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Letters from the Past

Posted for Marjorie L. Haines, Digital Library Intern, Spring 2015

Transcribing historical letters has been one of the most fascinating and enjoyable tasks required in my work with special collections. It generally requires reading personal correspondences from the past and diving into the history of the authors. Imagine a librarian, 100 years from now, reading your descriptive emails home to your parents, your embarrassing facebook messages to your friends, or even those angry texts sent to an ex-lover. What sort of telling anecdotes could be gleaned from your supposedly private conversations?

My first assigned letters to read at Villanova University were those sent from Eleanor M.S. Thackara (“Ellie”) to her father, William T. Sherman [http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:35563; http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:35568; http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:35578]. In her correspondence, Ellie updates her Papa on such events as her recent visit to her mother and the welfare of her own baby. Most prominently seen in this trio of letters, however, are Eleanor and her husband’s plans to move to a new house. It is a costly venture….for which Ellie requests her father’s funding. The manipulation incorporated into these letters strongly reminisces of a child’s request for money from their parents in the modern age. Ellie begins her letters with expressions of adoration for the new residence, which she claims to be both aesthetic and practical in location; she convinces her father that this place is the best option, and what father would not want the best for his daughter? Next, she laments the costs involved with the move and references an offer of financial aid previously made by her father. She does not merely suggest he uphold his promise, but very considerately acknowledges that he may not have the funds or desire to assist in the manner which she proposes. Of course this thoughtfulness would inspire likewise kindness. After receiving confirmation of her father’s agreement to send funds, Ellie requests further finances, by describing her concern that she will have to sell some of her Government Bonds in order to furnish the new home. William must have felt compelled to take care of his darling daughter, based on her response. When it comes to heartfelt thanks, Eleanor excels in expressing herself.

“You will just fix us nicely by sending the surplus check each month. Many thanks. What would we do without our father & friends especially the former.” (Letter, To: “My dear Papa” (William T. Sherman) From: Ellie, October 3, 1881, Back.)

It seems some interactions transcend time.

Letter, To: “My dear Papa” (William T. Sherman) From: Ellie, October 3, 1881, Back

Letter, To: “My dear Papa” (William T. Sherman) From: Ellie, October 3, 1881, Back


Using online translators for a Kite Collection French Language Poem

  • Posted by: Michael Foight
  • Posted Date: May 6, 2014
  • Filed Under: Transcription

Posted for Susan Ottignon, Digital Library and Special Collections Team:

When tasked with transcribing a French poem and prayers, written by Elizabeth Sarah Kite, and having no working knowledge of the language, I relied heavily on several online translators [1], so readily available these days, to decipher unfamiliar French words. The Villanova Digital Library, (VDL), digitized Kite’s papers and are available as part of the Catholica Collection.

After a few tries of copying/pasting words from the work into the varied translators which gave some interesting results. I decided to ‘dump’ entire verses into a translator and discovered rather quickly each system had its own distinct differences and many similarities in their translation. This wasn’t an exercise, on my part, to analyze the software or to provide an authoritative translation of Kite’s writings. My contribution, by using the translators, is an attempt to offer us, the non-French readers, an opportunity to read and feel the deep expressions of the author’s faith and love for the Lord. I leave to future researchers the task in executing an authoritative edition of Elizabeth Sarah Kite’s writings.


[1] Online Translators used: Google Translation, ImTranslator ©2014 Smart Link Corporation, Bing Translator © 2014 Microsoft and Reverso Translation.


“Local News of the Week Condensed”: Ardmore Chronicle, April 13, 1907.

Post for: Susan Ottignon, Special Collections and Digital Library Team
Ardmore Chronicle - Volume XVII, No. 29, Saturday, April 13, 1907.

Ardmore Chronicle – Volume XVII, No. 29, Saturday, April 13, 1907.

Annotated and transcribed text from the digitized copy in the Historical Society of Montgomery County Collection.


Notes of General Interest Gathered Here and There Around Town.
Miss Harriet P. Cooper, of Philadelphia, addressed the Missionary Circle of the First Baptist Church Tuesday afternoon.

Secretary C. D. Bruckner, of the local Y. M. C. A., has been spending the last week in Pittsburg.

A cross-country run, open for all Lower Merion High School [1] boys, except last year’s track team, will be held on April 19. The winner will be awarded a gold medal.

The supper and bazaar given in Masonic Hall Tuesday evening by the ladies the Lutheran church was well attended.

Mr. Conrad Sheive, who comes up for renomination as District Attorney of this county at the June primaries, made a brief canvass of Ardmore on Tuesday.

