Beacon Street Diary

Archives: June 2020

June 30, 2020

The books and manuscripts in the library’s collection are informative, yes, but are they also delicious? It depends on who you ask. While staff are highly discouraged from engaging in bibliophagy no matter how tasty that 18th century sermon looks, there are a number of creatures that lack the same restraint.

Many people are surprised to learn that bookworms ‘bookworm’ isn’t just a metaphor, even though the most common paper eaters aren’t actually worms. They leave behind tell-tale tunnels wending their way through a text block like those pictured above (18th c. record book of First Church Charlestown), sometimes from end to end or they leave tiny holes in covers and spines. Most often, they are the larvae of a variety of beetles, moths or cockroaches who are attracted to the adhesives, leather, cloth and other organic material commonly used in book production. Some pests, like carpenter ants or furniture beetles will infest wooden shelves and then move on to the books they find there. Booklice eat molds and other fungi that can begin to grow on books and manuscripts kept in warm damp conditions. Silverfish will eat around the perimeter of pieces of paper, leaving jagged edges behind. Mice will gnaw on paper and boxes to keep their teeth sharp or shred it for their nests.

It is practically a rite of passage to reach into a newly acquired box of material and pull out some manner of creepy crawly--I have personally been accosted by silverfish, spiders, and once, a very large moth. Don’t let the cute face above fool you; the damage that bookworms and other collection-eating pests leave behind can be devastating. Bookworm tracks and tunnels can leave text unreadable and significantly weaken the integrity of paper and bindings and cannot be repaired. The best way to prevent damage from bookworms and other pests is to make our collections less hospitable. In addition to thoroughly inspecting new acquisitions for any unwanted stowaways, all of our materials are kept in a climate-controlled environment that keeps things cool and dry. Materials that arrive to us with significant damage are placed in custom housing to provide an extra layer of protection. Fortunately, book production methods have changed, so material from the 20th century and beyond are less at risk.Our ultimate goal is to make sure that when we say our materials are ‘being devoured’ it remains strictly a metaphor.

June 25, 2020

By Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Note: Right-click and "view image" will allow you to see the full sized versions of images used within this blog post.

As you are aware, the CLA’s staff has been working from home for the better part of three months now. But while the staff has been unable to handle physical collections during that time, they certainly have not been slacking. Documentation, policy development, digital processing, professional development and virtual conference attendance, exhibit planning, and fact-finding missions have all been happening while we are away from our office desks. In my case, a significant portion of my time has been spent on cleaning up the metadata of archival collections for the purpose of introducing our materials to the widest audience possible.

Metadata, or information about an object, is the bread and butter of the library and archives professions. The title of a book, name of an author, and publication date are all examples of descriptive metadata. Librarians and archivists gather and document this metadata entirely for the sake of our users. By documenting this metadata, we make an object, whether it be a published book or an unpublished volume of church meeting minutes, findable by the various systems employed in our professions, such as an online catalog. On the archival side, this purveyor of easily digestible and browsable metadata is the finding aid, though you might be surprised by how many different versions of a finding aid exist side-by-side.

For most users, the finding aid is the piece of paper they look at when deciding which boxes and folders within a collection they are interested in leafing through. But in fact, the CLA’s archivists produces four different versions of the finding aid. One version of the finding aid exists in a cloud-based platform which serves as the single source of knowledge for every single archival collection held by the CLA. One version serves as the user’s browsable version and is indexed by google. Another is placed within the CLA’s online catalog. And a final version of the finding aid is uploaded to GitHub for external data harvesting. While each version of the finding aid is distinct, each furthers our goal of increasing the visibility of our materials and ensuring the widest possible audience can find our collections.

