Beacon Street Diary
Archives: May 2020
by Tom Clark, Library Director
Today, I’m going to deliver a bit of a different message and though it will still draw from our wonderful collection – the real players will be from nature.
I live in Reading MA, typical suburbia where wildlife is typically only seen in glimpses or if you really are looking for it. However, since quarantining at home starting in mid-March, I’ve watched five new members come into our neighborhood and put smiles on everyone’s faces. A mother fox built a den under my neighbor’s shed in the cold days of March and within a month had a litter of 4 kits who soon became the talk of the town and put shows with their unbridled joy. Check out this almost nightly show we get to watch.
So, how does this tie into the CLA collection? Seems like there have been people trying to deliver the message that wildlife is a necessary part of our world and we have the books to prove it.
On our shelves is an early edition of Rev. John Toogood’s The Book of Nature. A Discourse on Some of Those Instances of the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, Which Are within the Reach of Common Observation where Toogood holds nature in Godly reverence and speaks lovingly of God’s creatures (not a commonly-held belief at the time).
We also have a copy of William Hamilton Drummond’s Humanity to Animals: the Christian’s Duty: a Discourse. Drummond was an early 19th century animal rights activist (and librarian at the Royal Irish Academy).
Books owned by CLA:
Drummond, William Hamilton. Humanity to Animals the Christians Duty; a Discourse. Hunter, 1830.
Toogood, John. The Book of Nature. A Discourse on Some of Those Instances of the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, Which Are within the Reach of Common Observation. Printed by Samuel Hall, 1802.
Wood, J. G., et al. Wood's Bible Animals: a Description of the Habits, Structure, and Uses of Every Living Creature Mentioned in the Scriptures...; to Which Are Added Articles on Evolution by James McCosh ; Research and Travel in Bible Lands by Daniel March. Bradley, Garretson & Co., 1881.
by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist
*Content warning: this article discusses potential domestic abuse in the context of a historical court case
Some of the most colorful, subjective, and unusual New England's Hidden Histories records come from our “personal papers” series, otherwise known as Series 2. Personal papers are differentiated from the church administrative records which comprise Series 1, and the conference and non-church organizational records of Series 3.
A prime example came to us recently via our project partners at the Connecticut Historical Society: the fascinating, mystifying, and rather depressing disciplinary case records of one Mrs. Mary Tilden. The case actually involved a dispute between Mary and her husband Stephen Tilden, but, tellingly, Mary was the one on trial. The reason? She had absented herself from the marriage and fled to live with relatives.
The Tildens were members of the First Church in Lebanon, Connecticut. If you read my last blog post, A Drama In Connecticut, you might remember that this is the same church where congregants split into riotous factions and arrested each other during the infamous "Meeting House War". There must be something in the water!
Before the separation of church and state, even seemingly civil cases such as Mary's were tried by the local church committee, presided over by the minister. In this case the minister was Rev. Solomon Williams, a Harvard graduate and clergyman of some distinction in his day. According to author Emerson Davis (1798-1866) Williams “held a prominent place among the clergy of New England and had an extensive correspondence with American and European divines.”
The disciplinary case proceedings reveal that Mary had separated herself from her husband Stephen sometime before or during 1732. Marital separation was not acceptable in the eyes of the church committee, representing as it did a breaking of the couples' sacrosanct vows. The onus was consequently on Mary, the absentee, to defend her actions and offer up some reasonable excuse.
Mary's statement in her own defense claimed that her husband had “committed ye sin of fornacation [sic] with Sarah Ellis” and gave this as the reason for her alleged absenteeism. The fairly limited picture which she presents is fleshed out by witness testimony. An acquaintance of the couple, Mary Nicols, paints a disturbing picture of Stephen's potential for violence, describing an incident in which she heard him threaten to 'beat a boy’s brains out' because a part for his cart was missing. She adds:
“the little time I was there, I see him act so towards his wife and children, I thought he had ye least tenderness I ever see in any man in my life.”
The second, and only additional recorded witness, Humphrey Davenport, presents a view of Stephen so radically different from Nicols's that it seems impossible that the two witnesses are describing the same man:
“By ye singular expressions of his love and tender regards towards her, which he so variously manifested & so often repeated that during ye whole of my abode at his house I did esteem him…a real patern of conjucal love.”