Bert Simpson, of Narberth, who is traveling in the South with the U. P. [2] baseball team, has made a good showing in the pitchers’ box at several of the games.

The local office of the Lower Merion Directory has been established at No. 1 Colonial Block.

A runaway horse and cart belonging to Mr. Charles Frederick, of Ardmore, narrowly missed colliding with the team of Mr. Harry Bicking last Saturday at Wynnewood station.

Four new arc lights, supplied with electricity from the dynamo in the cellar, will be used in the gymnasium of the public school tonight during the musicale given by the High School.

Sam Lung has moved his laundry from the Y.M. C. A. Building to the location formerly Clinton’s barber shop.

Mrs. H. C. Franzen, who has been visiting Mr. Paul J. Kugler and Dr. Anna Kugler, left for her home in Hartford, Conn., this morning.

The members of the Lutheran church are getting ready for the production of “Who’s Next?” a comedy which promises barrels of fun.

The D. T. Society met last Saturday for their fortnightly assembly at the home of Miss Marguerite Goodman, on Simpson road.

Mr. and Mrs. William Mann entertained on Monday at their home, on Aubrey avenue, in honor of Mr. Mann’s birthday.

A Rummage Sale for the benefit of the Ardmore Free Library will be held April 27 to May 4, inclusive, at the old trolley station, Cricket avenue. Donations are solicited. Articles may be sent to the old trolley station during sale, or send a postal to Mrs. D. Bartlett, and they will be called for.

Miss Helen Morley, who has been visiting Miss Mary McGodlrick for the past month, leaves tonight for her home at Youngstown.

St. Denis’ I. C. B. U. [3] will give a euchre and dance in T. A. B. Hall on April 30.

Mr. Henry Kauffman, of Hackensack, N.J., has been the guest of his mother, Mrs. H. Kauffman, of Simpson road, during the week. On Tuesday evening he left for an extended trip to the Pacific Coast.

Miss Jane Cleaver has returned from a visit of several weeks at Huntingdon, Pa.

The seniors of the Lower Merion High School held their second reception last night in the gymnasium.

The Autocar [4] office team played a nine from the shops last Saturday in the first baseball game of the season. The office won, 11-5.

Mrs. F. Alison and family of, Lancaster avenue, removed yesterday to Chestnut Hill, where they will reside.

Mr. Clarence Piper, of Ardmore, after an absence of six months, has returned to work for his former employer, Mrs. John Cameron, of Bryn Mawr.

The prizes for the drawing to be held soon by St. Denis’ T. A. B. Society [5] are: First, $10; second, an umbrella; third, a suitcase; fourth, a pair of shoes made to order.

Dr. J. Howard Cloud has taken up permanent residence on Lancaster avenue, in the property recently purchased by him, and which was occupied by Mrs. Alison.

Miss Helen Condrick hasreturned [sic] from Pennsville, N. J., where she was visiting friends.

The baggage stand at the Ardmore station is being enlarged by a 20-foot extension.

The work of enlarging the store of the Elborn Hardware Company has been going on all week.

Rev. F. W. Staley spent part of the week in Harrisburg.

Don’t forget the lecture in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church next Thursday night, on “An Hour’s Ride With General Phil Sheridan.

The Christian Endeavor Society of the Baptist church of Ardmore held a business meeting and social at the residence of Mrs. J. E. Bourne on Tuesday evening.

Charley Cassell, of Ardmore, who was to have been tried out for the Ardmore baseball team, received an offer from Cornell University, and he left for Ithaca on Tuesday morning. He will try “pitching” his way through college.

The Hayloft of Blue Jacket Tribe, 395½, Imp. O. R. M. [6], full regalia, paid a visit to Manoa Tribe on Thursday evening. They had “a large time.”

A number of Ardmore people attended the T. A. B. dance at Rosemont on Thursday night.

1. “Ruins of the Ardmore Public School (1900) — Photograph.” Collection: W. Robert Swartz. Lower Merion Historical Society Archives. Accessed 11 March 2014. <http://www.lowermerionhistory.org/photodb/web/html2/138-1.html>
2. University of Pennsylvania.
3. Irish Catholic Benevolent Association.
4. “Autocar in Lower Merion.” By David Schmidt, Special to Main Line Life. The Lower Merion History Society. Copyright © Lower Merion Historical Society. Accessed 11 March 2014. <http://lowermerionhistory.org/dev/sample-page/full-text-resources/david-j-schmidt-collection/278-2>
5. Temperance — Societies, etc.
6. ” . . . The fraternity traces its origins back to 1765 and is descended from the Sons of Liberty. . . ” The Improved Order of Red Men. Content © 1998-2014 The Improved Order of Red Men. All rights reserved. Accessed 11 March 2014. <http://redmen.org/redmen/info/>


Sent mail

Today in electronic communication, when an email is composed and sent, an automatic copy is routinely placed in a “Sent” mail folder. In the manuscript era, however the only way for an author of a letter or memo to keep a copy of the correspondence was to manually scribe a copy. This may have been a “fair copy” – a nearly exact copy of the sent letter, or a draft copy, which would included revisions and edits. Some authors kept these fair and draft copies as individual sheets, while in other cases, a bound book of blank pages was used.