All metadata about an archival collection is stored in the CLA’s cloud instance of ArchivesSpace. ArchivesSpace is, in effect, the standard archival management tool used by archivists in the United States today. Through the ArchivesSpace backend interface, staff can record nearly endless amounts of information about a collection. But more practically, it is the tool that allows the archival staff to describe and arrange a collection. Description refers to the process of assigning descriptive metadata to the collection while arrangement refers to the process of assigning an intellectual order to the physical materials within a collection. By processing a collection and inputting all of our gathered data into ArchivesSpace, we create the single source of truth (an Orwellian sounding term, drawn from the information sciences fields, that simply means the single source of editable data from which all other instances of the same data are derived) from which we create all the other versions of the finding aid.

The next version of the finding aid is the one most recognizable by our users. It is the paper version of the finding aid that can be found at the reference desk. This is the version intended for human eyes and is therefore the easiest to read and understand. Before it is printed though, this finding aid exists as a PDF derivative of every piece of public metadata that is input into ArchivesSpace. The PDF is uploaded to the CLA’s website and is searchable from there under the “Electronic Finding Aids” header. Uploading the PDF also allows for the PDF to become indexed by google which vastly improves a collection’s visibility to the wider internet world.

The next version of the finding aid that we produce is a MARC record which is ingested into the CLA’s online catalog. MARC is one of the oldest metadata standards used by librarians and the basis upon which nearly every library catalog is built upon. The MARC version of the finding aid is actually a stripped down version that focuses solely on the top level metadata associated with the whole collection, such as the title of the collection, the collection’s creator(s), and subject headings associated with the collection. Fortunately, you never see the raw MARC metadata; the catalog interprets that MARC file and displays it in a way that is familiar to all our users. We produce this version of the finding aid so that archival collections may be found alongside print materials within the catalog. This makes the online catalog the CLA’s single destination to search everything the CLA holds. This also ensures that our archival collections are automatically linked to related resources through linked metadata, such as subject headings.

The last version of the finding aid is one which you have probably never seen. This is the EAD version of the finding aid which is stored on the CLA’s GitHub. EAD is an XML based international archival metadata standard. Like MARC, EAD is not actually intended for human eyes; EAD is intended to be read by machine systems that interpret the data stored within the XML file. The CLA stores these files in GitHub so that they may be harvested by archival aggregators such as ArchivesGrid. These aggregator sites are another way for the CLA to vastly improve the findability of our materials by placing it within systems with vastly wider user bases.

Which brings me all the way back to my metadata cleanup project. In 2019 the CLA converted from producing EAD2 documents to EAD3 documents. Collections processed prior to that were therefore instantly left out of our EAD3 offerings on GitHub which means that harvesters such as ArchivesGrid would never see these older collections. Over time we have been able to go back and convert some of them, but prior to the pandemic, there were still more than 80 collections that needed the necessary metadata cleanup to ready these collections for the eventual creation of EAD3 finding aids. While the pandemic has halted our ability to process new archival collections, it has given me the time to shed even more light on these collections processed prior to 2019 and I can now say that the number of collections needing cleanup is in the single digits.

The library and archival fields are always trying to improve access to collections. Most visibly this happens when we archivists describe a collection and produce a finding aid for it. But as I hope this blog post has shown, there are significantly less visible ways in which we create access. And we are always looking towards the future for new ways to increase access and findability and ensure that everyone who might wish to look at our materials can find our materials.

June 23, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our smaller, relatively unused collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today’s collection is a bit different from the others I have highlighted previously. As a library with a long and rich history, we have collections that arrived in our care with minimal information about its origins and history. While it is disappointing to find items like this, part of my job as the processing archivist is to take these “mysteries” and illuminate them for our patrons. While searching for different items in our stacks I came across a box that had no labels or identifying information. Upon looking inside, I found the subject of today’s highlight: a scrapbook filled with World War 1 and 2 patches.

When dealing with a collection that has minimal information, it is imperative to scour the items for anything you can use to identify it. The scrapbook does contain a note on its opening page that it was created and filled by “First Church” but contains no information about a town or state. This means that I am unable to provide context but does not stop me from having the collection processed properly so it could be viewed by our patrons.

