Beacon Street Diary

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 By documenting this metadata, we make an object, whether it be a published book or an unpublished volume of church meeting minutes, findable by the various systems employed in our professions, such as an online catalog.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!

May 28, 2020

by Tom Clark, Library Director

The staff of the Congregational Library & Archives (CLA) has been blessed with good health and plenty of work to do at home during the quarantine. You’ve been able to read wonderful stories from our collections that our Librarian, Sara Trotta and Archivists, Zachary Bodnar, William McCarthy and Jules Thomson have been spinning on the blog pages.

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).

Lastly, we have a wonderfully illustrated copy of Wood’s Bible Animals: a Description of the Habits, Structure, and Uses of Every Living Creature Mentioned in the Scriptures where we learn that fox and jackal are often described as one and the same. My son Adam, a Wildlife Biology student at UNH, offers that this is probably a result of common species of fox in Northern Africa and the Middle East being either the Fennec Fox, Ruppell’s Fox or Blanford’s Fox and these species appear more “jackal like.” Even the Eurasian version of the Red Fox appear with less hair when in the desert.

The fox family isn’t the only member of nature putting a smile on our faces. At the CLA building on 14 Beacon St. in downtown Boston, a pair of Red-Tailed hawks have been regular patrons all Spring (on the window ledges on the Granary Burial Ground side or on our roof taking a bath). John Beattie, our building superintendent reports that the pair of hawks have a new family in their next at 25 Beacon St., and that male hawk stopped by to let us know (he must have dropped the cigars on the flight over). Here is a picture John took of the proud papa perched outside our windows.

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.

May 26, 2020

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."

May 19, 2020

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.

May 15, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In the information age, digitization is access.

When we digitize records, as either an individual or as an organization, we are actively deciding which materials will be more widely accessible, and to whom. Digitization is, at its heart, about providing access to the widest possible set of current and potential users. For the Congregational Library & Archives are as diverse as they come: institutionally backed researchers, family genealogists, church members, underserved populations within the Greater Boston Area, and more. Accessibility is not just about convenience – it is also about bridging the gap between historically-privileged groups with ready access to information and those who may have had minimal or no access to information. Accessibility is the key to understanding the selection and appraisal workflows within archives and correcting historical injustices found within today’s collections.

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.

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