“The Birthplace of Robert Burns” found on Jones’s Cabinet Edition of Select British Poets, Vol. 2,
Boston Public Library, Rare Books Department

To honor the Scottish poet Robert Burns on his birthday, we present two delicate works of art painted on the fore-edges of books of his poetry.

Digital Commonwealth’s Massachusetts Online Collections include Boston Public Library’s collection of Fore-Edge Paintings. The paintings are ”visible only when the pages of the book are carefully fanned, in the same manner as when the artist was painting the picture. When the book is closed the painting disappears under the gold leaf of the edge . . . The work itself is done in watercolor, very dryly.” The books with fore-edge paintings were collected by Albert H. Wiggin between 1945 and 1951, and donated to the Boston Public Library at the time of his death in 1951.

Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland. His birthday is celebrated all over the world with Burns suppers and Burns Night activities.

“A View of the Bridge of Ayr” found on Jones’s Cabinet Edition of Select British Poets, Vol. 1,
Boston Public Library, Rare Books Department
Dr. Matteo Caradonna administers polio vaccine

In the last blog post, we mentioned that with more people being vaccinated, crowds would once again be gathering. Not so fast, said COVID.

As we enter our third pandemic year now with the fierce Omicron variant infecting even fully vaxxed individuals, we need to re-adjust our activities once again. Additional booster shots will probably become the norm in the months and years to come. More vaccine drives and clinics will be held. Our featured image at left shows an Everett Public School student begin vaccinated against polio in 1954.

In 2021, changes at Digital Commonwealth have also been in the works. New collections have been on pause while conversion to an enhanced storage platform is in process. As Digital Commonwealth nears the 1 million item mark, this upgrade is essential.

Our longtime Membership  & Conference Manager Glynda Benham has retired and new Operations Manager Anne Callahan has joined Digital Commonwealth. Thanks, Glynda for your expertise and fantastic management of both in-person and virtual annual conferences. Enjoy your well deserved retirement! Welcome, Anne!

This blog welcomes a new contributor, Barbara Schneider of the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries. Barbara retired from full-time work but continues at the Law Libraries on a per diem basis. Barbara currently serves on the Outreach and Education Committee. She’s got some intriguing posts planned in the next several weeks. Welcome, Barbara! Have fun exploring Digital Commonwealth.

As for me, I’m stepping away from the blog but will remain on the Outreach and Education Committee, chaired by colleagues Andrew Begley and Matt Amory. I’ll continue to post on social media, finding and sharing hidden gems within the treasure chest that is Digital Commonwealth.

Anne Berard, Member Outreach & Education Committee

Reference & Outreach Librarian, Milford Town Library


Mayor Kevin White is mobbed by Golden Agers at the annual club picnic on Castle Island, South Boston
Bird’s eye view of crowds in Post Office Square


Massachusetts’ high COVID vaccination rate means that gatherings and crowds will once again be a common occurrence. For the best in vintage crowd photography, be it parades, demonstrations, protests and rallies, The Brearley Collection is the place to browse.

Recently, some additional images were added to the already voluminous collection of photographs and negatives from Boston press photographers from the 1920s to the 1970s. The collection’s namesake, Dennis Brearley worked among the photojournalists and he amassed a huge amount of material. He and his wife ran a gallery at Faneuil Hall from 1978 to 2012, selling prints of Boston’s History.

Boston Public Library



by Anne Berard, Reference & Outreach Librarian, Milford Town Library, member Digital Commonwealth Education & Outreach Committee

When I first saw the name of the recently added collection, Knapp Family Financial Records from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, I must admit I was expecting something else altogether.  I thought I might find wills, codicils, estate documents, tax filings and the like. Imagine my surprise and delight to find instead an intimate and workaday glimpse into the life of a middle class family from JP during the first half of the 20th century.

While I’ve never met the Knapps of 15 Holbrook St., by perusing their receipts for life insurance premiums, their notices from the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston, billing statements from the Centre Street Public Market, and their deposit books from the Eliot Savings Bank of Roxbury, I somehow slid into their lives. George, Emma, Robert, Daisy are there in the details. Robert’s Navy Plaid Suit, cleaned at Lewandos, with  starched vest. A  Degree of Pocahontas Resolutions of Respect from the Baboosic Council # 7 of Roxbury issued in Daisy’s memory.

Aside from the sartorial and emotional elements in these records, there is much economic detail here proving that the inflation rate has always a part of consumers’ lives. For example, in 1910 for the grand sum of $116.05, you could buy two tables,  five chairs, a bureau, a bed,  and  a rocker from Jordan Marsh Company. Today, those same items would cost thousands of dollars.

I encourage other history geeks like me to spend some time with the Knapps, looking through these records, living vicariously on Holbrook St. for a little while. So much is different in 2021 from 1921. Still, the necessities: food, shelter, clothing, utilities and plaid suits remain the same.




Pond Street. Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Oak View Terrace













* re-harvest

The Outreach and Education Committee has created Primary Source Sets for educators to align with the National Council for the Social Studies curriculum themes. Drawing on the rich resources available within Digital Commonwealth, the Committee mined for the best examples to support a given theme.

Teachers can supplement lesson plans with the use of photographs, manuscripts, maps, letters to make history jump off students’ screens. For example, within the Production, Distribution, and Consumption set,  students can learn about the significant industries within the Commonwealth–perhaps even where some of their grandparents or great-grandparents worked.  Discover the Hyde Violin Factory in Northampton, The Grosvenor’s Apothecary in Peabody, The Table Top pie factory in Worcester and the American Waltham Watch Factory.

The set also reveals the distribution systems for getting materials necessary for these industries and  later, sending their finished goods to market with photographs of the Mystic River cargo containers, with added relevance when compared with the recent massive cargo ship stuck in Suez Canal.  And, of course, the numerous shops, large and small as well as the shopping malls where the items were purchased.

The Outreach and Education Committee urges teachers in all grades, especially middle and high school to make use of these Primary Source Sets and perhaps share some of their experiences using Digital Commonwealth with their students and successful lesson plans. The Committee would also like to know what other sets or resources educators would like to see. Please send feedback to outreach@digitalcommonwealth.org.

Boston Public Library

Cape Cod Community College

Barnstable Patriot Photograph Collection, 1931-1978 (1,223 items)*

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives

Commonwealth v. Sacco and Vanzetti (763 items)

Wilbraham Public Library

Wilbraham Library Trustees Minutes (353 items)

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

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.