The limited and contradictory evidence of the case leaves the modern reader with more questions than answers. Nicols's testimony certainly implies that Stephen was capable of violence, and yet Mary herself never mentions physical abuse as part of her plea. I found myself wondering if perceived "discipline" by the paterfamilias toward his wife and children, whether physical or verbal, was accepted to a certain degree, and consequently would hold up less well in court. Fornication, of which Mary does accuse Stephen, was considered illegal as well as sinful, and may have presented a more convincing legal argument.
In the era of #MeToo and #BelieveWomen, it's almost unthinkable to consider Mary's case without reference to feminist critique and modern awareness of spousal or intimate partner abuse. Davenport's description of Stephen as unusually demonstrative and loving, paired with the alleged outbursts witnessed by Nicols, would not be out of place in a modern profile of a charismatic abuser. But ultimately, and especially without further testimony from Mary Tilden herself, the truth behind the dramatic conflict will always remain a mystery.
In any case, Stephen Tilden was granted official leave to demand that Mary return to him. To add insult to injury, he also insisted that she publicly apologise for all the ‘trouble’ she had caused. Mary however seems to have thumbed her nose at both Stephen and Rev. Williams's demands. Her brother Joseph Fowler, with whom she had been staying, replied to a church summons in December of 1733 by claiming that his sister had recently left town. A note below his letter, probably penned by Rev. Williams, records the church's decision "to suspend the consideration of said case for some time till something farther appears."
Judging a book by its cover gets a bad rap, but the outside of a book can tell you a lot about the owner and the value they placed on what’s on the inside. Historically, books have been status symbols and there is virtually no end to the way they can be decorated to show off the owner’s superior taste and finances from intricate bindings made from expensive materials to decorative hardware like clasps and cornerpieces.
A book’s edges are also commonly decorated in any number of ways. They may be gilded on all sides, or only the top edge is you’re looking to impress anyone perusing your bookshelves from above while also saving a few bucks. They might be gauffered, where designs are carved into the text block. Or, they may be painted. Often, these decorative fore edge paintings are not obvious. It’s like a magic trick--they only appear when the text block is fanned out. Otherwise, when the book is closed, they look like a normal gilt edge, or maybe a slightly dirty one. We have two such examples in the library’s collection.
The first is 1798 Book of Common Prayer printed in Oxford at the Clarendon press by W. Dawson, T. Bensley, and J. Cooke (RBR 11.4.388 1798). It depicts a scene of a building (maybe Oxford?) in the background with greenery and deer in the foreground.
The second is a more recent ‘discovery’-- it’s a copy of the New Testament written in Hebrew published in London by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in 1813 (RBR 4.7.67). The painting looks like it might depict the arrival of the three Magi. I use the word ‘discovery’ here with some mixed feelings--someone in the past had helpfully noted the fore-edge painting on the fly leaf but it had never been documented in the catalog record. We didn’t realize what we had until we were packing the books in the Rare Book Room in preparation for our renovation.
Fore-edge paintings like these were popularized in the mid-18th century and have remained popular into the modern era. Paintings commonly depicted landscapes, portraits, or religious scenes, and so the examples in our collection are typical in that respect. Paintings were added by booksellers, owners or artists themselves which accounts for the wide variety in subject matter. Paintings are created by fanning out the text block and securing it while the image is painted on. Some books have a second fore-edge painting visible when the text block is fanned out in the opposite direction. The work is expensive and time-consuming, so it was used most commonly on books that were highly valued by their owners.
Although we have no knowledge of other paintings in the collection at this time, I don’t think finding another is outside the realm of possibility. I’m looking forward to resuming ‘the hunt’ once we can safely access our collections again.
by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist
In the information age, digitization is access.
I find that there are fewer processes more fraught or stressful than appraisal within the archival workflow. New materials in hand, I am forced to ask, does this have a place within the archive – and, by extension, in the history that we make accessible to our patrons? This is the moment of most power for an archivist. We can single handedly alter the context and meaning of a collection in that moment. It is a daunting task, but it is one I often face as the archivist responsible for new acquisitions at the Congregational Library & Archives.
