Beacon Street Diary

December 6, 2021

Libraries, museums, galleries, and archives are not just repositories of physical materials anymore. For every book published, a digital copy also exists. For every record printed to paper, another document is stored on a hard drive. For every traditional painting, another exists as a PSD (Photoshop’s proprietary file format). Digital objects, whether born-digital or created as a digital surrogate to a physical object, are now a part of every repository’s collections. This means that, just as we create programming and projects around our physical collections, we must create programming and projects around our digital holdings based on the needs and wants of our user communities.

Digital projects are wholly unique affairs which bring with them unique opportunities. We cannot treat digital projects as we might projects involving physical materials. For starters, by their very nature, digital objects may be changed. We can only interact with physical objects using our senses; in order to see a physical object one must go to that object’s location. Digital objects though may be seen and interacted with even across great distances within digital spaces.

Digital access is an incredibly important opportunity born from the nature of digital holdings. The last twenty months have only reinforced just how important digital access is for repositories; digital access to some portion of our collections is necessary in order to maintain and grow a user base, especially when physical access to collections is impossible. But opportunities do not exist solely in the transmission of digital objects online. Digital objects can be transformed and transmuted in order to create unique experiences that cannot be replicated with physical objects. We can use digital spaces to create online exhibits that are unique in their presentation when compared to a physical exhibit, or even create an art installation. Digital spaces also offer a chance to create collaborations that would otherwise be impossible working only with physical materials.

The New England’s Hidden Histories project at the Congregational Library & Archives is special in large part because collaboration has, and continues to be, a significant part of the project. The CLA has collaborated with numerous cultural institutions and worked with many different church communities and these collaborations have only been made possible because of the digital nature of the project. The end result is a collection that enhances the user experience because NEHH draws on the resources of numerous institutions and organizations.

NEHH has long looked towards existing church communities for collaborative opportunities. Many of the oldest Congregational Churches in New England still worship today and continue to maintain their own records. Our work in NEHH has offered us many opportunities to work with some of these churches and communities, to identify and select records for digitization from within their collections, and make these records, which would otherwise be largely inaccessible to people outside the church community, widely available to a larger public. Working and collaborating with church communities is not only about making records available though. These collaborative opportunities also bring with them opportunities to create ongoing relationships with new communities which can grow and enrich our own existing user communities.

As the NEHH project has grown in scope over the years, we have also worked to grow new partnerships with other museums, libraries, and archives. This project has given us an incredible opportunity to reach out to some of these organizations to gather, digitally, many of these important records, into a single central place. Where physically you’d have related materials across multiple locations, each with their own access policies, digitally you can bring these materials all together and easily accessible. This is a huge boon for researchers. And not just the CLA’s users, but the users of every organization involved in the project. These collaborations too provide opportunities to reach new audiences and build cross community excitement. The nature of the project pushes users to discover the greater holdings of every organization involved. Every organization has a unique user population, and these collaborations provide each organization the opportunity to reach out to these populations and introduce them to new resources and user experiences.

New England’s Hidden Histories is a project that could not exist if it were not a digital project. The opportunities to gather these historic resources from numerous organizations into a single digital repository is an enormous boon to researchers, genealogists, students, and anyone interested in colonial and early-American New England. On the front of access, this is already huge; visiting multiple different organizations can be both time consuming and expensive. But by gathering all of these resources into a single digital space, the user can access these without needing to visit each organization individually. Further, because everything is in a single digital archive, we can encourage comparative research across collections; for example it is not uncommon to find ministerial correspondence from the same minister in otherwise unrelated collections from different organizations or churches. Growing this collection collaboratively also means that there are many more points of access to guide users and communities to our collections. For example, if you had only a single church collection, perhaps you would only have one town name as a point of geographic access. But because our collaborations have allowed us to diversify the geographic scope of New England’s Hidden Histories beyond what our single organization could do alone, we have many more geographic access points across the whole of New England. And if you can bring someone in with one point of access, they can then discover the larger scope of the collection. Collaboration has made the whole far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Digital projects bring with them opportunities that you would never have working solely with physical materials. And when these opportunities align with the needs and wants of your known and potential communities of users, the effects can be transformative for these communities. Digital projects can change, sometimes subtly and sometimes wholly, how people interact with and use the resources available at a library, archive, museum, or gallery. In the case of our New England’s Hidden Histories project we have had opportunities to collaborate with church communities and partner with cultural institutions. These collaborations have resulted in a large and multi-faceted digital collection that brings together the unique resources of each contributor and will help to tell, and even shape, the story of life in early New England for years to come.

