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Interview: K Cummings Pipes, The Evelyn Whitaker Library

K Cummings Pipes is trained as a librarian, but she says that she "enjoyed a career for which I was never properly credentialed.Earning a B.A. from Rice University in 1971, K graduated wit an English literature major and a minor in general science.  The title of librarian does not sit well with K, and not just because she does not hold a MLS degree.  Informationist, she says, captures her training and function more fully, although the term did not come into use until long after she had retired.[1]  "Several positions began with my walking into a room stacked three feet deep with books and boxes," she says.  "Each library included a collection of printed and audio-visual materials which I updated, classified, cataloged, maintained, and from which I extracted information for users."  Over the years, she managed the libraries of an accounting firm, a medical office, a church, and an Officers Wives Club that wanted to develop a childrens library and reading enrichment program.  This background gave K the tools and the motivation to create a digital archive of her own a few years ago, which features work by a little-known 19th-century author, Evelyn Whitaker.  "Some people get grandchildren," K says; "I got a dead Victorian writer.

 

I met K a few weeks ago at the 2010 British Women Writers Conference, where we bonded over mutual interest in digital humanities research and public scholarship.  As a librarian and an archivist, she offers a unique perspective on how and why digital resources are created, and how scholars can use these resources to their full potential.  You can find Ks website at http://evelynwhitakerlibrary.org/, and learn more about the motivation behind her archive below.

 

Bridget: How does your training as a librarian shape your approach to digital archives?

 

K: My experience taught me that those who develop technologies for accessing information and those who need the informationeach speaking in a specialized vocabulary and each with a specialized, often narrow, viewpointmay not communicate effectively.  That place of interaction becomes either a road block or a highway.  In nature, interesting things happen at the edges where the forest meets the meadow where the river runs through it.  Likewise, that boundary conditionwhere technology, library science and user meetis where evolution takes place in the ecology of information.

 

For example, when I worked at Cullen Eye Institute, medical records were beginning to be coded and maintained electronically, mostly for insurance and billing purposes.  The doctors wanted to adapt and use this coded information to develop databases for medical research.  Understanding the specialized vocabularies of both medicine and computer technology, I facilitated meetings between doctors and computer programmers.  Concurrently the National Library of Medicine was changing Medline from a librarian-mediated database to one directly accessible by any physician with a computer in his office.  Doctors (and their clinical librarians) were concerned that they would be unable to find the information they needed or that they would be inundated by too much information because they were not familiar with subject headings (MESH) and Boolean searching.  There was concern about what was being included or excluded from the databasethe vision sciences needed not only the ophthalmic but the optometric literature.  They were concerned that the databases included only recent journal articlesmedical academicians wanted a retrospective view that connected current knowledge to the history of medicine.  These shifting boundaries in the medical information ecology were for me both challenging and fun.

 

Having retired from librarianship, I wanted a project that would keep my technical skills sharp.  A multiplicity of digitization projects and the democratization of information created a lot of buzz and captured my interest.  These issues are among the new boundary conditions of library science  The appeal of the archival project was that I could work outside my subject specialtiesI could come almost as a novice to a new area of informationand explore that new boundary condition.

 

Bridget: How did you become interested in this project?

 

K: In the late 1990s I attended an Alumni College Weekend at Rice University.  One of the classes was a lively discussion between two professors from the Department of English regarding the literary canon, authors and publishers, the future of the book and the influence and implications of digital media.  Afterward I chatted with Robert L. Patten, Lynette S. Autrey Professor of Humanities, who had been a favorite professor when I was an undergraduate.  (I was in the first section of Victorian literature he taught at Rice in 1969 and spent another four semesters in his classrooms.)  He said he had an assignment for me and suggested I indentify some unknown writerprobably a Victorian womanand attempt to introduce her into the canon, to bring her back to life.  He thought such a project was a good match for my talents and interests and that it would be useful to the academic community.

 

In December 2003, I came across a pretty, little book bound in green cloth embossed and gilded with Easter lilies, sort of a William Morris design.  I picked up the book, entitled Laddie, opened it at random, and read the opening sentence of chapter 3:

 

Reader, think of some lovely picture of rustic life, with tender lights and pleasant shadows, with hard lines softened, and sharp angles touched into gentle curves, with a background of picturesque, satisfying appropriateness, with the magic touches that bring out the beauty and refinement and elegance of the scene, which are really there, and that subtly tone down all the roughness and awkwardness and coarseness, which are also equally there.   

 

I was charmed both by what the words said and the well-crafted, elegant way in which they said it.  I turned to the title page and found an anonymous author and no publication date.  The bibliographic puzzle piqued my interest.  I bought the book for $8.50 and began collecting, although at that point I had not decided whether I was collecting books with pretty Victorian bindings, books by a particular anonymous author, or information.  

