Beacon Street Blog

September 10, 2023

Obituary by Dr. Francis J. Bremer


The recent passing of Jeremy Bangs is a loss to all who knew him. He was a true Renaissance man--an artist, a musician, and a scholar of wide-ranging interests.

Jeremy was born in January 1946 in Astoria, Oregon, the son of Carl Bangs and Marjorie Friesen. A few years later the family moved to Chicago, where his father entered the doctoral program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Jeremy, a talented basoonist who had turned down an opportunity to study at Julliard, studied art and art history at Chicago, though he left a few credits short of graduation when some of his friends were beaten up in the riots surrounding the Democratic convention in 1968. He travelled to Leiden, where his father was a visiting professor of theology. Carl was authored the definitive biography of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. Jeremy had already been exposed to the Dutch language and theology by assisting his father in reading manuscripts relevant to the project.

Jeremy completed his undergraduate education at the University of Leiden and went on to receive his PhD in art history in 1976, his dissertation focusing on 16th-century Dutch tapestry weaving and church furnishings. His studies led to his immersion in the municipal archives of Leiden where he was taken under the wing of archivist Bouke Leverland, who trained him in paleography recommended him for employment at the archives following his completion of his degree. Working in the archives he was identified as the "Pilgrim expert," answering queries about the Pilgrim stay in Leiden prior to their settlement of the Plymouth colony in 1620. Contrary to what he had been told there was much more to say about the subject than believed, and he embarked on a career that would largely focus on their story. From 1980 to 1985 he held the post of Historian at the Municipal Archives and Curator of the Leiden Pilgrim Documents Center. He returned to the United States in 1986 as Visiting Distinguished Professor of Art History at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies of Arizona State University.

In 1986 he was hired as Chief Curator of the Plimoth Plantation Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He held that post for five years, during which he was largely responsible for the application of new research into the architecture of the village. He subsequently served as the Assistant Archivist of the town of Scituate and Visiting Curator of Manuscripts at Pilgrim Hall Museum. It was at this time that he began work transcribing and editing the town records of Scituate, Sandwich, Eastham, Marshfield, Duxbury, and previously unpublished records and deeds of the colony.

In 1996 he and his wife, artist Tommie Flynn, whom he met in Massachusetts, moved to Leiden. With the help of his friend and antique dealer Ron Meerman, on Thanksgiving Day 1997, he opened the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum on the ground floor of the oldest known house in town, built around 1370. There, over the subsequent years, Jeremy discussed the Pilgrims and their experience in the Netherlands with countless visitors. In the last years of his life he was working to insure the continued existence of this small gem of a museum.

Jeremy published extensively on art history (he was working on an article on a rediscovered painting that must have been painted by Pieter Saenredamver), church architecture, Dutch toleration, and the story of an American businessman during the Revolutionary War. In the past decades he has produced works of art, some collected in Images of Leiden and of Pilgrim Topics (2020) and Picturing Pilgrims (2023), and published a novel in Dutch following the story of a student at the University of Leiden.

His major contributions were made to the study of the Pilgrims. In addition to his edition of town and colony records, these included Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England's First International Diplomat (2004), Strangers and Pilgrims: Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation (2009), and New Light on the Old Colony: Plymouth, the Dutch Context of Toleration, and Patterns of Pilgrim Commemoration (2029).  His work on Indian Deeds: Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1692 (2002) led to his engagement in current controversies over tribal lands. This prompted him to write Josias Wompatuck and the Titicut Reserve of the Mattakeeset-Massachusetts Tribe (2020). At his death he was working on compiling information about the tribal land reservations as a further contribution to the subject.

Jeremy did not suffer fools gladly and had little time for sloppy history motivated by filliopietism, but he was extraordinarily generous with serious scholars, many of whom have attested to his assistance with their work. In recent years he served as a co-editor on the 400th anniversary edition of William Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation (2020), co-published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the new England Historic and Genealogical Society. A volume of Bradford's other writings, being edited for the Colonial Society by Francis J. Bremer, Kenneth Minkema, and David Lupher will be dedicated to Jeremy's memory. In the summer of 2022 he donated a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century books to the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts.

His contributions were recognized by a variety of awards. In 2017 the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Pilgrim Academic Research Committee awarded him the annual Pilgrim Academic Research Award. In 2018 he was named a Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by King Wiollem-Alexander of the Netherlands. In 2019 the Cothutikut Mattakeeset Massachusetts tribe presented him with a wampum belt and blanket in recognition of his work on Indian deeds.

June 21, 2023

The CLA's archivists, Zachary Bodnar and Billy McCarthy, recently hosted a virtual program on "Demystifying Archivist Speak," to help church archivists learn some of the essential terminology associated with archival practice. The video is now available on our YouTube channel, and the list below offers a quick reference guide to the 28 terms they discussed in more detail during the program.

