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

Bibliography
Be My Eyes. “Our Story.” https://www.bemyeyes.com/about

Digital Commonwealth. “Blind in Art Collection.” https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/collections/commonwealth:pr76ff99b

Perkins School for the Blind. “Hayes Research Library.” https://www.perkins.org/history/visit/research-library

Assistive Technology. “Prototype: “Theia” Is A Robotic Guide Dog That Helps Blind People Navigate.” https://assistivetechnologyblog.com/2020/10/prototype-theia-is-a-robotic-guide-dog-that-helps-blind-people-navigate.html

NPR. “Help A Blind Person Identify Everyday Things, Via Smartphone App.” https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/12/15/459870958/help-a-blind-person-identify-everyday-things-via-smartphone-app

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 Immigration sneak 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.  

Cambodia compared with Lowell

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.

Boston Public Library

Boston Redevelopment Authority Collection (130 items)

Architectural styles, Chinatown historic core, historic edge

Boston Public Library

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection (11 items)* * items added to existing collection

Historic New England

12 new collections; 51,007 new items*

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Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

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. And follow 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.

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Raffi Freedman-Gurspan

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Shirley Chisholm

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Ayanna Pressley

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Lucy Stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate – A Seat at the Table (24 items)

Boston Public Library – Charles J. Connick Records: Gouaches (1 item)*

Boston Public Library – The Liberator (Boston, Mass. : 1831-1865) (837 items)*

Malden Public Library – Malden Houses (286 items)

Uxbridge Historical Society – Child Support Bond (1 item)

 

 

 

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Ptelea Trilfoliata aka Shrubby Trefoil

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 [184] 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.

Jamaica Plain Historical Society

Lawrence Public Library

Nahant Public Library

Springfield College Archives and Special Collections

*item added to an existing collection

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from the Alison Laing Pin Collection

Kewpie Outside of Salon Kewpie
Kewpie Outside of Salon Kewpie

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Marie Høeg sitting with a cigarette

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San Diego Union article

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Akihiro Miwa in Black Lizard (1968)

by Anne Berard

Reference & Outreach Services Librarian, Milford Town Library

The Digital Commonwealth mostly archives materials relating to Massachusetts, harvesting and hosting content related to its residents, communities and institutions. Some collections, however, have a wider scope.

The hosted Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) is one such repository.

Bringing together photographs, publications, clippings & ephemera from more than 60 academic, social, cultural and private archives, the DTA provides a kaleidoscopic and fascinating portal into transgender history.

DTA grew out of Project Director K.J. Rawson’s own frustrations while working on his PhD.  In an interview with them, Rawson explained .”When doing research, I had a hard time figuring out where to find significantly-sized collections of transgender historical materials. And it wasn’t just my limitations as a researcher; there are some structural barriers that make transgender history quite difficult. So I ended up trying to brainstorm a resource that could help people in a similar situation.”

Rawson, formerly taught at Holy Cross and now is an Associate Professor of English, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University.  He notes that ” the term ‘transgender’ is so ubiquitous in a Western context right now, but it’s also a really new term. Taken together, that actually creates a really difficult research situation for contemporary researchers, because few people are actually familiar with all of the other terminology that’s been used throughout history to describe experiences of transgressing gender norms. So part of what we’re doing is taking language that is commonly used, and using that as a gateway to find materials for which that language would never be used.”

The Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) can be a powerful tool to expand awareness and educate people, especially during this time of expanding national conversation and re-examination of  how people talk about and treat one another.  Digital Commonwealth invites you to explore further.

 

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Sand diggers on the beach

Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection (1,461 items)*  items added to existing collection (re-harvest)

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.

https://cityofboston.access.preservica.com/uncategorized/IO_6a7f3b92-6833-4b2d-bfd4-73d4a0c3ee7a/
City Hospital roof garden

Boston City Archives 15 new collections; 3,075 new records) * 

The Boston City Archives preserves and provides access to the historic records of Boston’s city government.  Our collections include City Council records, mayoral records, and departmental records and our records document many of Boston’s significant historical moments.

Northeastern University Libraries (7 new collections; 17,918 new records) *

The Northeastern University Library supports the mission of the University by working in partnership with the University community to develop and disseminate new scholarship. The Library fosters intellectual and professional growth, enriches the research, teaching, and learning environment, and promotes the effective use of knowledge by managing and delivering information resources and services to library users.

Boston Public Library

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The Big Drum

Boston Pictorial Archive (Collection of Distinction (310 items)* added to existing collection

The Boston Pictorial Archive is one of the largest distinct collections of images related to Boston held by a public institution and the essential resource for Boston architectural, social, and neighborhood history. It includes more than 6,000 images on paper representing the visual history of the city of Boston from the colonial era through the 20th century, the majority of which are original photographic prints dating from the 1850s to the last decade of the 20th century.

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Townsend’s Patent Folding Globe

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection (12 items)* added to existing collection

The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library is dedicated to the creative educational use of its cartographic holdings, which extend from the 15th century to the present. In pursuit of its mission, the Center collects and preserves maps and atlases, promotes research in the collection, and makes its resources available to the public through its website, exhibitions, publications, lectures, and other programs.