Beacon Street Diary

Archives: September 2020

September 28, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

Improving access to resources is the perennial mission of librarians and archivists, and to that end the Congregational Library & Archives has been working on expanding our finding guide for records relating to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color within our 17th-19th century collections, particularly those digitized as part of New England's Hidden Histories. (The new guide is in review and will be made available shortly). While collating and describing these records, many of them added only recently to NEHH, I've personally gained more insight into the shifting contexts of church attendence by people of color in colonial and antebellum America. In particular, I have been struck by the major social and religious changes pursuant to slavery's abolition in New England after the 1780s, including the splitting off of congregants of color to form their own religious communities in the wake of discrimination and sidelining within majority-white churches.

A prime example of this trend was the formation of the Abyssinian Church and Religious Society in Portland, Maine - the Abyssinian was one of six Black Congregational churches founded prior to the Civil War (along with the Dixwell Avenue Church in New Haven, CT, the Talcott Street Church in Hartford, CT, the African Union Congregational Church in Newport, RI, the Second Church of Pittsfield, MA, and the Black church in Springfield, MA). The Abyssinian Church was organized by disaffected parishioners of the Second Congregational Church in Portland, whose majority-white congregation had relegated Black members to segregated balcony seating as well as general hostility and racial animus.

We know that congregants suffered these inequities because six Black members of the Second Church (Christopher Christian Manuel, Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clement Thomson, Job L. Wentworth, and John Siggs) wrote a letter of complaint to the local Eastern Argus newspaper in 1826 in which they described the ill treatment. Two years later in 1828, these six signatories along with sixteen other disaffected members petitioned the State Legislature for permission to incorporate their own religious society. The state granted the request, allowing for the formation of the Abyssinian Religious Society. Other congregants of color from the area soon joined with the new Society, including a delegation from the Fourth Congregational Church in Portland. This merger expanded the organization into the Abyssinian Congregational Church and Society.

Besides being an exemplar of the context in which it was founded, the Abyssinian Church and Society was a historical juggernaut in its own right, acting as a cultural nexus for the Black community in Maine for many decades. It hosted worship and revivals, abolition and temperance meetings, several local societies, and a school for Portland's Black children until integration in 1856. Lectures and concerts were also commonplace, though the church meeting minutes include an amusing prohibition against attending "dancing theaters and sirkices [sic]" - perhaps indicating that such jollity was rife amidst the congregation.

The church hosted some of the foremost abolitionists in the country such as Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, and was also one of the most northerly stops on the Underground Railroad, assisting refugees' passage into Canada. In the aftermath of the Civil War, famed abolitionist James W. C. Pennington served for three years as pastor of the church.

Local benefactor Reuben Ruby looms large in the history of the Abyssinian. He provided the land upon which the meeting house was to be built, was central to its founding and administration, and facilitated the organization's role in the Underground Railroad. Mr. Ruby worked directly with William Lloyd Garrison, and supported the start of Freedom's Journal, the first Black newspaper in the United States. He was well known in Portland, partly because he was owner and operator of two "hack stands", horse-drawn taxi ranks. Ruby's son William played a crucial role in alerting the city to Portland's Great Fire of 1866, and in protecting the meeting house from ruin; he fittingly went on to captain the local fire department in addition to other civic roles.

The Abyssinian Church closed its doors in the early 20th century, partly due to the tragic wreck of the steamship Portland in November of 1898, in which seventeen of the church's male parishioners died. Most of the remaining congregation became members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, now known as the Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. The former meeting house on Newbury Street was subsequently converted to tenement housing and fell into disrepair, but a process of restoration began in the late 1990s, and the building has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Abyssinian Church and Society record books are the only records from a pre-Civil War Black Congregational church which are viewable online. They have been made available in cooperation with our partners at the Maine Historical Society and the Digital Ark Corporation, and with generous support from the Council on Library and Information Resources via their Digitizing Hidden Collections grant.

September 25, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Let me present to you a story I am all too familiar with. You take from a box a well-preserved eighteenth-century record book. There is no title written onto the cover and no title page within the volume to describe what the pages within might contain. So, to determine what the record book is about, you begin flipping to random pages, only to realize that the book might as well be written in another language because the handwriting within is nearly indiscernible. Or perhaps it is, essentially, written in another language because, upon further study, you realize that the writer is using a form of shorthand. At that point, what are you to do?

