Researching at the Wellesley Historical Society

Wellesley Historical Society

Benjamin Laird

For the past six weeks I have been researching the Denton family collection at the Wellesley Historical Society. The collection is immense and so, unfortunately, I was not able to view all the documents related to William Denton in detail. That is a task that would take a significantly longer time commitment, because the Dentons kept seemingly every piece of paper and small object related to their lives: correspondence, diaries, artefacts, slides, business and legal documents and even posters and tickets from William Denton’s lectures.

I have had expected and unexpected finds while trying to create a fuller picture of Denton’s life. Among the documents I found were Alfred Deakin’s letters to William Denton (letters from Denton to Deakin are with the Papers of Alfred Deakin at the National Library of Australia), allowing me a clearer sense of their relationship and common interests. Of course, there may still be missing correspondence and, on top of that, their handwriting can be difficult to decode.

Denton also kept journals where he recorded experiments with psychometrically sensitive people he had encountered and the Deakins were among the participants of Denton’s experiments while in Australia. Given that the psychometric experiments require the subject to hold an object and “see” the object’s past, Deakin’s readings reveal an aspect of his personality (perhaps as otherwise revealed in his A New Pilgrim’s Progress or his private writings).

The collection also contains a letter by James A Garfield notifying Denton that he had arrived in town ahead of their 1858 debate. There are journal entries from the Great Boston Fire of 1872 (Denton writes on 11 November 1872, “To Boston by about 3. What a change a few hours have made!”) and the Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 (“Last day of the exhibition. Wet and unpleasant”). His diaries also detail his time working in Shildon, opinions on friends and family, personal tragedies, his experiments with spirit writing, lecture schedules, his lectures on phrenology and his disturbing categorisations of the “races” of mankind—in all, he kept diaries and notebooks from 1839 to his death in 1883, although some years are more detailed than others. The Wellesley collection includes Denton’s lantern slides—that are amazing and appear to be his complete collection, though unprocessed, with everything from “Appearance of the Stomach after a Debauch”, for his temperance lectures, to pictures of galaxies, animals, dinosaurs and diagrams of machines—as well as documents such as Denton’s naturalisation papers, copyright certificates for his books, and a Cincinnati “Male Principal’s Certificate”.

I also unearthed a map for the planet Sideros, as documented in Sideros and its People as Independently Described by Many Psychometers, which was serialised in Banner of Light (actually, it was thanks to Marc Demarest’s mention of the Sideros serialisation that I recognised the map). I also suspect that some of the psychometric readings given by the Deakins relate to Sideros, as Denton appears to have given them a piece of the same meteorite that he had been using to experiment with other psychometers.

Another unexpected find, of dubious authenticity, appears to be a letter written by John Adams to Judge Sewell (presumably Jonathan Sewall’s son) in 1821. The letter was in the back of Denton’s 1878 diary and why Denton had it is a mystery—perhaps he was given a copy for its religious contents, or possibly for a psychometric reading.

A revelation though, beyond the actual biographical research, has been the physicality of the objects in the collection. Throughout my research there has been an interesting oscillation between physical and digital objects, which has been a helpful complement to the writing of the poetry. The project began with a physical object, William and Elizabeth Denton’s Nature’s Secret, but the majority of my research throughout the middle of the project had been relying on digital resources—digitised books on the Internet Archive, Trove, and electronic versions of Denton’s letters to Deakin. Returning to the physical objects through the Denton collection, a physical archive full of documents and artefacts, I was made painfully aware of how homogenising the digital process can be. Depth, that is the 3-dimensional quality of the artefact, is the most obvious loss in digitising objects but more than this was obscured in the digital representations of the objects. In the collection the objects range in text, in terms of handwriting and printed text, and size; Denton’s diaries are almost all different and the letters vary in texture and shape. Even the tickets that Denton used for his lectures were of a variety of shapes, colours and fonts (though all of cardboard stock).

Reading the online copies of Denton’s books or even newspaper articles, the physical features are scaled, ignored or altered to prioritise the contents. Content—I should stress ‘textual content’ because I have noticed that Google will remove images from their scans, though not always consistently—is presented as representative of the object, with the material properties relegated to irrelevance. When I began researching the collection, I found and started using an app to take photos of what I needed to transcribe or what I wanted to describe in detail. The app, made specially for scanning documents, captures the edges of what is being scanned and reorients, redimensions and enhances the image. Often the enhancing is turning the image into a black-and-white picture so the text can be read. What I found was that all the letters I initially “scanned” appeared the same. The differences in colours and shapes had mostly been lost in order for the writing to be read.

There is no reason that digital objects need to be so homogenised—part of the speculative computing approach I am interested in is the possibility of foregrounding the ways that difference and materiality can convey meaning—but it is interesting how the pressures of a computing or data-oriented approach push toward standardisation. This is standardisation as reusable code or uniformly structured databases full of indexable content—a process that strips layers of meaning. While I recognise that digital archives are for access and not preservation, I do wonder what a digital material archive might look like. That is, an archive that is able to provide access to the material properties of artefacts (beyond metadata), rather than just the contained visual and textual content.