On their face, terms such as “appraisal” and “value” seem to have more to do with Wall Street than with the archival field. Within the archival context, appraisal is, according to the Dictionary of Archival Terms, “the process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be” added to the archive. Value, to an archivist, is “the usefulness, significance, or worth” of a record based on internal collecting policies and historical context. It is my job, when presented with new collection, to appraise records and determine whether they have value within their cultural and historical context. Only these materials of “value” will be formally archived.
If this process of deciding what pieces of our human story are of value sounds daunting (and it is!), it should be known that the CLA actually has a fairly relaxed acquisition and appraisal policy compared to other archives! That is mostly a function of the amount of materials we handle; large archives that receive many more materials must be stricter with their appraisal procedures. Still, there are times when I have to weed out materials which fall outside of our collecting purview – a print book unrelated to congregationalism or a single church bulletin without context may be among the first items to be removed from a collection. While these weeding decisions are never made lightly, and are backed by internal checks and balances, it is always difficult to throw away a recorded moment in our shared experience.
However heavy these decisions are on their own, however, their weight is magnified by the historically oppressive practices associated with archival work. The appraisal process has been used to bury and eliminate the history of marginalized and underserved groups Rarely were these appraisal processes blatantly exclusionist, but implicit biases born of the time and the archivist themselves largely resulted in today’s archives consisting predominantly of the records of white heterosexual men. Only in the last two decades has there been a growing awareness of this and active efforts undertaken to reverse this unfortunate pattern. In fact, it was only in 2010 that the Society of American Archivists added a diversity and inclusion statement into the code of ethics that archivists vow to uphold. The weight of this history bears down on all archivists and it is our duty to ensure it never happens again.
Small wonder, then, that born of all these momentous considerations comes one of the most fraught tasks of all: selecting which materials should be digitized. Selection is ostensibly the same process as appraisal; the archivist makes decisions about which materials will be digitized based on archival value. However, the cost, time, and preservation concerns associated with digitization limits the scope of any digitization project. Each time one document is digitized, it results in the delay, if not outright exclusion, of another document. This unfortunate reality, combined with the current lack of diversity within archives, can easily prolong historic exclusionary processes within the field. And the loss of digitization means the loss of information accessibility.
Increasing access must then become the guiding principal behind all selection decisions before cost and time come into consideration. The New England’s Hidden Histories is a great example of this selection criteria in action: the project began by bringing historic early-American church records, stored on site where they were minimally accessible to church members (let alone the general public), online, where they are freely available to anyone with an internet connection, either at home or at a public library. Selection will always be a balancing act between competing pressures, but keeping decisions focused on user accessibility, will help to guide selection criteria away from convenience, and aid in correcting historic injustices. When archivists focus on bridging the information gap, the documents they select for digitization are going to be those which are most inaccessible and most important for marginalized and underrepresented groups.
While there is incredible energy within the field to enact these guiding principles, there are always factors which slow down the rate of change. Issues of trust, internet access, and the outsized role academia in digital humanities are just some examples. However, the staff at the CLA are keyed into these incredibly important issues and are active participants in the dialogues taking place right now within the library and archives field. Sara Trotta’s recent work with the library collections has been foundational for these conversations. We are constantly working on improving our internal policies to ensure marginalized groups are not excluded from our records, including our digital and digitized content. The staff want to see the CLA become a leader when it comes to bridging the access gap between marginalized groups and information providers.
by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist
Today’s highlight is MS1009, the Woods Family papers, 1796-1896. This collection highlights various members of the extended Woods family, starting with the marriage of Leonard Woods and Abigail Wheeler. They would have 10 children together and this collection contains letters sent between various members of the family. The most well-known of their children was their son Leonard Woods Jr., who became the 4th president of Bowdoin College. The collection highlights a large, extended family in the 19th-century and how they dealt with various events both external and internal.
