Archive project links history and computer science

Senior Luke Kortepeter came to college on the pre-med track, but a class project in the library’s archives turned him into a computer science and history double major.

He’s been working on the Seward Family Papers digital history project for two years. Students involved in the project take Professor Thomas Slaughter’s history class on the family of William H. Seward, and also transcribe and digitize letters from a collection in the Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation department of  Rush Rhees Library.

“This spring we focused on the family correspondence,” says Kortepeter. “It’s a whole new primary resource that hasn’t been utilized yet.

He says the 15 students in the class spent the spring on letters from 1862. Once digitized and online, the papers will be more accessible, he says.

After four semesters working on the project, Kortepeter knows a lot about the Sewards. “I must have read 500-1,000 letters so far, and it’s awesome,” he says.

“We have thousands of letters covering a sixty year period. We are going through every single one,” he says. “And that’s really cool for me, actually, knowing that you’re the very first person reading the letter since it was first read.”

Bad handwriting

kortepeter_280 The project is expected to go “live” in the spring of 2015. Kortepeter and his classmates are racing to get as many letters transcribed, annotated, and digitized as they can before the project’s debut.

That said, the process requires keen eyes and a good understanding of the Seward family’s historical context.

In addition to serving as Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln for two terms, William Henry Seward was the Governor of New York and a US senator. He also negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for two cents per acre—a purchase many considered foolish at the time.

Just reading the letters can be a challenge. “Since the handwritings on the letters are pretty awful for the most part, we are transcribing them—once you get used to it, it’s not as bad,” Kortepeter says.

“And, we are also annotating them. The user will be able to read the transcription right next to the digital image, and if they see a name they are interested in, they can click and it will say who that person was.

Teen diary

“Having been with the project for a while I’ve read basically everyone’s handwriting. It’s definitely interesting to see how different they are.

“Fanny Seward’s is very curly—beautiful handwriting—and she loved writing about her daily life,” Kortepeter says. “She’s a teenager at this time, and so you can see how she’s growing up and how the world is changing so much around her.

“She’d have fine descriptions of gentlemen, and will talk about things as basic as their jawline and how it curves perfectly. And so it’s very interesting to read—I mean, it’s her diary. She wasn’t expecting anyone to be reading it,” says Kortepeter.

Finding personalities

“Then on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Henry’s wife, Frances, whose handwriting is awful.

“It’s up for debate how ‘into’ the whole political thing she was in terms of supporting him,” says Kortepeter. “Some historians say that she wasn’t very supportive and it was a pain for her to have go to these conventions
with him. But,” he says, “we are finding that might not be true.

“She would go to Washington, DC, and say how awful it was and how she had migraines the whole time. And how at social events she would go, but then sit in a room by herself.

It’s “really cool” to pick up on people’s personalities in the letters, according to Kortepeter. “A lot of these resources weren’t available, so when [researchers] only had a snippet of letters and she’s angry in every single one of them, then you’d say ‘yeah, of course, she’s angry and hates her husband’s career,’” he explains.

“But when you see these other letters and she’s so passionate about slavery—she hated slavery—or just her opinions about political scandals at the time, it just really shows she was interested, and she definitely had opinions about what was going on.

“The DC social life wasn’t for her. She found it incredibly stressful. Especially since her husband was so incredibly social—it was hard to live up to that,” Kortepeter says.

‘I have no desire to be a doctor’

Kortepeter, who started out doing pre-med, says the Seward letter project “has definitely changed my college path completely.

“I had been doing premed stuff all through high school—I worked in labs, both my parents are doctors, and I figured, ‘yeah, sure, I could be a doctor, too.’ And that winter break of my freshman year, I followed a surgeon around for a little bit, and I was just… ‘I hate this—I have no desire to be a doctor.’

“Then I floundered around a little bit, trying econ. I took a history class with Professor Jarvis, and my freshman writing teacher worked with Slaughter and said, ‘Why don’t you talk to him, he’s my favorite professor—and just take a class with him’? And I was like, ‘okay, sure.’”

Kortepeter says his parents had different reactions to his change in plans.

“My father was excited for me to explore my own thing. My mother was confused because I was always so sciencey—all throughout high school,” he says. “All my AP classes were in science.

“It was very new to me to go into a history class. I came here because I know it’s a strong science school,” Kortepeter says, “and then ended up studying something totally different.”

He says his two majors complement each other. “Usually with computer science I’ll do my projects, but I don’t really get to apply it. Like, I can only make Tetris so many times,” he says with a laugh.

“With this, I really get to be on both sides of the project: I get to do the history things and work with the letters, but then as a computer science student, I am also working on the website and the database—helping with everything, really,” he explains.

