Collections and connections

Today I learnt that the State Library of Victoria is attempting to raise $100,000 to buy the diary of Lt. Dabney M. Scales, a member of the US Confederate Navy, who later went on to become a member of the Tenessee legislature and also to serve with the US Navy in the Spanish American War. Scales’ diary is of interest to the Library because he served on the CSS Shenandoah, the last Confederate ship to surrender in the American Civil War, when it visited Melbourne during a year of piracy and predation on the New England whaling fleet. I have not been able to find the official records of the Shenandoah itself, but I’d expect that they would exist in the National Archives and Records Administration.

Not only does the Scales’ diary mention Melbourne, but it also provides details of the Shenandoah‘s activities as a privateer, and he writes movingly of the depression and confusion they felt when it was confirmed that the war was over:

Upon arriving at Liverpool in November 1865, Dabney Scales writes on November 6th – “The (British) pilot boarded us in the mid watch this morning. His news confirms that given us by the “Barracouta” – the downfall of the Southern Confederacy. The war, he said had been over so long that people had forgotten all about it” (Case Antiques, lot 176)

While the link with Melbourne is an interesting one, and Scales’s diary apparently provides details not evident in the newspapers of the day, the desire to purchase it for Melbourne leads to me ask questions about appraisal and provenance. One of the exercises I set for my students is to look at the way collections have been obtained by archives and libraries. I get them to consider the method of acquisition – whether by donation, sale, transfer or some other mechanism – and also ask them to think about whether that library or archive is the best place for the collection, and if there are any other collections which might be appropriate and if there are ways of sharing or connecting.

From a manuscript collection perspective, I can understand the attraction. It’s an outsider’s view of the city, under very difficult circumstances. The government of the day had qualms about allowing the vessel to dock, and the officers and crew enjoyed a certain notoriety while in Melbourne. 18 men deserted, but a further 40 men were taken on board and became members of the crew.

From the archival perspective, I feel uncomfortable. The Shenandoah played a significant role in the war, and also occupies a space as the last official Confederate military to surrender. The diary was found in Tenessee, where Scales was a well respected and influential figure. Other records from Scales from this period are held in collections in the US, including his diary from the Atlanta which is in Duke University, and of his exploits on the Arkansas. From the perspective of provenance, and of respect des fonds, would it not be better to keep these diaries together? Or, does the potential of linked data mean that it does not matter where the physical record is located so long as the metadata enables the records to be brought together in a virtual sense?

I wish the Library well in its fundraising, and hope, where ever the diary winds up, that it does indeed become a key part of the broader Civil War story, while still providing a fresh perspective on both Melbourne and on the activities of one of Tenessee’s beloved sons.


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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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