Leonard Woods was born in Princeton, Massachusetts and eventually graduated from Harvard in 1796. He was ordained at Second Church of West Newbury, Massachusetts on December 5, 1798; He held onto that position until May 25, 1808 to become Professor of Theology at the Andover Theological Seminary. He played a role in founding numerous societies including the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, the American Tract Society and the American Temperance Union. While a professor at Andover he educated nearly a thousand ministerial candidates and his lectures were known for their solid content and earnest delivery. During the 1820s he had a well-known disagreement with Henry Ware, professor at Harvard. They disagreed on ideas of human nature with Ware arguing that human nature was essentially good while Woods thought humans were depraved by nature. He would also write a five-part history on the Andover Seminary which would be completed by his son Leonard Jr. His son would also write a popular translation of George Christian Knapp’s Christian Theology.
Letters in this collection are family-focused and show a tight-knit family that continued to connect with one another even while apart. For Leonard Sr., many of the letters from him are directed to his daughter Mary Smith. Many of the letters by Abigail are addressed to “our children” and show the affection and care she had for her kids. The collection also has letters from most of the Woods’ children to other members of the family. The letters in this collection can illuminate how a large family communicated across the 19th century. They discuss news, events, stories, experiences, worries, and hopes, just like families today. While physical letter-writing is not the preferred method anymore in favor of text and email, this collection shows that the content may not be all that different.
If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at email@example.com. Stay safe and have a great day!
by Richard Elliott: Board Chair Elect, American Congregational Association; Director of Campus Operations, Park Street Church
Miss Treadwell had all the neighborhood kids over every Saturday to eat popcorn and watch movies— bonafide films from the library—on a projector that we used to fight to help her thread through the gates and sprockets. Unlike our parents, she was always happy to see us with a cookie jar that was perpetually, magically full. Years after she passed, I learned from my mother about the pain that Miss Treadwell experienced in her life. The bigger, and not better, portion of her years were spent in bitter alcoholism where she lost friends, family, and entire years. Somehow, thankfully, she found both recovery and faith and was guided by the poem, The Waking, by Theodore Roethke, which goes in part—
I wake to find, and take my waking slow
I learn by going where I have to go.
These days, we are all learning by going where we have to go, and it doesn’t feel entirely pleasant either. The norms and comforts of our habits and traditions are disrupted and shaken, and we all wonder when we get back to normal after Covid 19…what will “normal” look like? At Park Street Church, just around the corner from the Congregational Library and Archives, our 890 person sanctuary has turned into (of all things) a “production studio” where small numbers of appropriately socially distancing ministers, musicians, and choristers, gather to worship to a (thankfully) much larger streaming congregation. The chat feature on the sidebar of the YouTube stream lights up at one particular point in the service:
…peace of Christ- Everybody.
…peace to you- wish I was there!
…peace of Christ. I’m in Turkey right now, worshipping with you.
Passing the peace of Christ has gone virtual. We are learning by going where we have to go, indeed.
We also learn, however, by discovering where others before us have gone; for example, a good friend and former Director of the Congregational Library, Margaret Bendroth, calls this engagement the “spiritual practice of remembering.” And, when tired of swiping from our news feed, to Instagram, to Facebook, and back again while riding a dull carousel of boredom, we can remember that there is an entire world at our fingertips at 14 Beacon Street. These archives can uplift and enrich us with a perspective, wisdom, and comfort where all the social media in the world will never scratch the surface.
The main perspective is simply this: the unsettling world of pandemics, contagion, and economic turmoil where we find ourselves is hardly “new” news. The veneer that has been stripped away to expose our fragile mortality, which we are all seeing in technicolor through our news feeds today, was in fact a constant companion of life in the 1700s and 1800s. In the Congregational Library and Archives’ New England Hidden Histories, one page of church records from the Byfield Parish Church heartbreakingly records the deaths of 11 different children in the congregation due to such maladies as “throat distemper,” or simply a vague “sudden illness”… and this all on one page. Faith was not merely a comforting blanket; rather, it was a life preserver that our forefathers and foremothers clung to for dear life… as should we.
In our Pre-Covid 19 culture, it was not a cognitive leap to suggest that the world was becoming more insular, less connected, more narcissistic, and vapid… what we needed most was to turn off the computer and get outside. Consider then the irony of Coronavirus as we were asked to turn to technology more, stay indoors, and rely on the internet for education, familial and social connections. Perhaps the better part of learning “by going where we have to go” lies in realizing that our amazing history has not been tried and found wanting—maybe it just needed to be tried.
