Annotations from the Archive: Explore the Collection Online

The Cather family, their friends, and many other donors have been very generous to the National Willa Cather Center over the years, contributing to collections that were begun by our organization's founders. As a result, the National Willa Cather Center houses the earliest Cather collections and continues to add to its growing collection of letters, photographs, artwork, and personal items, which we make available to scholars and researchers. Thanks in part to a National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Act grant, the NWCC has begun to make our collections available online for scholars and readers through an online collections tool. 

As COVID caused work closures and disrupted travel, it became clear that virtual access to collections would become increasingly important. We also knew that planned renovations, as part of our Campaign for the Future, would further restrict access to museum collections as items were rehoused for conservation and protection. Though we've started with just a small sampling of our collections, the available objects will expand as our collections grow and as items are brought into our digital catalog.

The groundwork for this new feature has, in fact, been years in development, as archivist Tracy Tucker began work on integrating several separate collections into a single, digital collections management system. The powerful collections management software tracks every object in a collection, documenting everything from condition and location to provenance and exhibition history. Creating these digital records, Tucker says, can be time-consuming. "Even when we're able to import many records at once," she explains, "in order to document condition and fully describe the object, we need to physically examine it, photograph it, and verify the earlier records."

As a result, she says, the collection pieces made available first were those that were already being re-processed. "Items that needed to moved from a historic site to the archive, for example, or items going to or returning from conservation," Tucker said, were priority items for adding to the collection search. Photographs and other collection items that are frequently referenced will be one focus for ongoing work. The new tool won't replace in-person research, Tucker said. "At this phase in the project, we don't anticipate doing page-by-page scans of documents," but, she adds, new digital access policies are in place to support remote research, for those who need it. Researchers unable to travel to Red Cloud are encouraged to reach out with questions about access.

The new collections tools will highlight the National Willa Cather Center's permanent art collection as well. Since the organization's early days, the NWCC has collected pieces of art that were relevant to Cather's work. Mildred Bennett collected pieces by well-known Nebraska painters, Grant Reynard and Elizabeth Dolan, and John Blake Berger's evocative "visual narratives" greatly expanded the collection in the 1980s. Recent additions to the collection include works by Jeremy Daniels, Linda Welsch, Jo Brown, Mark Moseman, Mary Vaughan, Lynn Wolfe, and many more. 

The NEH CARES Act grant of $134,060, Tucker said, allowed collections staff the the time to focus on this collections work. Other well-timed gifts, like the donation of a set of studio lights and backdrops, made some of the necessary work easier to accomplish. "Changes to our work due to COVID have been tough on our staff, and we miss seeing guests and researchers," Tucker said, "so we really wanted to use the time away to do something to engage with those visitors." Intensive collections work, she said, has traditionally been difficult with daily tours on offer. She also encourages guests to try out the new mobile apps and virtual tour options for the National Willa Cather Center, also created with support from the NEH.