The two letter books kept by Peter Cullen, during the 1832-1934 years, are good examples of the bound format of sent mail and document his ongoing commercial correspondence. These were draft copies as the numerous corrections and emendations can attest.


Over 90 leaves of letters are present in the 1832-1833 volume; the 20 leaves of the 1834 volume are newly available in a transcription by library staff member Frances DiLenge.


Bringing to Life a 19th Century Ship Master’s Cargo

Posted for Susan Ottignon, Digital Library Team:

With each passing hour, as I scrutinize the scanned images found in the Barry-Hayes Papers–Series 58 Ships’ Papers, and begin to build a ‘metadata catalog’ by identifying and labeling each slip of paper, a picture emerges of early 19th merchant ship owners contracting, with a variety of merchants, to load cargo and to sail between the ports of Philadelphia and a foreign destination, in this case, Havana, Cuba. The Ship’s Papers series is a voluminous collection comprised of ‘bill of lading,’ accounts and receipts for specific schooner, sloop, ship or brig all related, in one way or another, to Patrick Hayes who was a ship owner and, on many occasions the Captain, aka ‘Master,’ of the ship. These business transactions provide us, in one sense, with a 19th century ‘paper trail’ into the rich history of commodities, either exported or imported, through the port of Philadelphia.

Receipts list of 1811 voyage

Receipts for cargo destined for Havana, Cuba, on the Brig Commodore Barry in 1811.

beaver cargo

In October of 1811, the Brig Commodore Barry, anchored in Philadelphia, and destined for Havana, Cuba, clearly illustrate the types of consigned merchandise that filled the ship’s cargo hold, and transported in all kinds of containers like kegs, barrels, jugs and boxes, all transacted over a few short days, between the 9th and 13th of the month. We can see Patrick Hayes, the assigned Master for the voyage, affixed his signature in receipt for merchandise. I successfully confirmed, on this occasion, each merchant’s name and trade by reviewing several city directories, from 1801 and 1813, like The Philadelphia Directory and Register, 1813, for Samuel Beaver whose entry read, “Beaver Samuel, cabinetmaker 155 n. Front,” and comparing the receipt, which read in part, “Ten boxes of furniture, seven and a half boxes chairs. . .” The other merchants’ items and their trade, were confirmed through review of directories from various years, like a cart, from a wheelwright merchant, Benjamin Newport, as well as a box of saddles from Matthew Lyons, Blacksmith, confirmed in The Philadelphia Directory, 1801.

This is just one instance from all the many voyages by Hayes, on the Brig Commodore Barry as well as all the other ships’ papers found in this collection. Every ‘connected dot’ I make, when confirming a person and his trade with an historical account, brings to life, once again, the steps taken by a merchant, a ship owner and its master to recreate that one voyage from the many transactions, bound to Havana, and realize it all took place over 200 years ago. The Villanova Digital Library’s many collections offer like experiences from its myriad of individuals and events that transcend the digital image to create a window to view history in a new light.


Thee, Thou, and Ain’t

Posted for: Lisa McColl, Spring 2012 Digital Library Intern.

Philadelphia, November 9, 1880

My dear Lizzie
I received thy postal and in answer say thee would be welcome to the instruments – if there were any to send …

(Letter, To: Elizabeth Sarah Kite From: John Alban Kite, November 9, 1880)

Thus begins a letter from John Alban Kite to his sister, Elizabeth Sarah Kite. Elizabeth Kite’s early letters in this new collection from the Digital Library, came mainly from her Quaker family. The letters’ heavy use of “thee” and “thou,” a common practice of Quakers of that time, gives them a formal tone to our modern ears. The family took care with their writing, sometimes chiding Elizabeth if her letter fell short of their writing expectations. Her grandfather lectured in an 1875 letter to Elizabeth, “I wish to encourage my grandchildren to accustom themselves to the use of the pen in epistolary correspondence for to become a good letter writer is quite an attainment.” (From , Letter to: Elizabeth Sarah Kite, From: John L. (John Letchworth) Kite, November 8, 1875.)

