Some bad news, some good news

The decision to close off access to a document is not one we make easily around here. Anybody who has spent any time with me is fairly aware that I believe that the vast majority of decisions in an archives like ours should be access-driven.

But we’ve had this problem for a while with a specific diary. A journal, written by Fred Wildon Fickett in 1885 as he traversed the interior of Alaska with Cady Robertson and a guy you might have heard of, Henry Tureman Allen. (The Allen in Glenallen.) The Allen expedition to the Copper, Tanana and Koyokuk Rivers was done (according to the official report published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1887) for the “purpose of obtaining all information which will be valuable and important.” Is that a mission statement or what? And the report is widely available. What hasn’t been so widely available was the other personal documentation related to the expedition such as Fickett’s diary.

If you’re pondering ahead and wondering if I’m about to tell you that the problem with Fickett’s account of the trip is that it’s somehow scandalous and litigation-worthy, I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not the case. The problem with the diary is that it went on a 3-man expedition through the interior of Alaska in 1885 and suffered all the types of damage one might expect: probably a few dips in rivers, rainstorms, cold, and so forth. And it’s now 127 years old, which is quite elderly for a document created under such conditions. In retrospect, for a pencil-written (and you know how those smudge) diary kept on a small bank-book, it’s actually held up quite well over the years–after all, it hasn’t self-destructed yet. Even though it’s been kept in pretty good conditions since 1885, first in family hands and then in our hands after 1981-1982. But it is quite frail. And not really up to the use levels that it gets: as you can imagine, it’s one of the more popular documents in our collection. 

We’ve tried, as researchers come in to look at it, to gently suggest that they make do with other documents in the collection. Such as the transcription of the diary that Fickett himself wrote up shortly after the expedition. That one is nice since it was done in pen, in a larger hand, with the space-saving abbreviations of the original spelled out, contains more information about the preparations and post-expedition activities not mentioned in the originals, and with the added benefit of being done at an actual desk (presumably) that would have provided a much more stable writing surface than anything Fickett would have had along on the expedition. Even I, whose handwriting deciphering skills are fairly advanced, have a very difficult time understanding the actual expedition diary and I will admit to having been defeated in transcription efforts several times now. I don’t have that problem with the transcription. And even better, a descendant later typed up the transcription (correcting a few spelling variances) and so a typescript copy of that transcription is available too.

But people like to see the original, we know. There’s something about handling the original, isn’t there? And often, despite our gentle nudges, researchers don’t understand how difficult it is to read that original, crabbed, fading, smudged, stained diary until they see it. What we’ve found, in some cases, is that researchers make a valiant effort at dealing with that original diary and then fairly quickly ask to see the other documents we’ve suggested. Those, they find, they can read with much greater success.

But honestly, one of these days, one of those handlings of that diary pictured above is going to be the last handling. And we want to put that off as long as possible. So, unless somebody has an incredible reason to see the original, good enough to convince me, it’s officially closed to access as of now.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. I’ve digitized it. And placed it online in the Alaska’s Digital Archives (links coming in a moment.) So while we’ve closed off access to the original, we’re not closing off access to the information in the document, and that includes the stains and smudges too. The only reason it took me this long is that the process was a little complicated by the context for the diary: it’s not actually the full record of the expedition. It’s about the first half of the expedition (March-June). There’s another small diary for the second portion of the expedition (June-September), and it’s in much better shape. Frail too, but not nearly as frail as the first one. And it just seemed to me to be a little crazy to put up a diary of a portion of the expedition on the Net, making it accessible internationally, and still tell people they had to come in to see the rest of it. So I had to digitize the second diary. And it seemed even crazier to put up these diaries that most people weren’t going to be able to read, so I digitized the handwritten transcriptions of them, too (a two volume set). And since we had a typescript copy of the first volume of the transcription, I did that one too. The transcriptions were a little quicker to digitize: I was able to do those on the Consortium Library’s public BookEye scanner–an overhead scanner that does a good job at a basic, readable scan. The actual expedition diaries were a little more complicated to digitize: since I was going to be closing off access to the originals, I wanted to get fairly high resolution copies of each page so if the online, low-resolution copy wasn’t good enough, we could provide access to something better without having to pull out the originals themselves. So that was a page-by-page creation of a high resolution tiff, then a conversion of those tiffs to low-resolution jpegs suitable for posting online, and then a conversion of all of those into a pdf copy of each which I then loaded into the Digital Archives, providing a little bit of cataloging data with each.

So with that incredibly long lead-up, here’s the links.

A while back we digitized about 40 images from the Fickett collection too and placed those in the Digital Archives: the quickest way to find all of them is to pull up one of those documents above (may I suggest the typescript copy since it’s the smallest file and will load quickest?) and click on the collection name: that will provide a search results list with all 40 images and the 5 documents. There you can see pictures of Fred and Henry Allen and Cady Robertson as well other images related to Fred Fickett’s life. And if you can visit someday and want to see as much as the Fickett collection as there is that relates to the expedition, you might just want to take a look to the full guide linked above–it’ll help you locate many of the documents in the collection that relate.

I have four postscripts. The first is an apology. A few of those pdfs are very sizable and will take some time to download if you’re working on a slower net connect as I do at home. I downsized them significantly, but there’s only so far I could go before the readability suffered.

The second is an apology and a promise to try and fix: something is apparently going wrong with the display function: you should be able to view them without downloading, but as I test this right now from home, it’s not working. I may have to delete and reload the diaries to the Digital Archives to get them to work correctly. If I do, I’ll delete this comment and update the links above.

The third is a bit more theoretical. Some people might ask why we bother to keep that original diary if we’re not going to allow access to it. I’d like to explain why. Like I said, we might provide access, but the circumstances would have to be really exceptional. Also, it really doesn’t take up that much room, so it’s not a major contributor to our space concerns. And most importantly, technology is changing all the time. It may very well be that in another few years, there will be some other piece of equipment that can make that original more readable, or allow us to expand the lifespan of the diary that much longer. We hope. And so we preserve and we offer the best access we can in the meantime.

And fourth? If you’re reading that original 1885 diary online–either March-June or June-September and think that you’d be able to zoom in much closer to decipher those unreadable parts if you had the higher resolution tiff, let us know. This is one of the few times we’ll waive the high resolution duplication cost and provide those tiffs for free. For personal research use only, not for publication, not for web-posting, not for any sort of sharing. Please let us know which page scans are of interest to you. And if you’re willing to share any transcription you do, we’d love to be able to share that with our other researchers too.

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