Early in her career as an archivist, Andrea Meyer had an identity crisis — over an original, circa-1860s Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
To her horror, she had been asked to throw it out.
In her line of work, this isn’t an unusual request and, in the years since, it’s become “normal” for Ms. Meyer to hold breathtaking documents in her hands, she said. A necessary numbness, or tolerance, is built into the job, into the handling of these centuries-old papers — with, recently, one major exception.
While the East Hampton Library had its doors closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions, the staff of the Long Island Collection was busy at work on a long overdue project: scanning all of its historic whaling logs in full, thousands upon thousands of pages, which are now available to read online.
And when Ms. Meyer, head of the Long Island Collection, flips through the archive, the librarian feels like a green archivist all over again.
“When you get something like these whaling logs, that numbness wears off,” she said. “That exciting, amazingness comes back. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not just another 1690s land deed. Oh wait, this is really cool.’ And you stop and you go, ‘Wait a second, there’s something wrong with me that I think, “Just another 1690s land deed.”’”
To be fair, the whaling logs are extraordinary, she said. They offer a glimpse into a bygone world, right here on the East End and beyond — the majority once aboard whaling vessels that sailed out of Sag Harbor to destinations as far flung as Hawaii, the Arctic Circle, Patagonia, the South Seas, Indonesia and even Antartica, their captains larger-than-life figures and their adventures preserved for all time.
“Knowing that the whaling logs are stable and recorded in some other way is huge to me, because these are the only copies of these works,” Ms. Meyer said. “These are manuscripts and there are no audiobooks or digital e-books for these, unless we make them. If there was a hurricane tomorrow, would we be able to save all these? From a disaster prevention standpoint, and an accessibility standpoint, you always want to scan things.”
Today, the staggering collection details 70 voyages across 63 individual volumes, ranging from four to upwards of 250 pages each — totaling over 10,000 pages scanned — from the years 1783 through 1865.
“The East Hampton Library’s Whaling Log Collection is the largest of its kind, in one place, on Long Island,” Library Director Dennis Fabiszak said. “Acquiring the logs has long been a priority for the library’s Long Island Collection and an interest that dates to the Collection’s beginnings in 1930.”
To be exact, it was October 18, 1930 that Morton Pennypacker — a historian, antiquarian and all-around Long Island enthusiast — donated his personal collection of rare books and other materials to the East Hampton Library, after it outgrew his own living space in Kew Gardens.
“His original collection was thousands and thousands of items; there were some whaling-related items in there,” Ms. Meyer said. “He continued to collect and expand and run the show until 1956, when he died. He was still active and running around and buying new stuff through that whole time period.”
While most of the whaling logs have come to the library in varying condition by way of auction, some local residents have stumbled across them in their attics or, in the case of the 212-page Argonaut log — owned by the Sag Harbor Historical Society — found at the dump.
“Most of these things, you’re lucky if they’re only 150 years old,” Ms. Meyer said. “A lot of them are pushing 200 years old, it’s amazing they’re still here.”
For some of the logs, their fragile pages hadn’t been turned in over six decades. They were stiff, rumpled, stuck together, their corners dog-eared and curling, some exposed to salt water in their travels long ago. Photoshop proved to be essential for stitching together ripped pages and adjusting the contrast to make the logs readable online, but it was para-professional scanning assistants Tina Ambrosecchia and Julia Tyson who, almost exclusively, handled and scanned the documents by hand.
“This was insanely labor intensive. To have somebody come in and scan 100 pages a day, basically, of whaling logs, that’s serious commitment,” Ms. Meyer said. “You have pages that are torn apart, they’ve been all over the place.”
First and foremost, the logs served as official business and legal records of each voyage, which are largely dry accounts of the ship’s daily activities and what life at sea was like, documenting geographical location, weather, whale sightings, catch and more.
It is in the marginalia where the stories get interesting, Ms. Meyer said.
“You really see these whalers as real people in a different way. It’s fascinating to me,” she said. “You realize they’re chasing after these whales in what’s, basically, a glorified rowboat for two to five years with ropes and sticks. When you think about what they’re doing, these are really bold, brave people. You really see that with these books. It makes it all so much more real, in a way.”
Hiding within the logs are prolific illustrations, folk songs and poetry, as well as tales of mutiny, knife fights and even cannibalism, all told from the perspective of both local sailors and international transplants, speaking to the multiculturalism that has always existed on the East End, Ms. Meyer said.
“People from away have always been in the community, from the very earliest days. As much as we are insular, we have always had these people from all over the world coming into our community,” she said. “I hope these whaling logs give people a sense of how much can really be accomplished and how much the people before them have accomplished — how far these people went, and how much adventure they really had in their lives.”
To view the Long Island Collection’s digitized whaling logs, visit easthamptonlibrary.org/whaling.
As published in the Southampton Press