In the past weeks, I have taken the opportunity to read testimonies of faith, and pour over journals, sermons, and church histories; real hours have been spent wandering the virtual stacks of the Congregational Library and Archives. I have been encouraged, uplifted, and instructed, and I am grateful.
Move over, Tiger King. There's a new cathartic docu-drama for these pandemic times, and it's called: Congregational Meeting House Location Disputes! (we're still workshopping the title).
What better way to escape our current worst timeline than full immersion into the bitter, decades-long rivalries of New England townsfolk upset about the location of their meeting houses? And when I say upset, I mean full on, mobs-fighting-in-the-streets upset.
This Reality-TV worthy material comes to us from the New England Hidden Histories program. In the last few weeks my work with NEHH has revolved around digitized materials from our partners at the Connecticut Historical Society, and in particular the collections of the First Congregational Churches in Durham and Lebanon, CT (Lebanon is still pending publication). While describing the documents for public consumption, I was surprised to see how much of both church's records were taken up with fierce battles over the location of their meeting houses.
There is already a lot of drama in our collections at large - a sizeable portion of NEHH records consist of documents generated in the course of disputes, whether on behalf of an entire church, a subset of aggrieved bretheren, or an individual congregant or minister. (I choose to interpret this plethora of argumentative material as a consequence of the denomination's robust mediation and appellate processes, rather than evidence of a particular orneriness on the part of Congregationalists themselves - though actual congregants may beg to differ).
Even within this context, however, the protracted and sometimes explosive battles in Durham and Lebanon stand out. When I initially looked over the Durham First records, I thought the frequent references to "Northerners" and "Southerners" had something to do with the Civil War. While it actually had nothing to do with the national conflict, it was indeed a civil war on a local scale. Lebanon's dramatic dispute also tellingly became known to history as "the Meeting House War".
Both the Durham and Lebanon "wars" had a similar catalyst; a previous meeting house building had become untenable (in Durham's case, it was destroyed by fire), and the situation stoked pre-existing tensions over the building's location. And the real issue in both cases, besides time spent travelling to and fro, was money. Members who were far removed from the meeting house resented having to pay for the repair or replacement of a structure on the same inconvenient spot.
In Durham, the argument was between residents living north and south, respectively, of the central "Mill Bridge" in the mid-1800s. When their third meeting house burned down in November of 1844, subscriptions were immediately raised for its replacement. However, a dispute soon arose over whether to build on the former site or to move it north, with factions forming on both sides. Among many records produced as part of the ensuing arguments, one letter by the southern faction, written for the benefit of the First Church at large, accused the northerners of inciting prejudice:
"the members of your Church and Society, residing south of your impassable gulf, would represent that the proceedings of many of the members residing north of the gulf by influencing the committee in their decision in locating the meeting-house, were fallacious, and unexpected from the followers of him whose character was without guile."
the authors conclude with the ominous warning:
"do not drive us to a step which we must take to ward off a greater evil."
The conflict eventually resulted in the separation of the First Church and Society into separate North Congregational and South Congregational churches in Durham by 1850.
This schism, as traumatic as it must have been at the time, was a far happier result than what occurred in Lebanon. Their Meeting House War began in 1724, when the Society voted to replace the former building, and lasted a whopping eight decades. Residents living north of the historic town center (amusingly referred to as "the Village People") were eager to move the building closer to what had become, effectively, the new parish center. However, a somewhat murky "ancient agreement" from Lebanon's foundation had stipulated that the building could never be moved from its location on the town common. Upon a major renewal of hostilities in 1772, the southerners enlisted some of the oldest town residents, who remembered "the ancient agreement" firsthand, to testify to its legality.
Meanwhile, the old meeting house was in a sorry state, and each round of repairs fostered new conflicts over who would pay for them. After decades of infighting, in which the Connecticut General Assembly was frequently called on to intervene, a concillatory agreement was reached in 1804. It was decided that the old meeting house should be disassembled and relocated to the north. However, when southern residents saw their beloved church under the hammer, they formed a mob and arrested the workmen who were attempting to demolish the structure. According to D. Hamilton Hurd in his History of New London County, Connecticut:
"A large crowd assembled from every quarter, with mingled emotions of grief and anger so highly excited, as to forebode actual violence."