December 2, 2021

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

At a specialty library like the Congregational Library, where most of the books in our collection are not the sort of thing you’d find at your local public library, how do we decide what qualifies as rare? The CLA has a circulating collection, a non-circulating collection, and a “Rare Books” collection. “Rare Books” tend to be our most valuable items, which is why we keep them in the enhanced security of our Rare Book Room. We even have “The Cage” where the most valuable of our rare books are located. Our circulating collection consists of books printed in the last 35 years. The non-circulating collection is basically everything else. Some items in our rare books collection were placed there immediately after we acquired them while others were relocated from the non-circulating collection in the stacks.

Why would we move something from the stacks into the Rare Book Room?  There’s the standard definition: a rare book is scarce or otherwise hard to come by. Many rare books are old--the older some thing is, the less likely it is to have survived to the present day. But a book does not need to be old in order to be rare. Similarly, many rare books are valuable, since scarcity tends to drive up prices, but this is only true so long as a book is in demand. You can have the last remaining copy of On the Training and Taming of Llamas, but unless there are other people interested in historical llama domestication practices, the book will not be very valuable.

Many of the library’s books could be considered rare. This is one of the reasons why our circulating collection is limited to books printed in the last 35 years. At a small library with a very particular topical focus like ours, many books are from small religious publishers printed in small quantities. Many of them are now out of print which would make replacing them if they become damaged or lost difficult.

Unlike college or public libraries, the stacks at the CLA are “closed,” meaning only the staff have access and will retrieve books for patrons. This gives us an added layer of security and protection for all of our material and this means we can be more selective about which items require the added measures that the rare book room provides. Additionally, while the environment of the stacks is controlled for temperature and humidity, there are bound to be some fluctuations in such a large space that won’t always be caught quickly. The Rare Book Room is a smaller area with a climate that can be more tightly controlled for the books and archival materials which are the most fragile.

Right now, as we prepare to move the Rare Book Collection back into the Rare Book Room now that the renovation has been completed, we are taking all of these factors into account. Space in the Rare Book Room is limited and in “The Cage” more limited still, so we assess how valuable an item is in terms of how much money it is worth, but also how central it is to the library’s mission. We consider the age and physical stability of an item. We consider grouping similar items together so they can be co-located, such as facsimiles and their originals.Like a parent, I may think all of our books are special, but ‘rare’ is best measured in differences of degree rather than of kind, and sorted out in a process that is sometimes more art than science.

November 22, 2021

A guest blog by Francis J. Bremer

Sometime in the Fall of 1621, four hundred years ago, after over a year of suffering and the deaths of many of their number, the English puritans of the newly settled Plymouth Colony, whom we often refer to as the Pilgrims, gathered to celebrate a successful harvest.  Long described as the “First Thanksgiving,” over the past decades countless articles have challenged traditional descriptions of the event.  Was it or was it not the first?  Was it or was it not a religious observation? 

There exist two accounts of the event.  One was a brief notation by Governor William Bradford in his history Of Plimoth Plantation. The other was a slightly longer account in a letter by the colonist Edward Winslow.  It is Winslow who provides the information that during the celebration, which lasted for days, about ninety members of the Wampanoag people, led by their Massasoit Ousamequin, joined the colonists and contributed five deer to the feast.

The issue of whether this was the “first” thanksgiving is easily disposed of.  Thanksgiving celebrations were commonplace.  At this time virtually all Europeans recognized no boundary between the material and the spiritual.  Everyone saw a supernatural dimension to the events of everyday life and acknowledged this by offering thanks to God for personal blessings such as the birth of as child, the recovery of a loved one from illness, or a successful harvest.  Governments and churches appointed special days of thanksgivings.  Most of the Pilgrims were old enough to have been among the Englishmen who celebrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  Believing that God was responsible for good fortune, there were many gatherings to offer thanks in the early Spanish and English New World colonies, one at least as early as 1541. In fact, the passengers on the Mayflower had offered thanks in 1620 upon safely reaching the shores of Cape Cod.  The fact that such events were common should erase any doubts that the Plymouth 1621 event had a religious base.  And a description of a later Plymouth colony thanksgiving (in Scituate) demonstrates the combination of prayer followed by a meal.

As for the Native presence at the Pilgrim thanksgiving of 1621, we don’t know if the Wampanoags were invited to the feast or whether, as some have argued, they heard the firing of guns by the English and came to investigate.  The devastation wrought by epidemic diseases introduced in the previous decades by European explorers offered little for the Wampanoag to be thankful for, and even less had they been able to foresee the ultimate consequences of colonization. But whatever explains their presence, they would have recognized what was happening, because they too believed that divine powers shaped their fortunes.   They had their own rituals that included feasting and exchanges of goods at the time of the corn harvest.

