September 20, 1999
Volume 52, No. 5
Chuck Spornick blazing trails for Emory's Beck Center
About two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, William Bartram wandered for four years through the varying terrains and climates of north Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Mississippi and Louisiana, and he produced a book that has become a classic of American nature writing.
Chuck Spornick's path to Emory was not quite as meandering as Bartram's was through the Southeast, but it did have its twists and turns, a few of which are intertwined with those of the 18th century explorer. Spornick is director of the Beck Center, which houses Woodruff Library's collection of full-text databases. But much of Spornick's time is spent producing a "full-text database" of his own-or, at least, one for which he'll share credit with Bob Green, retired from Woodruff's collections management department, and Alan Cattier, team manager for teaching and research services for ITD.
The three are producing a guidebook to the Bartram Trail, markers for which dot the landscapes of all the states Bartram visited. They've already signed a publishing contract with the University of Georgia Press, and Spornick said the book will be out next fall.
"We started on a narrow scope, but because of the nature of Bartram's work we took on an almost impossible scope," Spornick said of the book, which has evolved from a walking guide to the Bartram trails to a more comprehensive work that will not only point out the trails themselves but also frame them in their historical context. Spornick said the finished product will suggest automobile, bicycle, even canoe trips centered around the Bartram Trail.
"It deals with the tough issues of where you can go now to find out what things looked like in the 1770s and get a sense of what's been lost," he said. "Bartram played a pivotal role in understanding the Southeastern landscape as a landscape; he was awed by the Blue Ridge Mountains, by Payne's Prairie in central Florida. We have the same reaction today."
The project had a serendipitous beginning. Spornick and Green got the idea in 1995 to do a Bartram guide, and the two produced a few trial chapters. A student working in the Beck Center (who was taking a literature and ecology course taught by Cattier) noticed the manuscript and mentioned his class to Spornick. Though Green's speciality is photography, leaving Spornick and Cattier to collaborate on the prose, critical decisions regarding structure and content are made as a group, Spornick said.
"Alan is the poet, and I'm the plodding historian," Spornick laughed. "But given who Bartram was, that's a good tension, because you find that same tension in Bartram himself."
And "historian" is not simply a self-characterization by Spornick--he holds a doctorate in medieval studies from Notre Dame, which he got while already working in the library at the University of Iowa. Spornick looked at the teaching market in medieval studies and chose to continue working in libraries. "If you look at collection development departments across America, many people have doctorates in some field," he said. "Collection development has just been the route many people have taken."
When Spornick first came to Emory in 1986, he served as humanities coordinator for the collections management department, and even though his concentration was medieval studies, "I was a jack of all trades," he said. Around that time the department began to push to then-Provost Billy Frye the need for more resources if Emory wanted to build the kind of collection it wanted; Woodruff Library's collections budget has more than tripled since that time.
But in 1995 the opportunity presented itself for Spornick to take charge of the Beck Center, an office whose mission he and a few others had advocated two years earlier. "It was the irony of ironies," Spornick said. His idea was not just for the center to purchase and maintain electronic databases, which it was already doing and continues to do (for about 150 databases at last count), but to create Emory's own databases.
The Beck Center currently works on about a half-dozen of these projects, the best-known of which is the Emory Women Writers Resource Project, done in conjunction with the English department. Maintained online at <http:// chaucer.library. emory.edu/wwrp/index.html>, the site is a collection of close to 40 edited and unedited texts by women writing in English from the 1600s to the 1800s.
"It's listed in the Scout Report for high-quality academic resources on the web," Spornick said. "It's by far the most complex project because we actually digitized unedited originals."
The Beck Center also collaborated with the library's Preservation Office and the Pitts Theology Library to produced the newly unveiled Lincoln Sermons site, featuring 57 sermons delivered on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1864.
"[The Beck Center] is the work of all five of us," Spornick said of his staff, which includes text specialist Alice Hickox and graduate students Scott Ellis, Jason Lemon and Rebecca Sutton. "There are so many people involved in all the projects, and everyone does so much to make them successful."