  1. Accession: the materials physically and officially transferred to a repository.
  2. Appraisal: the process of determining whether records and other materials have permanent (archival) value.
  3. Arrangement: the process of organizing materials to protect their context and to achieve physical control over the materials.
  4. Born Digital: originating in a computer environment.
  5. Digitize: to transform analog information into digital form.
  6. Cataloging: the process of providing access to materials by creating formal descriptions to represent the materials.
  7. Collection Management: the set of activities and policies associated with maintaining archival resources.
  8. Collection: a set of archival or manuscript materials.
  9. Creator: the individual, group, or organization that is responsible for something's production, accumulation, or formation.
  10. Custodial History: the succession of entities that held a certain body of archival materials.
  11. Description: the process of creating a set of data representing an archival resource.
  12. Disaster Plan: an actively maintained document containing procedures and information needed to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.
  13. Ephemera: materials created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use.
  14. Facsimile: a reproduction that simulates the appearance of the original as closely as possible.
  15. Finding Aid: a description that typically consists of contextual and structural information about an archival resource.
  16. Manuscript: a handwritten or unpublished document.
  17. Metadata: information about data that promotes discovery, structures data objects, and supports the administration and preservation of records.
  18. Pagination: the act of numbering each side of a leaf/page in a manuscript or volume.
  19. Records: information or data created or received by an organization in the course of its activities; organizational records.
  20. Papers: records created and originally kept by an individual or a family.
  21. Preservation: the act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment.
  22. Processing: preparing archival materials for use.
  23. Provenance: information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.
  24. Respect des Fonds: the principle maintaining records according to their origin and in the units in which they were originally accumulated
  25. Records Management: the systematic and administrative control of records throughout their life cycle to ensure efficiency and economy in their creation, use, handling, control, maintenance, and disposition.
  26. Red Rot: the process of leather deterioration characterized by orange or reddish powder
  27. Retention Schedule: a document that identifies and describes an organization’s records, usually at the series level, and provides instructions for the disposition of records throughout their life cycle
  28. Vital Statistics: public records required by law that document significant life events, such as births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and public health events.

These definitions predominantly use language from the Society of American Archivists’ Dictionary of Archival Terms, available online at

November 16, 2022

Sara Georgini, Historian and Series Editor, The Papers of John Adams


Where do you go to trace how presidents prayed? When I was researching Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, I headed for the Congregational Library & Archives’ trove of primary and secondary sources to illuminate 300 years’ worth of religion at home and abroad. Thanks to the wealth of love letters and state secrets preserved in the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, we know that John and Abigail Adams of Quincy--and their descendants--operated at the heart of political power.

What can we say of their inner lives of belief? Fascinated by faith and less invested in mastering theology, they used religion as a key to access other cultures and to make lasting connections between family life and public service.

Here’s a playlist of 5 sources at the CLA that challenged what I knew and shaped my scholarship.

  1. Let’s start with . . . a scandal! One of my all-time favorite CLA catalog subject headings is “Church of England-Controversial Literature.” Go ahead and click! William Laud, powerful archbishop of Canterbury, led the Church of England’s fierce reaction to fresh forms of Christianity, like Puritanism, during the social and cultural tumult of the 17th century. Laud’s sweeping reforms spurred the emigration of the English Adamses and their friends to America. Then, fortune and royal favor turned against him. Learn all about his doctrine, his alleged treason, and his time in Laud's Tower in The History of the Troubles and Tryal of William Laud.
  2. With the American colonies tipping toward revolution, what did women and men like the Adamses really know of their Puritan forebears? When Braintree’s star lawyer, John Adams, penned his Novanglus letters in 1774–1775, he turned to the past for a political assist. Adams believed that the Puritans offered a sterling example of intellectuals who defied royal oppression thanks to timely providential aid. This idea, that an omniscient God turned the pages of history and intervened in human events, powered American revolutionaries questing for independence.
  3. Next stop, early republic. Liberal Congregationalist John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, wed the Anglican Louisa Catherine Johnson in 1797. They explored foreign faiths abroad, stocking the Stone Library shelves with Bibles in Hawaiian, Latin, French, Spanish, and English. Whenever they returned to the family’s ancestral home of New England, they eagerly sampled different churches and used their diaries to spin out spiritual reflections or critique sermons. For a snapshot of the dynamic Congregational world in this moment, check out the records, journals, and local biographies that bloom to life in New England’s Hidden Histories.
  4. When Civil War splintered the nation, related questions of faith and Providence magnetized Americans like Charles Francis Adams and his wife, Abigail Brooks Adams, to explore faith. Blending together manuscripts, family memories, and material culture, I reconstructed the kind of Christian space that Abigail created at Peacefield (now the Adams National Historical Park). She prominently displayed a gilded Bible in the foyer as a welcoming signpost to visitors. She kept old Dutch fireplace tiles that taught scripture stories at a child’s height during cozy nights. And when winter closed in, freezing out their best intentions to walk to church, Abigail led the family in singing hymns and reciting prayers. More than once, I turned for reference to Colleen McDannell’s Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900, and I eavesdropped on the past thanks to Susan S. Tamke’s Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord: Hymns as a Reflection of Victorian Social Attitudes.
  5. As a new century swept in, modern descendants of the Adams clan, like historians Henry and Brooks, traveled widely and investigated Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist practices and beliefs. They mined religion to understand what it said about the course of the past, and to project what might come next in the American Century. To see how and why 20th-century Protestant elites grappled with Puritan ancestry (real and imagined), I sought out CLA’s deep holdings on the cultural politics of Puritan memory studies. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past supplied rich source leads. A quick scan of the CLA’s catalog unveiled plenty of promising research webs between the rhetorical systems of commonwealths and covenants. For slightly competing views of religion’s future from John and Abigail’s decidedly cosmopolitan descendants, check out Brooks’ Emancipation of Massachusetts and medievalist Henry Adams’ true autobiography of the soul, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.

And! Visit the CLA reading room now, open by appointment, to get your own playlist humming.

November 8, 2022

Zachary Bodnar, CLA Archivist


The transition from film photography to digital photography has been long and ongoing. Now, with the ubiquity of smart phones, nearly everyone carries a decent quality digital camera at all times. The result of this development is that we can photograph nearly everything in our daily life, from the mundane moments of living to the soaring heights of a boisterous shared event. However, though we can now capture in image and video more and more of our life, the proliferation of digital photography does, perhaps ironically, make the preservation of those memories all the more difficult.

