Beacon Street Diary blog

New England's Hidden Histories: model for independent libraries

I had always known that there was a Congregational Library in London, but not much more than that. Over the past several years I've also thought about compiling a list of reasons for a visit — curiosity if nothing else — but the moment always seemed to escape.

Now the other Congregational Library is a reality. In November I traveled to London with Jeff Cooper, the Oklahoma State history professor who has made New England's Hidden Histories possible. Jeff and I were part of a day-long workshop on, yes, Congregational church records, along with scholars from France, Italy, and Great Britain. We were invited by Jeff's former student, Joel Halcomb, who is now teaching in East Anglia. It seems a little surprising that European scholars would have some of the same issues rescuing and preserving old church records — certainly history is a lot more present in a centuries-old city like London than even in Boston — but that was nothing compared to the discovery that Jeff and I were there as resident experts and our project a model they hoped they would one day emulate.

Dr. Joel Halcomb, conference organizer; Dr. Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library & Archives in Boston; Dr. James F. Cooper, Professor of History, Oklahoma State University; and Dr. David Wykes, director of the Congregational Library in London

This was even clearer the next day, when Jeff and I presented our work in a public conference held at Dr. Williams's Library, which houses the original collection of the English Congregational Library, founded in 1831. We met in a large drawing room with old portraits and tall windows (sound familiar?), a gathering of scholars, laypeople, and more graduate students than I would have ever imagined. When I saw the array of learned British faces I was a little worried that our presentations weren't academic enough to pass muster — but the opposite was true. Our hosts were absolutely intrigued with our project — more than one library director came up to me during lunch to say "we need to do what you are doing."

That was the real reward for me: we have been working away at our project for nearly ten years on a shoestring budget, and wondering if we'd ever make an impact. Thanks to the New York Times article, and just recently a piece on the BBC, we are no longer an obscure and struggling little outfit; we've chalked up some amazing finds and found some fantastic allies. But in many ways our real accomplishment is perseverance. Over the years, with the help of Jeff, the Jonathan Edwards Center, and our determined library staff, we have managed to build something unique. New England's Hidden Histories is an ambitious and successful digital program, carried out by a small independent library without the benefit of university funding, a large endowment, or cheap student labor. Yes, we've kind of figured things out along the way, sometimes in fits and starts and down a few cul-de-sacs, but we've kept at it. Will our model work in other small libraries? Maybe so and I hope we have the opportunity to find this out — but in the end, it's a vision carried out patience and persistence. True, we have a long, long way to go and a great need for long-term outside funding, but we've already come a long way on persistence, a quality our hard-working archivists, crack development staff, and dedicated student volunteers have in absolute abundance.