If you are me, you pass that volume off to one of the CLA’s transcriptionists but for most people, without years of experience reading old manuscripts, eighteenth-century handwriting can be an insurmountable obstacle for understanding the object. I still struggle reading old manuscript materials and I now do have years handling and reading this type of material. Some of it is just a matter of distance; I will forever struggle with most s’s looking like f’s. But the fact is that poor handwriting is just as endemic to the eighteenth-century as it is today, and with cursive, where numerous letters are distinguished only by the location of a tail or the number of strokes, any poor handwriting can quickly turn an item into a comprehension nightmare.

It was for this exact reason that, within NEHH, the CLA set aside money to hire transcriptionists. Transcription, within the library and archives context, is the process of accurately representing text found on paper into a machine-readable format, such as a Microsoft Word document. By this process, we can provide access to the widest audience and elucidate texts which might otherwise see use only by those experienced in reading old manuscripts.  And by ensuring that transcription is in a machine-readable format, not only can we transmit the transcription to the widest possible audience, we ensure that databases and computer system can read and interpret that transcription.

Transcription though can take many forms, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The style of transcription the CLA currently produces is highly accurate to the original in formatting and spelling. This means that every spelling error put onto paper is also reflected in the transcripts the CLA produces. This type of transcription, which is akin to creating a typed surrogate of the original, may be especially helpful to researchers whose careful study may hinge on a single misspelling. But equally valid is corrective transcription which takes the original and “fixes” it for a modern audience, erasing spelling mistakes, clearing up shorthand, cleaning up symbols, and changing those fancy s’s into our modern s. This approach may not be originalist in the strictest sense, but for an audience who simply wishes to read the meaning of the original, this approach may be best.

Transcription is a powerful tool for access, and as time goes on, there are ever more and more tools at our disposal that we hope to employ at the CLA. AI transcription technologies such as OCR (Optical Character Recognition), which can automatically transcribe print, such as that found in books, and HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) can do a lot to provide more transcription, even if both are prone to mistakes. And we also hope to provide an ability to search within our transcriptions, a feature the NEHH viewer cannot yet accomplish, but which may finally be accomplished at the end of the CLA’s search for a DAMS. Transcription is important to the CLA.  At the heart of our mission is access and transcription provides significant access to all our users. And we are so very excited to show you how that will be accomplished in the months, and years, to come.

September 23, 2020

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

For many people, history seems to come to us pre-packaged: in textbooks, or Ken Burns documentaries, or brick-like presidential biographies written by Ron Chernow. But this belies all the work that goes into the creation of history--the tracking down of sources, the sense-making and interpretation, the creation of a cohesive narrative, and the time spent assembling the necessary background knowledge that makes all of this possible. Diving into primary sources like the ones in our collection can be intimidating. It can be hard to know where to start and harder still to be sure you aren’t missing some necessary context.

Political cartoons in particular have a wealth of information and provide an entertaining window into common political and social discourse, but can be difficult to interpret without a lot of background information. Not dissimilar from modern internet memes that are constantly in conversation with one another and dependent on niche cultural references. If you missed the joke in the first round, trying to decipher it centuries later seems nigh impossible. They may have visual references that would be very meaningful to contemporary audiences but which are opaque today. For example, 18th century political cartoons often feature images of dogs urinating on things--sometimes the meaning is easily discerned, as when the dog is peeing on a tea caddy in a Revolutionary War-era cartoon, but it can also be a more general symbol of disorder. There are many cartoons where the conflicts are so specific or the references so obscure that they are nearly impenetrable for modern audiences. This type of allusive commentary can make for difficult analysis and require a depth of contextual knowledge to really make sense of them.

We have a good example of this in our collection in the cover illustration pictured above. Who is that man? Why is he in a baking pan? And what’s a dough-face anyway? By sheer luck, I got the joke. I was very fortunate to have an excellent High School history (Hello, Mr. Wagner!) whose lively lectures and passion for the subject matter still stick with me today. Once we got to the Civil War, we talked a lot about the “doughfaced wusses” and in particular, the biggest dough-faced wuss of them all, President James Buchanan. Originally, the term “Doughface” referred to someone, usually a politician who had no strong principles of their own, who was pliable and moldable like dough. Over time the term came to refer specifically to Northern politicians who capitulated to the demands of Southern slave-holding senators. In fact, the origin of this phrase may have actually been “doe-faced” referring to the cowardice displayed by these wishy-washy men which was misheard and written down incorrectly. Though the pamphlet itself would probably provide some context, understanding what the pamphlet was about at a glance would be very difficult. The contextual information needed to understand material like this can come from a variety of places and take years to build up--there are new discoveries to be made and nuances to be uncovered all the time, even for experienced researchers.

