How to Shoot an American Quilt

View of a quilt on a quilt frame, seen from behind a camera tripod.

Our makeshift photography studio

When Digital Services was asked to provide images for an upcoming book on longtime donor Wade Hall’s amazing array of archival collections, most of the requests were fairly standard: book covers, documents, and photos. Even the occasional 8-Track box or daguerreotype wasn’t all that far afield from the usual digitization lab fare. What was totally out of our realm of experience, though, was the quilts.

A couple of weeks ago, Jeremiah and Claire temporarily turned the office into a photo studio in order to capture images of seven very different pieces from the the Wade Hall and Gregg Swem American Quilts Collection. Jeremiah is our digital photography guru and Claire is herself a quilter, so they made a good team. Here’s what they reported about the quilts themselves and the process they used to shoot them.

The Quilts

As in the case of many Wade Hall collections, we don’t have a clear provenance for most of these items, but a lot can be deduced by examining them — if you know what you’re looking at. Luckily, Claire does!

Woman straightening woven blanket on quilt frame.

Claire at work

Red and cream woven blanket, closeup

Woven pattern, with visible seam between pieces

Technically, all seven blankets they photographed aren’t strictly quilts. Two are woven textiles. The one in red and cream checkerboards and stripes (left) was made on a small loom, probably at someone’s home. Claire pointed out that you can see where multiple strips of the woven material were sewn together to create the full blanket.

Another woven blanket (in salmon, blue, and teal, above) was apparently made on a larger loom, given that it isn’t pieced from strips. It may not have been super mass manufactured, though. One corner of the blanket shows a name and location, maybe that of the weaver or the intended recipient, suggesting that it was done on commission, perhaps even locally to its owner.

Red and white applique quilt

Applique quilt

The other five blankets are definitely quilts. What makes them different? According to, a quilt is “a textile sandwich consisting of two pieces of fabric with a filling between them. The upper layer, or top, is decorative. The bottom, or backing, is usually, but not always, rather plain. The filling, or batting, provides the warmth and loft” (source). That top generally consists of smaller pieces that have been sewn together.

However, the first one they shot, in red and white (right), employs a lot of applique. This is a technique where smaller pieces of fabric are sewn onto a large piece of fabric, rather than cobbled together to form the top. It’s easy to see that the red has been done this way, but if you look closely, there are also white elements appliqued to the white background.

Closeup of crazy quilt, greens and blues, with red ties

Tied crazy quilt

Two of the blankets are crazy quilts, so called because they are pieced together from irregular scraps and can look rather chaotic, a mix of colors, textures, and shapes. One is done in satins and silks, and it has a dagged edge, resembling the pointed or leaf-shaped edge you would be most likely to see in medieval costumes.

While most of the quilts they photographed were quilted in the typical manner, with lines of stitches holding together the top, batting, and backing, one of the crazy quilts (left) is tied. In tied quilting, the simplest way of holding the layers together, yarn or thread is pulled through at intervals and knotted. In the case of this particular quilt, the ties are bright red, so Claire said they were likely meant to be decorative, not just functional.

Closeup of white, yellow, and red "names" quilt, seen folded on top of two crazy quilts

Embroidered name quilt

The tied crazy quilt also features embroidery, not a quilting technique so much as a general way of using ornamental stitches to add decoration to fabric, in this case the quilt top. Embroidery is used on several of the blankets, but it’s used to particularly striking effect in the hand quilted yellow and white name quilt (right). It is made of 30 large squares, nearly identical except that each has a different set of names embroidered into it. This may indicate they were done by several different people and combined into one blanket. After all, quilting has traditionally been a type of communal work, with many hands contributing to a finished product.

Closeup of Halloween quilt label

Halloween quilt label

Even in this day and age, when there’s not the same desperate necessity of shared labor, quilters tend to be community oriented. One of the most well-known American quilting communities is Gees Bend, in Wilcox County, Alabama. Its roots go back generations. A modern Gees Bend quilt with a Halloween motif (left) was among the pieces they photographed. Like most quilts, it has a label, in this case indicating not only the maker’s name but also additional information about where it came from and who it’s for. For more on this quilt, check out a classic post from our sister blog, Cool@Hoole.

The Photo Shoot

While Jeremiah has had to take down the mounted camera and use it to shoot framed objects, he’s never captured any of the collections’ textiles. Fortunately, the technical aspects of the process were relatively straightforward. The bigger challenge was often in wrangling the quilts themselves.

View of a quilt on a quilt frame, seen from over the shoulder of a man behind a camera tripod.

