This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian.
Stephen T. Moskey spoke about his new book, Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age, at the Boston Public Library recently. He could not say enough nice things about how helpful Digital Commonwealth was to his research on this historic couple and their Brookline and Boston homes. He cited the Leslie Jones collection for interior photos of the Anderson home, Weld House, that allowed him to get a feel for how Larz and Isabel lived.
In addition to the Jones Collection, images belonging to the Public Library of Brookline show the Weld House
grounds and photos from the Abdalian Collection show some of the family’s autos (and drivers). Moskey voiced his appreciation for the preservation of these historical windows into the life and character of his subjects.
So taken was Moskey with Digital Commonwealth, he even recommended that readers keep Digital Commonwealth open while reading his book to enhance their own appreciation and enjoyment of the Andersons’ life!
This September, Digital Commonwealth added many new collections that you can now search for on the website! These collections consist of many type of materials including photographs, personal paper, maps, and even a scrapbook! Make sure you check them out!
This post was written by Susan Aprill, Archivist at Kingston Public Library
One of the challenges and delights of describing Kingston’s historic photographs for the Digital Commonwealth lies in identifying places, figuring out what they are and what they’ve been called, then when I’m lucky, uncovering and disambiguating the hidden corners of the past. The Kingston Public Library’s Local History Room holds thousands of photographic images: prints of all sorts, lantern slides, glass and plastic negatives, tiny tintypes; you name it and I’d bet we’ve got one. Almost 13,000 are itemized in a Filemaker database that provides not only descriptive information about content and format, but also location, provenance, scan file management, use statistics and more. Staff and volunteers have been building this database (and its precursor spreadsheets) since 1998. Translating this gloriously rich and messy metadata into the strict form required by Digital Commonwealth has been a lesson in itself, but one of my favorite parts of the work is in the details: creating definitive subject headings for hyper-local subjects, and using them to identify otherwise under-documented photographs.
As an example of disambiguation, there’s a pond in Kingston, just west of the geographical center of town, which has had many names. Some are variations on a theme, others seem unrelated. On various maps dating from 1810 to 1903, it’s called Cosmo’s or Crosman’s; a 1795 map has something that definitely starts with C but is otherwise illegible. Manuscript and published sources give similar variations – Crosmus, Causton, Causaton’s or Crossman’s – as well as Carding Mill Pond, after a small woolen processing shop there in the early 19th century, and Fountain Head Pond, for the springs just to the west that fed the Kingston Aqueduct Company’s pipes around the same time. There’s no dispute that it’s all the same pond, but what exactly should it be called?
So, a little research project was in order. The Library of Congress subject headings and the Getty TGN are not (yet!) this granular. Scouring the database for transcriptions of annotated photos and poring through manuscript collections for place names, I compiled a list of possibilities. Turning then to search online, I found a Wikipedia entry, a 1920 state report on alewife fisheries, and a note in an 1841 genealogy that around 1730, James Tompson drowned in Kingston in Crossman’s Pond. In the end, I opted for simplicity by omitting the apostrophe, and created an entry to geonames.org for “Crossmans Pond” with all of the variations included. Finally, I added the geonames code to my local subject headings database – linked to the images database and to other collections – which also lists the known variations. Now the pond name has been fixed for use as a local authority, pinned to a map (virtually at least), and made ready for searching.
As I work through the photograph collections, item by item and heading by heading, I’m not only describing what the photos capture, but creating and enhancing a tool that makes everything in the Local History Room more searchable, findable, accessible. A second example of this kind of investigation produced a less tangible result, but much more satisfaction, because it exposed a connection not previously documented.
Some background: to create Digital Commonwealth-ready metadata, my process is to choose a set of scanned images to work on, then step through a series of layouts in the image database, each of which focuses on distilling a particular facet of the metadata: title, date, format, creator, subjects and notes. Each layout shows the image, and the process is iterative, so as I work through a given selection, I see each photograph several times. I look hard for clues that add to the typically scant captions. Do clothes or cars or advertising signs suggest a possible date? Have I seen that face or hat or hairdo or beard before? The photographs provoke as many questions as answers, and I always see things I think I’ve seen before. It’s like playing a complex variation on the card game Concentration.
In this case, I was working with about 140 photographs of people from the Emily Fuller Drew Collection (partially online at the Digital Commonwealth). Within this selection, there are series of related photos: specific events, scenes or groups of people in various combinations and poses. One set captured an outdoor meal, described minimally as “Drew family” and “clambake.”
