The Digital Commonwealth Outreach and Education Committee is responsible for all the workshops and classes that Digital Commonwealth offers to the cultural institutions of Massachusetts. While DC has offered workshops on metadata, the digitization process and understanding copyright, the popularity of the digital exhibit workshops took us by surprise.
We started with a workshop on Digital storytelling introducing attendees to various options. As a follow up, we offered a hands-on workshop specifically on Omeka. The Building a Digital Exhibit workshop had to be limited in size to allow for the hands-on instruction and they filled up fast. Ken Liss, Brookline Historical Society president, attended the Omeka workshop in Worcester in October. He was so pleased with what he learned that he wrote the committee that he wanted to, “…share what I’ve done with Omeka.net thanks to what I learned at the workshop. I moved content from an old website into Omeka, where it will be much easier to maintain. (I actually created my Omeka account in 2014 with this project in mind, but was not able to make it work until I learned so much more at the workshop.)”
Another attendee suggested we follow up yet again with a showcase of the exhibits that attendees have organized since taking the workshop. This might be an option – if the conference committee doesn’t steal it for a session at the annual conference – but in the meantime, you can take a look at Ken’s exhibit on Blake Park, a Brookline neighborhood and the people who lived in it from its development after World War I until the end of World War II. It is still a work in progress and the photos are from BHS’ collection (i.e. not on Digital Commonwealth – yet), but it will give you an idea of what’s possible.
Our last Omeka workshop in December is fully booked. Let us take a breath and regroup, and then we hope to offer more of your favorite workshops in the New Year.
Historic Newton’s Early Photograph Collection has something for everyone who loves photographs: daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, hand painted miniature portraits and cartes de visite. You can see the fashionable cases of the day as well. Many of Newton’s historically prominent families are included. The poses struck range from the straightforward, all business portrait of Charles Redding, an African-American sailor who served on the famous USS Kearsage during the Civil War, to the dandified Stephen Winchester Dana Jackson in his fur-trimmed coat – and with a name that reads like the genealogical profile of a Boston Brahmin.
Sara Leavitt Goldberg, Archivist and Curator of Manuscripts and Photographs for Historic Newton (HN), took up her position about seven and a half years ago. Always interested in photographs, she did a concentration in archives at Simmons College. She then interned and consulted at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown. Sara’s predecessor at HN, Susan Abele, began the photo project 10 years ago. With assistance from Ron Polito, co-author of Massachusetts photographers, 1839-1900, she created a comprehensive inventory of the photograph collection that Sara has found invaluable.
Inventory and collection in hand, Sara wanted to make it more broadly accessible while protecting her materials. HN is a small, public/private collaborative and did not have the budget to digitize on its own. Sara
went looking for a few good partners.
Digital Commonwealth (DC) had been on Sara’s radar since Simmons. Sara knew she wanted to talk to DC. She also knew about Simmons College’s internship program. Here were two sources of free, professional help for her project. Sara recommends both to small cultural institutions with limited budgets and big digitization dreams.
The photo inventory done by previous staff was an essential part of the process. Kelsey Sawyer, the Simmons intern, handled all of the HN metadata based on the data in the inventory. Sara is convinced the more prepared your institution is before you send your collection to digitization, the easier – and faster – it will go. She characterizes her experience as “remarkably flawless.”
Sara contacted DC in January, DC visited in February, she dropped off the collection in April, the imaging was done in June and uploaded in August. She got her collection back in September. It “truly could not have been easier.”
Sara sent HN staff a link to the collection and everyone was impressed. She is eager to show the images off to her trustees and museum council.
Her advice to anyone still on the fence about digitization: Take the time to get your descriptions done and done right. She gives full credit to HN staff for their work on the inventory and metadata. Next, find yourself a few good partners. She can recommend two.
In summary, Sara says it was “well worth the price of membership” to have DC digitize her collection. HN owns some collections in partnership with the city, so Sara has some negotiating to do before she can send more collections. But send more she will.