It was the presence of the Natives that distinguishes this occasion from the former European thanksgivings in the New World.  With their faith rooted in the Bible, the Pilgrims were well aware of the instruction in Deuteronomy 16: 13-14 that in celebrating bountiful harvests the Jewish people should include the strangers within their gates.  And so, on those days in the Fall of 1621, something briefly occurred from which we can learn.  The newcomers and the original inhabitants of the land demonstrated that it was possible for people who were different in many respects to live in peace. 

Francis J. Bremer is Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and the author of numerous books on the puritans, including the recent One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginnings of English New England (Oxford, 2020).

October 22, 2021

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls records, 1824-2012, contains many thousands of words. The collection contains a vast trove of photographs from throughout the church’s history, though especially from the later half of the twentieth century. These photographs contain many hundreds of memories of the people, places, and events that make up the history of the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls.

These photographs also provide us windows into the traditions and happenings of the past. Many pieces of forgotten americana and old memories are certainly held within the collection. Among my personal favorites though are two images of youths, wearing sports uniforms and football helmets, carrying a basketball, and atop donkeys. These are two pictures of an exhibition sport known as donkey basketball.

Donkey basketball is certainly a unique piece of americana. Generally held as a special fundraising event, donkey basketball is very much what the name suggests, basketball, but the players are all riding atop donkeys. There is no dribbling, the teams are smaller, and to touch the basketball, one must be atop their steed. Donkey basketball dates all the way back to the 1930s, though the peak of donkey basketball was likely during the 1960s or 70s. Donkey basketball does still occur across America, though it’s popularity as a fundraising event has waned, especially in the 21st century due in large part over concerns for the welfare of the donkeys.

While we might not be able to identify the names of the youths atop the donkeys, nor do we know the exact date of these two photographs, it does not detract at all from the importance of these memories in photograph form. Photographs, first physical and now digital, have become one of the most important tools for people, and churches, to document daily life. Where once written word really was one of the only ways to consistently learn about daily life, photographs provide significant insights into the lives of 20th and 21st century persons. And as the donkey photographs show, these photographs can teach us about the various traditions and events once held in places which may have since become otherwise forgotten.

The mission of the CLA is to preserve the memories of the churches whose records are held at the CLA. Memories are stored in all types of records, from the memories of parish decisions kept in ledger books, to the memories of important life events found in vital records, to the memories of pastors found within church communications and sermon notes. And of course, you have the memories of church life found in photographs and scrapbooks. All these memories are precious and important, and we take these memories seriously all throughout the process of acquisition and processing. During acquisition, we try to ensure that we capture as much of a church’s documented memory as possible. And during processing, we not only ensure that descriptions make visible these memories in the finding aid, but also ensure that the materials are stored in ways that guarantee their long-term preservation. As an example, bond paper, a type of archival safe paper, is interleaved between every photograph to help ensure the long-term preservation of those photographs in the South Hadley Falls collection.

When looking through the photographs of the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls, the two photographs of donkey basketball stood out to me, in large part because they showed me a type of event that I had no idea existed before seeing these pictures. But any one set of photographs could have captured my imagination and curiosity. And its for that very reason, that sense of discovery and excitement, that we are so honored to be a repository of these memories.

October 22, 2021

by William McCarthy, Reference & Processing Archivist

Today, we wanted to highlight a new book being released soon titled “Titus Coan: Apostle to the Sandwich Islands” by Phil Corr. This book is the first full biography on Coan and his work.

The book is slated for release in November of this year and we wanted to highlight it on behalf of the author. Phil first learned about Titus Coan while working on his dissertation related to the first thirty years of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. His research on Coan ramped up in 2009 and this book is the final result of that work.

The following is from the description of the book: “Phil Corr provides a tour de force by writing for both the biography reader and the scholar. In this hybrid work he vividly portrays the life of Titus Coan, “the pen painter,” while also filling gaps in the scholarship. These gaps include: the volume itself (no full-length published book has previously been written on Titus Coan) and the following chapters - “Patagonia,” “Peace” and “Other Religions.” Using the unpublished thesis by Margaret Ehlke and many other primary and secondary sources, he significantly deepens the understanding of Coan in many areas. This book is presented to the future reader for the purposes of edification and increasing scholarship of this man who lived an incredible life during incredible times.”