Whereas a church event of the past may have had only a single person with a camera and only one roll of film, today, a similar church event likely has dozens of people with cameras and essentially limitless “film.” As a result, where in the past an event might have produced only a single envelop of photographs, today’s event may produce hundreds of digital photographs. For a church archive, or truthfully for any archive, this sudden influx of digital photographs can seem overwhelming and scary. How can churches go about preserving these digital records, when the volume of digital photographs can pretty much only grow?

For starters, churches can look at cloud services, such as Microsoft OneDrive. Google Photos, or Dropbox. While the long-term viability of any cloud service will be in question (hence why cloud storage isn’t our only suggestion), the short-term benefits are great. Cloud storage is relatively cheap, and files on the cloud are not likely to be lost due to hardware degradation or breakage. If your church can afford it, we do strongly recommend at least backing up digital photographs that enter your archive onto a cloud service.

If the cloud contains your backup copies, then digital photographs saved locally are your primary copies. Digital preservation is fraught and complicated. Hard drives, CDs, and flash drives all have limited lifespans and all are susceptible to environmental damage too. That said, because these are digital files we are talking about, we have to rely on these unreliable storage devices. One of the best practices for local storage, then, is to have multiple devices, each with its own copy of the digital files. For example, you might have two external hard drives, each holding copies of all of your digital files. That way if one device were to break, the other would still be okay. The other best practice to diversify the geographical distribution of those storage devices. At a church, that may be to have one of those external hard drives stored with the rest of the church’s paper records, and the other stored elsewhere in the church building, such as the admin’s office. The idea here is that if something were to happen to one of the rooms, such as a sprinkler breaking, both devices wouldn’t be damaged.

In terms of what device to use for external storage, we almost always recommend external hard drives. They are more stable than CDs and flash drives, and because they are not always turned on, are less likely to fail due to mechanical problems. Still, remember that these are devices with expected lifespans of 10 years, maybe 20 if you are lucky.

Having a place, both locally and on the cloud, to store your digital photographs is one thing, but keeping those photographs organized is also an important part of preservation. The longer photographs remain unorganized, the easier it is to lose any context that would explain the who, what, or why of the photograph’s subject. With the amount of digital photographs that may come in, it is increasingly important that those photographs be organized in some way, and quickly. The simplest form of organization might be to organize photography by chronology. For example you could have a series of top level folders for each year (i.e., 2021, 2022, etc.) and within each folder you have a sub-folder for every month (i.e., November, December, etc.). Another possibility for organization, though more complex, would be to organize photographs by topic. Even here, an annual top level folder may make a lot of sense, but instead of sub-dividing that annual folder into months, sub-divide it into topical folders. Some examples could be “Events” or “Services” or “Weddings” or “Sunday School”. If you have enough information, you can go even further, sub-dividing those topical folders into more specific folders; for example, under “Events” you might have “Thanksgiving Dinner” and “July BBQ.” By organizing your files, you help to ensure that not all context for a photograph’s creation are lost. Just make sure that, whatever organizational method you use, you use it consistently on all of your external devices and your cloud backups.

Now, because digital preservation is its own worst enemy, you can do everything right and still suffer irreparable loss of digital data. This is just an unfortunate reality. The other reality is that paper and physical media continue to be the best preservation media available. Printed photographs are absolutely less likely to be lost to time than their digital counterparts. This is why we also suggest that churches consider creating a policy to print significant photographs from their digital collections. Defining “significant” is always difficult, and will always depend on a church’s specific context, but by defining “significant,” churches can help to ensure that some portion of their digital photographs have physical equivalents that are unlikely to be lost due to the vagaries of digital storage technology.

Photographs taken on a smart phone do tend to be of lower quality than photographs taken on traditional film cameras or digital SLR cameras. This is due to both hardware and software limitations on the part of the phone. However, the differences likely aren't super apparent to the naked eye, so there is no significant downside to printing digital photographs apart from the costs of printing digital photographs and the space used to store those physical photographs. But that is why we suggest only printing “significant” and “important” photographs, however your church, archivist, and/or records committee defines those words.

If your church does decide to print out digital photographs, or in general if your church still has photographs that need archiving, we always suggest using polypropylene archival photo sleeves. Once placed in such sleeves, you can use three ring binders to store your photographs. In terms of handling photographs, it is always best to handle them while wearing white cotton gloves, though if those are unavailable, it isn't too much of an issue to handle them with your bare hands. If you are handling photographs with your bare hands, it is best to only touch the photographs on their sides and back and to avoid touching the face of the photograph. We also always recommend identifying the photographs in some way. At minimum, write the date of the photograph on the back of the photograph, though if more information about a photograph or its subjects is known, adding that information will also be appreciated by future generations and archivists alike.

Digital preservation is not easy, but increasingly we all must begin to think about it because more and more of our records and memories exist in purely digital worlds. While digital preservation is less art and more a Frankenstein of methodologies and best practices, it can be done. Digital photographs are a great place to begin thinking about digital preservation due to the importance, both emotional and historical, of photographs. The above recommendations are not exhaustive, and they won’t be universal either, but they are a place to start.

If ever you or your church needs more specific advice, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at We at the Congregational Library & Archives are here to support you and your endeavors to preserve your church's memory, mission, and history.

October 11, 2022

Billy McCarthy, CLA Archivist

In our “Archiving Your Church’s Records” program at 1 pm (EST) on October 13th, Zachary Bodnar and I will provide a short introduction to get you thinking about how to better preserve the mission, community, and history of your church. As a small preview, here are a few quick tips to get you started:

  1. Think about where your church's records are currently located and start trying to gather them in a single location if possible. You would be surprised by how much can be found in your church members' attics, basements, and closets.