The National Archives at Boston (NARA-Boston) recently added a fascinating collection of Civil Defense photographs. The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) had the two-fold job of preparing Americans for natural disasters and military attacks. Its heyday was in the Cold War years of the 1950’s. It may be best known these days for its (in)famous Duck and Cover animated film. However, the agency also assisted with natural disaster preparation. One of the nationwide exercises it ran was emergency mass feeding courses, which were useful for either agency responsibility. In an emergency, one might not have access to a full kitchen, so citizens were taught how to improvise utensils and how to cook without access to a kitchen.
Another exercise was Operation Alert. Instituted in 1954, these exercises were designed to test how well the nation responded to a virtual nuclear attack. The day after an exercise, newspapers published reports of
these virtual attacks. They would even detail the number of virtual cities hit, the number of virtual bombs that were dropped, and the number of virtual casualties. Pacifists in New York protested what they saw as the absurdity of preparing to survive a nuclear attack. Soon a group of young mothers joined the protest. The protests grew to include students and spread nationwide. Operation Alert was permanently cancelled in 1962.
You may notice browsing the collection, as I did, that women are prominently featured in the Civil Defense photographs. This is not by accident. The FCDA created a massive recruitment campaign targeting women. While women were mainly directed toward care-giving roles, you can see in the poster for Women’s Activities and Conferences that women also were expected to train to take up arms in defense of the country.
Alfie Paul, Director of Archival Operations at NARA-Boston, has been with the National Archives for 10 years and in his current position as director of the Boston field unit since February of 2015.
One of NARA’s main strategic goals nationally is digitization. So when Alfie assumed his position in Boston, he wanted to make digitization a priority in Boston, too. Like many of Digital Commonwealth’s members, he was hampered by a lack of resources to do it on his own. He recognized that using the services of Digital Commonwealth was a great solution for his organization – and for the people of Massachusetts, who he suspected were not aware of all that NARA-Boston offers. Or even that NARA has a presence in the state. However, no other NARA unit had worked out a similar partnership.
Alfie wanted to get all his facts straight before taking his proposal to headquarters. Digital Commonwealth welcomed Alfie and one of his archivists to visit the facilities and answered all his questions so he could speak knowledgeably to his superiors. In fact, Alfie did so much research and investigation that after his project was approved, nothing that occurred during the process of the project surprised him. The “only real challenge” was making sure the metadata was compliant with the way NARA catalogs its records. I know metadata compliance is a challenge shared by many of DC’s members – here’s proof it can be overcome.
In all, Alfie estimates it took two months from start to finish to digitize his materials. He is eager to add more. Boston historians will be thrilled if his “dream” of digitizing the Morgan v. Hennigan case file (Boston busing) – all 50 cubic feet of it – comes true. Alfie will keep sending records as long as DC “keep[s] doing what they do. It’s a fantastic resource.”
NARA-Boston has two collections on DC currently. Alfie is partial to the Photographs of the First Naval District collection. One of his favorites is of two sailors from the USS Mason, the first predominately African-American ship in the U.S. Navy. He’s already featured it on the NARA-Boston website.
Next up will be photos of the Watertown Arsenal. Stayed tuned.
The “best feedback” Alfie could get on his digitization projects is also the best feedback for DC: The Archivist of the United States “loves it”.
Massachusetts Normal Art School opened in 1873 with the goal of educating art teachers to teach drawing at lower levels of education. The hope was that this effort would result in more architects for the growing country. Massachusetts Normal Art School became Massachusetts School of Art became Massachusetts College of Art and, finally Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt).
MassArt prides itself on having always been a progressive school. As a teacher’s college, it began with a majority female student body. MassArt also accepted African-American students early on. It was, and today is the only, publicly-funded art-only school in the country. Over the years, the mission has changed, but the creativity of the students continues.
Danielle Sangalang has only been at MassArt for a little over a year. After graduating with a dual degree of MA in history and MLS in library and information science with a concentration in archives studies from Simmons College, she obtained a history degree and worked for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the National Park Services and the Trustees of Reservations.