This was followed in the ensuing days by a rallying of the northerners, who formed their own mob and arrested any southerners trying to prevent the demolition.
After multiple lawsuits in which both sides sued each other for damages incurred in the riots, the state's "Supreme Court of Errors" finally ruled in favor of the southerners, and the First Congregational Church in Lebanon is, to this day, situated at the town common as the "ancient agreement" intended.
When you tell someone you’re a librarian, it’s only a matter of time before you hear a Dewey Decimal joke. Surer than the sun rising in the east, or people’s eyes beginning to glaze over when I tell them that, actually(!), Dewey Decimal is only one of many classification systems, and isn’t usually found outside schools or small public libraries. The Congregational Library, for instance, has its own bespoke way of classifying books. A recent deep dive into our collection has resulted in taking a much closer look at our classification scheme and its quirks. I’ve come to know it intimately the way you know an old house. Because you’ve lived inside it, leaky roof, drafty windows and all. I’d like to offer a glimpse behind the curtain.
Most classification schemes used in academic or public libraries are designed to describe and organize the whole of human knowledge--a lofty goal! The parameters of the CLA’s collection are far narrower, and so while our classification scheme doesn’t need to be quite so expansive, it does need to allow our patrons to find the very specific things they’re looking for, such as sermons about murders and dueling or the histories of small churches in New England. Dewey is simply not up to the task. As far as anyone can tell, our classification scheme began with the library. Librarians tend to be inveterate record keepers, but unfortunately any documentation about how our classification scheme came to be or changes that have been made over time were either not recorded or have been lost. What that means is that when I go through the collection now, a large part of my job is imagining what some long-gone previous cataloger was thinking.
Sometimes, it takes a bit of research to understand the scheme’s peculiarities. Before restructuring our section about non-religious societies, I was confused to find that the section about Freemasons listed material on the Klu Klux Klan as a subset. After a bit of digging, I learned about a pervasive conspiracy theory that the KKK was founded as a wing or reincarnation of the Freemasons. Given that most of our Freemason material is actually ANTI Freemason material (and one very interesting 18th century pamphlet about the illuminati), it would appear that some mysterious past cataloger fully bought into that particular conspiracy theory. The section on Roman Catholicism is similarly reflective of the historic prejudice and mistrust Congregationalists felt towards them. It is divided into two sections, “general” and “controversial” works, but one is equally likely to find explicit anti-Catholic sentiment in either.
These quirks give us a glimpse into the mind of those who created the classification scheme and how they saw Congregationalism in relation to the rest of the world (and vice versa) and for that reason they are worth documenting. It’s also proof that the ways in which we organize information are only as neutral as we make them. Some of the language and organizational choices here may seem like humorous anachronisms, but leaving these descriptions unexamined and un-updated reinforces the same biases in place when they were created. When we are classifying material as ‘controversial’ or looking at which changes have been prioritized and which haven’t, it behooves the librarians and archivists on staff to ask ourselves “why” and make those things clear. As our classification scheme is rewritten and language is updated, we will strive to do better by correcting historical biases while preserving them in historical notes so that the information they convey won’t be lost to time. This work is on going, and the librarians and archivists on staff in the future will certainly be making similar changes years from now.
by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist
Adapted from a recent article that appeared in the CLA’s monthly newsletter.
Digital Commonwealth is a non-profit collaborative digital library organization that “provides resources and services to support the creation, management, and dissemination of cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives.” Each year Digital Commonwealth hosts a conference where library, archives, and museum professionals can come together to share their digitization projects and discuss varied topics related to digitization. This year the conference was held on April 7 and the bulk of the conference was devoted to the ethics of digitization and social justice. The conference began with Elaine Westbrooks’ (University Librarian, UNC Chapel Hill) keynote discussing the pervasive systems of inequality which have led to racial disparities in the preserved record. In order to correct these systematic issues, Westbrooks encouraged conference attendees to reflect on our organizations and identify how we have contributed to exclusion, both historically and currently. The theme of self-examination continued through discussions on privacy concerns, content warnings, use of language, and how to identify and create projects that promote diversity. Some of those projects that were highlighted throughout the day included the Visibility for Disability Project out of UMass Amherst, a digital history of Chinese students at the Phillips Academy, and various projects devoted to LGBTQ+ history.