Jeremiah at work

The setup was deceptively simple: each blanket was draped over a borrowed quilt frame and shot against a black drop cloth. One of our cameras, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, got a vacation from its usual downward-facing mounting and was set up on a tripod. Traveling along with it were the lights, which had to be rearranged quite a bit to get the right effect.

To know how to present each quilt — whether as a full piece or to focus on some component like a motif, edge, or label — we needed to know why it was chosen. After consulting the book’s rough draft, Jeremiah and Claire worked out what would make the most sense to illustrate the writer’s ideas. Still, there were judgment calls. Old textiles can be stained or have holes. Does one photograph the cleanest area or the most representative? Sometimes, those aren’t the same thing. Or take this woven piece:

Which is the “right” side — with the cream color as the background, or with the cream color as the contrast? In the end, they photographed it both ways.

Closeup of "dagged" edge quilt, yellow, maroon, and blue, in shiny satin fabric

Shiny crazy quilt with dagged edge

There were only a few technical challenges. The satin and silk crazy quilt (left) was difficult to properly light because it was so shiny, with each fabric piece picking up and reflecting light. Without some intervention, this shine added up to a very bright image. To combat this, Jeremiah adjusted the polarizing filter on the lens to block out the light coming from certain directions, bringing the overall image into a proper exposure.

Halloween quilt with bright orange fabric

Bright orange Halloween quilt

The Halloween quilt (right) was also challenging, but for a different reason. Something about that particular tone of bright orange was outside of the camera sensor’s comfort zone. For the wide shot of the blanket, Jeremiah had to make a few adjustments in Photoshop to get things under control. For the closeup shot, they were able to use one of our everyday mounted camera setups. The Canon EOS 6D’s sensor apparently doesn’t mind that shade of orange.

Good Results, Sore Muscles

On the whole, the process was pretty successful, if not a bit tiring. Jeremiah admitted that the height of the quilt frame was made for display, not for photography, so the tripod — and the photographer! — had to be set rather low in order to keep things centered and level. Claire reported that quilts are a lot heavier than they look, especially when you have to handle them all day and sometimes lift them over your head!

A woman and man holding opposite sides of a red and white applique quilt

Expert quilt wranglers!

Shakespeare at 400

Portrait of Shakespeare, engraving from book frontispieceFour hundred years ago tomorrow, William Shakespeare’s life was over and the story of his cultural legacy began. At what a legacy it has been!

There are countless adaptations of his work, in every artistic medium we’ve come up with over the years. His stories have also inspired new works, often from something as simple as a turn of phrase. Whether you look to the page, the canvas, the stage, or the screen, Shakespeare is bound to be there.

In this post, we share some of the many published versions of Shakespeare’s works — particularly his nearly 40 plays — which we have at Hoole, dating from the late 16th century to the late 20th century. Click on any image below to see a larger version, or come by to see the item in person.


16th-18th century

While we don’t have any Renaissance-era copies of Shakespeare’s plays, we do have facsimile reproductions of a few of his plays, including this copy of the 1597 edition of Romeo and Juliet.

We also have this 1720 edition of history play Richard II, demonstrating that his plays were being performed — and adapted — 100 years after his death.

Title page of 1720 edition of Shakespeare's Richard II

Call number: Rare PR3729.T5 T7 1720

19th century

By the 1800s, Shakespeare was firmly planted in our cultural landscape. For example, here is a whole book of quotations from Shakespeare, from 1851.

Page opening from book of Shakespeare quotations, 1851

Call number: Rare PR2892 .D6 1851

Some Victorians preferred a cleaned-up version of the bard, such as found in the Family Shakespeare series, “in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read in a family.” It was first published in 1807, but this version is from 1863.

The editor is Thomas Bowdler, from whom we take the word “bowdlerize.” Another popular family-friendly version of Shakespeare came from brother-sister team Charles and Mary Lamb, who turned the plays into prose in Tales from Shakespeare, also first published in 1807.

We also have a set of pocket-sized versions of the plays, published in 1885, with two to three titles in each volume. Pictured below are volumes 2-4, which contain comedies and romances like Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, and Winter’s Tale.

Spines of volumes 2-4 of the Handy Volume Edition of Shakespeare's complete works

Call number: Rare PR2753 .D2 1885 [vol. 1-13]

Shakespeare was also part of the decorated publisher’s bindings craze at the turn of the 20th century. This 1900 version of As You Like It has an embossed cover in blue, white, and gold, as well as beautiful illustrated pages inside.

20th century

The 1900s found Shakespeare still thriving, especially in colleges and universities. This 1909 copy of Antony and Cleopatra comes from the personal collection of the late English professor Hudson Strode. Not only does it contain lovely etchings to illustrate the story, it also features handwritten notes, presumably Strode’s.

