When family documents are scattered in multiple repositories over many decades, it becomes a scholarly challenge to assess the scope of materials available and to create critical narratives which are complete and accurate. A potential solution to this problem is to design a scalable, extensible, standards-based framework for publishing family papers and related photographic material that exposes and unites hidden collections from multiple institutions, in a curated online environment that allows multiple access points and multiple paths of discovery.
Three Rochester N.Y. repositories — The University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery and River Campus Libraries, and the George Eastman Museum — teamed together to pilot such a portal in 2014, bringing together materials documenting the history of multiple generations of Rochester’s Sibley and Watson families in the first phase of the Sibley Watson Digital Archive.
The narratives, housed in separate repositories, which will make up this archive are international, local, and intimately personal. Two narratives were chosen for the Emily Sibley Watson pilot phase due to their relatively small scope, discrete time period, and variety of materials: James and Emily Sibley Watson’s trips to Morocco in 1891 and Egypt in 1893, during which they took pictures, wrote letters, and saved menus and other souvenirs. Over time, these materials found their way into different repositories, thereby losing context and in many cases, being stripped of any identification. The collaborating institutions’ work in digitally reuniting these materials became the focus of the Sibley Watson Digital Archive’s pilot phase.
About the Sibley & Watson families
The Sibley and Watson families arrived in Rochester, New York in the early part of the nineteenth century, coming from Western Massachusetts as part of the pioneering migration west after the War of 1812. Hiram Sibley and Don Alonzo Watson, considered the founding organizers of Western Union, were the fathers of Emily Sibley Watson (1855-1945) and James Sibley Watson, Sr. (1860-1951), who grew up in Rochester and married each other in 1891. Mrs. Watson was influential in the cultural life of Rochester, having founded the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester and the Hochstein School of Music and Dance. Their son James Sibley Watson, Jr. was a radiologist, an important amateur filmmaker, and the publisher of one of the 20th century’s major literary journals, The Dial.
Due to the privileged circumstances of Emily Sibley Watson’s birth, she traveled widely from an early age and cultivated a taste for the arts that was balanced by a family commitment to philanthropy and community service. Letters, diaries, photographs, and related documents chronicle her nine decades and are housed primarily in repositories in Rochester, notably the University of Rochester and George Eastman Museum.
The Sibley Watson Digital Archive project hopes to unite long-separated collections of family papers that shine a spotlight on Rochester from 1833 through the 1970s and illuminate the life of Emily Sibley Watson and her extended family. In addition to connecting her public roles as the daughter of a captain of industry and the mother of James Sibley Watson, Jr., pioneer of 20th century modernism, Mrs. Watson’s papers detail the personal experiences, concerns, and spheres of influence of a woman deeply rooted in service to family and community.
In its first phase, the Sibley Watson Digital Archive has focused on creating a robust infrastructure and models of multi-institution collaboration through a pilot project highlighting two discrete trips, with materials from 3 collections: George Eastman Museum, Memorial Art Gallery Archives, and the University of Rochester's Department of Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, River Campus Libraries.