Blindness and visual impairment have existed as long as humans have. In response, people have long sought to create accessibility aids to help themselves to get around more easily. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the aids used throughout history are similar – if not identical – to those used by visually impaired people today.
The images featured above come from a collection held in the Perkins School for the Blind. Starting in the late 18th century, some blind and visually impaired people were able to attend schools where they were educated in reading, writing, math, science, and the arts, among other subjects. Perkins was the first such school in the United States, founded in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1829. Today, in addition to educating hundreds of students, both on- and off-campus, the school is home to the Hayes Research Library and a unique and diverse collection: The Blind in Art. It holds prints, photographs, and objects depicting blind and visually impaired people from around the world and dating back as far as the 13th century.
Included in many of these items are representations of accessibility aids. Canes are perhaps the most obvious of these, used just as often today as they were throughout history. A Chinese scroll from the 13th century (above, bottom right) and a black-and-white photograph from the 19th century (above, top right) both show a blind man using a cane alongside another accessibility aid. The man in the first print, however, uses his cane to feel the ground in front of him, while the second man uses his for balance or to steady himself. Both works also show their subjects being guided: the former by a dog and the latter by a sighted child. Another guide dog appears in the print A Blind Girl of Rome (above, top left). Although lacking a cane, the girl is guided by a dog as she uses her arms to feel for any obstacles in front of her.
Alongside depictions of genuine accessibility aids and guides, the collection holds allegorical works, which often depict their blind subjects being guided unsafely. For example, The Blind Leading the Blind (above, bottom left) is one of a genre of prints that depict the biblical story known by the same title. While the phrase “the blind leading the blind” is often used metaphorically – to describe listening to or taking advice from someone who also knows nothing about the topic – in this work, the subjects are literally blind. The six blind men are being led astray by each other, all trusting a guide that cannot see. The first two of these men are falling down, tripping over the ground and each other.
The Dance of Death (above, middle) also shows a blind man trusting a dangerous guide: death itself, illustrated as a skeleton. The caption, which reads, “Carefully measuring his steps and unconscious of his perilous situation…” – implies that he is being led into danger. Although both humorous and macabre, these allegorical prints reinforce the importance of good accessibility aids.
Today, accessibility technology is more advanced and often relies on digital technologies. Released in 2015, the smartphone app Be My Eyes helps blind or visually impaired people identify objects or read labels with help from sighted volunteers. Another example is the creation of robotic guide dogs, such as Theia, that do the job of living guide animals without the monetary cost associated with a living creature. An exploration of the Blind in Art collection makes clear that although such modern accessibility aids are groundbreaking, they are merely new versions of technologies that blind people have used for centuries.
-Charlotte Berman, Wheaton College (Norton, MA), Class of 2023
by Maureen Mann, MLS Elementary Library Media Specialist Wellesley Public Schools & member of the Outreach & Education Committee
The University of Massachusetts Lowell (U-Mass Lowell) has created two timely resources for K-12 educators to enhance immigration studies. As the Biden administration works to redefine pathways to citizenship for our southern borders over the coming months, these primary source collections, created by Massachusetts students, underscore the importance of fostering student research and documenting student voices.
The Library of New England Immigrationsneak previewed their platform at a final face to face Digital Commonwealth event, “The Past Goes Modern,” on January 15, 2020 at the U-Mass Lowell campus. The new digital library provides short student-friendly Ken Burns style clips telling the stories of nearly a dozen ethnic groups that immigrated to the Lowell area over the last 400 years. The project is the brainchild of Distinguished Professor of History in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Science Professor Robert Forrant who partnered with Professor Ingrid Hess of the U-Mass Lowell Art and Design Department to secure grants to hire university students as historians, info-graphic designers, and new media journalists to produce these professional works mentored by the U-Mass faculty. Lowell K-12 educators participated in rollout testing and the result is a top-notch teaching resource that is poised to document New England Immigration stories over the next 400 years.