The patches themselves are in remarkable condition and involve nearly all branches of the U.S. military. The scrapbook is divided into 5 sections: Air Forces, Navy, Marines, Civilians and CoastGuard. The Air Forces section is further divided into Ground Forces, Air Forces and Service Forces. Each page contains between 4-10 patches, with the name and rank of the officer underneath. Some of the patches indicate divisions, such as the 101st Infantry Division, 2nd Armored Division and more. Also included would be patches that appear to designate specific roles, such as Malaria Control, Storekeeper, Water Purification and more. The last section of patches I wanted to highlight were ones for civilians helping with the war effort. Examples from this section include War Correspondent, Hospital Recreation, Women's Emergency Farm Service and Women’s Land Army. Finally, I separated out two pins that were loose on the final pages. They are the Army Physical Therapy Aide Pin and the Coast Guard Lieutenant's Insignia. This scrapbook is a remarkable piece of history and shows that wherever this “First Church” was located, the members were highly active during the two World Wars.

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 ref@14beacon.org. Stay safe and have a great day!

 
June 16, 2020

By Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

Adapted from an article originally published in the CLA’s February 2020 Bulletin.

Hidden Histories. Untold Stories. Behind the Veil. These are the titles of some archives-based history projects with which myself or my colleagues have been involved. A simple internet search will produce hundreds of similarly arcane-sounding names. Hopefully the first one rings a bell - as in New England’s Hidden Histories, the CLA’s flagship project to digitize and publish a large number of colonial-era records sourced from across New England.

But what’s up with these names? Why this particular emphasis on uncovering, unveiling, and bringing to light? By now, the litany of historical exclusion is largely familiar, even to non-historians: the experiences of women, people of color, the enslaved, Indigenous, the working poor, and LGBTQ people, among others, are generally understood to have been minimized or ignored in historical writings before the latter half of the 20th century.

In archives, libraries, and museums, the remediation of historical oversights can take many forms; on the archivists’ end, it can entail improved cataloguing, descriptions, and subject-tagging to highlight hitherto buried materials. It can also be accomplished via the production of new source narratives such as those recorded during oral history project interviews, and more generally by a broadening of the pool of statistical data available to researchers, allowing for the extrapolation of demographic trends which would otherwise remain invisible. The Internet Age has facilitated this by allowing for the confederation of collections which are physically held in separate geographic locations.

There are obvious implications here for New England’s Hidden Histories, which hosts a panoply of records including both quantitative and qualitative types of materials, sourced from myriad churches and cultural institutions across New England. Church record books and their associated vital statistics are a mainstay of our church-based collections. On the qualitative side, there are personal accounts such as those described in relation of faith documents (formalized confessions written to gain church membership), which, to quote the NEHH introduction page, “offer insight into many under-documented populations including women, children, Native Americans, slaves, and indentured servants.”

Both types of records in the NEHH collections were utilized by Professor Richard Boles of Oklahoma State University in his research into African-American and American Indian church membership in colonial New England. Richard presented this research in his lecture Interracial But Not Integrated: Colonial Churches, hosted by the CLA and the Old South Meeting house last summer as part of the History Matters lecture series (Richard’s talk was recorded by WGBH Boston and is available on YouTube).

Nonwhite church members were racially identified in church records - albeit subject to shifting vocabulary as race was continually conceptualized and re-conceptualized by those in power. This practice of racial identification, while born out of a distasteful ideology of exclusionism and white-supremacy, has had the positive effect of making people of color visible in the historical record. As part of his research, Richard compiled a broad geographical array of statistical records, particularly baptisms, in order to determine membership demographics. He was able to demonstrate a steady continuity of minority Black and Native membership, to pinpoint cases where slaves attended different churches than their owners, and to measure the effects of the Great Awakening on church attendance by people of color, among other things. The picture that emerged was one of much more diverse church membership than is usually assumed:

“For too long, many educated people and historians have written about colonial churches as if there were no Black [people] or Indians present. On the contrary, most Congregational and Anglican churches in New England included people of color in the 18th century. They participated in these churches as attendees, and through rituals of baptism and communion.”

