In the past few months, we’ve added a new collection to the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives’ growing portfolio of digital exhibitions: a collection of postcard images of various New London landmarks, buildings, monuments, parks and neighborhoods, primarily from the first few decades of the 20th century. The physical postcards had been donated in 1980 by Muriel Castle, a 1939 graduate of the College. The images on display include the Coast Guard Academy, New London’s historic Hempsted Houses, Fort Trumbull, numerous churches, area lighthouses and notable buildings such as the Mohican Hotel and the Crocker House. The collection can be viewed here; there’s also an article about it on the Lear Center’s Tumblr site (at lindalearcenter.tumblr.com).

New London Harbor LightBank Street

It’s probably a fairly safe bet that quite a few more people will access the postcards now that they’ve been digitized, although I hasten to add the disclaimer that what’s currently available is only a portion of the entire collection. That in itself is a key reason to continue digitizing, cataloging and promoting collections such as this one.

Second CongregationalJohn Winthrop Statue

Further, as I learned through this process, postcards are a multifaceted treasure trove of historical and sociocultural information. In addition to what’s kind of obvious about them — historical photographs of particular times and places in New London — the postcards display clues about dress, transportation, architecture, religion and government. Because we’ve digitized and included the reverse sides of the postcards (i.e., where people wrote messages), the cards can also give us insight into how people communicated with each other during the time period, and about the places to which people wrote and traveled. And again, because the images are digitized and freely available, this information is now theoretically available to anyone, not just those who are able to come to Connecticut College and visit with our archivists.

It’s also notable that the exhibition is an example of librarians’ — or, really, anyone’s — ability to create a collection, and thus to contribute content to the pool of resources for scholarly comment and knowledge creation. As the field called “digital humanities” expands, what’s becoming clear is that traditional roles are changing as publishing tools become more and more digital — and accessible. This development raises a lot of issues for research — such as how these “objects” can be cataloged, collected and found — that we’ll be sure to address in future posts.

But perhaps discussions of the wider research significance of digital collections ought for the moment to take a back seat to appreciation of the rich possibilities of a particular collection. In these postcards, we discovered quite a range of topics worthy of research and study — and many interesting, beautiful images that can simply be enjoyed. We hope the collection will serve both ends.

— Fred Folmer

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