Beacon Street Diary

July 21, 2020

The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP was first published in 1910. It is still available in digital form today where it is described as “a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color”. W.E.B. DuBois was already a well-known scholar and spokesman for African Americans and civil rights when he became founding editor of the magazine. He served as editor-in-chief until 1934.

Under DuBois’s leadership, the magazine flourished, growing from 1,000 subscribers in its first year to over 100,000 by 1918. DuBois exerted a tremendous amount of creative control during his tenure and used the magazine as a vehicle to express many of his own political views. He was particularly interested in promoting a progressive, dignified image of African-American people, promoting the rise of African American colleges, and expressing support for the Pan-African movement.  He also used the magazine to expose and criticize discrimination and call for action in response to violence and civil rights abuses perpetrated against Black people. In particular, he called attention to lynching, advocated a ban on the White supremacist film, Birth of a Nation, and discrimination faced by African-American military servicemen.

Politics and news was a major topical focus for the magazine, but under literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset’s leadership, The Crisis became a major showcase for African-American literary and artistic talent during the Harlem Renaissance. She published early works from such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Congregational Library holds issues from 1911-1926, some of the magazine’s most influential years. This includes Langston Hughes’s first published poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, originally printed in the June 1921 issue. These holdings and the fact that they came to us via a contemporary subscription rather than a donation are reflective of Congregationalists’ historical support for and involvement in civil rights movements. While the library’s reading room remains closed to the public, many of these issues have been digitized and are available for free online. If you have questions or would like a closer look at some of these issues (which I highly recommend--the illustrations and photographs are fantastic!), please email us at

July 16, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In past years, the Congregational Library & Archives has offered a workshop and booklet dedicated to helping church communities establish, develop, and maintain their own records management programs. I am happy to use this blog space to announce that we are currently working on a newly revised versions of these important resources. Over time, the information described in previous incarnations had become outdated and obsolete prompting our current endeavor. It is hoped that a new booklet might become available in the coming months, and that an in-person workshop will be developed shortly there-after.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to use this space to discuss some actions you and your church community can do to setup a records retention program. First though, it is important to note how a church records program is different from a church archive. While both hold your records, only the records program contains what are considered “active” documents. Active documents are living records which are maintained for legal, business, tax, or administrative purposes. These include everything from tax forms to employment records to board reports to policy documents. Anything that is an active record is something which may need to be quickly and readily retrieved as part of your organization’s daily operations. When they become inactive records, and are therefore no longer part of a records program, they are either destroyed or permanently placed into the archive.

A records retention program, simply put, is a set of policies which determine what happens to today’s records after they are produced. These are the records your church organization produces daily and may include everything from the Parish Committee’s meeting minutes, to the employee manual, to financial audit forms, to an email from the office admin to the head deaconess. It can be daunting to think about the plethora of documents you make year in and out, but by creating policies now, you can ensure that important records, and memories, are kept forever more. Below is an overview of steps your church can take to begin thinking about, and drafting policies for, your records retention program.

Step 1 – Create a Records Committee:

Establishing a Records Committee will be an important first step. More heads are better than one, especially when it comes to trying to get a handle on your church’s records. The committee should ideally include members of your church organization’s administrative staff, ministerial staff, volunteers, and parishioners. If your church has a history or archives committee, the records committee should include someone from those committees, but should otherwise be a separate entity which works alongside the archival program.

Step 2 – Audit your Records:

This will be the most difficult and time-consuming step. The records committee should, over a period of 1-3 months, establish a protocol to systematically determine the types and volume of records your church organization regularly produces. This audit should also determine how those records are stored, either physically or digitally, and if there are any current policies in place which affect the storage and preservation of those records. It may be best to assign record types to broad categories, such as financial records, administrative records, building records, board records, and activity/social records, to help break down this task into smaller parts and to help further contextualize your records.

Step 3 - Create a Draft Retention Schedule:

One of the most valuable tools for a records management program is a retention schedule, a broad policy document which uses the information from the audit to specify how long each record type is kept and maintained as an active document before either transferring to the archive or being destroyed. Every state will have slightly different rules for employment and financial records, but the MissionBox Global Network has a simple guide for how long most record types should be maintained for non-profit organizations which may be adapted for use by churches: Document Retention for US Nonprofits: A Simple Guide. May records created which do not fall into business, legal, and tax related categories may be able to be retained for short periods of time, less than a year, before transferring to an archive.