When she arrived at MassArt, the college had already digitized a physical exhibit of historical photos on campus life. She has since used Digital Commonwealth (DC) to digitized school yearbooks and just last month dropped off a collection of student handbooks.
Danielle had a great experience working with Digital Commonwealth. She appreciated the onsite visit which allowed her to float her ideas and listen to suggestions from DC staff. Together they decided to use the option of having her bound materials scanned by Internet Archive. Danielle was aware of DC from as long ago as her days at Simmons College. As a professional, she thinks DC is a great resource for “lone arrangers” like her, especially because it is free. She knew as soon as she started at MassArt that she wanted to begin to work with DC to digitize some of her collection’s treasures.
Danielle’s yearbook project began with an email July 19, 2016. A site visit was scheduled for September 7 and the first yearbooks were dropped off September 14. The entire project was done by December 12. As quickly as this went, Danielle wished she’d known ahead that she would be without the yearbooks for months. Some of the yearbooks were unique copies and she was continued to receive requests for scans while they were inaccessible.
It was worth it, though. Once the yearbooks became available, Danielle sent an all-campus email announcing the completed digitization. Staff and faculty responded quickly with their thanks and delight at being able to view the yearbooks online.
Danielle’s second project was MassArt’s Student Association handbooks, a collection spanning 80 years beginning in the 1920’s. This collection is Danielle’s pick for highlighting. The early years are both handbook –rules and regulations, the “MSA creed”, student activities – and directory – student names, addresses and telephone numbers. For anyone interested in the history of MassArt, they are a goldmine.
The 1937-1938 handbook, for example, offered students information on the glee club and yearbook committee, but also the magic and fencing clubs. Danielle pointed out that the magic club existed for 10 years. Who knew?
Danielle plans to continue to use DC as MassArt gears up to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2023. If DC didn’t prioritize collections from institutions who have not previously had a project done in the current fiscal year, Danielle would be submitting requests as fast as DC could do them.
Speaking of MassArt’s history, that once physical exhibit now digital collection on Campus Life is available on the DC website. The photos span late 19th century class trips to Lake Asquam in New Hampshire to a studio of students playing checkers in 1918 to mid-20th century fashions from the design classes.
A charming bit of MassArt’s history is Smock Day. Danielle only recently learned that Smock Day was the final acceptance of the freshman into the ranks of the student body. The seniors gave smocks to the freshmen to welcome them. It was a big deal: There were Smock Day class photos, Smock Day dances (Admission was free with Student Association membership.) and the school president gave a dinner in honor of Smock Day. Quite the welcome!
Photos of students’ work are not abundant. Danielle would love to have the final drawings students do to complete their degrees digitized. The drawings are loose and come in a variety of sizes, so they are not prime candidates for digitization. But come the day DC can handle them, Danielle will be there with her completed application.
This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian.
For a 126-year-old organization, the Trustees of Reservations is not that well-known for its cultural heritage collections. People are often familiar with the properties they own – the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Naumkeag in Stockbridge, World’s End in Hingham or Dinosaur Footprints in Holyoke – but not the history they curate. It is easy to imagine that an organization with so much history and so wide a scope would have amassed an impressive collection.
Alison Bassett and Sarah Hayes were members of the Trustees before they began working at the Trustees’ Archives and Research Center (ARC). Alison had a background in documentary film that included researching in archives just like the one she now heads. Sarah’s background included a library science degree, cultural heritage programs and experience as a member of Digital Commonwealth’s Metadata Mob. In fact, Sarah worked on metadata for one of the Trustees’ collections as a Mobster before she was hired by The Trustees.
ARC staff knew what a terrific collection they had in their Archives and Research Center. However, it was hard for staff across the state to access easily and virtually unknown to the public. The decision was made to digitize records to preserve and promote them. The preservation work began before Digital Commonwealth (DC) was involved. But both Alison and Sarah agreed that DC would provide the next step in the process.
