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.”
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 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.
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!
By Michael Lapides, Director of Digital Initiatives at New Bedford Whaling Museum
Back in 2012 a team from the Boston Public Library, led by Tom Blake, came to New Bedford to recruit the Museum into the Digital Commonwealth. We are so happy they did! While we had and still have a massive online collections database (over 50,000 records and related images) it is essentially buried, not crawled by search engines, and therefore hidden from a wider public view. Participating in the Digital Commonwealth is a remedy to this lock-out.
Our digitization program started with our whaling logbook and journal collection, 223 are currently available via the Internet Archive, 152 of these are also available via the Digital Public Library of America. We will continue to contribute from our collection of more than 2300 volumes, the largest and finest collection of whaling logbooks and journals in the world. The bulk of these primary sources document American whaling (1754-1925) although British, Australian, Norwegian and Azorean voyages are also included.
Our cartographic collections number around 700 pieces including sea charts used by whaling masters, bound pilot charts and atlases, decorative maps, maps and charts of key geographical regions significant to whaling at different times in history as well as maps and charts of the local Old Dartmouth region. Currently the Digital Commonwealth has 10 examples, representing oceans and whaling cruising grounds. The zooming functionality makes study of their contents possible.
Our manuscript collections (over 140 distinct collections) help to complete the historical picture told through these digitized collections. Currently manuscripts are discoverable online via EAD Finding Aids. We hope someday to digitize and share choice manuscript collections through the good offices of the Boston Public Library and the Digital Commonwealth. These include late 17th century property deeds and indentures through the various mercantile investments and business practices of the agents of whaling and merchant voyages, church records, architecture, personal papers of significant (and lesser known) people of the 19th century and industrial, banking, and modern whaling documentation extending well into the 20th century.
By Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director and Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography
The Digital Commonwealth has changed how Arthur Griffin is seen by our audience. Making Mr. Griffin’s images available on-line after digitizing of a portion of our archives has opened up interest by the public in ways we never thought would happen. We have had inquiries on images from the 1930’s – 1940’s like Connecticut Tobacco Farms, old Boston buildings, Boston Common nativity scenes, Mt Washington’s Weather Observatory to name just a few of the hundreds of requests we now get. We are grateful to the Boston Public Library and the Digital Commonwealth for their efforts and vision.
What we have learned from the efforts of the Boston Public Library and the Digital Commonwealth is that there is much opportunity located within our archives, that continued effort must be made to digitize the whole archive and that resources need to be put in place to manage and fulfill the image requests from the public. On-line our archive can now be enjoyed by everyone. Arthur Griffin would have enjoyed these times.
Wonderful feature on NECN about the Boston Public Library and the Digital Commonwealth! Tom Blake, the Digital Projects Manager at the BPL and David Leonard, Interim President and Director of Administration and Technology, did a wonderful job describing the project, with well-chosen examples showing the digitization process, the Digital Commonwealth site, and some examples of items that have been digitized by Boston, from bathing suits to butterflies!
Guest Post by Anne Clark, Brookline Public Library
In 2015 the Brookline Public Library was able to have their manuscript collection digitized thanks to generosity of the Boston Public Library. Over 400 pages have now been added to the Digital Commonwealth website!
The Manuscript Collection consists of collections of papers related to the town of Brookline, including family papers, letters, deeds, wills, account books, political and military history, church and school documents and various miscellaneous articles.
In addition, The Murivian (short for Muddy River Annual), the Brookline High School Yearbook (1923-2014) was digitized and is available on the Internet Archive. The yearbooks look wonderful and we couldn’t be more thrilled. This was a project that was a long time coming, and well worth the wait!
What’s next? We hope to have our map collection and the Brookline High School newspaper (The Sagamore) join the yearbooks, photographs and manuscripts in digital form!