It looks delightful, a shared meal outside on a long late summer afternoon, but unfortunately there’s no location given, and the views of the surrounding houses are partial and vague. The feast can only be placed in some anonymous backyard, probably in Kingston, but there’s no way to know for sure.
After working through the entire selection of a couple of times, something in the background of this photo caught my eye.
There’s a woodpile and rail fence that I knew I’d seen before, so I combed through the images again, until I found it.
The same woodpile and rails are in the background of this photo, one of a series that Emily Drew took of her father Charles Drew. After “retiring,” he harvested cedar in the Blackwater Swamp and took it by boat and homemade railway to the yard of his house on Summer Street.
Other records show exactly where Charles Drew lived, and just like that, the Drew family clambake landed squarely in his backyard. It’s a just speck of data, to be sure, but this small victory of connecting items in a collection and fixing something depicted in a century-old photograph in the exact right place is one of the greatest satisfactions of this kind of work.
This post was written by Patricia Feeley, BPL Collaborative Services Librarian from an interview she conducted with Louise Sandberg of the Lawrence Public Library.
Louise Sandberg of the Lawrence Public Library began working with archival materials the “minute I was hired,” so she recognized a great opportunity to expand the reach of her collection after attending a Digital Commonwealth presentation in Wakefield. The library currently has 17 collections uploaded to the Digital Commonwealth website.
Among them, the Lawrence Public Library Collection includes over 700 photographs that were used as part of a Northeast Massachusetts Regional Library System digitization project. The photos range from historical street scenes to Spanish-American War soldiers to parades honoring God and country, Independence Day and the National Recovery Administration! In retrospect, Louise recommends breaking down collections of this size and diversity into smaller collections.
Most delightful of all the collections is the National Child Welfare Association Fairy Tale Pictures posters from the Home and School Series. These wonderful watercolors were created by illustrator Elizabeth Tyler, who was born in Newton, Massachusetts. The Lawrence Public Library has 11 of the 12 originally issued in the 1920’s. Only Chicken Little is missing and, with Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack of beanstalk fame present, you don’t really miss her.
Louise Sandberg reports that she loves the final result: the images are sharp and the website presentation attractive. She has 30 collections she’s hoping to add, including 19th century images of a cyclone that blew through Lawrence. Scanning, she notes, allows the eye to see more, picking up on objects that fade into the background at first glance on the original. And when the Digital Services team is ready, she has some large-scale, hand-drawn street plans and maps that she is eager to see online. The process of putting collections on Digital Commonwealth has also made Louise think about what she can do and what she should do with the time she has.
Best of all, Louise is so pleased with the Digital Commonwealth; she has recommended us to other community organizations. As she says, uploading collections, “only helps all of us” by making our materials available and accessible to a much wider audience than we can ever serve in person.
As the school year starts up again, now is a great time to dive into Digital Commonwealth’s wonderful historical collections! Check out the latest collection that have been added from some of our truly amazing members!
This July brought us a lot of new collections, specifically from around the Boston area. Boston itself, Hingham, and Waltham are represented among the various collections we’ve added to the portal this past month. Check them out!
When I attended the Digital Commonwealth conference in 2014, I was focused on digitizing our Yarmouth town reports dating back to the 1860’s, but, I began re-thinking that by the end of the conference. Tom Blake talked about digitizing items other than text-only resources and it encouraged me to go back to my library and look for something “out of the box” to digitize.
As it turned out, a carved bird collection that had been donated to the town in 1955 in memory of Ann Castonguay by her parents, needed to be relocated from a school in town. The collection was placed in our West Yarmouth branch library, which was also donated to Yarmouth by Mr. and Mrs. Harold Castonguay. The collection of 40 miniature painted birds was carved by the renowned bird carver Russell Pratt of Hingham.
Thinking this collection would be perfect, I sent in my request to the BPL and soon received a visit from the BPL team to assess the collection. In June of 2015, they were packed up and transported to the BPL. By October, all the metadata (which sounds difficult, but it wasn’t) had been submitted and the carved birds were back at the West Yarmouth Library by the end of October. By December, the collection went live on the website and the photographs are beautiful.
To celebrate the Castonguay carved bird collection, there will be birding programs throughout 2016, including a bird carving demonstration, a presentation from an Audubon Naturalist, and children’s bird related programming, too. It was a very easy process and the BPL staff couldn’t have been more helpful. Start looking at your collections for a unique digitization project; you will be thrilled with the end product. Good luck!