The Trustees wanted to have its digital collections available on a statewide site that mirrored its own statewide reach. Alison and Sarah stressed the value in having complementary Massachusetts historical collections to search on one site for images that enrich your own research when that just right image isn’t in your own holdings.
Neither is shy about why they love Digital Commonwealth:
The Digital Commonwealth staff is easy to work with and they do excellent work.
It doesn’t get much better than that. With a small staff, Alison was happy to take advantage of the larger DC staff, who could devote more time to digitization projects. For the recently added Appleton Farms collection, there were many photo albums that needed to be broken down before scanning. DC was able to do this and do it quicker than ARC staff. Alison and Sarah appreciated consulting with DC staff about which albums were most representative and which would be easiest to work with. It took about a year from first contact to seeing the Appleton Farms collection uploaded, but this was mainly due to workload issues at the Trustees.
The first collection is straightforward. Already, Alison has referred a staffer in western Massachusetts to the digitized Annual Reports. The staffer was thrilled to be able to do his own research and Alison was thrilled not to have to scan and send dozens of pages.
The most recent collection added, the Appleton Family Photo Album Collection, depicts the oldest continuously operating farm in America and the family that founded it in 1636. The property was turned over to the Trustees in 1998. The farm’s last heirs and residents were Francis Randall Appleton, Jr. (1885-1974) and his wife, Joan Egleston Appleton (1912-2006). Joan lived on the farm until her death.
Francis Appleton was a “gentleman farmer”. His home was still a working farm, but limited in its operations. Like many gentlemen farmers of the time, Appleton sent Christmas cards showing livestock (turkeys, cows, horses) and farm scenes. The farm also ran the Barberry Kennels for a time. One Christmas card shows that year’s litter of terriers, each one’s name beginning with the letter V. One of this line would go on to win Best of Class at the Westminster Kennel Club Show.
The largest of the three collections is the Photographs from Stevens-Coolidge Place. When the ARC staff first consulted with DC, they planned to start with a smaller collection. DC staff urged them to think bigger and this collection of over 1800 images was the result.
ARC chose this collection in part because it contained a wide variety of photographic formats (daguerreotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards, cartes de visite, albumen prints, cyanotypes, collodion prints, silver gelatin prints, 35mm color prints, and Polaroids.) It also contained great photos. The families were world travelers, so the scope of the collection is broad. Also, Stevens-Coolidge Place house is usually closed to the public, so interior photographs offer access not often available.
This is also the collection that included Alison’s and Sarah’s favorite items to highlight. Alison chose a wonderfully eccentric studio portrait of an unidentified woman dressed all in black. Unlike the many other photos of women staring dreamily off into the distance, this woman looks straight back at the viewer through her monocle. Yes, monocle. She has an ungloved hand holding a Great Dane in place by her side and a gloved hand holding a cigarette. At her feet lays her other glove and what the description identifies as a “whip”, but is perhaps more of a riding crop. Either way, it is an unusual photo.
Alison admits the photo is intriguing on its own, but the ARC has no information on who the sitter is or why she chose to be depicted this way. What delights Alison is that the one clue – the photographer’s name – leads to a different historical topic. The photographer was a woman.
Sarah also highlights a photograph that originally seemed unremarkable, but led to a greater historical understanding of the Trustees collection. It is a portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi. A separate project cataloguing objects in the collection led to a find of some textiles that were identified as Chinese. Additional research connected these textiles to the Empress, who was known for promoting textiles created by Chinese women. Sarah appreciates that this richer history is made possible by having these images available where connections can be made by researchers.
Alison and Sarah urge other cultural heritage organizations to take the plunge and add more collections to Digital Commonwealth.
This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian.
Jessika Drmacich was hired for the newly-created Records Manager & Digital Resources Archivist position at Williams College five years ago. Jessika’s career has included stops at Rolling Stone magazine in New York City and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge before landing in Williamstown.