Reach out to us at if you want to get connected with the author. Have a great day!

October 1, 2021

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

Is there anything better than that new book smell? Maybe new old book smell and fortunately, at the Congregational Library, I regularly get to experience both. Recently, the library staff came together to discuss some suggestions for new material to be added to the circulating collection.

Deciding what to add to the library’s collection is a complex process. For our circulating collection, we look for books that are relevant to our mission and books that will help support research into the library’s primary sources. The staff also takes into account gaps in our collection and try to predict what will be useful to researchers in the future while balancing all of this with a limited budget. This time we were able to purchase nearly all of the staff suggestions. Here are some of our favorites:

Doomed Romance: Broken Hearts, Lost Souls, and Sexual Tumult in Nineteenth Century America by Christine Leigh Heyrman

This book is the staff’s next book club pick. The book depicts the case of a young woman seeking to become a foreign missionary caught in a love triangle who has her reputation impugned by a jilted suitor. Who can resist some juicy historical gossip? But this isn’t just a 19th century soap opera. Doomed Romance examines the role women played in foregin missionary work and what made them suitable (or not) for such a vocation. It also features many of the subjects of our reading room portraits in leading roles.




Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880 by Phillip H. Round

Removable Type features the CLA’s own copy of the “Eliot Indian Bible”, the first Bible printed in the United States which was printed not in English, but in an Algonquin dialect. From the back cover blurb: “Removable Type Showcases the varied ways that Native peoples produced and utilized printed texts over time, approaching them as both opportunity and threat.” Given the significance of early interactions between Congregational colonizers with Native peoples that extend into the 19th century, this book has a lot of relevance to the collection beyond the Eliot Bible.




Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War by David E. Swift.

This book was recommended to us by Richard Taylor, author of The Churches of Christ of the Congregational Way in New England as well as other regional indexes, an invaluable resource. Black Prophets of Justice describes the lives and contributions of several Black Congregational ministers, stories that have been otherwise untold.

All of these titles are available to be  borrowed by members of the library. You can search for them (and more!) in our online catalog. If you have a suggestion for a book to add to the collection, please write to us at

September 27, 2021

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

If you have ever walked into an archive knowing exactly which box and folder you want from a multi-box archival collection, then you likely have used a finding aid. But what exactly is the finding aid, beyond a bundle of paper that is nearly synonymous to archives themselves? For whom are finding aids made? And who even decides what is found inside of a finding aid? Well, my hope is to answer these questions while providing some insight into the how, and why, of archival work.

Finding aids, at their most basic level, are documents which contain details about the content, structure, and nature of archival collections. Said another way, finding aids are the means by which collection-level metadata can be parsed and understood by an external user. (Once again, it all comes back to metadata.) As such, finding aids are best described as organizational tools which are created by archivists to help external users both understand the history of a collection and the contents within with the goal of helping users discover materials.

The types of metadata found within a finding aid generally fall into one of three categories, descriptive metadata, administrative metadata, and structural metadata. Descriptive metadata describes the collection’s historical and physical history and provides important context for the collection’s creator(s) and subject area(s). Descriptive metadata includes such fields as the historical and scope notes, which provide historical context and an overview of the collection’s contents respectively, and the various authority record fields which broadly describe the who, what, and where of a collection’s creation. Administrative metadata meanwhile describes how a collection might be used by end users. Information about copyright, use, access restrictions, and how a collection should be cited are all contained here. Finally, structural metadata describes how a collection is physically, and intellectually, organized. This is the collection inventory which often makes up the bulk of a finding aid. That inventory describes the organizational structure of the collection, and if fully processed, will often describe, down to the folder level, the contents of the collection. This, arguably, makes the structural metadata the most important component of the finding aid as it has the greatest direct impact on a user’s ability to actually find, and use, what they are looking for.