The CLA is not immune to the need to self-reflect. New England’s Hidden Histories has been, to date, the largest sustained digitization project undertaken by the CLA. While the project has been able to uncover and capture some of the history of Congregationalists of color, the fraught history of slavery and New England churches, and the history of relations between European colonists and Native Americans, the very nature of the records in question ensures that the NEHH project cannot capture the type of diversity that Westbrooks and others argue we must begin actively seeking out and making accessible. NEHH is an incredibly important digitization project, and there is little chance that the momentum we’ve built up over the years with the project will let up, but there will be conversations going forward about how we at the CLA can expand the scope and breadth of the project in the coming years. The CLA also recognizes that it holds within its collections important records related to marginalized groups and it will be necessary to bring these collections to the forefront in the immediate future. For example, the CLA’s vast missionary records, while often problematic and colonialist, can also be used to give voices to minority populations and restore their place properly within Congregationalist history. And the CLA holds records important to understanding the impact LGBTQ+ individuals have had on Congregationalism through our Open and Affirming Coalition collection and the papers of Robert Wood, a WWII veteran, gay clergyman, and author of “Christ and the Homosexual.” Making these valuable collections widely available through digitization efforts will be incredibly important for the CLA as an organization moving forward.
The good news is that the CLA is also currently working on the infrastructure necessary to truly operate a robust and standards-focused digital archive. The CLA has recently begun to work with AVP, a consulting and software development house focusing on the management and preservation of digital materials with an eye towards the needs of cultural institutions, to find and begin implementing a digital asset management system (DAMS).
Digital asset management systems come in many shapes and forms, but at their most basic function, they allow an organization to manage, organize, and share digital materials. DAMS have increasingly become an important part of how libraries and archives deliver their digital content to their users. To give an idea of what these systems can look like, you need look no further than the likes of Digital Commonwealth and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). These digital libraries, and many like them, run off a highly specialized and powerful DAMS built specifically for libraries and archives.
While we do not yet know what specific DAMS the CLA will end up with, that is what AVP is for after all, we do have some idea of how this will change and improve everyone’s ability to find and interact with our digital materials. Long gone will be the days of browsing through our website to find an item digitized as part of the NEHH program. Instead each digital object, such as a volume, will be independently searchable through a robust faceted search system that will allow users to refine by keywords, dates, creators, and more. The NEHH viewer will also be replaced by this DAMS with a built-in media viewer that will be able to handle multi-page volumes on top of audio, text, and video files. Users will also be able to download access copies of most digital files directly from the online record. And the system will expose the CLA to many new users; metadata from our DAMS will be harvestable and searchable by larger systems like the DPLA and Digital Commonwealth so their users will also ultimately become our users.
Overall, the DAMS will make the CLA’s digital files more accessible than ever before. Most immediately this will affect the CLA’s NEHH content, as that is the biggest source of digital content right now. But a DAMS will also open many new avenues of collecting for the CLA. Born digital content created by churches and individuals are already collected by the CLA, but currently we have little way of making these files accessible to users except by providing them in person through a USB device. With a DAMS in place, the CLA will be able to make these born digital materials available to all without the hindrances of physical and technical restrictions. Further, this system will allow us to more proactively collect digital content from churches and individuals shortly after the creation of that digital material. For example, the CLA is currently planning on soon directly collecting church records and digital content, such as streamed services and sermon texts, created in direct response to this COVID-19 crisis and the DAMS is already a vital part of that plan.
There is lots of work to be done yet to prepare the CLA for the digital future, but we are already actively doing that work. We are having the tough internal discussions regarding how the CLA can ensure equitable access to our collections and diversity in the voices represented within our collections, digital and physical. And we have just completed phase one of our work with AVP to develop a requirements short-list which we can present to potential DAMS providers. There is much to be excited about regarding the digital future of the CLA and while it may be somewhat premature, I am confident that we will make heavy strides towards that vision within the next year.