Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Digital Spearman

A page from the Frank Spearman website.
WE'RE THE FIRST TO ADMIT that the name Frank H. Spearman didn't ring a bell when we showed up for work our first day on the job in the Mount St. Mary's College Archives in 2008. Since the archives room is named after the guy, we figured we'd find out sooner or later.

So it is beyond gratifying to see what our Digital Humanitarians have accomplished with just three boxes of archives material and a shelf or two of novels by western author Frank Hamilton Spearman. There is a website devoted to Spearman and his legendary hero Whispering Smith, Twitter feeds at #FrankSpearman, #WhisperingSmith,  a Facebook page, annotated online analyses of the novel and information about more than 50 years of film and television treatment of the hard-ridin', railroadin' champion of Spearman's most successful novel.

We've never quite gotten around to explaining Spearman's relationship to the Mount. A businessman as well as a prominent author of Western-themed short stories and novels, Spearman moved to Hollywood in the early 20th Century ("Whispering Smith" was produced several times as a motion picture, both silent and talkie). He was a convert to Catholicism after his marriage to Eugenie Lonergan and took on religious and moral subjects for the Catholic magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. As a well-known Catholic writer and intellectual, he was a regular sight around Mount St. Mary's College, giving the occasional lecture and being interviewed by the campus newspaper (which can be read in full in our online repository). Spearman passed away in 1937.

One of his sons, Arthur Dunning Spearman, became a Jesuit priest and librarian at Loyola University. Father Spearman was also a well-known presence at the Mount, conducting regular retreats and celebrating masses in the 1940s and 1950s. After his parents died, Father Spearman donated not only many of his father's books, papers and photographs to the Mount library, but also furniture, antiques and oriental rugs from "Beausoliel," their former estate in Hollywood. When the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library was built in 1947, the first Frank Spearman Room was set aside for his archives and artifacts. It moved once or twice before settling in its current location in 1995 on the first floor of the Coe.

The Digital Humanitarians of MSMC have demonstrated the power of archives to bring an author to life -- even a comparatively unknown one -- 75 years after his death, using the amazing tools of social media. Dr. Jennifer Tran Smith's creativity and innovation in developing the Mount's first Digital Humanities course was fun to watch from the vantage point of the Spearman Room. She ran it like a business, not just a learning environment, and the results are the first-rate websites and webtools noted above.

And there was one more surprise. Whispering Smith (1906) is a really good book. It's not just another pulp Western novel, but real literature, full of neat turns of phrase, three-dimensional characters and vivid images of the empty Wyoming ranges of a century ago. Digitization makes this all possible; the book is freely available in many forms both physical and electronic, and thanks to the DigHum crew, not just a good read but a digital experience.

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