This year students will not visit the mills within the Lowell National Historical Parks, but thankfully this resource—years in the making–launched in the fall of 2020 despite the pandemic to offer a wide scope on the topic minus the bus fees. Even better, it comes with an invitation from the professors to encourage educators to work with students to explore the immigration stories in their students’ own families and communities. The project which both Forrant and Hess describe as a “labor of love” will link system-wide school projects featuring student investigations of community newcomers to the site “in a heartbeat.” Professor Forrant offers K-12 educator professional development for these types of initiatives. For more information contact Robert_Forrant@uml.edu.
Also featured at DC’s “The Past Goes Modern” event, was the U-Mass Libraries Southeast Asian Digital Archive. Within this collection is A City of Refugees, the Memories of Cambodia Collection, circa 1987-1991 from The George N. and Dorothea Tsapataris Collection. Lowell public school ESL teacher, Dorothea Tsapataris, and wife of long-time Lowell Public Schools Superintendent George N. Tsapataris, asked her students to create posters and artwork to help them better understand the History of Lowell Immigration, and to help Lowell better understand them.
These full color digital resources document cultural traditions and memories of Cambodian refugees recently resettled after escaping from their war-torn homeland during the 80’s. The quality of this grade 3-6 artwork is impressive, sometimes shocking. The collection provides an historical link from ESL students of the past to those students living or learning about immigration in the present.
Ms. Tsapataris’ philosophy stated within her project introduction would be as relevant in today’s classroom, “Whether one is a native born Lowellian or born elsewhere, all our ancestral roots are planted beyond the shores of the United States mainland. . . . The Future of Lowell is the children of today and their descendants.”
The collection was preserved with the foresight of former U-Mass Lowell Library Director George Hart who had a passion for digitizing primary source documents received from the community. Using Omeka platforms and Dublin Core metadata standards, the university digital services staff and specialized librarians curated these collections which feature valuable cross reference links to other primary source collections within the U-Mass Library system and the Lowell Historical Museum of History, whose archives catalog is maintained by the university library system.
As the decade turned on an unprecedented pandemic year, Digital Commonwealth continued its work, adding the following collections. Map lovers will rejoice at the newly added offerings of assorted city streets, plans and projects over the decades.
From 1901 to 1987, the MBTA’s elevated Orange Line ran between Chinatown, the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. In 1985, with the demolition of the elevated line looming near, pairs of professional and student photographers set out to document the interconnected people and places that existed along the Orange Line. Over the course of the two-year project, they created a collection of hundreds of photographs that documented the Orange Line’s neighborhoods using different visual and conceptual styles while building an invaluable historical archive of a city in transition.
The project’s impetus began in the 1980s when a proposal to build a federal highway running between Boston’s South and West neighborhoods was met with staunch opposition from the inhabitants of these neighborhoods. The grassroots movement to stop the construction of the highway was successful, but the planned demolition of the elevated portion of the Orange Line to make room for the highway continued.
In anticipation of a change that would geographically and socially shift the lives of Bostonians living and traveling along the Orange Line, a new non-profit organization set out to create a time capsule for the MBTA. The project was organized by UrbanArts, whose mission is to implement public art and unify artists in Boston’s underserved communities.
The resulting photographs range from still and lively, architectural to organic, and personal to removed. Despite their diversity, many of the images pay close attention to often-ignored aspects of life along the Orange Line, noting the drama in the details. A black-and-white photograph taken from a moving, elevated train catches pedestrians as they walk below on Washington Street in Roxbury (above, top left). A street-level image taken directly below the elevated line shows newer means of travel carrying on below the sturdy foundations of the Orange Line (above, bottom right). These photographs juxtapose the old and the new, as modern vehicles and commuters move alongside train tracks built in the early 1900s.