Asking Jessika to pick a favorite digital collection is rather like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Each is special in its own way and she doesn’t like to single one out. However, pressed to name collections that deserve more of a spotlight, and Jessika will name names:
The Ephraim Williams Project: Williams College has papers related to its first benefactor, Ephraim Williams, Jr., in various collections in the Williams College Library archives. Digitizing these papers allowed Jessika to create a virtual Ephraim Williams collection that allows students and scholars to view the papers in a single collection.
The Davis Center Posters Collection: This collection of posters showcases the inclusivity and diversity of Williams College. It shows the LGBTQ community that they are welcomed and even celebrated at Williams. Jessika believes this message of inclusivity is an important one for the college community.
Reily Scrapbook: Jessika knows the poignant story behind this item appeals to everyone. The scrapbook is leather-bound, containing photographs, newspaper clippings, ribbons, certificates, and ephemera primarily regarding Michael Reily’s activities in track and field, football, and wrestling from high school through college (Williams College Class of 1964). Michael died in July 1964 due to Hodgkins lymphoma, just a few months after graduating. According to his obituary, he had spent most of his last semester in the college infirmary. His “fondest wish” was to graduate with his class. The scrapbook was compiled by his mother after Michael’s death and donated to the college by his brother.
Shaker Song Books: These song books are part of the College Archives Shaker Collection. The larger collection benefited from a donation from Edward Wight (Class of 1907), who collected Shaker-related works in Troy, NY, close to the original settlement of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (Shakers). These wonderful song books from various Shaker communities include handwritten lyrics and musical notations. It is unlikely any of these tunes were ever reviewed by Jessika’s previous employer, Rolling Stone.
Jessika’s next planned project is digitizing Williams College yearbooks and the student newspaper, The Record.
It is obvious that Williams College has a strong commitment to and history of digitization. The college began digitizing collections in the 1990s. Williams started a records management program in 2012 and the Trustees passed a college-wide records management policy in 2016. Jessika can count on students and library staff to assist in digitization using the college’s camera, book and flatbed scanners.
With all that institutional support, why did she turn to Digital Commonwealth? Jessika believes “access is as important as preservation”. To reach a wider audience than the college website provided, Jessika knew she wanted Digital Commonwealth to harvest her digital collections, which she knew meant the Digital Public Library of America would harvest them, as well. This gives the Williams collections at least a national audience.
Jessika found working with Digital Commonwealth staff was very easy. She believes meeting the metadata standard was the key to a quick and successful harvest. From first contact to full upload only took five months. She also believes “everyone should know MODS and Dublin core”: library staff, students, volunteers, etc.
But there are always glitches. The wonderful Costume Archives collection was an early digitization effort that, unfortunately, did not meet today’s standard for metadata. Jessika and her crew had to find the original images, assign accession numbers and then re-do the metadata. When she had questions, she found the Digital Commonwealth staff very helpful.
Jessika recommends that public libraries beginning a digitization program consult an archivist with metadata experience as a first step. Happily for Massachusetts public libraries (or any Massachusetts cultural institution), they can call on the Boston Public Library’s archivist and metadata crew for free advice and assistance on their digitization programs. The BPL staff digitizes and harvests collections for Digital Commonwealth.
Jessika is constantly adding to the Williams College digital collections. She looks forward to learning the Digital Commonwealth harvesting schedule so even more of her collections become accessible to an ever larger audience as quickly as possible.
This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian.
Kimberly Reynolds, Curator of Manuscripts at the Boston Public Library, wanted to recognize the 90th anniversary of the deaths of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists who were arrested and convicted of murder during the Red Scare of the 1920’s. The two men were executed on 23 August 1927. The conduct of the trial has been criticized ever since on legal and political grounds. Opinion is still divided over the guilt of these men.
The Aldino Felicani Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee Collection is one of the Boston Public Library’s (BPL) Collections of Distinction. Collections of Distinction are among the most outstanding and renowned of the BPL’s collections. The collection contains correspondence, meeting minutes, trial notebooks, financial records, legal documents, photographs, and scrapbooks. Broadsides, the armbands mourners wore at the funeral, Sacco and Vanzetti’s commingled ashes and their death masks are also included.