  2. Think small! Doing this work can seem daunting, but by tackling it a little at a time you will see how fruitful it can be for your community.

  3. Digitization is an excellent choice for increasing access to your church’s records but should not be seen as an effective method for preservation. Proper care for the physical originals will always be worth it.

We look forward to seeing those of you who can attend, and if you’re not able to make it, watch for a video of the program on our YouTube channel in a few weeks.

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.

March 23, 2021

by William McCarthy, reference and processing 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. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today, I am going to highlight the Grand Rapids, Michigan, South Congregational Church records, 1890-2001, RG4657. The collection arrived at the Congregational Library in 2001 after the church officially closed. Our archivist processed the collection in November of 2001. The collection is on the larger side with 25 boxes total.

The origins of the church started in 1874 when the Park Church Women’s Missionary Board organized a Sunday School in the African M.E. Church on Franklin Street. Two years later a chapel was completed after a canvassing for funds. The church was officially organized on December 12, 1878 with 43 charter members. The newly formed church became a member of the Grand River Conference a year later.

The church was moved to the corner of Delaware and Sheldon in 1886. The 1890s saw four different pastors come and go, culminating with a fire in 1897. The fire did not completely destroy the building and a successful rebuilding effort kicked off soon after. In 1936, another fire would happen during repairs but would not destroy the entire building. During the 1940s the membership increased exponentially and necessitated a new home. The first parts of the new church would be completed in 1949. On April 21, 1967 a tornado destroyed over half of the church's buildings, including the pipe organ and sanctuary. Most of the buildings would be refurbished by the end of 1970. The church mortgage would also be paid off in 1970 and membership started to see a decline across the decade. Those declines would steadily continue until 2001, when the church officially decided to close.

Our collection on the South Congregational Church is separated into eight series. The first series contains annual reports and congregational meeting notes. Series two focuses on records of the Board of Trustees and includes the constitution and by-laws. Series three is on the building and financial records, such as building planning, sales, mortgage records, insurance, account books and treasurer’s records. Series four contains records on the various societies of the church, including the Ladies Aid Society, Top of the Hill Club, Serving Team and the World Service. Series five is about the ministers of the church, especially the pastorate of Earl Collings. The sixth series focuses on the membership records of the church, including member lists, baptisms, marriages, dismissal letters and yearbook reports. The seventh series is on historical records, such as histories, photographs, certificates and information on a cornerstone capsule. The final series contains church bulletins and two different church newsletters, the “South Church Page” and “Messenger”.

Our collection on the South Congregational Church is filled with records from over 110 years of history and serves as an excellent example of what the Congregational Library and Archives offers!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!

March 2, 2021

by William McCarthy, Reference and Processing 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. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today, I am going to highlight one of our larger, more well-known collections, the Old South Church in Boston, RG0028. The collection first arrived with us in 1976 and we received additional materials in 1982, 1989, 1997 and 2013. The collection has likewise gone through a few different processing iterations, most recently in 2018. With over 57 boxes and 141 volumes, it is one of the library's largest and most significant collections.

Twenty-eight lay members from the First Church in Boston founded the Old South Congregation (originally called the Third Church of Boston) in 1669. In 1670, the congregation met in the Cedar Meetinghouse for the first time and soon became known as South Church since it was in the south end of town. “Old” was added in 1717 to distinguish it from another church being built, which called itself New South. In 1875, construction on a new church for the Old South congregation finished on the corners of Dartmouth and Boylston Streets. This new site has been Old South's home since. A trademark feature of the Old South Church is its campanile, or tower, which can be seen from several Boston neighborhoods. The church continues to thrive today.

The collection is divided into nine series and twenty-three subseries. Our first series focuses on Legal and Building records and includes a Deed of Land from 1669, among other documents related to land ownership. The second series focuses on numerous Organizations affiliated with Old South Church and includes the Maternal Association, Old South Club, Sewing Circle, Temperance Association, and various educational groups. The third series describes the various church records, such as vital statistics, annual reports, letters of admission and membership indexes. This series contains the record book that logs the baptism of Benjamin Franklin (image attached)!


Series four touches on the ministers and deacons of the church and includes notes, sermons, correspondences, and journals. Frederick M. Meek is the minister most represented in this collection with over 300 sermons! The fifth series in the collection covers committee records and pew proprietor records. The sixth series covers material related to Rev. Thomas Prince who bequeathed his literary collection to the church and now resides at the Boston Public Library, it includes correspondences and catalogs. The seventh series of the collection focuses on financial information, mainly that of the treasurer’s records and pew accounts. Series eight is the collection’s smallest and contains photographs and newspaper clippings related to the church. The final collection contains various publications by the church and includes published histories, audio-visual material, published catalogs, bulletins and printed copies of the Old South Record.

As you can see, this collection is filled to the brim with interesting historical information and documents a period of over 350 years! Viewing this collection is a truly fruitful experience and once the library has returned to a normal schedule you should visit!

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!

February 18, 2021

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

As we approach a year of the pandemic, it’s time to move on from that sourdough starter. If you haven’t mastered it yet, you never will. If you are looking at your post-Valentine’s Day crafting detritus and considering starting your own cottage industry (No? Just me then?), perhaps you are also looking for some inspiration. I invite you to take a look at the variety of paper arts that can be found in the Congregational Library’s collections. That’s where I usually go, anyway. 

The Congregational Library boasts material from the 15th through the 21st century. Below you can find examples and explanations of just a few of the most common examples of paper decoration on display. 