In support of the latter point Richard also cited personal documents such as the relation of faith by Cuffee Wright (1773), an enslaved man owned by Rev. Sylvanus Conant, minister of the church in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Cuffee’s testimony, which is included in the digitized NEHH collections, appears to be a genuine personal account of both his worldly and spiritual life, though Richard was quick to point out that, prior to abolition, it is impossible to know how much enslaved people participated in church life of their own free will, versus how much they were compelled to do so by force, threats, or persuasion. I imagine this was particularly fraught when one’s owner was the minister of the church in question!

He was, however, able to cite some convincing examples of enslaved people who seem to have found genuine comfort in church life, and in the opportunities it provided for community and education. These same members also increasingly used scripture to establish a case for the abolition of slavery. Among other qualitative evidence, Richard cited the correspondence of Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner, and the record of a sermon preached by an enslaved black man named Greenwich, who made a biblical case for abolition in the Canterbury, CT Separate Congregational Church in 1754 while his owner, who was also a church member, presumably looked on. (Thirty-seven years later, Jonathan Edwards Jr. echoed parts of Greenwich’s phrasing to make the same point about the spiritual necessity for abolition. Better late than never?)

My summation of Professor Boles’s research is patchy at best and I encourage you to look up the full lecture (link in the end notes). But I believe it serves as a good example not only of our NEHH records being utilized for new and exciting research, but also of how more personal, subjective records can be married with plentiful data points in order to create a more holistic understanding of the past.
 

Further Reading

Boles, R. (n.d.) Interracial But Not Integrated: Colonial Churches.

Boles, R. (n.d.) People of Color Preliminary Finding Aid.

Cooper, J. F. (2013). Cuffee’s “Relation”: A Faithful Slave Speaks through the Project for the Preservation of Congregational Church Records. The New England Quarterly, 86(2), 293–310.

June 9, 2020

One of the difficulties of working with rare and archival collections is that it is not always easy to see them in person, even under circumstances far more typical than we’re currently experiencing. The materials you need may be scattered across multiple repositories or located in a different part of the country. With many libraries still uncertain when they’ll open again and what exactly “open” will look like for staff and researchers, I’d like to provide a guide to resources at the CLA that can be accessed from a distance as well as some resources to help you find what you need even if we don’t have it. You can find a list of free online resources below with brief explanations at the Congregational Library and elsewhere on the internet.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for (or are still figuring out exactly what you’re looking for), library staff are here to help! You can email us at ref@14beacon.org for help navigating our resources, locating material, or identifying other institutions that might have what you need. Don’t believe the hype--not everything is online. If you need to access something in our collection that isn’t already digitized, we may be able to scan it and email it to you, depending on the condition of the item and copyright restrictions. Currently, staff have limited access to the collections, but we’ll fulfill requests as soon as possible and keep you updated. All scanning fees will be waived while the library is closed to the public.

At the Congregational Library & Archives
 

New England’s Hidden Histories
This digitization project provides access to colonial-era records from Congregational Churches, Ministers and organizations across New England from the CLA’s collection as well as a number of other partner institutions. More than 150 collections are now available online and transcriptions are available for many of them.

Obituary Database
Our obituary database provides direct access to information on Congregational Christian ministers and missionaries, beginning with the 1600s and continuing to the present. These include dates and places of birth, ordination, and death, as well as the churches, organizations, or mission stations where they served. We’ve also provided a guide to locating the full text of an obituary here.

Online Catalog
Our online catalog provides access to much of our archival, print, and periodical collections. Here you can find links to finding aids which describe archival collections in detail, our image collection full of historical portraits, photographs and drawings of church buildings, and early photographs from international mission sites. When we are aware that material has been digitized by another institution, links are added to the catalog record. From the search results page, you can request an item and a staff member will follow up with you to let you know if it’s available online or able to be scanned.


Elsewhere on the Internet

Internet Archive
Free access to a variety of digitized content, including material from the Congregational Library’s collection like the Congregational Yearbook.

