A publication featuring student work from the Department of English and Communications at Salve Regina University.
BY LAUREN KANE
C arefully—even hopefully—an archivist at Newport’s Redwood Library examines a ledger book from an 18th-century Newport trading company. Tucked between the yellowed pages of the book lies a forgotten piece of history. The loose paper was a first-person account, written in 1769, of a mob of Newporters banding together to attack and burn a British ship that had come in with two captive Connecticut schooners. The attack took place just off what is now Goat Island. The author had intended to have the handwritten account printed for distribution, but because of various circumstances, it was never published. The document survives only in the Redwood, where it had sat in the archival vault for over 200 years, just waiting to be discovered.
After being submerged for so long, this account, along with other priceless Redwood artifacts, has begun to gasp its first breath of a new life in the modern world. In fact, thanks to the work of the Redwood’s archival team, documents like these from the library’s vault will be available to a larger network than ever before.
On the Redwood’s second floor, in a room with lighting as crisp and clean as a hospital, the archives are shifting into the modern world. In the cold setting, warmth comes from both the yellowed pages of the ledger book and the passion of the person examining the pages. Here, professionals will work their way methodically through the archives, examining the works, placing them in a historical context in order to catalog them and ultimately make them available to anyone with Internet access.
Librarians opened the vault in June 2013. The vault is an authentic “chamber of secrets,” where the entirety of the archives is kept. Located underground, the climate-controlled space is open only to those with clearance.
One discovery came from an expert from the Naval War College who was interested in studying bibles. The first copies of the first edition of the King James Bible, printed in 1611, had specific misprints that only someone well versed in the topic would recognize. The researcher was able to identify them, and identify the Bible as one of the first English-language Bibles to ever come off the press.
Yet another discovery was a handwritten and hand-illustrated Book of Hours, believed to be from 16th-century Flanders. An expert was able to determine, judging from the tiny detail of a border design of little golden snails, that it was actually a 14th-century book originating in Belgium.
“Because these are unique, irreplaceable items, we are very conscious about keeping them secure,” says Maria Bernier, assistant director of the Redwood. “Only a few of the library staff know the combination to the door lock on the vault.”
While necessary, the need for security makes the archives relatively inaccessible or only convenient for those in the Newport area. However, with the help of The van Beuren Charitable Foundation and individual donors, the Redwood now has the grant money needed to make the shift to far-reaching accessibility. In the information-saturated 21st century, online access is essential to a library’s collection.
Not only do scholars benefit from the leap to modernity, but the Redwood does as well. With the archives available to a global community of experts, the opportunities for archival discoveries expand tremendously.
“Why have these things if no one can use them?” Bernier asks, as the archivist continues to pore through the pages of the ledger book, waiting for more secrets from the past.