“It was the perfect project for me.”

Video: Inside a Carillon Rehearsal

By Dan LaTourette ’12
Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year Student

I’d like to point out several crucial facets of my experience in filming the carillon and the carillonists. The main one, as the title of the piece expresses, is that this is a rehearsal. Mistakes were made and there are places in need of polish. But here is another thing to think about, every single person on campus can hear these rehearsals and, thus, they can hear all of these mistakes. Looking at it that way, their time spent in the cold room (well, cold in December, when this was filmed) on improving is both admirable and respectful.

The next thing to look at is the physicality involved in playing the carillon, notice how the carillonist, Rachel, moves back in forth on the bench as she plays the last several measures of the musical piece. Also take note the way in which they strike the baton (the ‘keys’ of the carillon); using fingers would be physically draining.

One last thing is that I had the option to use mixed sound for my video but I declined. As you will notice, there is a clunky sound that is associated with the striking of the baton. I chose to leave this sound in an attempt to show just how mechanical, metallic, and massive this instrument is. Moreover, it is a sound many do not have the opportunity to hear, a sound that is not apparent when listening to the carillon on campus.


Read more about Dan LaTourette’s Key Project.

Scare Fair Brings Students to Library’s Hallowed Halls

By Alayna Callanan ’14
University Communications

Yesterday afternoon the 2013 Scare Fair was held in Rush Rhees Library, attracting dozens of students to the Library’s hallowed stacks, some for the first time.

Named one of the top 10 most epic college Halloween celebrations by HerCampus, the Scare Fair is an annual event held to encourage students to enter and use the stacks. Art Librarian Stephanie Frontz said when the event originated many years ago, the current librarians heard that students were scared to go into the stacks. Part of the day’s event was a scavenger hunt that requires students to enter many of University of Rochester’s nine libraries on campus. Students were rewarded with new knowledge, candy, and a stunning view from the top of the Rush Rhees tower.

For the first time in Scare Fair history, the elevator original to the building of the Library in 1930 broke down halfway through the event. Clearly there was a ghost at work, trying to prevent students from seeing the best view on campus! Students who missed the opportunity to take the Tower Tours yesterday had their name and email taken for a rain check on the event.

Other events included performances by Sihir Bellydance, Genesee Story Tellers, Hon Korean Percussion, Mariachi Meliora, and D’Motions.  There was a great turnout for the costumes contest with students, faculty, and children alike. A fourteenth century fool flipped around host Dean Paul Burgett, while another student dropped to the floor after being killed by her inorganic chemistry exam. Luckily the Plague Doctor, Sanjay Dharawat ’14, was there to save lives! But only saving 40 or 60%, the percentage saved is left to your imagination.



Online Archive Provides a Window on Progressive 19th Century Movements

The University of Rochester recently launched an online archive of manuscripts from the Post family, Rochesterians who were near the center of many of the national movements of the 1800s that helped define their city as one of American’s most progressive.

“Rochester was an epicenter of progressive causes,” says Michael Jarvis, an associate professor of history. As activists during this heady period of reform, the Posts knew well and corresponded with a surprising number of national leaders, from Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony to Sojourner Truth, Harriet Brent Jacobs, and William Cooper Nell.

“They were the Kevin Bacon of the 19th century,” says Jarvis, referring to the famously well-connected Hollywood actor so useful in playing the “six degrees of separation” game of association.

In the early 1840’s the Posts became deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement, using their house at 36 Sophia St., now N. Plymouth Ave., as a very active station on the Underground Railroad, says Lori Birrell, manuscript librarian in Rare Books and Special Collection who has served as co-project manager along with Melissa Mead, director of the Digital Projects Research Center.

“They supported Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star, Amy Post attended the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and introduced fellow Rochesterian Susan B. Anthony to the woman’s rights movement,” says Birrell. “The Posts also participated in the controversial Spiritualist movement in the late 1840s. Begun by the Fox sisters here in Rochester, followers believed that through mediums (Isaac Post eventually believed himself to be a medium) they could communicate with the dead.”

To celebrate the launch of the online archive, scholars and students who have worked with the collection will discussed its significance to local and national history during an event on Thursday, Sept. 13.

The papers cover a full century, from 1817 to 1918, with the majority of the material falling during the nearly 50-year span from 1823 to 1872. They include extensive resources related to the Post’s activities in the abolitionist, Spiritualist, and women’s rights movements. Other topics for which there is significant material are: agriculture, the anti-tobacco movement, childbirth, Chinese immigrants, the Civil War, domestic servants, education, the Friends of Human Progress, freed slaves, Indians, medicine, Quakers, the Reconstruction Era, slavery, and the temperance movement.