HathiTrust
Provides access to digitized books, government publications, and other documents from the collections of an international community of research libraries. You can find the Annual reports of the ABCFM digitized here. Some material may be restricted by institution.

GoogleBooks
Provides access to many books in the public domain, and often large excerpts of books that aren’t, so if you’re looking for a brief reference, you may be able to find it.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)
DPLA provides access to digitized content from libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions across the country. Many states have their own programs that partner with DPLA such as Digital Commonwealth in Massachusetts.

ArchiveGrid and WorldCat
Archive Grid allows you to search for archival collections in repositories around the country and often links to their finding aids. It is far from being complete, but offers a great starting point for research
WorldCat allows you to search for books and other media at libraries around the world and identify which location is closest to you. This can be a great tool for locating hard to find print material, historical or contemporary.

Your Local Public Library
Many public libraries provide access to databases and digitized collections for cardholders. Many in-library-use-only restrictions have been lifted for the course of the pandemic. For example, Boston Public Library provides access to digitized 19th century newspapers and a number of genealogical resources.

College and University Digital Collections
Many colleges and universities have digitized collections that are not easily found via search engines. If you identify material at a particular institution, consider searching for their digitized collections on the library’s web page, or contacting a librarian to see what they have available.

June 4, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

It has been a month now since I first wrote about the Congregational Library & Archives’ digital future and formally announced that the CLA was partnering with AVP to identify a suitable Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) to make our digital records more accessible than ever before. In that time, we have gone from having broad ideas to a solid grasp on what exactly the CLA needs from a DAMS system. So today, I wanted to speak a bit more about the future of CLA’s digital presence, and the requirements/goals we will be setting for this project.

Since its inception, the driving force behind this project has been increasing access to our digital content. But what exactly does an increase in access look like? For this project, access has specifically meant focusing on a few functional areas: discoverability, display, metadata, and delivery. By focusing on these four areas, we have been able to create a comprehensive list of functional requirements to send to vendors and a solidified image for how this system will work for the CLA’s users.

By making collections more easily browsable, the DAMS will provide massive and immediate improvements to the discovery of the CLA"s digital content. Right now, digital content is either completely sequestered onto physical flash drives attached to a collection, and therefore only findable through the finding aid, or it is part of the New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) project where content is only browsable at the website’s collection level. There is currently no way for a user to simply search our digital content. With a DAMS in place, every digital object will have its own record within the system, meaning that users will be able to search all collections at once. This will make it infinitely easier to find every instance of a material type; now, instead of having to search every individual collection for a pew deed, users will be able to get every single instance of pew deeds with a single search. Secondly, all digital content will be searchable through a faceted search system; this means that even a simple keyword search can be further refined on the fly using defined criteria such as dates, authors, or file type. Finally, the DAMS will have the capabilities to also search text within a digital object. With this new feature, if there is a transcription for that digital object, the system will be able to extend a keyword search to that transcription rather than limiting the user to just searching the record-level metadata.

A DAMS will drastically simplify the digital interface and make a lot more collections viewable. Currently, the only CLA content available online is the NEHH collection, even though NEHH does not constitute the entirety of the CLA’s digital holdings, both library and archival. The records that are available must be viewed on a separate entity from the NEHH browsing site. There is no way to browse across collections in the viewer and when viewing an object there is scant information about that item available. The DAMS will change this by embedding a file viewer directly into the object record. No more separate viewer website: users will be able to look at the object record and see all associated information, leaf through the pages of the object, and instigate another search query all in the same screen. Even more exciting, the viewer will be able to handle more than just images; text documents, video, and audio will all be able to be displayed and played within the DAMS.

