email last month.

LRR: What are the most exciting and least exciting aspects of working as the Curator of the Literary Collections?

Melissa Watterworth Batt: The most exciting aspect of being a curator is that I am fortunate to have a position that allows me to apply my training toward a greater public good and service.  Next to making archival materials available to students and researchers, the most important role of a curator is to actively collect and preserve personal archives and historical records.  Working with writers, performers, small press publishers, and individuals who engage with the world in unique ways and express themselves creatively is an honor as well as my professional duty.  It is also the most difficult part of what I do!  Developing trusting relationships with creators and potential donors, and determining what to collect and how is careful, often delicate work and takes time.  It requires that you understand your role as a steward, that you follow a professional code of ethics, including legal statutes, and that you work in partnership with a wider community of cultural heritage organizations.

Cultural heritage is valued and preserved differently throughout the world, we all know.  In this country, cultural materials are collected and preserved – and are defined as such – by a panoply of institutions and organizations, from town halls, churches, and community organizations to corporations, museums, and the federal government.  We all compete for limited public and private resources to carry out our missions, and most folks in the general public don’t realize how tenuous and challenging it is for these institutions to stay afloat year to year.  This is our continuing challenge, particularly in these tough economic times.  The Dodd Research Center is a part of the research library of the University and is fortunate to be supported, but we too rely significantly on donations of both collections and funding to continue our work for future generations of students.  I will say though that I have never met a more resourceful community. The ‘lone arrangers’ who work in small institutions keep me inspired, and I have been in this field for 12 years.

The composition of the historical record has changed drastically in the last 15 years.  Archivists, curators, and librarians have to continually develop new collecting methods in order to keep up with human expression, and communication, and cultural change.  Blogs, email, digital video, websites, Facebook and virtual workspaces, news sites, online commerce, are all examples of born-digital documents, the raw material of daily life and activity.  These materials are a challenge to preserve, and to capture, because they are not static!  Digital materials require machines to display and use, and the historical record has become much more fragmented and fluid as a result.  In order to preserve these fragile documents in a way that will retain as much of their authenticity and value through time (as human and historical artifacts), we build new tools and make use of the best strategies available.  It is very technical and requires that we speak often, often, often to the general public about how and why to preserve their personal digital stuff, and to do so through time.  Automation is our best friend in this effort; make your personal computer do the regular back-up and storage for you. The Preserving Your Digital Memories site by the Library of Congress has terrific tips.

LRR: How were you inspired to pursue this career? Is there any way that students, especially those that are unsure of what working in the Archives and Special Collections entails, can determine whether or not becoming a curator is a good career option for them?

MWB: I am afraid my story is not very exciting and may be a common one among history majors.  I was getting my masters degree and working in a library.  Several friends, this was in the mid-1990s, with PhDs discouraged me from pursuing the advanced degree for economic reasons – many could not find positions.  Some library schools offered dual-degree programs for students interested in the field of archives management and public history.  I was very curious about these programs, particularly because they had such a rigorous requirement for field work.  By the time I completed my degrees at Simmons College, I had completed 4 internships and gained applied experience at various organizations and archives in the region, including the Schlesinger Library of Women’s History at Harvard, the ACLU in Boston, and the Massachusetts Historical Society.  So much of the work we do has to be applied — the preservation principles such as retaining original order, and professional standards for designing a collection strategy, have to be honed and practiced to be effective.  And that is what interested me and continues to interest me.

I regularly speak with students about a career in the field as it is right now, and it is becoming much more diverse in terms of potential employers, particularly corporations, looking to employ professionals with a library degree or a history degree with an archives certificate.  Students should know though that the work and skills required today are much more technical and focused on process analysis.  And I see on the horizon a time when self-archiving is the norm.  Personally I am interested in investigating the impact of the hybridization of one’s physical and virtual ‘self’ on the historical record, and the public record.  But the future of the archival field is very uncertain; it is difficult to know where these materials will be preserved and made accessible in the future and by whom.  It will likely be done by the creators themselves, their family, or their designees.

LRR: The literary holdings at the Dodd are quite impressive, from the archival materials on the Black Mountain poets and the Beats to the collection of small-press magazines. What sparked the Dodd Center’s interest in these specific areas?

MWB: In 1971, at the request of faculty and scholars, the University Libraries purchased the literary papers of the poet, essayist, and teacher Charles Olson who, then and now, was identified as a seminal force behind post-1945 American poetry.  Donald Allen, an editor at Grove Press, in his 1960 anthology THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY, identified a new generation of American poets, he called the Olson Generation, who following the Pound/Williams tradition.  The book increased the reading and recognition of a range of experimental writing and writers.  Olson was a prolific correspondent and his papers chronicle the lives of many of these poets, including those identified with the Beat, Black Mountain, and New York schools of poetry.  The University set out to collect the papers of his students, contemporaries, and affiliates in order to foster research and critical study of their work.  Today the literary collections include the papers of over 100 American and English writers and include the records of a number of small presses, like Oyez Press, in addition to first editions, artists’ books, and literary magazines.

LRR: A few weeks ago you were kind enough to display an array of small magazine publications, for which the Dodd Center is renowned. The LRR editors were able to browse through magazines from the Modernist era (1910-1928), the Post-War era (1949-1956), the Mimeograph Revolution (late 1950s – mid-1970s), and the 1980s. Are any of these eras your favorites? Do you have one or two magazines that you especially admire?

MWB: I relish the opportunity to show students the gems in the little magazine collection and each time I do the class, I highlight the latest news and research about them that I am aware of.  Lately, I have been exploring and cataloging the large collection of mimeograph periodicals.  Many little magazines, particularly the early ones from the Modernist era, seem to me very intimate, meant for readers whom the editor expects are ‘in the know’.   And then in the 1950s, the mimeograph machine came along and put inexpensive printing technology in the hands of poets and artists.  By the early 1960s, we see an explosion of cheap, hand-bound magazines, sometimes only a few pages in size, publishing fiction, criticism, drama, and poetry.  My favorites lately are the irreverent and experimental magazines that feature collage, screen printing, and drawing alongside the writing, like La Bas and Meatball.  I see how genres like short fiction and language poetry have been shaped by these mimeos.  But this is a small yet growing area of research right now.  It appears that there may have been more writers than readers during this fertile period.

LRR: You’ve mentioned in conversation that people from around the world are currently visiting the Dodd Center. Are there any specific collections that are attracting them? To what do you attribute the attention paid to these collections?

MWB: The Dodd Center offers grants to researchers to travel to the university to use its collections.  In recent years, scholars and students have visited from Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, India, Argentina, Japan, China and Canada.  The most heavily used collections are the literary manuscripts, political papers, Spanish periodicals, human rights and alternative press collections.

LRR: Additional thoughts?

MWB: It is always a thrill to listen to students read their work, to know what they like to read, and to hear about the new and the weird.  Student input at UConn has driven much of our collecting of literary magazines and alternative press periodicals.  I hope they will continue to share and I will do my best to add their favorites to the collections at the Dodd Center.

It was a pleasure to chat.