Marbled Paper

Marbled paper is by far the most common type of paper decoration found in our collections. In part, this is because a large portion of our collection dates to the 19th century when paper marbling was extremely popular. It comes in a variety of patterns and is used to adorn book covers, endpapers, and fore edges, line boxes, slipcases and trunks. It can also be used to decorate textiles

The earliest examples of paper marbling in European bookmaking come from the 15th century by way of Turkey where the art had been practiced much longer. There is a reference in a 10th century Chinese treatise on paper decoration that refers to “flowing sand notepaper” which describes a process that very closely resembles that of marbling, indicating its origins might be far older. Western marbling follows the Turkish process most closely where some form of sizing is added to water to make it viscous and pigment is floated on top. Ox-gall is added to the different pigments so they don’t mix. Designs are then drawn by adding different colors and blowing or dragging implements through the pigments to create patterns and images. Each design will be unique, but there are a number of common styles that artists return to, such as the Snail shell pattern pictured above from the endpapers of an 1865 Report of the Centennial celebration in Pawtucket, RI. 


Domino Papers

Before wallpaper was printed in rolls, it came in individual printed sheets called “dominos”. Each sheet was hand-colored using stencils. As you can imagine this process was very time consuming and very expensive. While Domino papers were used to line the walls of intimate rooms, they were also used to decorate the end papers of books and the lining of chests. Floral designs are very common. 

This method of paper decoration makes only an occasional appearance in our collections for a few reasons. First, it was most popular in 18th century France, a time period and location that is not particularly well-represented in our collections. Second, the high cost both in terms of money and time of producing Domino papers mean that it would have been used sparingly and for particularly special items. 

You can see an example from an edition of the New Testament printed in Zurich in 1708. 


Paste Papers

Paste papers are exactly what they sound like. Paste, with added pigment, is  painted on sturdy paper and designs or patterns are drawn or block printed into the paste, giving it a textured look. Making paste is a pretty simple enterprise: flour + water + some type of pigment. So the methods used to decorate paste papers display a wide range of skillsets. They can be simple or quite complex or somewhere in between. Most artists developed their own recipes for the perfect paste resulting in distinctive textures and appearances. 

The example above, from the cover of a bound set of newspapers in Hawaiian, is fairly complex: a geometric pattern with additional floral designs stamped in. 

Aside from the aesthetic appeal, these types of paper decoration tell us something about how the books that display them were viewed by those who produced and owned them. 19th century designs could be added by publishers or binders to make a ‘fancier’ or more attractive product. Examples from earlier periods may have been added by a book’s owner to decorate a particularly treasured possession, like the Domino papers in the French Bible. There are a number of conclusions we can draw, but beyond that, and more simply, coming across an unexpected example in the stacks is always a pleasant surprise. 




February 9, 2021

by William McCarthy, Reference and Processing 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 I want to highlight the Roslindale, Boston, Highland Congregational Church records, 1869-2006, RG4824. The collection was donated to the library in 2007 and processed in 2009.

The Highland Congregational Church’s origins start with the Sunday School affiliated with the Eliot Church. The school’s constant growth led to a discussion about forming a new, separate church. In February of 1869, a meeting on the matter decided that a new church would in fact be formed. A month later, 52 members joined the new Highland Congregational Church. The Eliot City Missionary Society decided to donate their property to the new church and by the end of 1871 the church was fully operational on Parker Street. A Chapel school, also located on Parker Street, would be linked with Highland Congregational Church until it was officially merged in 1897. The church continued to remain on Parker Street all the way until 1978, when a fire damaged the steeple and some of the church records. The church would finally leave its Parker Street location in 1980 and share the Trinity Lutheran Church on Center Street for over two decades. In 2006, the church officially closed due to a declining membership. Over the course of Highland Congregational Church’s existence, they would only have five pastors, with Rev. William Arthur Rice serving the longest at 51 years.

This collection is broken up into 6 separate series and is contained in 13 boxes, making it quite a large collection. The first series, Church Records, contains manuals, meeting minutes, annual reports, financial information, correspondences, and records related to the maintenance of the church. The records in this series only go up to the time right after the move to Trinity Lutheran Church. The second series, Members and Vital Statistics, focuses on births, marriages, deaths, Sunday School material, pastor’s notes, letters of transfers, and sermons. The third series, Auxiliary and Social Groups, focuses on a variety of clubs such as the Women’s Union, Union Mother’s Club, Women’s Missionary Club, Mount Holyoke Bible School and Sunday School. There is also a section of this series which focuses on the history of the church, including programs, activities, and other memorabilia. The fourth series focuses on the Ministers of the church, with a primary focus on Rev. William Arthur Rice sermons, life, and activities in clubs around Boston. The fifth series, newsletters, contains editions of “The Highland Light” between 1891 and 2000, with some gaps. The final series contains two Bibles, one of which is from the church’s opening in 1871. The Highland Congregational Church collection contains so much valuable information that stretches across such a long period of time that it is a treasure trove for researchers or curious individuals! 

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!

January 26, 2021

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

A few weeks ago, I discussed the process library staff go through to find more information about specific people using our materials. Today, after a deep dive into our collection of Spiritualism materials, I’m channeling Billy Mays: but wait--there’s more!

As the Congregational Library, it’s not surprising that many of our patrons come to us hoping to learn more about individual churches. Sometimes, this is part of a genealogical project, i.e. “I know my ancestors were Congregationalists and lived in X town around Y year, can you help me find a baptismal/marriage/death certificate?”. Sometimes, this is research about their own church’s history, or part of another historical enterprise all together. The process for locating this information is similar regardless, but there are a few complicating factors to keep in mind.