The twentieth century also found Shakespeare making appearances in comic books that adapted classic literature. The editions below are from 1950 (Macbeth), 1964 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and 1990 (Hamlet). (All items are from the Sneed Collection, Box 14.)

Hidden Gem: Storytelling from Bill Martin Jr.

Cover image of the children's book Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?, written by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Eric CarleIf you don’t know the name Bill Martin Jr., you probably know the name of his most famous book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, illustrated by Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar.) Just two years after that book was published, Martin spoke at an education conference at UA, the audio of which has recently been digitized as part of the Alabama Reel to Reel Collection.

Martin was an educator as well as a storyteller. He came to reading through memorizing and reciting poetry, and he believed that others might do the same (source). His children’s books are full of clever but simple rhymes, and his spoken storytelling was driven by the same impulse to create interesting rhythms and sounds.

Martin was here at UA in 1969 to give a speech about education, but like a good storyteller, he couldn’t begin until he’d captured his audience’s attention. Give a listen to Martin’s speech, especially the first eight minutes, where he takes the audience “up in the mountains” to hear the tale of a fiddler and his trip to the Essex County Fair.

What the Heck Is a Vertical File?

What the heck is a Vertical File? This is a question I had when I began working in archives. We have three such large archival collections here at Hoole — University of Alabama Pamphlet Files, Alabama Vertical Files, and Rare Vertical Files — and I knew they were home to a variety of strange and wonderful things. But what is a vertical file, exactly, and why do things end up there?

A vertical file is a type of artificial collection, which means it was pulled together by archivists from among an archive’s holdings, rather than donated as a group. According to the Society of American Archivists glossary, these are “materials, often of an ephemeral nature, collected and arranged for ready reference” (source). The key word there is “ephemeral.”

In archives, ephemera are “materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use” (source). Basically, these are items that may be interesting or helpful or just really cool — and therefore of lasting value –but were perhaps never meant to hang around as long as they have. A vertical file collection usually thrives on these kinds of items.

So these are things worth saving and providing access to that are maybe not substantial enough to warrant creating a whole collection around them. Think of it as the archives catchall. Our wonderful catchall collections occupy 150 boxes and take up 52.5 linear feet on the shelves. Let’s take a look at what kinds of things you’ll find in each, with a few examples

UA Pamphlet Files

This is an eclectic gathering of documents, loosely organized by subject. Much of the content is fliers, programs, and speech texts related to campus events or campus organizations’ activities. In addition, many items come from the Alumni Association, and from various academic units of the University.

Alabama Vertical Files

This collection is organized alphabetically by subject. The finding aid gives a good summary of its contents: materials, both published and unpublished, that document the history of the state of Alabama. These include items such as reprints, pamphlets, typescripts, and photocopies of documents relating to individuals, organizations, cities, and a large number of other topics.

Rare Vertical Files

This collection is highly organized, with most items falling into the following series: Almanacs, Art Catalogs, Associations, Biography, Business, Education, Guidebooks, History, Literature, Travel Brochures. See the finding aid for specifics.

New Finding Aids, Spring 2016, part two

Last month, we shared some of dozens of finding aids that had recently gone online in Acumen.

This week, the focus is on personal collections, including several related to World War II. (Click on any of the images below to see a larger version.)

Notebook page with handwritten text and a technical drawingGuide to the E. M. Lustig papers (MSS.1790)

This collection includes information on, photographs and drawings of, and legal documents relating to many of this Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native’s inventions. It also includes miscellaneous newspaper and magazine clippings, information on his father’s bookstore, personal items, and objects used in his experiments.


Guide to the Louis Lucet papers (MSS.880)

A collection of personal correspondence of this native of France who emigrated to the United States and lived in Huntsville, Alabama. Also includes documents dealing with the history of France in the first half of the nineteenth century.


First page of handwritten letterGuide to the Christopher Heft Papers (MSS.2100)

This is a collection of journal articles about tuberculosis and a series of letters and other correspondence from Christopher Heft, a tuberculosis victim, to his family during his trip to the South in an attempt to cure himself of the disease.


Guide to the Warfield Creath Richardson papers (MSS.1194)

This collection consists primarily of Richardson’s literary output, dating from 1842 to 1914. Included are poems, short stories, essays, plays, and lectures in handwritten and printed drafts, proof sheets, pamphlets, and clippings. There is also a small collection of letters. It contains a letter from Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and two from Thomas M. Owen.