Above I’ve described some of the fields and information you typically find within a finding aid, but how do archivists know what to include in finding aids? And how have archivists made the act of using a finding aid a fairly universal experience? The short answer is professional standardization at the national and international levels. In 1983, the Library of Congress published Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts (APPM), the first major content standard for archival description. A revised edition was adopted by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in 1989. However, without many rules or requirements, APPM, while largely adopted, still left most archives to default to local standards quite often. This, and the fact that APPM was solely a national standard, did little to help the growing problem of inconsistent descriptive practices across the globe. General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)) was meant to be the international solution to this problem. ISAD(G) was first adopted by the International Council on Archives (ICA) in 1994. A major revision of ISAD(G) was adopted in 2000 and this remains the internationally accepted content standard for archival description to this day. While many of the elements of ISAD(G) look similar to those found in APPM, ISAD(G) did much to standardize content and prescribed certain fields required for a minimally compliant finding aid. In the United States, with APPM now not necessarily adhering to international standards, work began on a new national standard which would be fully compatible with ISAD(G). The result of this work was Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) and it was first adopted by the SAA in 2004 and became the official US implementation of ISAD(G). When it was first published, DACS was closely aligned to Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2), a now depreciated cataloging standard for libraries. DACS underwent a major revision in 2013 in part to more closely align with Resource Description and Access (RDA), the successor to AACR2. DACS continues to be updated as archival practice changes and adopts, though 2013 remains the last time the standard was significantly updated.

The wide adoption of first ISAD(G) at the international level followed by DACS at the national level is why most finding aids created in the 21st-century all look similar. The proliferation of archives management software, such as the now de facto ArchivesSpace, in the latter half of the 2010s has only reinforced the standardization of finding aids. This standardization is incredibly important for the field; while local practices can be incorporated to best serve the unique needs of a repository’s users, standardization ensures uniformity of experience across repositories and interoperability further ensures that finding aids may be aggregated. In other words, standardization has increased accessibility to archives by standardizing user experiences and creating rules that normalize the use of access points, terms, and contents.

Now all of this isn’t to say that DACS is inflexible. As noted above, local practices can be incorporated into DACS. Furthermore, the prescribed minimums for single and multi-level archival descriptions are fairly, well, minimal. At the CLA however, we tend towards following what is known as “Optimal” description for our minimum. Optimal description includes additional fields which fall outside of the minimum requirements which generally provide additional contextual information for the collection and additional points of access, such as a stronger focus on including comprehensive subject headings. The intent to follow optimal as our minimum level of description is especially important for us. Congregationalist records are unique and often complex. In order to provide access to these specialized records, we need to create descriptions that will allow both seasoned researchers and curious amateurs to find the materials they are looking for. Hence, we rely on an expanded minimum for all of our descriptions.

Which brings us back, nicely, to the primary point of the finding aid: the finding aid is a tool made for archives users that allows them to find, and use, the materials they want. While the process of “processing” a collection has many purposes, including internal, the finding aid itself is ultimately created entirely for the end-user. And while the how and what of creating finding aids has changed over the years, typically to reflect larger changes in the field as a whole, the focus has and will continue to remain on providing access to the user.

May 28, 2021

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Work continues apace with moving our digital New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) collections over into our new Quartex digital asset management (DAM) system. We are now about nearly complete with phase two of the project! Which keeps us on schedule for our initial launch in the fall of 2021. Some fun facts, we have uploaded almost 60,000 images into Quartex now across 960 individual items. I cannot properly describe how excited we are for our eventual launch. Instead, I can talk about metadata! Our day-to-day work with Quartex involves creating new metadata for each digital object. So today I wanted to talk a bit about how the Congregational Library & Archives (CLA) creates metadata for digital objects and, more specifically, how the CLA created a custom metadata schema for digital objects from a plethora of outside sources and the customizable tools provided by Quartex.

Metadata is intrinsically connected to the work of librarians and archivists. But what exactly is metadata? The dictionary definition for metadata is “data that provides information about other data” or put simply “data about data.” But even that definition feels lacking for just how important metadata is in the information science fields. For librarians and archivists, metadata is information about a resource, be it a book, manuscript, or collection, that describes and contextualizes the resource so that people may discover, find, and know about the resource. If you have ever used a library catalog, whether it be an online catalog or card catalog, you have firsthand experience using metadata to search and browse. Though the rules and structure of metadata have changed over the years, especially with the proliferation of electronic systems, metadata has ever been a part of the work of both librarians and archivists.

Metadata broadly falls into three large categories. Descriptive metadata is information that describes the “facts” about a resource, such as the title or the resource or the creator of the resource. Administrative metadata is information related to the management of a resource and covers things such as use permissions and copyright information. Finally, structural metadata is information about how a resource is put together and can describe such facets as the order of pages within a resource or the type of relationship between two different resources. A fully realized metadata model must take into account all three of these metadata types as each is vitally important for a user to both find a resource, understand what they are looking at, and know how they may use and access it.

