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William Butler Yeats Collection

Collection Number
SC 294

Please note: this history was published in 1990.



The William Butler Yeats Microfilmed Manuscripts Collection was acquired in December 1974 by State University of New York for and on behalf of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Through agreements with Senator Michael Butler Yeats and his daughter, Caitriona Dill Yeats, the State University of New York at Stony Brook received, on microfilm, the papers of William Butler Yeats and his family, held at that time in the National Library of Ireland (NLI), as well as in the family home, Cliff House, Dalkey, Ireland. These were housed for cataloging and research in the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters.

Initial contact with Senator Yeats came in 1971 through Selma Warner (President of the Wide World Lecture Bureau, New York City, and a resident of Setauket, N.Y.) and Professor Paul J. Dolan of the English Department at Stony Brook. As the agent for Senator Yeats and his wife, Grainne Yeats, Mrs. Warner facilitated the necessary introductions with interested University faculty and administrators. On Thursday, March 18, 1971, Mrs. Yeats performed a recital of Irish harp and folk music sponsored by the English Department and Cardozo College. The program was held in Cardozo College on the Stony Brook campus. On Friday, March 10, 1972, Senator Yeats spoke on the political situation in Ireland. Sponsored jointly by the English and History Departments, this event was held in a small auditorium in the Stony Brook Union.

Discussions concerning the possible establishment of an International Yeats Archive in the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters at Stony Brook began in the early 1970s. While in Dublin during the summer of 1973, Professor Dolan met with Senator Yeats for further discussions on this project.

On March 4, 1974, Senator Yeats returned to Stony Brook for an informal lecture/discussion period moderated by Professor Dolan that was sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters. Discussions continued with Professor Dolan, Dr. Sidney Gelber (then Academic Vice President), Mr. Lewis Lusardi (Director of the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters), and Michael Yeats, culminating in the final agreements, which were signed on December 19, 1974.

Agreement A is between Michael Yeats and his daughter, Caitriona Dill Yeats, relating to certain books, records, manuscripts, letters, papers, historical documents and other materials concerning the life and work of William Butler Yeats.

"... to convey to the Donee the right to reproduce these documents and materials on microfilm, and to have the right to use these materials personally and to assign their use, reproduction and dissemination to the State University of New York..." [Agreement A]

Agreement B is between Caitriona Dill Yeats and SUNY at Stony Brook for the microfilming of the papers belonging to William Butler Yeats in the family home, as well as those housed in the National Library of Ireland. The contents were to represent, according to Michael Yeats, "...besides the actual Yeats manuscripts, ... the letters to and from William Butler Yeats, and general family material (letters to and from William Butler Yeats's father, sister, etc., family diaries, legal documents, and so on)...."

"...WHEREAS, State University desires to establish and develop the official YEATS ARCHIVES, containing such microfilm copies and other materials for the express purpose of expanding present opportunities for scholarly research into the life and work of William Butler Yeats;

NOW THEREFORE, the parties mutually agree as follows:

1. The Seller contracts with State University for the duplication and delivery of three sets of microfilm copies of the documents and materials listed in Exhibit "A" [a list of manuscripts in the National Library to be filmed]..." [Agreement B]

In the Agreements, the Yeats family retains all copyright interests and agrees that:

"State University shall own negative and microfilm copies of these materials and shall have full and unqualified ownership rights in perpetuum to such microfilm copies; and further, Seller [Yeats] agrees that State University shall have the right to provide full and unqualified use of and access to microfilm copies, and to any further copies made by State University thereafter from such microfilm, on the part of State University's faculty, students and staff, together with scholars from other educational institutions, provided that such use and access shall be only for scholarly uses as customarily expressed in the operations of State University's libraries and archival centers." [Agreement B, paragraph 2]

Another provision of Agreement B, paragraph 7, is as follows:

"Since it is the express intention of State University to establish and operate the official YEATS ARCHIVES, the Seller expressly agrees:

a. That for a period of twenty-five (25) years from the coming into force of this agreement, permission will not be granted to any person or institution to establish any further official Archives dealing with the life and work of William Butler Yeats, without the approval and consent of State University; and

b. That neither negative nor positive copies of the microfilm of materials...nor photostatic copies thereof shall be sold, or offered for sale, or donated, or offered for donation to any individual or to any other institution except upon agreement with State University, except that the Seller [Caitriona Dill Yeats] shall have the right, as shall the owner of copyright [Michael B.Yeats] and the National Library of Ireland, to issue photostatic copies of such microfilm of modified length of not more than twenty-five (25) reproduced pages of material to persons and individuals who, at the discretion of either the Seller or the owner of copyright or the National Library, have a bona-fide need of such materials...."