Step 4 – Create a Records Storage Policy

With a draft retention policy in place, the next step is to create a singular repository to store those records. This can be as simple as a filing cabinet or as complex as a storage closet, depending on your church’s physical space and resources, but in general, the goal is to create a policy which clearly states where records types should be stored while they remain active documents. This policy should also cover electronic records; one easy method to create a central repository for digital records is to purchase an external hard drive upon which copies of all digital records may be transferred. It is ideal, when handling digital records, to create a policy on how digital files should be named and to create a well-documented file folder structure into which digital files are placed.

Step 5 – Create a Transfer and Destruction Policy

Simply put, not all records, digital or physical, can be kept permanently. Using the audit and retention schedule, the records committee, in dialogue with the archives committee if applicable, should determine which records, after they become inactive, should be preserved, and transferred to a permanent archive, and which should be destroyed. There is not a perfect formula to determine this, and every church community will have different standards and practices that best fit their needs. As a starting point though, I find it helpful to think about which record types tell a story. For example, while board reports tell a story about the happenings of a church at specific moments in time, IRS forms typically say little about a church organization’s daily life that is not documented elsewhere. Another general rule to think about is that records which include personally identifiable information, such as bank account and social security numbers, are generally safer to destroy rather than keep permanently as part of an archive.

These five steps are broad and without much detail, but my hope is that they can become a starting point as you and your church organization think about creating a records retention program. And during this time of remote work and zoom meetings, much of this work can be done remotely. Of course, the CLA is always happy to help too; please always feel free to send us an email. Our goal is the preservation of your memories, regardless if your records are held with us or not. And of course, we look forward to going into more detail with our newly revised booklet in the near future.

Further Reading:

3 Steps to Establishing a Record Retention Schedule

Document Retention Best Practices & State Guidelines

Fundamentals of Records Retention Schedule

July 14, 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 less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today we are going to look at collection RG0069, Dorchester, Mass. Second Church records. This collection originally formed out of a donation in 1963 but was not properly added to the collection until 1989. In 2019, the CLA received a large deposit of material and the collection was re-processed in June 2019. Our collection spans the entire life of the church, including records from before it was established.

The beginnings of Second Church in Dorchester started when it was organized on January 1, 1808 by 64 members of First Church of Dorchester. These 64 members included 27 men and 37 women who had decided to split from the "Mother Church". On January 19, 1810, the group voted to name the new church South Church in Dorchester. This name only lasted two years when on April 3, 1812 they renamed the church "Second Church". The expansion into a new church was mainly meant to tackle the expanding population of the area. The first official pastor for the newly formed Second Church was Dr. John Codman. Rev. Codman was a member of an influential family and graduated from Harvard. His pastorate would be the longest for the church and during this time the church was visited by Daniel Webster and (on occasion) John Adams. The records in our collection continue up until 1991, shortly after the transfer of the church to the Church of the Nazarene. (1)

This collection is over 30 full boxes and contains a wealth of information on the day-to-day happenings of the Second Church. One thing to note is that the collection holds records from 40 auxiliary organizations. Some highlights from this section include the Chinese Sunday School's Copy of The Book of Acts in Mandarin (1909), the Couples Club records (1943-1953) and the Dorchester Gentlemen's Driving Club (1913-1915). Another area I want to draw attention too is the church building information. Included here is information on the selling of land in 1854, the purchasing of an organ in 1857 and various plans on additional projects across the 20th century. Overall, the collection gives a complete picture of church operations and desires extra attention and research.

The finding aid for this collection can be found here. 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 Stay safe and have a great day!

Bib: "History." Second Church in Dorchester. March 23, 2019. Accessed July 8, 2020. http://

July 7, 2020

page from Joseph Green's diary

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

Appropriately enough for a blog called "Beacon Street Diary", today I've compiled a list of diaries and journals within our current New England's Hidden Histories collections. The materials listed below (in alphabetical order by surname) are digitized and made available online via NEHH and our project partners. 

All of these diaries are sourced from the rich seam of personal documents which comprise Series 2, and perhaps represent the most intimate voices available within the digitized records. More so even than "relation of faith" documents, diaries provide a relatively unfiltered glimpse into the minds of people living in the 17-19th centuries. That is not to say, however, that they are homogenous in tone or breadth. The writers themselves run the gamut in terms of livelihoods, community standing, and even gender; Mary Cleaveland's diary provides a rare 18th-century women's perspective. Other diarists include farmers, the proprieter of a forge, clergymen, missionaries, and even Cotton Mather himself. The content of the diaries, too, is as diverse as the authors, dealing variously with agricultural concerns, child-rearing, business and finance, churchgoing, and personal spirituality.