First, historically Congregational churches operate (generally) independently which means each individual church will make its own choice about where their historical records are stored, and as a result Congregational church records are spread out in a number of different repositories. While a church is still open, they typically retain possession of their records, or they may make arrangements with local organizations to house their oldest records. The Congregational Library generally only accepts records from churches that have closed (with Park Street Church and Old South Church being two notable exceptions). The church itself is the best source of information on where its records are stored and how they can be accessed. This also means that there is no mandate for a church to deposit their records with us. While we try to reach out to churches that are closing to let them know that we are willing and available to preserve their records, each congregation makes the decision that is right for them. It may not serve a congregation in California well to have their historical records kept in New England where access to former members and their descendents would be difficult.

Secondly, things change! Congregational churches are some of the oldest in the country. Over hundreds of years--or sometimes far fewer--churches may undergo name changes, schisms or mergers with other churches. Town names and boundaries shift, or churches relocate, making them difficult to track down, especially if they may have closed a century ago or more. What was once the First Church of Rehoboth, MA could become the Congregational Church of Seekonk, MA, and eventually Newman Congregational Church of East Providence, RI.

Lastly, the historical record is fragile and incomplete. Records from the 17th or 18th centuries are rare and vulnerable to any number of natural or human disasters. Church records may have been destroyed or damaged in fires or floods, lost to time, or never kept (or kept in an incomplete, scattershot way) in the first place. Unfortunately, sometimes the historical information you’re looking for simply doesn’t exist.

I bring these points up not to discourage, but because I believe that forewarned is forearmed, especially when it comes to archival research. And of course, there are a number of tools at our disposal to help overcome some of these challenges. To find out which Congregational churches were active in a particular area at which time Richard Taylor’s regional indexes are the best resource. These books also have detailed information about changes to church names, mergers, splits, and whether a church is still open and more. This series includes The Churches of Christ of the Congregational Way in New England (digitized), Southern Congregational Churches, Congregational Churches of the West, Plan of Union and Congregational Churches in the Mid-Atlantic States, Congregational and Plan of Union Churches in the Great Lakes States, and Congregational Churches on the Plains. For locating the records of Massachusetts, former CLA Librarian Harold Worthley’s An Inventory of the Records of the Particular Congregational Churches of Massachusetts 1620-1805 is an excellent resource. For Massachusetts churches formed before 1805, it can tell which records exist, what they contain (vital statistics, etc), and where they are located at the time that it was published. Sometimes, if a church’s records were destroyed or lost, it will also note the nature and location of any copies.

If a church has closed, but the records did not find their way to the Congregational Library, there are a few places we can check. ArchiveGrid is an online resource that will search archival repositories across the countries for relevant records. It is thorough, but by no means complete so if you cannot find the records you’re looking for there, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Smaller institutions in particular are less likely to have their finding aids searchable through ArchiveGrid and these smaller institutions are often where Congregational Church records end up.

Congregational church records are often found in public libraries (especially ones with strong local history or genealogy collections), local or state historical societies, state archives, local college and university archives, or the archives of regional and national Congregational organizations like the UCC. Even if the records can’t be found there, local organizations may have information about what may have happened to them. It’s always worth inquiring.

These are the tools that library staff turn to when we are hunting down a church or its records, and it is my hope that sharing these resources can empower you to find more on your own. Of course, the path of historical research never did run smooth, so we are here (and happy!) to help navigate around roadblocks and pitfalls and answer your questions.

January 14, 2021

by Jules Thomson, associate archivist and social media manager

As an archivist and history buff, I've always found my work with New England's Hidden Histories and the in-house archival collections at the CLA to be extremely rewarding. After many years of residing and working in the UK heritage sector I was a relative newcomer to primary American sources, and have been fascinated by the new learning opportunities. But perhaps my favorite project so far has been assisting with the creation of a finding guide for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) within our Hidden Histories records.

Dr. Richard Boles of Oklahoma State University, author of Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North, had previously kindly provided us his own research guide, a carefully compiled and comprehensive list of references to Black and Indigenous members of various New England congregations, identified in the preliminary batch of digitized NEHH church records. (When the new guide was created, this list became the foundation of the "BIPOC in majority-white church records" section.)

Dr. Boles's list-style finding aid was already hosted by the Congregational Library's website, when in summer of 2020 Hidden Histories director Jeff Cooper floated the idea of a more significant expansion. With the blessing of CLA's directorship, we got in touch with Richard to ask if he would be willing to create contextualizing introductions to the newly digitized and identified materials. Between the three of us and our preexisting institutional familiarity with the NEHH materials, we were also able to identify the most pertinent collections to showcase.

Meanwhile, I set about identifying the top categories of our BIPOC-related records in order to split the guide up into more easily-navigable sections, and working within the parameters of our website to format these. We eventually settled on 5 categories, in addition to an introduction and bibliography, each with their own page.

Section one, Firsthand Writings by BIPOC, is a compilation of own voices material including clerical writings by America's first fully-ordained Black minister, Rev. Lemuel Haynes, and a number of relation of faith documents from African American and/or Indigenous congregants who had composed these semi-autobiographical accounts in order to solicit full church membership. These documents represent an unusually intimate glimpse into the spiritual lives of "ordinary" early Americans, rivalled only by diaries and personal correspondence.

The second category, BIPOC Churches and Institutions, showcases historical Black and Indigenous Congregational churches, including churches founded within missionary-established "praying towns". These, along with Black congregations, which were often birthed from a need to escape prejudice within majority-white churches, were relatively few and far between, and the existing records we do host are consequently of great importance.