It was the correspondence of the two men that Kim chose to commemorate this anniversary. Sacco and Vanzetti wrote more than 200 letters while imprisoned. They wrote about their innocence, the effects of imprisonment, and their gratitude for the work of their defenders. They also wrote to each other about their friends and family. The correspondence, she points out, has significant research value.
The Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee Collection is one of the most used collections at the BPL. After the letters were digitized, Kim supplied links to researchers outside of the Boston area who were “thrilled” to have access to the men’s letters.
It only took 5-6 months to get this latest collection fully digitized. Kim says the DC team taught her “how to look at collections digitally, so” she can now “prepare manuscripts both physically and virtually”. And she plans to keep working with the team. Sacco-Vanzetti collection memorabilia, photographs and – Kim’s personal favorite – posters are up next on the digitization agenda.
“My metadata might get changed to more appropriately describe an item the way it needs to virtually,” Kim says, but, “I trust them completely.”
Just months before his execution, Nicola Sacco instructed his attorney to cease trying to save his life. Regardless of guilt or innocence, it is a strong, poignant letter. You can read it here:
This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian.
Cynthia Harbeson, Head of Special Collections at the Jones Library, began her job in January 2015. Amherst greeted her with the snowiest winter on record and a digital website in disrepair. She resolved to make Digital Amherst great again.
Happily for Cyndi, Sharon Sharry, the Jones Library director, was a huge fan of Digital Commonwealth (DC) and the Jones Library Trustees were fully committed to increasing access to the Jones Library collections. Cyndi didn’t really have to sell anyone on the benefits of bipartisanship cooperation with DC.
In actual fact, Cyndi recognized that DC was a “wonderful resource” for her project and had the support of her director and trustees. Cyndi also realized DC’s harvesting of the Jones collections meant they would be available on the Digital Public Library of America, a bonus in Cyndi’s eyes.
In all, it took about a year and a half from initial contact to harvested collections on DC – and some of that time was spent getting Jones’ own digital website and metadata in order. The Jones Library decided to have its collections harvested rather than hosted because they planned to maintain the Digital Amherst site as their primary digital presence. They also wanted to be able to add to their website constantly on a small scale. Cyndi plans to notify DC when there are enough items to re-harvest for the wider world. She would not hesitate to contact DC again for a larger project. For the Jones Library, harvesting is the “best of both worlds” for the digital collections.
Cyndi found the DC staff “amazing” collaborators. Digital Commonwealth staff was great about getting her what she needed as well as telling her exactly what DC needed from her. Developer Eben English was her primary contact. She was impressed with how quickly and patiently he answered all her questions. With her metadata skills, Cyndi was able to do all the metadata clean up on Jones’ end. Still, she was surprised by how little Jones had to do beyond that to get the collections added.
The most noteworthy lesson Cyndi learned from her collaboration was the importance of standardized metadata to a shared project. She wound up changing some of her own metadata to match the standard DC uses and she is sure her metadata is stronger for it. For those lacking Cyndi’s skills, DC has a metadata team happy to help our contributors.
Cyndi is proud that the Clifton Johnson collection will have a higher profile. Clifton Johnson (1865-1940) of Hadley, Massachusetts was an accomplished literary figure with some 125 books to his credit. He was an acquaintance of many late 19th and early 20th century authors and editors, including William Dean Howells and John Burroughs. Johnson was also an amateur photographer who traveled widely. Cyndi is delighted that “now the world can find him” and calls his photographs “extraordinary”. This collection includes many photos of African Americans in the post-Civil War South. A subject you might not have thought to go to the Jones Library to research.
However, the one item that the Cyndi is happiest to see available “to everyone from anywhere” is the recording of Robert Frost’s speech at the dedication of the Robert Frost Room at the Jones Library in 1959. She rightly believes it is a special treat for Frost scholars and fans to be able to hear the man himself – as well as commemorating a significant event in the Jones Library’s history.