In June 1975, Dr. David V. Erdman, Professor of English, was appointed Acting Curator and Faculty Advisor with Lewis Lusardi, Archives Administrator.

In December 1975, the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters received 33 reels of 16mm microfilm produced by MEMO Ltd. For each reel, there is a master negative, a duplicate positive silver copy, and a duplicate diazo (negative) copy. By agreement, the National Library of Ireland received a negative and positive copy of each reel. Mr. O'Looney of MEMO Ltd. suggested that some of the items should be refilmed on 35mm film; and that after the University examined the film and noted which items they would like refilmed, MEMO Ltd. would proceed to refilm specified documents.

To facilitate viewing of the images, reproduction of the film onto hard copy was contracted with Xerox Corporation of Plainview, NY. By April 1976, SUNY at Stony Brook received 299 bound volumes representing 33 reels of film. The volumes for each reel are numbered sequentially, with each reel and each volume beginning with page one. Citations are as follows: Reel 1, Vol. 3, p. 244 or 1.3.244.

During this time, Lewis Lusardi noted in correspondence with Michael Yeats that all items on Exhibit "A" had not been microfilmed. An agreement was reached to film all missed items. As a result, the University received a negative diazo copy, subsequently known as Reel 34, in December 1976. Upon receipt of the 100 ft. roll of film, it was noted that a large portion was blank. In March, 1977, Michael Yeats indicated, in further correspondence to Lewis Lusardi, that some items had been on exhibit at the Abbey Theatre and that arrangements were being made by Mr. O'Looney of MEMO Ltd. to complete the project. Correspondence in the Yeats collection files of the Special Collections Department indicates that efforts to enumerate these items and acquire copies continued in 1980, 1983 and 1984, without success.

To celebrate and inaugurate the Yeats Archive, a festival was held at SUNY Stony Brook April 30-May 1, 1976. Senator and Mrs. Michael Yeats, Caitriona Dill Yeats and Dr. Patrick Henchy, Director of the National Library of Ireland, were distinguished guests, along with noted international Yeats scholars.

An honorary advisory board was established with Senator Michael Yeats as chairman. Caitriona Yeats, Dr. David R. Clark, Dr. George M. Harper, Dr. William M. Murphy, Ben L. Reid and Dr. Ann Saddlemyer served as members.

From June-December 1977, Dr. David R. Clark was appointed curator pro tem of the Yeats Archive and Visiting Fellow in Yeats Studies. Dr. Clark worked with Dr. Narayan Hegde, then a graduate assistant, to identify all manuscripts, documents, etc. on the film and prepare an index. With the help of three additional students from the English Department, Linda Bauer, Terry Lichtenstein, Jerry Schecter, and the index to the bound volumes, subsequently referred to as the blue binders, was begun. Dr. Hegde prepared an overall outline, titled Worksheets for Indexing the W.B. Yeats Archive, which served as the original guide to the collection. In the report submitted by Dr. Clark in December 1977, a Plan of Work is described. This Plan indicated that it would take a professional staff three years to fully identify and catalog the collection.

Budgetary crises in the late 1970s resulted in severe cuts, including the position of a Yeats archivist. From 1978 until June 1988, Dr. Narayan Hegde served the University as consultant. Although available only on a part-time basis, he was the facilitator for referencing the collection.

In April 1981, Mrs. Yeats returned to the campus to present another recital of Irish harp music. This event was held in the Recital Hall and sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters.

From 1976 to 1983, the microfilm with the accompanying bound volumes was housed in the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters, located in the Frank Melville, Jr. Memorial Library. In July 1977, the master negatives for Reels 1-33 were brought to the Special Collections Department for secure storage.


When Provost Homer Neal proposed, in 1983, deactivation of the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters, a new permanent home was needed for the collection. Dr. Neal asked John Brewster Smith, Director of Libraries and Dean, to assume the collection. Edmund J. Berkeley, Jr., Curator of Manuscripts and University Archivist at the University of Virginia, was employed as a consultant to evaluate the transfer of the collection to the library.

During the summer of 1984, the microfilm collection, along with the 299 bound volumes, was transferred to the Special Collections Department in the main library, where both security and access could be provided. The original film was placed in a secured vault with archival copies available for viewing. The collection was received in the Special Collections Department with the stipulation that adequate funds be provided to properly catalog and service it by means of permanent and trained staff. At this time, the collection was renamed the William Butler Yeats Microfilmed Manuscripts Collection.