 

My first step was searching the catalogs of the Library of Congress and of the British Library, followed by an OCLC search.  I quickly identified the anonymous author as Evelyn Whitaker (1857-1903) and noted a number of additional titles, with publication dates between 1879 and 1915.  I began to acquire the booksmostly through eBay and most for well under $15.00and I continued to search for information about the author.  When I read the books, I realized that I had read several of them as a child and this very unscholarly sentiment is undoubtedly part of my passion for Evelyn Whitaker.  

 

The collection grew and, having recalled Dr. Pattens assignment, I looked for a way to share the information.  At the same time, I was looking for a way to freshen and expand my skills as a webmaster.   In the summer of 2008, I bought a domain, designed a web site, and began publishing and promoting www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org

 

Bridget: With so many large digital archive databases available, what do you think is the value of a small, specialized archive like yours?

 

K: Every archive, whether a library full of printed books or a database full of digitized materials, is a product of selection, collection, collation, and collaboration.  Conventional library science taught that the greatest cost associated with a printed book was the space it occupied.  Books have always been weeded from collections.  In some sense, digitization is a continuation of that process; but digitization allows a librarian to clear the book from the shelf while preserving its content.  Interestingly, the conventional rule remains true:  the greatest costs for my project are those associated with buying and maintaining the domain and its data transfer capabilities.

 

Large digital archive databases preserve the text but text does not equal context.  Some digitization techniques involve the destruction of the book and the covers, the illustrations, the publisher-added materials are lost.  In the case of a rare book or a book whose value has not yet been noted or whose author is not known, the loss may be permanent.  Such archives do not preserve the book as a material object; they do not interact with the story; they do not care about author or reader.  Yet, these very things may be of most interest to users of the archive.  A large digital archive database leaves the responsibility to users to extract whatever information they can and to organize it as they will.  In my view, a good archive must do more; it must present media, medium, and mediation; it must use and develop methods and technologies for doing so.  Such work is and always has been the purpose of library science.

 

In my collection the books by Evelyn Whitaker are preserved as books on a shelf.  www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org offers a digital space in which to share the collection and my interactions with it.  I am hoping that it provides a platform where others may discover this material, interact with it, use it, and collaborate in whatever comes next. .

 

Having attended BWWC 2010, I have a better understanding of the purposes of www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org which like other archives does indeed offer, to use Betty Josephs word,  a bundle  of information which may or may not be buried in other archives but who bundled it and why is transparent.  It also fills in a gap not only offering materials that are not yet available in other archives but in offering a more complete view of the authors publishing history and of the interactions with these writings by both publishers and readers.  www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org is not only an archive it is an exploration of techniques for digitization and methods of presenting information.  I would hope that it would one day be absorbed into a larger archive designed not, in the words of Maura Ives, just a big pile of stuff but as a collaboration between archivist and scholar.  

 

Bridget: What are the next steps for your project?

 

K: I plan to digitize those titles that are in my collection, beginning with titles and editions nor publicly available in other archives.  I plan to complete the synopses of the remaining titles.  I plan to continue working on a topical index and have been exploring terminologies and technologies for doing so. 

 

I have begun collecting books by a second anonymous author.  The phrase by the author of denoted a book that was so well loved by readers, so profitable for publishers, that it could be used to sell other books by the same author or borrowed to sell those by some other author.  Such is the case for Evelyn Whitaker, the author of Miss Tooseys Mission and Laddie.  Such bibliographic puzzles appeal to me.

 

BWWA 2010 shifted my thinking in many ways.  I now wonder if www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org may be of value as a demonstration project.  The collection itself and all of its resources were developed on-line using a home computer with access to sources that are publicly available, free, and most likely to be searched by an untrained, unspecialized user.  I am considering keeping that limitation on my work.  Whatever I decide, I intend to make my process more transparent.

 

www.evelynwhitakerlibrary.org  evolved from a collection of books to a digitized archive and I expect it to continue to evolve.

 

Bridget: How do you think archival digitization will change the way scholars and librarians work together?

 

K: Good libraries are more than collections; they are and always have been collaborations between librarians and library users.  Todays burgeoning information and ever-changing technologies necessitate more collaboration.  Both scholars and librarians/archivists have an increasing responsibility to engage one another in conversation and together to develop strategies and projects.  In the words of Heidi M. Jacobs:  The work we do is part of a broader educative project that works to empower individuals both locally and globally.

 

I would like to see more scholars and more librarians engage the democratization of information at the basic level of Wikipedia.  Like it or not that Wiki article is always near the top of the search engines lists.  There are almost half a million biographical stubs.  There are countless writers with no entry.  Students in the humanities can offer well-written, correctly sourced information to all searchers.  To refuse to participate is much like refusing to take part in the great collaborative process that gave us the Oxford English Dictionary.


Davidoff F., Florance V. The informationist: A new health profession? Annals of Internal Medicine. 2000; 132(12): 996-998.

Heidi L. M. Jacobs, information librarian at the University of Windsor, is the winner of a Ilene F. Rockman Publication of the Year Award for her article Information literacy and reflective pedagogical praxis, published in the May 2008 issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship, cited in College & Research Libraries News, April 2010, Vol 74 No. 4,  p. 188.

 

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