Other images focus on local residents who live along the Orange Line. In Along the El, documentary photographer John Leuders-Booth centers five young Bostonians as the subject of his portrait (above, top right), their stillness at odds with the activity one expects of children. In a more vibrant and lively scene, Lou Jones captures a split-second moment as three girls jump-rope in the streets of Chinatown (above, bottom left). By including portraits of children in the project, Leuders-Booth, Jones, and other photographers affirm the role young people play in the life and livelihood of the Orange Line and the neighborhoods it connects.
As much artistic experiment as time capsule, Along the Elevated: Photographs of the Orange Line presents this urban transportation system through different aesthetic and conceptual lenses. The project demonstrates how the Orange Line’s elevated tracks and trains connect the myriad lived experiences of residents and commuters alike. Today, the collection serves a visual record of Boston’s transportation system at a point of change, making it a resource for educators, researchers, and anyone curious about the city’s history.
-Jeanne Bedard, Wheaton College (Norton, MA), Class of 2022
Jean Maguire, member of Digital Commonwealth’s Outreach & Education Committee, recently interviewed Sharon Hawkes, Director of the Nahant Public Library about the Florence Johnson Herbarium Collection.
Could you please tell us a little about the history, acquisition, and contents of the Florence Johnson Herbarium collection?
Florence “Miss Flossie” Johnson was a school teacher here in Nahant from 1881 to 1927. She taught her pupils about botany by having them collect, identify, and press plants, many of which grew here in Nahant. The collection of 387 mountings and ephemera includes 181 specimens submitted to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s exhibit in 1897, winning a prize for being “most remarkable, both in point of numbers and in the quality of the mounting,” as the Society wrote. The Library acquired the collection at some point, housed in a small wooden chest of drawers. An additional selection of specimens was owned by the Nahant Historical Society, which voted to give their portion to the Library so that the collection would be in one place and could be digitized together.
How did your library come to choose this collection as a digitization priority?
The collection has been languishing in the library’s attic for many years, having become too brittle to be handled. It was important to preserve this piece of Nahant’s history before it deteriorated further. Digitization in Digital Commonwealth enables everyone to enjoy the collection, which is often artistically lovely as well as scientifically informative. In addition, Nahant has deep love of its natural spaces, in a town that has only one square mile of land. As Nahant considers restoring some of its spaces with native species, this collection can help inform them about what grew here 123 years ago. Could you briefly describe how the process of working with Digital Commonwealth and the Boston Public Library went? What steps did the Nahant Public Library have to carry out?
I love working with BPL and Digital Commonwealth! Everyone is very personable and helpful. I worked on numbering and describing each piece and submitted the metadata to Boston to be converted to a format that could be uploaded to Digital Commonwealth. Because our specimens were too fragile to transport, we hired a photographer to make digital images in house, and sent an external hard drive of the images to Digital Commonwealth for uploading.
What, if anything, did your library do to publicize the online availability of the collection?
Digitizing the collection is part of a larger “Nature in Nahant” project, funded by the federal Library Services and Technology Act and overseen by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. The collection was featured in the local paper, the Daily Item, and on local cable and YouTube. We ran a town-wide read of The Stranger in the Woods and talked about our personal need for nature in our lives. And we have been partnering with nine other individuals or organizations, who helped us create a Walk Nahant brochure and publicized our activities among their friends and members.
Have you received any feedback about the collection from the public?
We created an exhibit of nine poster-sized enlargements from the collection along with photos of the plants as they grow here today. Residents from Nahant and surrounding communities have visited to see the exhibit and hear about the collection. Most recently, that included Nahant’s nonagenarian and local history expert, Calantha Sears, who enjoyed the exhibit and the tale of Miss Flossie.
Do you have plans to make other collections available online? If so, what is your process for selecting and prioritizing them?
I would like to do something similar with our art collection, which mainly consists of paintings of Nahant homes and locations from when the town was a vacation hub for Boston’s elite. We also have over 300 volumes of the Library’s original book collection, dating back to 1819, one of the oldest municipal library collections in the country. Finally, there is an archaeological collection of stone tools used by indigenous peoples who came to Nahant seasonally to fish. I think about criteria such as fragility and a need to preserve the items as well as their value to our patrons and to society at large.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Please go see the collection! You can also learn more about it on YouTube. Give us a call and make an appointment to see the exhibit, on display now. Andfollow us on Facebook to learn about what Nahant Public Library will do next to promote “Nature in Nahant” and its archival collections. I would like to thank everyone who has helped work on this project, which made it a pleasure to do.