First page of a handwritten diaryGuide to the Nellie F. Drury diary (MSS.3952)

Travel diary from September 1, 1882, to April 2, 1883. Drury was from Saint Louis, Missouri, and the diary covers here traveling to Europe on the Cunard steamship SS Servia. Drury arrived in Liverpool and spent the next month traveling extensively in England, Scotland, France, Monte Carlo, and Italy.


Guide to the O. M. Roberts reminiscences while a student of the University of Alabama (MSS.1199)

Contains a bound, typewritten recollection of this Texas governor’s life as a student of the University of Alabama, 1833-1836. He presented this to the Erosophic Society of the University of Alabama in 1892. The work includes a photograph of a painting of him in approximately 1835.


TelegramGuide to the Helen Becker letters (MSS.1966)

Letters from Sgt. Helen Becker to Lt. Robert O. Haas describing her duties and activities as a Marine Corps Women’s Reservist during World War II.



Guide to the Wallace Sidney Park papers (MSS.3942)

This collection contains letters sent to W. Sidney Park while he was stationed in London during World War II. The letters mostly deal with family matters and securing a contract with the government to build the Park Trainer. The Park Trainer was developed by Park’s company to help train areal photographers. The collection also contains newspaper clippings, magazine articles and photographs.


Handwritten v-mail letter (v-mails were photographically reproduced, and at a smaller scale than the original)Guide to the William B. Shirdan papers (MSS.1266)

Letters from this African American soldier who served in the 310th QM RHD Company during World War II to his family in Montgomery, Alabama.



Guide to the Dodd Sellers papers and militaria (MSS.4159)

The militaria of this Alabama native who was a Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II.


Page from a WWII guide, depicting a map of FranceGuide to the World War II – U.S. military language guides and phrase books  (PM.017)

Contains a foreign language phrase and guide books for the use of the military.

A (Leap) Day in the Life: February 29

It’s been a while since we did a survey of Acumen‘s contents by taking a look at just one day. There have been fewer February 29ths than other days of the year, but, as with any other snapshot view, items from that date reveal a world not too terribly different from ours.

Here’s a selection of Leap Day items, 1840-1968. (Click on any of them thumbnails to see a larger version.)



The International Legacy of Harper Lee

In the days since Alabama writer Harper Lee’s death was reported, the news in the U.S. has been filled with reflections and tributes. Not too surprisingly, obituaries were also common in the U.K., Australia, and other English-speaking countries. But there’s a good bet Harper Lee has been remembered even in places where English is rarely or never spoken — because To Kill a Mockingbird was known all over the world.

At Hoole Library, we have copies in seven foreign languages, published as early as 1960 (the same year as the original) and as recently as 2006.


Translations. Left to right: Spaar de spotvogels [Dutch, 1960], Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur [French, 2006], Mei gang cheng gu shi [Chinese, 2006], Убить пересмешника [Russian, 2006], Dræb ikke en sangfugl [Danish, 1963], Wer die Nachtigall stört [German, 1962], Kuin surmaisi satakielen [Finnish, 1961]

An interesting thing happened when I put these titles into Google Translate: they all came up precisely as To Kill A Mockingbird, capital letters and all. Apparently, this is such a common query that the translation engine knew how the phrase being used, so it didn’t bother literally translating the words. (In French, for example, it is “do not shoot the mockingbird”; in Danish, “Do not kill a songbird”; in Finnish, “To kill the nightingale.”)

Since its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into over 40 languages (source). As we mourn Ms. Lee’s passing, we remember the ability of this remarkable book to transcend not just time, but also geography and culture.

Covers from (left to right) 1962, 1974, 1982, 1995, 2010

English covers through the years. Left to right: 1962, 1974, 1982, 1995, 2010


Fair Use in the Archive: Copyright or Right of Privacy?

When special collections libraries hold rare books and other published materials, they face the same challenges as other libraries when it comes to copyright and the allowances of Fair Use. But what about their archival collections — unpublished items like documents and photos?

In some cases, the repository’s contract with the donor dictates that copyright stays with the donor. That would make those items subject to the same policies as published items under copyright, including Fair Use. Luckily, in most cases, donors transfer copyright to the repository, which puts it in the unique position to potentially allow greater access than Fair Use, but certainly within it.

Ornate pre-printed title page from a 1912 diaryIn rare cases, though, a donor stipulates that no one be allowed to access the materials for any reason, usually for a set time. If the archive agrees to that stipulation, those items in essence remain private property. At this point, we leave the world of copyright and enter the realm of privacy law, where Fair Use does not apply.

Right of privacy may also come into play with donations that include personal information not about the donor but about someone else, for example, a relative’s financial or medical records. Then again, if that donated material constitutes intellectual property created by a third party, we’re back under copyright law – after all, the donor can’t transfer to the repository a copyright he or she doesn’t actually hold.