Below the search queries is a second layer of topical info about a collection, metadata, with a DAMS in place we'll be able to bolster the metadata available to users and ensure that it's linked to allow users to easily spot related materials. Currently, the only metadata attached to objects is typically title, date, a scope note, and maybe information on the author if available. This information has been created outside of digital archival metadata standards, which means that the information we want to provide our users about an object cannot currently be made available. By contrast, the DAMS will have many more metadata fields (all searchable) you can expect to see fields for subjects and creators, related items, access and use note, language, file type, and location information added. Additionally, the metadata will be linked meaning that users will have immediate access to records with matching metadata. For example, if users are looking at an object, and the author is listed as Jonathan Edwards, you will be able to click the name “Edwards, Jonathan, 1703-1758” and bring up a list of every associated single digital object in the database.

Delivery, for this project, is the functional area related to how users can interact and use our digital content. This can cover a few things, but most exciting for our users, will be the ability to directly download files. There is no easy way for a user to download the images we provide through the NEHH viewer; it currently requires using a browser's “page info” feature. Further, there will be multiple format and resolution options when downloading files. The system will also be able to link out to licenses, such as RightsStatements.org statements or Creative Commons licenses, so that users will have a much clearer idea of how they may use the files they download.

The DAMS powerful functionality will radically change the way that users are able to interact with the CLA’s digital materials by both vastly improving current features or implementing brand new ones. The search experience will be more comprehensive, the usability of the system will be greatly simplified, and the information provided will be expanded immensely. Now that we have identified the key areas we want to improve for our users, it is time for us to start sending our   requests for proposals. Just recently we received a list of potential vendors, and we look forward to spending the summer scheduling demos and assessing each before selecting a partner. While this is a lengthy process, we want to ensure this project has careful consideration at each step of the way to ensure we can deliver on the goals and improvements outlined above.

June 2, 2020

By William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our smaller, relatively unused collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today’s highlight is the Congregational Training School for Women. These records made their way to the Congregational Library and Archives as part of a large donation from the Chicago Theological Seminary. The collection arrived in two parts (2011 and 2014) and was fully processed in 2014. The records predominantly cover 1907-1926 when the school was active, alongside some later material that honored the death of the school’s first dean. The materials also focus on the administrative workings of the school, alumnae material, and correspondence between the school, graduates, and partners.

What exactly was the Congregational Training School for Women? It was an organization created by the efforts of many individuals working alongside the Chicago Theological Seminary and spearheaded by individuals including Ozora Stearns Davis and the eventual first dean, Florence A. Fensham. Students tended to be at least twenty-five years old, and generally from a middle-class, Midwestern background. A stipulation of entrance to the school was that students also possess a strong moral and religious character. Courses were taught under the rubric of religious, social work, and practical coursework. Some examples of practical courses included music, public speaking, arts and crafts, physical education, business skills, domestic arts, and foreign languages. At the end of their education, graduated students were sent out to become professional church workers. The first graduating class for the CTSW included five women – one became a minister of a home mission’s parish in North Dakota, two became church assistants, one worked at a settlement house, and one took a position with the Congregational Educational Society in Chicago. One interesting highlight of the collection is that the graduated students would be asked by the CTSW deans to write reviews of their new workers' education, which CTSW then used to alter or add new programs or classes.

The first dean of the school, Florence Fensham, was a fascinating individual who desired to educate women and provide them knowledge they otherwise might not have access to. Fensham began her work as the dean of an American college for girls in Constantinople. During her travels back to the United States, she would be the first woman accepted by Fisk theological seminary. She would eventually graduate from Fisk in 1902 and is considered the first female recipient of a Congregational seminary degree. Her desire to educate and prepare women for jobs is seen throughout the records, especially the documents showcasing her passion in getting the school organized. Fensham was the dean of the school until she would die in 1914, but her efforts and work would continue. The next two deans of the school were Agnes M. Taylor and Margaret M. Taylor. The records do not provide as much biographical information as it does for Fensham, but both women took on the mission of the CTSW with pride and care. The school would continue to operate until the Chicago Theological Seminary decided to allow full acceptance of women into its programs in 1926, thereby eliminating the need for a separate institution.

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 ref@14beacon.org. Stay safe and have a great day!