Indigenous-Focused Records mainly comprise early missionary writings and observations by clergy adjacent to Native communities and churches, such as Rev. William Homes's diary entries mentioning the Wampanoag church and community on Martha's Vineyard. While sadly lacking in firsthand Native voices, this section nonetheless offers up exclusive historical information about several New England tribes. We also decided to include an external link to the already-digitized Mamusse wunneetu-panatamwe Up-Biblum God, John Eliot's translation of the bible into Wôpanâak, a physical version of which the CLA holds in our rare book collections.

BIPOC in Majority-White Church Records, as aforementioned, is primarily the fruit of Dr. Boles's examination of church record books containing racial identifiers next to the names of congregants. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this practice, despite its origins in white-supremacist gatekeeping, has provided modern researchers with a better demographic picture of church attendance and an insight into lived experiences of people of color in early America, where they might otherwise remain invisible.

In Antislavery and Abolitionist Materials, there is (thus far) only a single manuscript collection - the records and minutes of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. However, we decided to round out the category with an extensive number of catalog links to antislavery print materials held physically in the Congregational Library collections. Though these fall outside the purview of the NEHH digitization program (because they are printed rather than handwritten), many of them have been transcribed with the text available online.

The guide was finalized in consultation with Dr. Christopher Cameron of UNC Charlotte and Dr. Jean O'Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) of the University of Minnesota, two of the foremost experts respectively on African American and Indigenous experience in the colonial American mileue. It continues to be a work in progress, intended to evolve as more digitized collections are added to Hidden Histories.

The Congregational Library & Archives, while it certainly holds outsized significance for researchers and genealogists, is nonetheless a relatively small nonprofit institution. The fact that we were able to produce this guide on a relative shoestring via targeted networking and top-down prioritization of staff time is encouraging. My hope is that our guide might inspire other small and mid-sized cultural institutions to produce similar research tools. Such highlighting of historically marginalized communities is the low-hanging fruit of the heritage sector, and frankly a bare minimum, but it's at least one place to start.

January 5, 2021

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

The surprised and delighted “How did you find that?!” is the sort of positive reinforcement that makes me tumble out of bed, stumble to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of ambition every day. I think this is the case for a lot of people in this field. My typical facetious answer is something like “librarian magic!” which people more readily accept than if I launch into a detailed explanation of metadata structures and optimizing search terms.

At the risk of angering the great cabal of librarians, I’d like to reveal some of our trade secrets (and if I mysteriously disappear as a result, you’ll know what happened). My hope is that this will help readers find more of the information they’re looking for, or hone their questions so we can help them more easily, and to shed some light on the skills and work necessary to come up with the magic answers. Additionally, some of these resources are particular to the Congregational Library meaning even experienced researchers may not be familiar with them.

This time I’ll be walking you through tracking down people in our records, one of our most frequent questions. How we go about this is highly dependent on who we’re looking for:



Clergy are generally among the easiest types of people to track down, or at the very least determine whether we have any material about them. 

First there is the online catalog. By searching the name of a minister you may be able to sermons they may have delivered and published, other material they may have written, and sometimes even photos or portraits from our image collection. 

Then there is the obituary database which will provide citations for a clergy members’ obituary across a number of publications, primarily yearbooks, and include further instructions for online access. Most of the congregational yearbooks have been digitized on the Internet Archive up through about the mid-20th century. After that, these obituaries are still accessible in hard copy by library staff or researchers in our reading room. Obituaries will usually contain information about a minister’s birth, education, pastorates, and any other notable service in Congregational organizations. Living clergy can also be found listed in yearbooks. 

Less frequently, we will have a minister’s personal or family papers in our archival collections or in the records of a church where they served. If this material exists, it will show up in a search of our online catalog. 



The same tips when searching for clergy apply to searching for missionaries. They can often be found through their published writing, occasionally their personal papers and sometimes in the obituary database which also pulls necrologies printed in the Missionary Herald. 

The published guide to the American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions microfilm collection includes listings of all ABCFM missionaries organized by name and also by mission station. This can be an excellent resource for locating additional primary source material about someone or providing more context for their experiences. 

Annual reports of the American Board and other organizations like the American Missionary Association usually contain listings of active missionaries and reports of the activities of individual mission stations. 

The complete records of the American Board are held by Harvard’s Houghton Library. They often have personal correspondence and other manuscript material written by missionaries during their service. The Congregational Library has the microfilm of much of this material. 

The records of the American Missionary Association are held by the Amistad Research Center. They are the best resource for finding more information about missionaries who worked for the AMA. The Congregational Library also holds the microfilm of a large portion of their archival collection. 


Other Congregationalists

Tracking down someone who was not a minister or a missionary--or if you aren’t sure if they were a minister or a missionary--may prove more difficult. While this can be the proverbial needle-in-the-haystack sort of undertaking, there are a few things approaches that make this easier. 

If you have a good idea of what church someone belonged to--because their close relatives belonged there, or some other reason--they may be found in the church’s records, either in listings of vital statistics like births, marriages and deaths, or in the regular activities of the church which was often a center of community life. Membership lists were often attached to printings of a church’s covenant or articles of faith--you can find many of these for congregational churches all over the country in our local church history files, though the time periods covered are often spotty. 

If you know the general area where someone lived, you might be able to narrow down which church they attended and start your search there. The further back in time you go, the fewer churches there are to search through, but the more likely it is that their early records have been lost, damaged or destroyed over time. Typically, Congregational churches retain their own records while they are open, and if a church is closed and their records have not been deposited at the library, staff might be able to help locate them. 