Clearly, Fair Use can be a complicated subject when it comes to unpublished materials. As expressed by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), one of the core values of the archives profession is to balance the pursuit of knowledge with legitimate protections on access. Where it’s not a matter of privacy, fair use is essential to an academic archive’s mission.

For a more in-depth discussion of the role of Fair Use in archival collections, see the SAA webpage Copyright and Unpublished Material.

Chronicling UA’s First Steps Toward Desegregation

Sixty years ago, the first major step was made toward desegregating the University of Alabama. Autherine Lucy, a black woman from Shiloh, Alabama, was enrolled – and a few days later suspended, eventually expelled, though she had done nothing wrong.

We tend to focus on 1963, on the bizarre segregationist pageantry of the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, perhaps because it was ultimately unsuccessful. This week, we want to focus on something harder to take in but just as important to remember: when segregation unfortunately won.

In addition to this post, see the entry on our sister blog for the digital archives unit: February 1956: When the Eyes of the World Were on Us.

Hoole Library holds several collections related to the Autherine Lucy enrollment controversy. They range from published materials to photos and manuscripts to University Archives.

The Editor’s View

Buford Boone was editor of the Tuscaloosa News from 1947 to 1968, so he was witness to both attempts at integrating the University. Throughout the Lucy incident, Boone wrote editorials hailed across the country for their opposition to mob rule and racism. His most widely republished was this short editorial. (Click the image to see a larger version.)


In 1957, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for his coverage of the events. He was also involved in bringing to light the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.

Hoole has a large collection of his materials (Buford Boone papers, MSS.0187), including copies of these editorials and the responses of readers around the community and the U.S. According to the finding aid,

This collection will be of great interest to anyone investigating the history of civil rights in Alabama in particular, or the South in general.  Mr. Boone published the only newspaper in town from 1947-1974, and thus controlled information flow to a very great extent.  His papers are interesting as a study of a man who had convictions and stuck by these convictions even in the face of certain unpleasant consequences.

In addition to the Boone materials, Hoole also has copies of the Tuscaloosa News from that period, as well as other Alabama periodicals, which can be found in the UA Libraries catalog.

The Camera’s Eye

Images of Autherine Lucy can be found in the University’s official collection of images, but two photographers who were there during Lucy’s entrance and the subsequent riots also donated to us their photos. It is conjectured that these men may have been employed as photographers with the University or the local media.

The 6 photographs in the Don Sanford photograph collection (2010.021) show Lucy walking and talking with others.


Though they are likely staged, they at least focus on Lucy herself.

The 23 photographs in the James William Oakley Jr. photograph collection (2010.020) chronicle the protests, both on campus and in downtown Tuscaloosa.


They feature white people engaging in demonstration and vandalism, with no African American faces to be seen.

The World’s Reaction

During and after the events of February 1956, UA President Oliver Carmichael was in an unenviable position. His papers (President Oliver C. Carmichael, RG.013) make up part of the University Archives, and they are open to the public.

In them, among other things, you’ll find Accession #19820768, which contains three entire boxes of correspondence received from people at home and abroad. They reflect a range of opinions on everything from segregation to the students’ violent behavior to Carmichael’s handling of the situation. Here are some examples. (Click any image below to see a larger version.)

February 1956: When the Eyes of the World Were on Us

Sixty years ago, the first major step was made toward desegregating the University of Alabama. Autherine Lucy, a black woman from Shiloh, Alabama, was enrolled – and a few days later suspended, eventually expelled, though she had done nothing wrong.

We tend to focus on 1963, on the bizarre segregationist pageantry of the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, perhaps because it was ultimately unsuccessful. This week, we want to focus on something harder to take in but just as important to remember: when segregation unfortunately won.

In addition to this post, see the entry on our sister blog, Cool at Hoole: Chronicling UA’s First Steps Toward Desegregation.

While Acumen is not home to many items chronicling Autherine Lucy’s enrollment in UA and the resultant backlash, it does hold one important resource: digitized copies of the Crimson White from February 1956.

The issues of February 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th reflect the campus’s own view of the events, everything from photos of a lonely Lucy to images of the crowds protesting her presence, from reports of hooliganism to apologies proffered to UA President Oliver Carmichael.

One especially interesting part of the coverage is the response of outsiders — from across the state, the country, and even the world. In the February 14 issue, the CW gave over three pages to just some of two hundred or so letters addressed to the newspaper, the community, or the students themselves.

Read them in their entirety here (click on the thumbnails) or see the highlights that follow.

Continue reading