Fortunately for librarians and archivists, much of the work related to the form and content of metadata has been done for us in the form of widely accepted metadata standards; these standards, at least within the USA, are often maintained by national institutions, such as the Library of Congress, or national organizations, such as the Society of American Archivists and American Library Association. In the United States, librarians use the MARC (machine-readable cataloging) standards to determine how information is formatted and presented and RDA (resource description and access) to determine the content of a catalog record. Likewise, archivists in the United States have DACS (describing archives: a content standard) which governs how archivists create nearly every aspect of finding aids. The reason these metadata standards are important is because they standardize metadata between otherwise unconnected organizations and creators; this makes the metadata interoperable between systems and ensures a uniform set of experiences and expectations for all users.

But what about digital resources? Digital resources, by their very nature, require a whole new set of metadata standards. DACS has been a great boon for archivists, but it does not exactly help a digital archivist who finds they need a metadata field for describing the digital object’s file type or the differences between multiple versions of the same digital object. The good news is that additional and emerging content standards have been created for digital resources. Unfortunately, there is not a single “all encompassing” standard for digital resources that might be the equivalent of DACS or MARC. Instead, the people who manage digital resources have a plethora of imperfect choices to make. And the result is often an unfortunate combination of worry, analysis paralysis, and confusion. After all, while librarians have a standard in MARC that is decades old, the managers of digital resources still exist on a sort of new frontier.

There are, for digital objects, four major content standards that exist. (There are many more than four metadata standards for digital resources, but outside these four the remaining standards are usually niche and designed for a single type of digital resource such as scientific data sets). Dublin Core (DC) is probably the most common standard, in large part because it is incredibly flexible. DC, which tends to focus on descriptive metadata, has very few rules governing the form of information nor does it make any of its fields mandatory; in essence DC is the ultimate pick and choose metadata standard. Metadata Object Description Schema (MODS) is the other major content standard focused on descriptive metadata. MODS has significantly more rules governing form and content, which makes it difficult to implement, but covers many important descriptive avenues that DC does not necessarily cover. Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) is focused almost entirely on structural metadata, such as how digital files are organized, while Preservation Metadata Maintenance Activity (PREMIS) is almost entirely focused on administrative metadata, specifically metadata related to every single facet of the creation, maintenance, and preservation of a digital file.

When the CLA first began to work with the Quartex system, the very first thing we needed to do was to create a list of metadata fields. Quartex, being an incredibly flexible system on the backend, does not have any prescribed fields, outside of a mandatory title field, so we certainly had options. We could make our metadata as complex, or as simple, as we wanted. We could also wholesale port a metadata standard, such as DC, into Quartex, and call it a day. Instead, what we did was take an exceptionally long and hard look at the above four metadata standards and took what we felt was the best parts of those standards and created our very own schema that works for us.

We first determined what the goal of our metadata schema was going to be. Quartex, being primarily used as a public access point for all our digital content, we determined that our metadata had to focus primarily on the needs of our external users. Descriptive metadata, and metadata related to the creation and distribution of the digital resource were deemed to be the most important type of metadata to help users find and understand our digital content. That meant, that as important and useful as PREMIS and METS can be, those standards were leaned upon significantly less as METS and PREMIS metadata is most useful for internal preservation purposes. That left us with DC and MODS as our primary go-to models. Each has their strengths and weakness. While DC has a field for geographic metadata, MODS does not, and while MODS has a field for a genre/form term, DC does not. So, we determined what we felt were the descriptive strengths of these two models and combined them.

The result was a schema of 29 metadata fields which covers everything from a title filed to a field devoted to an item’s provenance. We made sure that every metadata field we created was documented extensively. Part of that documentation was ensuring that each metadata field which had an equivalent field in a different metadata model was enumerated and linked; this will ensure that, in the future, our metadata can be made more interoperable with external systems. We further enumerated what standards, such as which international standard for language terms, we would use for fields that required such standards. And for fields which necessitated strict vocabularies, such as the “type” field which describes the primary content of a digital object, we listed out each of the vocab terms that could be used within that field. We then went through the list of metadata fields to determine which would be required fields. We determined few fields should be made required to ease cataloging since information for any given field might be difficult to determine, if not outright impossible. Still, while most fields are not required, we have strongly encouraged providing as much descriptive information as possible for each asset. Next, we determined which metadata fields would be free text fields and which would be controlled vocabulary fields. Quartex allows for the linking of shared metadata terms if the data is stored as a controlled vocabulary. Any field, such as the subject, name, creator, and camera model fields, which might share metadata between otherwise unconnected resource, was made into a controlled vocabulary field to allow for easy linked data; this allows users to instantly search for “similar” materials with a single click of a mouse.