In a letter dated September 5, 1984, Dr. Homer Neal appointed Evert Volkersz, Head of the Special Collections Department, to be Curator of the collection, with Professor Dolan serving as special faculty consultant. The University was prepared to allocate resources to hire an archivist and an assistant to arrange and describe the collection. In April 1985, the needed positions were proposed.


Access to the collection has been a continuing problem for scholars. First, documents were not arranged prior to filming; second, approximately six percent are duplicates or "mis-filming" of images; third, the film was not properly processed in 1975. The original film is in a constant state of deterioration. These factors, along with the desire to gain physical and intellectual control, prompted the need for the University's and library's financial support of the reformatting and processing project, which began in September 1985 under the direction of Arthur F. Sniffin, Project Archivist.

The reformatting project actually began with the awarding of a contract on January 14, 1986, to Somervell and Associates of Kensington, Maryland. The contract called for the reproduction of each image onto acid-free paper and the sequential numbering of each reformatted image. Life expectancy of this paper is 300-500 years. The initial run was completed on April 23, 1986, with all recopying completed by September 15, 1986.

When the vendor returned the images to Stony Brook, a complete verification of the reproduction and numbering began, checking to assure that no image was missed and that the numbers were, in fact, sequential. During this "quality control" process, approximately 200,000 images were viewed.

Finally, the new photocopies were cross-checked with the bound volumes. At this time, more than 200 images were identified as missing, as well as the "mis-binding" of large segments of images. This necessitated adding two bound volumes to the collection. Volumes "0" were added to reels 7 & 8, because a large number of images at the beginning of those reels had not been reproduced during the 1976 project. Individually missed images were inserted as necessary. To complete the set, a sequential run of Reel 34 was bound into six volumes, thus creating a total of 307 volumes.

The collection has been treated as a manuscript collection and processed according to the basic archival principle of provenance. Each image was carefully identified and logged. After being collated into documents, each document was placed in an acid-free folder, marked appropriately, and housed in 145 acid-free, letter-size archival boxes representing 50.75 linear feet of manuscript material. Some corresponding images were identified as targets to facilitate reference between the bound volumes, the reformatted image numbers, and the film. The NLI manuscript numbers were retained on each folder. The 34 reels of 16mm microfilm contain 79,579 images. Approximately six percent were identified as duplicates or images mistakenly filmed. These images were removed, leaving approximately 74,800 reformatted images.

Although budgetary uncertainties led to delays in processing, reference and access were made available to scholars throughout the project. In an effort to acquaint the students at the University with the collection, Peggy McMullen, Project Archivist from August, 1987, to September, 1988, worked with Professor Paul Dolan and the Federated Learning Community during the 1987-1988 academic year. These students studied the creative process employed by William Butler Yeats as reflected in his poems and plays.


Because of the complexity of the collection, the last phase in processing provided that scholars would be brought to the University to help in identifying the remaining unidentified manuscripts and to verify the final organization of the reformatted images. Without the support of John B. Smith, Director of Libraries and Dean, in providing necessary funds, and the foresight of Dr. Robert G. Sewell, Assistant Director for Collection Management and Development, in supporting the project to its conclusion, this last phase of the project would not have succeeded. September 30, 1988, marked the completion of the processing project, with the presentation of a guide to the collection by Peggy L. McMullen.

A few unidentified manuscripts may always remain. The difficulty lies not only in less than optimum microfilm, but also in trying to read a variety of handwritings, as well as several foreign languages. One must become intimately familiar with all aspects of the life and work of William Butler Yeats, as well as with his family and friends. Scraps of paper were filmed, as well as torn, faded and damaged manuscripts, and not least, the family cat. It is known that William Butler Yeats was often unable to read his own handwriting. Yet when necessary, even with advancing myopia, he could carefully correct proofs. Despite all of these difficulties, the collection is now organized and described sufficiently to be of tremendous benefit to researchers--a unique resource for Yeats scholars throughout the world.

The University is indebted to the following scholars for their help and support of the project:

Dr. David R. Clark, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
Dr. Richard J. Finneran, Professor, Hodges Chair of Excellence, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN.
Dr. George M. Harper, Professor Emeritus, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.
Dr. Narayan Hegde (consultant 1976-1988), Assistant Professor, SUNY at Westbury, Westbury, NY.
Dr. Connie K. Hood, Professor, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN.
Dr. Walter K. Hood, Professor, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN.
Dr. William M. Murphy, Professor Emeritus, Union College, Schenectady, NY.

Although the Special Collections Department has developed a supporting collection of monographs and serials for Yeats studies, some necessary items were consulted from the circulating collection, and some through the University's interlibrary loan system. The project staff is indebted to the following departments for their continued support of its unusual requests: Interlibrary Loan, Reference, Circulation, and Preservation.

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