The Congregational Library welcomes researchers at all skill levels, and we have multiple tools available to provide scaffolding for people exploring primary resources for the first time. Staff are on hand to explain things like how to safely handle historical documents and provide physical assistance like book cradles or weights if necessary. We can also tell you what information you’re likely to find in what sorts of records. The collection at the library also has a wealth of secondary sources specifically intended to help support primary source research in the collection. Part of the process of describing items and collections is researching their historical context. Archivists add historical notes and other information to finding aids for thise reason. Staff are knowledgeable and keen to offer their expertise and if we don’t know the answer to your question, we’ll find someone who does.

September 17, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today’s highlight will be MS0061, the Conscientious Objectors World War II papers, 1940-1946. The collection was first processed in 1991 and additional changes were made in 2018.

The collection highlights those individuals who objected to participation in World War II. The first series is entirely dedicated to the application forms, titled “Registration of Members of Congregational and Christian Churches Who are Conscientious Objectors to Military Service”. The forms provide a snapshot into why people would not be willing to engage in military service in their own words. One example to highlight is the application of Siegmar Blamberg Jr. His form makes clear he thinks “...service would make it impossible for me to follow the dictates of my conscience in the matter of discharging my obligations to God and to my fellowmen and to myself”. These powerful words represent just one of over 100 different applications. Blamberg did not provide a lengthy explanation, but the collection includes some applications where the individual added letters giving deeper explanations into their decision to be conscientious objectors.

Our collection does not only focus on the applications but includes a large amount of administrative and financial paperwork. These items are associated with two former chairmen of the Congregational Christian Committee on Conscientious Objectors, Dr. Albert W. Palmer and Rev. Alfred Schmalz. These sections include efforts to raise money for the cause, lists of people living in the service camps, day-to-day administrative work, letters received that are against the cause, and various other correspondences.

The final series highlights various publications related to the conscientious objectors. One example is “The Church and Returning Conscientious Objectors” by Roy A. Burkhart. As the title suggests, it explores the issues of the returning objectors and what the church can do to support them. As a lesser known part of World War II history, all these publications are worth reading and exploring. This whole collection deserves more use and recognition and hopefully that starts to happen in the near future!

The legacy finding aid for this collection can be found HERE. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at Stay safe and have a great day!

September 3, 2020

By Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Now that the staff of the Congregational Library & Archives are back in our offices, or in my case temporarily holed up in the executive director’s office with it’s beautiful view of Beacon Street (oh woe is me), we have been able to resume our acquisitions workflows and accept new donations of archival and library materials. Collecting, to preserve and make accessible, is a key component of our mission. Indeed, a significant portion of our time during the pandemic has been to work on developing and refining a comprehensive collection policy for the CLA. And to return to this key component of our work once again after the long pause due to COVID has been a balm to my archivist soul.

My recent work with the Digital Asset Management System selection project has recently gotten me thinking about how we work with potential donors of archival materials though. We have a comprehensive collection policy that ensures the full preservation of a person, church, or organization’s memory. However, the way we have presented this list of material types has been format agnostic. For example, when communicating with organizations, we would make clear that we will take “Building records: such as blueprints, pew plans and pew deeds, assessors records, and records related to construction/renovation” without reference to the physical medium that these records appear on.

For most of the above listed record types, the first thing that comes to mind is likely something physical. Perhaps you imagine a record book containing meeting minutes related to the maintenance of the building or a large blueprint documenting the construction of a new addition. But the fact is that all these records can just as easily be digital and stored on a computer's hard drive!

Most records that are produced today by individuals or organizations are born-digital, meaning they were created in a digital format. As an extreme illustration of this fact, in 2013 the US Government Printing Office estimated that 97% of federal records produced were born digital (Jacobs, James A, 2014). Even organizations and persons who have been slower to adopt digital technologies are seeing larger percentages of their annual records become born-digital. Photographs from the annual BBQ taken on a cell phone, emails between committee members, the meeting minutes recorded in notepad, the PowerPoint presentation from the last board meeting, and the word document produced during the creation of this blog post are all examples of born-digital records. As an ever-increasing percentage of records are produced digitally, archivists must grapple with how to collect these records, as they are just as crucial to the preservation of memory as that physical record book from 1874.