How then could one of John L. Kite’s grandchildren, five years later, use the word that appears at the very top of the first page of that same 1880 letter? It is that ultimate of colloquialisms that will sound the “uneducated” alarm, even in children’s ears, today:

Ain’t this beautiful weather? What would grandfather think? The day after I read this surprising use of slang by a member of the Kite family and seeming anachronism I saw a new book entitled The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner. While the book did not answer my particular questions as to when the word began and if it was considered slang by John Alban Kite and the rest of his family, it chided me to search further.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage the word “ain’t” was commonly used during the time that John Alban Kite wrote this letter and was not quite as vilified for use in casual conversation as it is today. It’s difficult to say if his grandfather would have approved of its use in writing an “epistolary correspondence,” but it’s fun to see in this context today … ain’t it?


Transcriptions from the Elizabeth Hayes letters

Posted for Summer 2012 Digital Library Intern Gail Betz:

Over the summer, I transcribed a portion of Elizabeth Hayes’s personal letters. Elizabeth was Patrick Barry Hayes’ wife, and she devoted a great deal of her time to corresponding with her seafaring husband and traveling sons. While only a few of the letters that Elizabeth herself wrote are included in the collection, she kept letters from her sons and her husband, which now provide a glimpse into their everyday lives. As a history lover, I greatly enjoyed reading these primary source documents, trying to figure out what the different words could be, and deciphering the context of the letter. I discovered that it was much easier to read the younger sons’ letters, because they had much neater cursive than their father did. It’s possible that Patrick Barry Hayes spent much of his time writing to Elizabeth while at sea, which could account for some of the jarring script that made much of his letters illegible. In contrast, his sons’ handwriting was easy to read, and they used more modern vocabulary than their father did.

Having the opportunity to read personal letters from the early 19th century was fascinating for me. It was like reading a diary, but with multiple perspectives and a great deal of guessing about missing information between dates and locations. I enjoyed learning that one son had reunited with his love, and had written to her father to ask for her hand in marriage. I was worried for the son who was away at school for the first time, was ill, and clearly homesick for his mother. While these letters were written almost 200 years ago, the thoughts and feelings they related were contemporary and relatable.

Thank you to Michael Foight and Laura Bang for sharing their knowledge and advice, and providing me with the opportunity to learn about and work with digital libraries. I enjoyed seeing the “other side” of the digital library process, and look forward to using this experience in future digital projects!

Editorial Note: These transcriptions are in the process of being attached to the digital images and will be available for the public in the near future.


Connecting the shards of history

Finding and making available lost or hidden treasures from collections is one of the greatest satisfactions in working with heritage materials.   In processing collections for digitization one occasionally finds materials that don’t seem to fit with the other materials in a collection, especially when dealing with a partner’s materials that may not have been fully described in paper prior to the digitization.

I was quite shocked and amazed when in the box of the Eleanor C. Donnelly personal paper collection, which is owned by the American Catholic Historical Society, Villanova University’s first digitization partner, I found a bound volume that she had owned that didn’t fit with the remainder of the materials, which largely contained correspondence to and from Eleanor, primarily from priests and Bishops throughout the United States in answer to her requests for facsimiles of episcopal seals.  Eleanor Donnelly, who lived from  1838 to 1917, was a figure on the Philadelphia literary scene.  She was known as “The Poet of the Pure Soul” and was also a contributor to numerous Catholic magazines and newspapers.  She edited the Augustinian magazine “Our Lady of Good Counsel” for a period and wrote over 85 books.  She was also sister to the infamous Ignatius Donnelly so her collection had at least the possibility of being filled with unusual treasures.   But this newly discovered bound volume upon closer examination proved to be in fact a manuscript containing signatures of Confederate prisoners of war held at the Johnson’s Island prison during the Civil War.

The first step was to describe the newly discovered work. A careful count finds that the manuscript itself consists of 62 leaves of unnumbered pages filled with not only signatures but also place and dates of capture and sometimes even other information.

After describing the album, I next reached out to other organizations to communicate the new find.  A short Google search provided the name of the heritage organization that documents and collects information about the prison:  the Johnson’s Island Preservation Society.  A little further digging found that they also have a page of documentation about the C.S.A. autograph books which have already been digitized and collected.

Next I reached out to them to let them know the url and the title of the work.  They were very excited – as can be imagined – about the discovery.   They immediately saw the benefit of cross-linking to our content and we asked for and received permission to link to theirs; thus we are digitally uniting two disparate physical collections into one linked set of resources that connects together the shards of history heretofore lost by the vagaries of time and place.

