By Monya Keane
A mistreated cat sealed in a wall gets out and gets even. Death in disguise finds his victims hiding at a masquerade ball. Besting pit and pendulum, an innocent prisoner survives. An old man's noisy heart under the floorboards forces his murderer to confess.
"You will not easily be rid of me." It could be a line from an Edgar Allan Poe story. It isn't, but refusing to go quietly certainly was one of Poe's favorite themes. Just think of that raven, never flitting, who still is sitting, still is sitting.
Today the same transcendental persistence characterizes an impressive effort under way at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. Using digitization, museum staffers are preserving the legacy of the man known as "America's Shakespeare" and creating virtual online exhibits in time for the celebration of Poe's bicentennial in 2009.
The Poe Museum, founded in 1921, didn't have a director with a professional museum background until Katarina Spears was hired in mid-2007. Volunteers and paid staff had tried sporadically since the 1970s to catalog unexhibited material, but photos were not always taken and electronic databases weren't used. And, as Spears says, "We still had no clear idea of what we owned, where it was, how to interpret it, or how scholars could benefit from it."
Now all material is gathered in a database, with images attached to each record. Digitized material will be accessible on the Web, letting researchers request high-resolution images for study and reproduction rights for publication. The goal is accessibility. "That's this museum's reason for being—not just to preserve items, but also to make them accessible," Spears says.
When she joined the museum, the condition of the buildings, collections, and exhibits was, in her words, "very bad." Spears implemented a multiphase project encompassing facility improvements, new exhibit cases, and environmental controls. They still, however, don't know how much degradation the collection incurred in past years due to environmental neglect.
Best practice dictates artifacts be periodically taken off display or out of storage to undergo a condition report. With digitization software, staff retain findings from these examinations and determine what conditions accelerate an item's decay. They've dedicated a computer and mirrored external hard drive to storing the images and condition reports in one place, making it easier to track changes. Weekly, backup CDs are stored in a secure collections area at the Library of Virginia.
Some artifacts have been on display for years. "We should rotate them, but we have so many overseas visitors who want to see the key that was in Poe's pocket when he died or the trunk he left behind when he left for Baltimore," Spears says. Popular but fragile items displayed include daguerreotypes and Poe's correspondence and magazine drafts. They are irreplaceable, and this little museum is the only institution that possesses them. Those items will become part of the digitization effort.
Two imperatives drive the project. One is the objects' delicate nature. "His letters are perfect candidates for digitization," Spears says. "If we can display a good facsimile and accompany it with an interpretive panel, visitors can still see just what the document looked like." The second consideration is Poe's looming 200th birthday. Spears anticipates image requests to skyrocket. "We want those important items on the website in time," she says.
Scholars are expected to use the digitized data in rather esoteric ways such as studying music compositions inspired by Poe's works. Others may concentrate on Poe-related botany. Such a scholar might find a digitized, annotated first draft of a story in which Poe scratched out "daffodils" and inserted "lilies." Spears says, "We don't know all that can be gleaned from our collection because it has never been catalogued to the point where a researcher could say, 'If only we had seen this letter sooner, it would have given us an entirely new insight into why he wrote that particular poem.' We've hidden these items for 85 years. There are no limits to what historians might find."
The project will exponentially increase the number of people the museum serves, helping this tiny site with its tiny budget survive. The Poe Museum could become a massive, world-class virtual institution yet still retain the charm of its current setting, with its weathered buildings, brick shrine, and courtyard garden. "Ours is an antique complex," Spears says. "Adding a concrete box exhibit hall would be unthinkable. The only way we can get bigger and serve a bigger audience is to do it virtually."
What would Poe think of this effort to painstakingly preserve all information by and about him 200 years after his birth?
"He probably would claim that he finally is being suitably appreciated," Spears says. "This is the man who, when readers complained about the depravity of his short story 'Berenice' said, 'To be appreciated, you must be read'. At 20, he promised his foster father, 'The world shall be my theatre.' So Poe would likely say, 'It is appropriate to digitize me and share my accomplishments and my life. I've been telling you people for decades that I am the most important writer ever to live. You are finally acknowledging it.'"