The Post papers contain 2,089 letters, manuscripts, newspapers, and other material, and the initial online launch will feature a selection of more than 200 letters. Each letter has been scanned, transcribed, and annotated, a project made possible through the generosity of Randall B. Whitestone ’83 and Lisa T. Whitestone. Eventually the library plans to digitize the entire collection.

To date, students have performed all of the painstaking preparation of the transcriptions. “I had each student select a letter, transcribe it, and do research to explain who is being discussed–and what events,” says Jarvis, who uses the archive as a tool for training graduate students about primary sources. “The students have provided a reader’s guide to make the content of the letter more understandable and useful.”

Margarita Simon Guillory, an assistant professor of religion, also incorporates the collection into her class on Spiritualism. Reading and transcribing these private letters, she says, “humanized” historical figures for the undergraduates in her class. “It was amazing for them,” she says. For example, letters from the Fox sisters, reveal how the famed and widely traveled Spiritualist mediums, were also teenaged girls and sometime lonely. “[A]h how I do wish that you were here,” wrote Catherine Fox to Amy Post in this letter from 1850. “[Y]ou know we always loved you.”

But the collection’s importance extends far beyond the classroom. Guillory uses the archive in her own research on Spiritualism and scholars around the world will find these papers a rich source of social history, she says.

For example, Amy Post was one of the early influences on Susan B. Anthony, encouraging and supporting her in entering the struggle for women’s rights. An organizer of both the Seneca Falls and Rochester conventions in 1848, Post was also an editor of the convention Proceedings published in 1870. In this letter from 1861, Anthony urges Post to gather the names of prominent businessmen, lawyers, and judges for a petition, tells of her visit to their mutual friend and women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and updates Post on gatherings in Auburn, Boston, and Albany.

Many of the letters are from leaders of the abolitionist movement. For example, Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and former slave, dictated in this letter sent to Amy Post her experience of being assaulted in Washington, D.C. for trying to ride on a public train. Harriet Jacobs, a former slave and author the first slave narrative to detail the sexual abuse of female slaves, discussed the difficulty of writing about such a sensitive topic in this letter to Post. “[T]here are somethings [sic] that I might have made plainer I know- woman can whisper- her cruel wrongs into the ear of a very dear friend- much easier than she can record them for the world to read.”

Rush Rhees Library Displays Feature Topics of Student Interest

Univ. Communications – If you walked by the Rush Rhees display shelf near the circulation desk recently, you may have seen a feature on vegan and vegetarian culture. The display is part of an effort by Rush Rhees Library to highlight books on topics of interest to students.

The Student Association of Vegan and Vegetarian Youth, or SAVVY, worked with Rush Rhees Library staff to give students the opportunity to learn more about vegan and vegetarian life. The display, located by the circulation desk, features books on topics ranging from the botany of different herbs and spices, a history of the animal rights movement, to modern recipes for a kemetic diet.

SAVVY is made up of dedicated students who want to increase awareness of veganism and provide support for vegans and vegetarians. The core issues of advocacy include animal welfare and sustainable agriculture. “As the only vegan/vegetarian club on campus, SAVVY has a unique and vital role in raising awareness about the positive environmental, physical, and psychological benefits of abstaining from meat and animal products,” says Melody Jaros ’14, president of SAVVY. Creating a display of relevant reading material is one way that SAVVY can achieve that goal.

While SAVVY’s books are no longer on display, they are available for check out at the library. Currently, the display shelves feature books related to Asian Heritage Month, which runs through April. If you or your group would like to feature books on a particular topic of interest in Rush Rhees, email Mari Lenoe at If your topic is science related, please email Sue Cardinal in the Carlson library at

Article written by Dan Wang, a sophomore at Rochester, who studies philosophy and economics.

Photo courtesy of Dan Wang.

Carlson and Rush Rhees Libraries Announce 2011 Art Purchase Prizes

Rush Rhees Library – The Carlson Science and Engineering Library’s Undergraduate Student Art Prize was awarded to Sam Sadtler ’11, a Take Five student majoring in mechanical engineering. Sadtler’s work of inkjet prints, “In the Dark,” is on permanent exhibition in the Carlson Library (see prints to the right).

The Rush Rhees Library’s Undergraduate Student Art Prize was awarded to Ryane Logsdon ’12, an ecology and evolutionary biology major. Logsdon’s work of inkjet prints, titled “It would have gone unnoticed,” is on permanent exhibition in the Rush Rhees Library (see prints below).

Both the Carlson Library and Rush Rhees Library Art Prizes, which have been given annually since 2004, are selected by River Campus Library staff members during the Undergraduate Juried Art Exhibition at Hartnett Gallery.