Poetry lovers also may appreciate images connected with Emily Dickinson, her family and her beloved Amherst. The family had a long connection to Amherst College, which is represented by some interesting photos, especially of faculty and students.
For the many University of Massachusetts graduates in Massachusetts and around the world, there are many wonderful images – photos, postcards, stereographs – of the old Massachusetts Agricultural College. Sure to be favorites are the outdoor skating rink (above) and the accompanying image of a tug of war game by the campus pond.
Cyndi has gotten feedback from the people she directs to DC that the photos look great. She also has gotten more image requests lately, but she can’t say if there’s a connection. Coming from an academic library to Jones, Cyndi has been impressed by “all the hats” she has to wear as a public librarian. It is safe to say one of her favorites is maintaining the very rich digital collection.
This post was written by Mary Bell, Adult Services Librarian at Wilbraham Public Library.
Maybe it’s because I’m interested in family history and genealogy, but my favorite photographs in Wilbraham Library’s local history collection are of people. Knowing about people, seeing their faces and learning their stories, can make history’s potentially dry dates and facts come alive.
Take, for instance, this photograph of James Addison and Hannah (Butler) Bennett. The Bennett family was one of the earliest families in the Town of Wilbraham, moving in sometime before 1790 when their son Ralph was born here in town. As a side note, I have many photographs relating to this branch of the family that would be a treasure trove for any genealogist. But this particular picture of James Bennett and Hannah Butler is full of character. There’s the old-fashioned stove, a “Riverside Park” sign and this older couple staring stoically at the photographer. Riverside was the name of the amusement park in Agawam, Massachusetts before Six Flags purchased it, and would have been operative at the time of this photograph. I have to wonder if this couple or their children were the enthusiasts. James died in 1919, and the calendar on the wall is dated December 1916, so I know the date it was taken within a few years as well.
One of my other favorites is this photograph simply labeled “Mrs. DeWitt Mowry.” With a little help from the person who donated the photographic collection and some research on Ancestry Library Edition, I was able to identify the woman – whom I affectionately think of as the knitting lady – as Sarah Emiline “Emma” Collins. She was born in Wilbraham in 1856, married DeWitt Mowry, and had three children. Her son Harold died of typhoid in 1906 at the age of 19, and her daughters grew up and stayed close by after they married. By 1912, Emma was a widow. She was a contemporary of the Bennetts, and a photo of the family tombstone in the local cemetery indicates she died in 1922, so this photograph was most likely taken around the same time as that of James and Hannah. But her whole countenance could not be more different, smiling when many people were straight-faced for cameras and just exuding joy. Don’t you want to sit down with her and have a cup of tea and a conversation?
History fascinates me: not the bare bones facts, but the people who lived it. Here are three individuals who lived and died in Wilbraham, raising a family, and living through the first World War. Seeing their faces and getting a taste for their personalities bring that history to life. These are some of the people who lived in my hometown 100 years ago. What else – who else – might you discover in our history collection? I can’t wait to find out!
This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian.
When the Grove Hall Branch of the Boston Public Library began planning the Grove Hall Memory Project, it was their intention to make it available in a digital format. Katrina Morse, now the Parker Hill Branch librarian and the driving force behind the Memory Project, wanted “anyone…anywhere in the world” to be able to access the materials.
The Memory Project’s goal was to provide audio/visual “snapshots” of the neighborhood through the years as reported by the people who lived there. The collection includes letters, photographs, newspaper clippings and oral-history interviews with full transcriptions. For Katrina, the interviews are the most interesting and valuable part of the collection. You can listen to and/or read the transcripts of these interviews on Digital Commonwealth.
After the Memory Project collection was added to the Digital Commonwealth, Katrina reports that another branch librarian approached her about doing a similar project for her branch. While Katrina says the project was incredibly time-consuming, she thinks it was worthwhile and is very pleased that Digital Commonwealth offers the collection a platform making it accessible to Grove Hall residents, former residents, and anyone interested in the history of a vital, ever-changing Boston neighborhood “anywhere in the world.”