Of special and timely interest in November’s New Collections are photographs from an exhibit, A Seat at the Table, held in 2019 at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. This colorful and compelling exhibit was inspired by the pioneering firebrand Shirley Chisholm’s call for greater involvement of women, people of color and other activists in policy decision making. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Indeed, Shirley’s chair is a bright yellow folding chair. Conceptual artists created chairs to represent other voices, some from current times such as Congresswomen Ayanna Presley and Deb Haaland, and actress Yara Shahidi. Others depict heroes of the past like abolitionist Lucy Stone, and labor organizer Cesar Chavez. See all 24 images here.
Ellen F. O’Connor was an art teacher in the Boston Public Schools system, teaching at the Prince School and later West Roxbury High School. In addition to her work as an educator, she was a passionate participant in the cultural life of Boston. She was a gifted singer, a soloist at the Mission Church and a member of the Handel and Haydn Society, and also gave an annual lecture on Irish art at the Boston Public Library. An avid world traveler throughout her life, she took advantage of a progressive Boston Public Schools policy to take two sabbatical years to travel and to study and to learn about other cultures. Her personal enrichment served to inspire her many students during the course of her long career.
This collection includes small, medium, and large format negatives taken by Boston press photographers dating from the 1920s through the early 1970s. It was amassed by photojournalist Dennis Brearley during the course of his career as a working photographer. From 1978 to 2012, Mr. Brearley and his wife Susan ran a photo gallery in Faneuil Hall selling prints from his photographs and the work of other press photographers in his collection. In 2013, Hunt Auctions began the process of selling the collection in lots. The Ten Pounds Collection, as it is affectionately dubbed, was purchased at auction by John Booras, a local Boston collector and amateur historian. The nickname of the collection is derived from the lot description, which consisted of the remainders of the original collection that were not deemed marketable; the lot was described and sold by weight rather than content.
The Tichnor Brothers Collection contains approximately 25,000 office proofs of postcards of the United States published by the Boston firm Tichnor Brothers Inc. These are color postcards with a linen texture dated ca. 1930-1945. The concentration is on American vacation places.
Alfred W. Cutting (1860-1935), although born and educated in Boston, had a deep connection to Wayland. Five generations of Cuttings had lived in Wayland since the arrival of his great-great-great-grandfather in 1713. His father, Charles Cutting, owned considerable property along Old Sudbury Road and the family was often there despite the fact that both Alfred and his father worked in Boston (Charles as a stationer and Alfred as a bank teller). Alfred got to know many people in his neighborhood of Old Sudbury Road and Glezen Lane and frequented the home of his childhood idol, Lydia Maria Child — the noted abolitionist and author — and her husband David Lee Child. Later he and his sister, Marcia, lived in her former home.
Cutting’s contributions to Wayland are lasting. He served as Wayland’s unofficial historian in the early 20th century, giving speeches and writing pamphlets on its past. For many years he served as a trustee of the Wayland Public Library and was active in the First Parish Church. In 1905, he founded the Society of Wayland Arts and Crafts.
Digital Commonwealth had a busy August with some new collections and additions to existing collections. Of the new offerings, Nahant Public Library’s Florence Johnson Herbarium collection brings the specimens collected and painstakingly mounted by Miss Flossie Johnson and her grade school students over her long career (1881-1927). Most notable are the specimens stamped “Mass Horticultural Soc., Boston, Nov. 26, 1897.” These were entered into the Horticultural Society’s exhibition, winning a prize of $6 for being “most remarkable, both in point of numbers  and the quality of the mounting,” according to the Society’s booklet for that year. In today’s dollars, that prize is about $200.00.