It can certainly feel daunting to create a metadata schema from scratch. The flexibility in metadata creation Quartex offers is amazing, but when you are just starting with only a title field, it can be easy to wish for a more prescribed schema. Add in the fact that there are numerous metadata schemas for digital content, and you have the formula for confusion and doubt as you move forward. But, as I hope this blog has helped illustrate, going through the process of figuring out a schema that works locally that is focused on the users of the system, will pay dividends. And perhaps most important, is simply to document these decisions. Quartex’s flexibility ensures that we are not permanently locked into a decision we might have made too hastily. We used a pilot period to test an early version of our metadata model and determined that numerous changes needed to be made. For us, many of those changes were related to fields which we had thought should be required cataloging fields; through our pilot though we realized that some of those initially required fields, in certain circumstances, could not be meaningfully filled out necessitating a reversal on their required status. Metadata is the backbone of our work as librarians and archivists, and that has never been truer than now with digital records.

Since our initial pilot and now through the end of phase two of our migration, we have been using the metadata model to create new metadata for every digital object within NEHH. Due to the limitations of our previous web-based NEHH browsing solution, some of which I have talked about before, most of our digital NEHH collections, let alone the individual items, lacked a lot of the metadata that you might expect from a digital archive. This is no one’s fault; NEHH as a project is older than some of the metadata models for digital resources I have listed above! But it has meant doing a lot of catch-up work; all told by the end of this migration I will have been working almost exclusively on metadata creation for about 10 months. But the result will be so worth it. Where the 1735-1822 parish records for First Parish in Brunswick, Maine, simply had a title, date, and short description listed on the CLA’s website, the Quartex record for the same item lists so much more information from subject and geographic coverage fields, to fields describing how many images comprise the whole object, to a rights statement that links out to the appropriate boilerplate, to a field letting you know the exact make and model of camera used to photograph the original object. The result of all this work is a wealth of metadata which we hope will make these already amazing and useful digital resources even more accessible, easier to navigate, and far more descriptive and precise about what exactly each digital object is. There is still a lot of work to be done between now and our soft launch in the early fall, but we are so excited and energized by our work because we know you too will be energized and excited when you see the Quartex site launch!

The whole of our metadata model, as well as some of the particulars of our Quartex configuration, have been extensively and continuously documented. For those interested, you can view the current version of our metadata model here. If you have questions about our metadata model, or are yourself looking to create a metadata model for your digital resources, please feel free to reach out to me.

March 30, 2021

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.

Friends of the library will remember that just as things were beginning to shut down in March 2020, the Congregational Library was reaching the end of a large renovation that would improve workspaces and give us more room for processing collections, hosting events and launching exhibitions, among other things. We were living out of boxes, and in fact, I spent my last day on site setting up my new desk in my new office, not realizing it would be nearly 6 months until I got to use it. In addition to this, the building owners have been doing their own renovations, preparing for new tenants, updating heating systems, and, most relevant to us, restoring the large windows from our reading room, offices, and stacks that overlook the granary burial ground.

The pandemic brought everything to an abrupt halt, and these renovations were no exception. Our own renovation had a few lingering details to wrap up, and the question of when our windows would be removed (and returned) was suddenly in limbo. While the windows in the three offices off the stacks (one of which is mine) were restored and returned months earlier, we were waiting for the restoration for the window in the stacks and the reading room to be scheduled. This project would be a lot more disruptive to the work of the library so we could adequately protect portions of the collection shelved closest to the windows in the stacks and reading room. It was a small blessing then that most of this work was able to take place while we were already working from home the majority of the time.

When we began our own renovation, one of the most common things I heard from visitors was a deeply concerned “I hope you’re not going to do anything to the reading room!”. Our reading room is a bit of a showstopper. The building was constructed in part to house the library, and our reading room retains this Victorian charm with many of the original decorations and fixtures intact. It boasts a Tiffany-decorated, two-story ceiling, beautiful wood shelving and roll-top reference desk, and nearly floor-to-ceiling-windows that overlook the granary burial ground. I brag often about what a lovely workspace I have. Removing these windows for restoration meant boarding the space up with insulated plywood, removing all natural light and covering furniture in protective tarps.

Physical spaces have a strong impact on our moods. Window restoration took much longer than anticipated, partially because of the pandemic but also because restoring 100+ year old windows is actually extremely complicated (who knew?!). I won’t lie and say it was easy, as the pandemic dragged on and we slowly returned to physical work in the library, to feel like we still couldn’t properly unpack from a move and to walk into a dimly lit space. It has been a long, cold, lonely winter. But things are looking up! The days are starting to get longer and warmer. Vaccinations are progressing meaning that we will be welcoming patrons and researchers back into our space in the near future. And just last week, our reading room windows returned ensuring we can see all the buds just starting to grow back on the trees. There’s a lot to look forward to.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes!