The final step is the creation of a detailed hand transcription of the document that will provide readers an easy way to view the text, and searchers a way to discover the names and other content from search engines and tools like Google and the library catalog.  Indeed we have started this process already as  one of our student transcribers has specifically requested to work on this item because she shares her home town with many of the captured Confederate soldiers whose names were written in this memorial almost 150 years ago.


New Digital Library Administration Software

Falvey’s Digital Library has just been upgraded with new backend software that will improve its ability to continue growing and improving the online collection. The Digital Library’s first incarnation was launched in August 2006. Over the course of 4 years, the DL’s collection grew to over 9,000 items, and a substantial software functionality wish-list.

  • Add support for more file formats, so our collection can include a broader range of materials
  • Incorporate an OCR process to facilitate full-text searching of collection content.
  • Add support for inclusion of transcriptions with hand-written materials


Our initial software used a variety of technologies to achieve its goal of storing information about digital documents. Unfortunately, not all of these tools worked well together. While the new version of the software retains the METS metadata format and eXist-db XML database, it replaces nearly all of the other components with a suite of more closely-related technologies. The new, all-XML, all-Open-Source framework consists of the following components:


New Key Features:

Root level Document Attachment


Catalogers now have the ability to add document-level items to each object. The most relevant use of this feature is to attach a hand-transcribed, fully annotated companion document to a digitally scanned book. More information on this feature can be found here and a live example can be found by viewing the Lane Manuscript

AJAX-based metadata editor


The Orbeon forms Java-based XForms engine integrates with the YUI JavaScript Library providing a rich user interface for metadata editing.

Document layout and file attachment configurations


The system incorporates a batch-attach routine for adding multiple files (in our case the pages of a scanned book) to a digital object as a single operation. An interface is available to customize the arrangement and location of these files, as well as adding and deleting files when appropriate.

OAI harvestable


OAI/PMH is a standard for serving and harvesting metadata. The Digital Library is now fully harvestable using this standard.

In the coming months we will extend the software to include custom drivers for a VuFind front-end and modularize the metadata editor to support a wide-range of options including Dublin Core, MODS, EAD, and PREMIS support for preservation Metadata.

Our plan is to launch the software as a simple, open-source platform for preservation and presentation of digital collections. So stay tuned! We are targeting April 2011 for the Beta Release.

We are always looking for development partners! If you are interested, please contact us at digitallibrary@villanova.edu


Transcriptions brought to life online

A newly released and long awaited feature in the digital library software enables the display of transcribed content. When transcribed content is present in a digital library object, a new tab, designated Docs, is displayed. This tab will present the transcribed content as readable and downloadable files. Just click on the thumbnail icon of the file type. Most transcribed content is available in both smart-PDF and Word formats. We are very proud to bring this new feature to you!


Handwritten content is often difficult to decipher and, when digitized, not conducive to OCR. In parallel to the scanning of heritage materials, individual volunteers, staff, and students have been transcribing the writings from the past. Individual transcribers’ names are included. Now these letters and diaries can be read easily online as part of Villanova University’s Digital Library.

The first transcription to be included in the online collection is the Lane Manuscript. This contains the autobiographical manuscript of Samuel Alanson Lane (1815-1905). From January until May of 1835, Lane traveled around the U.S., looking for work in numerous cities, including New Orleans, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, until finally settling in what would become his hometown, Akron, OH, on June 29, 1835. S. A. Lane was a dedicated follower and professional lecturer of the American temperance movement as well as an avid supporter and political participant for the Republican Party, formed in 1854. Perhaps Lane’s most interesting and daring pursuit, was his active participation in the mass emigration to California in search of fortune like many other easterners during the California Gold Rush, which kept Lane from his home and family in Akron for over two years. This manuscript covers his life and contains many depictions of 19th century American frontier life. An exhibit featuring the life and times of Samuel Lane is also available online.

While only a few transcriptions are online at present, over the coming weeks and months much new transcribed content will be available to delight and fascinate. On the technical front, we are quickly working to make these materials discoverable with keyword searching. Printed texts that have been OCRed will also have enhanced findability.

I would be remiss without acknowledging all who have toiled many long hours over these often cryptic documents filled with fragmentary words and sentences. Thank you! In addition much hard labor also went into the software enhancements that make such content available, so out of the many individuals involved, I would especially like to thank David Lacy for his hard work in bringing the best to our digital library software!

If you are interested in helping to bring historical materials alive, please consider volunteering. Just reach out and email us at: digitallibrary@villanova.edu

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Last Modified: November 19, 2010