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A Piece of Southern Cultural Heritage Preserved

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“We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead

trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—

all the way to Ship Island. What we see

first is the fort, its roof of grass a lee—

half reminder of the men who served there—

a weathered monument to some of the dead.”

-excerpt from Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy for the Native Guards”

Natasha Trethewey. Photo by Nancy Crampton. 2012.
Natasha Trethewey. Photo by Nancy Crampton. 2012.

In 2005, Natasha Trethewey, who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in June 2012, recorded a video of her poem, “Elegy for the Native Guards”, for the multimedia, open-access journal Southern Spaces. This video, produced as part of a special series for the journal, “Poets in Place,” features videos of poets reading and discussing their poems in and around the locations they write about.

Trethewey recorded the video on the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi and on Ship Island, where the Civil War-era Fort Massachusetts is located.   This fort was home to the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the Union’s first African-American combat units, the subject of her poem “Elegy for the Native Guards.”

A couple months after the video was shot, a 35-foot high storm surge of Hurricane Katrina submerged Ship Island, significantly damaging its eastern part and washing away facilities buildings, the pier and the board-walk. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Ship Island Excursions hauled more than 60,000 visitors a year. The number is about half that but improving as renovations on the island progress.

In 2007, Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection of poems, Native Guard, which contains “Elegy for the Native Guards.”

Poet Natasha Trethewey presents her "Elegy for the Native Guards," April 9, 2005, on Ship Island, Mississippi. Screenshot from the video.
Poet Natasha Trethewey presents her "Elegy for the Native Guards," April 9, 2005, on Ship Island, Mississippi. Screenshot from the video.

While part of Ship Island may have been lost, undoubtedly, this video captures a unique record of the island’s place and time in history and of Tretheway’s reflections on southern heritage. But what if, like the island, the video itself was lost or no longer accessible?

Luckily, we don’t have to worry about it because Southern Spaces was considered for preservation through the MetaArchive project’s Southern Digital Culture collection.

One of the initial eight grant-funded NDIIPP projects, the MetaArchive project actively developed a multi-institution archive of Southern digital culture via a distributed digital preservation network.  Libraries, archives and other cultural heritage organizations identified their own at-risk digital materials to preserve, and the project provided the cooperative means to develop a distributed digital preservation network for the preservation of their own materials. As one of the preserved collections, the Southern Digital Culture collection reflects content relevant for researchers and educators of southern cultures by extending the reach of historical source materials.

The MetaArchive partners produced useful information and shared the knowledge gained during the project with the digital preservation community. In 2010, the MetaArchive members authored, A Guide to Distributed Preservation. The guide discusses the benefits of collaborative partnerships in digital preservation and practical information about how to protect digital assets.  The methods and approaches highlighted are broadly applicable for libraries, archives and other institutions looking to engage in digital preservation activities.

MetaArchiveToday, the MetaArchive Cooperative is a community-owned, community-led initiative comprised of libraries, archives, and other digital memory organizations, dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage materials that are born-digital and digitized.  The network represents and promotes a great understanding that digital stewardship on a national scale depends communities working together, and the preservation of the Southern Digital Culture collection (and video of Trethewey’s poem, “Elegy for the Native Guards”) reflects the benefits of a collaborative digital presentation community.

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