It is my opinion that these records constitute one of the most valuable facets of NEHH overall, and are certainly unparalleled as a source of qualitative data about daily life in Colonial New England. 

Mary Cleaveland's diary, 1742-1762

Mary Cleaveland (nee Dodge) was the wife of Rev. John Cleveland, minister to Ipswich Second (Chebacco) Church and wartime chaplain. Her sporatic diary entries detail the birth of her children and the death of relatives and prominent acquaintances, as well as notable events about town.

Zaccheus Collins's diary, 1726-1769

The diary of this Lynn, Mass., man details a 43-year period of daily life, including agricultural tasks, notations on attendance at religious meetings, visits from his friends, and observations about the weather. The diary is contained within two bound volumes, the first comprising the years 1726-1750, and the second 1750-1769.

Joseph Green's diary, 1700-1715

Rev. Joseph Green was a celebrated minister of the First Church of Salem. Ordained in 1698, he inherited a divided and traumatized congregation after the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. He replaced the controversial Rev. Samuel Parris, reuniting the church and facilitating reconciliation between perpetrators and victims of the witchcraft hysteria. His diary of 1700-1715 deals mainly with day-to-day concerns such as religious study, errands and meetings, though it also touches on more monumental events such as Ann Putnam’s public admission that she had falsely accused others of witchcraft.

Gideon Hawley's journals, 1754-1806

Rev. Gideon Hawley, a noted missionary, worked for the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians under the supervision of Jonathan Edwards. Hawley accepted a position from the Society to establish a mission among the Six Nations on the Susquehanna; he was ordained in Old South Church, Boston, July 31, 1754 for this position and left for the site, near the contemporary town of Windsor, New York. With the arrival of the French and Indian War, Hawley returned to Boston and accepted a commission as chaplain to Colonel Richard Gridley's regiment. He was later appointed as minister to the Mashpee living in Mashpee, Massachusetts. The NEHH digital collections consist of four consecutive journal volumes spanning 1754-1806. These cover Rev. Hawley's time as a missionary traveling through "the Country of the Six Nations" and his experiences durig the Seven Years War. Also of note are records relating to Hawley’s long-time translator, Rebecca Kellogg Ashley.

Thomas Josselyn's diary, 1743-1775

Thomas Josselyn of Hanover and Hingham, Mass. was deacon of Hingham First Church and proprietor of a forge. On the first page of his diary, he describes his intent "to keep an account of the affairs of Divine providence, concerning myself and my family and the Church of God…". The volume consists of daily entries in which Josselyn usually devotes a sentence or two to details of his work, meetings, church attendance, visits with friends and family, and travel to Boston and other locales.

Cotton Mather's diary, 1716

Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), one of the most influential Puritan ministers of Colonial America, needs little introduction. Rev. Mather was ordained in 1684 at Second Church in Boston, also known as "Old North" Church or "the Church of the Mathers". He was a prolific author, publishing some 280 distinct items. He is perhaps best remembered today for his endorsement of inoculation as a means of fighting smallpox, and for his persecutory role in the Salem witchcraft trials. NEHH's digitized material includes a portion of one of his diaries, containing entries starting in February of 1715/16 (Mather uses dual Julian/Gregorian calendar dating) and ending December 1716.

Ebenezer Storer's diary, 1749-1764

Ebenezer Storer was a Harvard and Yale-educated lay person who went on to become Treasurer of Harvard College in 1777. He was deacon of the Congregational Church in Brattle Square, Cambridge, as well as an early member of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in North America, the American Academy of Arts and Science, and several other organizations. He updated his journal intermittently, with long form entries detailing deaths in his family, spiritual reflections and prayers, and segments of poetry. He also includes occasional genealogical or family information, as well as passing observations on current events. The entry for March 11, 1764, mentions the spread of smallpox and Storer's decision to have his children inoculated.

Stephen Williams's diary, 1716-1782

This collection consists of handwritten journal entries, memoranda, and sermon notes kept occasionally by Rev. Stephen Williams from 1716 to his death in 1782. Rev. Williams’s early life was remarkable; he grew up in Deerfield, Massachusetts and was captured by French and Indigenous allies during their raid on the town in 1704 when he was eleven years old. He was liberated after almost two years in captivity, going on to graduate from Yale College in 1713 and subsequently ministering to the Congregational Church of Longmeadow, Mass. He also served as a chaplain during the French and Indian War. Rev. Williams focuses heavily on ecclesiastical matters in his journal entries. Many entries consist of written prayers and brief meditations on bible verses.


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 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 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.

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.

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 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.