March 25, 2021

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

It has been a little while since I have last written a blog here on the Beacon Street Diary. And that is because we have been hard at work migrating our New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) collections to Quartex, our new Digital Asset Management system. We have been, one by one, uploading NEHH collections into Quartex and providing each and every item brand new metadata, enhancing both the searchability of individual items and bringing much needed descriptive clarity that will help users find relations between disparate items and collection. I hope you are excited because the team here at the CLA is absolutely ecstatic. You will be able to explore these important digital collections in many new and exciting ways that greatly enhance the research experience and hopefully introduce these records to many more people.

I am happy to officially report that Phase 1 of this three-part migration project has now been completed and on schedule. Phase 1 was focused on the comparatively smaller NEHH collections. This allowed us to work on many collections over a shorter period of time, which hashelped the team to get familiar with, and further refine, the migration workflow. We have completed the migration of 97 NEHH collections into Quartex. This accounts for approximately 60% of the total number of NEHH collections (but not necessarily 60% of the total volume of NEHH). Each collection is comprised of individual items; to date we have uploaded over 297 items, (also sometimes referred to as assets or resources depending on the context). Each of these items is comprised of multiple images, the vast majority of which are JPEGs. In total, we have uploaded over 39,000 images. Phase 2 will change focus to somewhat larger, by volume, and more complex collections, but, based on the work we have already completed, we are expecting to remain on schedule. This means that we still believe that our soft launch date of early Fall is still reasonable and within reach.

Phase 1, in many ways, was the proof-of-concept phase of this migration project as it allowed us to put our workflows through the ringer in a controlled environment. And, more importantly, phase 1 offered us plenty of opportunities to work with a wide variety of materials and to experiment with ways to make those records more visible and easily found.  Navigation can be the difference maker when it comes to ensuring someone can find the exact item they are lookingfor. After a few months working with Quartex, we are hopeful that we will be able to provide excellent navigation to all our materials.

In the past I have talked about linked metadata as an important part of the navigation formula, and this remains true. It is safe to say that most of our metadata work is focused on attaching relevant subject, geographic, name, and genre terms to every asset. But today I wanted to talk about a couple of other features in Quartex that enhance navigation; the first of which will look quite familiar to our current users of NEHH.

Within NEHH we have arranged records into three browsable “series”. This was an early decision to help with navigation by grouping like materials into a single web page. With Quartex, and its asset-first approach to browsing, the concept of series has become largely moot. However, we still felt that it was important to maintain individual collection pages, analogous to the current NEHH collection pages, and a list of all manuscript collections. Quartex has allowed us to do that, to great effect. Using an A-Z page, we have been creating an updated and accurate list of collections, with abstracts, that navigate to more specific collection pages. On these collection pages, we provide either a historical or biographical note and an image representative of the collection, as well as links to external finding aids or catalog records when appropriate. These collection pages also allow for the user to browse, search, and refine a list of every single asset associated with that collection. Though our work with Quartex will greatly change how we present and make accessible our NEHH collections, as well as all of our non-NEHH digital holdings, some of the good lessons we learned from NEHH have been and will be applied moving forward.

Another area I am greatly excited for is navigation within individual assets. Many of the items within NEHH are bulky record books that are sometimes hundreds of pages long. Finding what you are looking for in that record book can sometimes be a frustrating exercise, one I know all too well. But one tool that Quartex gives us may be able to help. Each asset may be divided into “sections”, each with their own unique name. We have not employed sections extensively yet; really, we’ve only done some light experimenting. But already we can see the potential of this feature. “Tête-bêche” volumes, where usually two distinct records begin at each cover until they meet in the middle, can be split into sections to easily navigate to the two different beginnings in the record. And within Benjamin Wadsworth’s voluminous collection of essay-styled sermons and theological writings, we have used sections to help navigate between the various old testament books Wadsworth wrote about. It may be a long way off, but I sincerely hope that we will have the capability and bandwidth to use sections more extensively in the future to help people navigate these large record books.

The possibilities that Quartex introduce are seemingly limitless, and we keep on finding new andinteresting ways to use features to improve and enhance both the browsing and searching user experiences. Though we are still many months away from our planned soft launch, I already cannot wait to unveil the full scope of this important project and let researchers, genealogists, students, and interested knowledge seekers browse and search these records.