For now, there are two immediate steps, and the CLA has already begun to do both. First happens at the point of contact with potential donors. Recently rewritten procedures ensure that when talking to donors, we more actively inquire and seek out born-digital materials. We want to ensure that no part of a church’s memory is lost because it was stored on a hard drive instead of in a file cabinet.  And second, the CLA is pursuing a Digital Asset Management System which will allow for the CLA to provide unparalleled access to the born-digital materials we have. The collection of born-digital materials means nothing if we cannot also make the materials accessible to our users, and the DAMS will do exactly that.

For better and worse, the future of archives is inextricably linked to the digital realm. We cannot say we collect, preserve, and make accessible the memories of Congregationalism if we do not collect, preserve, and make accessible digital records. Fortunately, the CLA is ready for this next step, and already working to make the incoming deluge of digital materials accessible for everyone, online and on location.

September 1, 2020

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

Most of you have been sternly warned off leaving traces behind in your library books--writing, highlighting, dog-earring pages, all strictly verboten. And while I certainly stand behind this advice when it comes to your public library’s copy of Where the Crawdads Sing or in the instance I once read about where some helpful patron had underlined the name of the killer in nearly every mystery novel the library owned, this sort of paratextual material provides a wealth of information to library staff and future researchers interested in learning more about our the items in our collection and the lives they lived before they arrived on our shelves.

This post was inspired by a rather alarming inscription I found scrawled on the front cover of a pamphlet (see above). It reads: Do not under any circumstances let this get out of our hands. This is like catnip to someone like me who got into this field primarily so I could use my research skills to solve historical mysteries. The story here is almost certainly more mundane than what the inscription would indicate. The pamphlet is an otherwise unremarkable history of the American Missionary Association with no other markings inside it--no snarky commentary, no deep secrets, not arcane knowledge, alas. It’s unclear when this inscription was added--whether it was at the CLA or in the possession of the institution that donated it. My best guess is that other copies of this pamphlet or similar pamphlets had a habit of ‘walking off’ or getting lost and they were becoming hard to replace. Think of it as a precursor to the public library’s tattletape or a milder version of a Medieval book curse.

I was also reminded of another pamphlet I stumbled across with a similarly memorable inscription. It was an Anti-Masonic almanac from 1832 and someone had ominously written “Secrets written in blood should be revealed. A tree that bears such fruits should be hewn down” in ink around the edges of the cover. This book is definitely haunted. The quote comes from President John Quincy Adams--and what a quote!--referencing the disappearance and alleged murder of former Mason William Morgan who threatened to publish a book revealing the secrets of his former lodge. This event sparked a wave of Anti-Masonic sentiment across America which you can see reflected in the other Anti-Masonic materials in the library’s collection.

Much of the material at the CLA--and our oldest material in particular has come to us secondhand. Marginalia, Ex Librii and other paratextual evidence give us unique insight into the context in which the materials in our collections were received, made use of, and created. Special Collections librarians--people who work primarily with rare books and archives--are particularly concerned with provenance. This term refers to information about the origins, custody or ownership history of a collection, manuscript or book. For books, this can give us information about the sort of people who owned different types of books--their age, gender, and socioeconomic status. When a previous owner is an author in their own right we might be able to speculate about what books may have influenced their work, allowing for the fact that just because you own a book doesn’t mean you’ve actually read it (as my ever-growing To-Be-Read pile can attest). Many books bear the marks of their previous owners in the form of an Ex Libris which might take the form of the owner’s signature (e.g. SO-AND-SO, her book), or an artistically designed bookplate the owner has used for their entire library. One fantastic example in our collection comes from a book by S. H. De Kroyft, “the blind authoress”, which bears her bookplate in Boston Linetype, a system of writing designed for the vision-impaired and an early precursor to braille.

Other books give us unique insight to how previous owners reacted to their reading through marginalia--notes written in the margins or endleaves of books--or other means. My favorite example of this in our collection is a copy of The Theological Works of Thomas Paine previously owned by someone who absolutely hated Thomas Paine. Prior to encountering this book, I had no idea how divisive Paine had become in America after the Revolution. The owner of this book has left insults (“aka the devil” written underneath Paine’s frontispiece) and pointed commentary throughout the book. There is a wealth of information to be gleaned there about public reactions to Paine’s work, information that may not be available elsewhere if the owner kept his opinions between himself and the pages of this book.

If there’s one thing I hope readers will take away from this post, it’s that books are objects intended for use: go ahead and leave your mark and for the sake of the nosy librarians of the future, make sure you don’t leave out the good stuff.