It is an unfortunate fact that the details of the lives of “ordinary” people are generally not preserved in the historical record, but there are many local public history organizations, like historical societies, doing work to make the material that exists more visible, and new technologies (like OCR which makes digitized images of text searchable) making material more accessible from a distance all the time. 

December 22, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Associate Archivist & Social Media Manager

Taking my cue from Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Past, and because I am decidedly not a subject specialist, I want to highlight pieces that some of our former, significantly more knowledgeable, bloggers have written about Christmas in the Congregational tradition. 

Did the Puritans celebrate Christmas?

The first "blog of Christmas past" is this 2011 essay by our former Executive Director and historian, Peggy Bendroth, in which she discusses the oft-maligned Puritan "ban" on Christmas. Given the contemporary allegations of a War on Christmas, it's interesting to consider that the Puritans were perhaps its most staunch footsoldiers.

Dr. Bendroth doesn't exactly refute the church fathers' aversion to celebration of the holiday (for an example, see this Cotton Mather sermon with a very long name) but she does attempt to contextualize their scroodgeyness as both an exhortation to spiritual piety, and as a reaction against the remarkable excesses of the Anglican court.

With its prodding of stereotypes, the essay is similar to our recent "myth busting" episodes around the Thanksgiving holiday, the Mayflower Compact, and modern misconceptions about the Puritans (coming soon!).

Congregational Christmas stories of the Gilded Age

Reader, I was floored by this 2015 essay, courtesy of Norman Erlendson and Joanna Albertson-Grove, in which they examine two childrens' Christmas stories published by The Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society in the 1890s. 

Excerpts from the two amusing tales demonstrate "how the prevailing Gilded Age values of individual virtue and personal piety were woven into Christian stories for children". This philosophy was a reaction to, and rejection of, the concept of the Social Gospel, in which Christians were considered responsible for the betterment of society.

If A Christmas Carol, published several decades earlier in 1843, falls into this latter category with its implied critique of prisons, workhouses, and unchecked capitalist greed, the Congregational Sunday-School stories are decidedly anti-Dickensian in spirit, emphasizing personal salvation over social reform, charity and trickle-down largesse over systemic change. I can't be the only one who sees some modern relevance to these competing philosophies beyond their legacy within Congregationalism - demonstrating once again the CLA slogan that "History Matters," even history as encapsulated in a whimsical book of childrens' Christmas stories.

December 16, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Much has been said of how Quartex will change, and make better, the ways in which we present our digital resources to our users. And most of that, at least from me, has been related to the flexibility Quartex offers in terms of the creation, display, and link-ability of metadata. But it is one thing to talk about how this will work in theory. It is another to show how this works with real world examples. Fortunately, I have been busy migrating digital resources into Quartex (already 7 collections, encompassing 58 individual resources and 2,590 image files have been successfully migrated) and already I have found a New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) collection which demonstrates just how useful Quartex’s metadata controls will be to us from both descriptive and user-experience perspectives.

Within NEHH there is a collection titled “Boylston, Mass. First Church”. While not an inaccurate title, technically, it is deceptive in its simplicity and hides quite a bit about what the record within it is about. To explain why this statement is true requires going into a bit of history with how NEHH is currently organized. To make browsing somewhat easier, NEHH collections are divided into three overarching series (an archival term basically meaning a group of related “stuff”): Church records, Personal papers, and Conference/Association records. Seems simple enough, but not all records fall easily into these three series. For example, this “Boylston, Mass. First Church” collection should technically be a part of the Personal papers series, rather than the Church records series it was placed into.


See, the single record book in this collection was created by a single individual, Ebenezer Morse, who was the pastor of the First Church in Boylston. So why was the collection placed in the Church records series if the only item in it was created by a single person? Well, the records maintained by Morse are technically church records and include everything from meeting minutes to vital records. So, at the time that this collection was intellectually “created” (scare quotes since creation here is an abstract archival concept), probably in 2017, it was decided that classifying this collection as church records would likely help people discover the collection better than if they were classified as personal papers. In other words, it was a decision intended to help discoverability, but at the cost of precision in description.

The title, “Boylston, Mass. First Church” is not entirely accurate even if we ignore the issue of Ebenezer Moses’s authorship. That is because the First Church in Boylston was, at the beginning of the record book, the Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury. As with many of the early churches in Massachusetts, the Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury changed its name when the Second Parish itself was incorporated as the town of Boylston, separating itself from Shrewsbury. By both internal policies, as well as external best archival practices, we name collections based on the latest legal name of a church found within the records. And while the name Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury is found in a sub-title beneath the collection title on the series page, it does not really help describe what exactly the collection contains or the complex history that led to these two names describing the same church.

Quartex, as I have said before, solves many of the issues brought up by this single collection. For one, Quartex allows us to describe individual items, rather than collections. There is no need to create these artificial series, or even collection titles, because every bit of description appears at the individual item level. Where once we had a collection titled “Boylston, Mass. First Church” which contained a single item, titled “Account book, 1718-1859”, we now have an item in Quartex titled “Account book of Ebenezer Morse, 1718-1859”. This is already a much more descriptive, and accurate, title that clearly indicates who the creator of the item is, as well as what the item itself is. It is also significantly closer to the title provided to the physical item by its owner the New England Historic Genealogical Society. But things gets even better!


Even from the browse page, and certainly within the record itself, we are presented with a wealth of information. Including, in the Names field, the controlled vocabulary terms, First Congregational Church (Boylston, Mass.) and Second Parish Church (Shrewsbury, Mass.). Instead of one term taking precedent due to its later user, both terms are equally presented side-by-side. Other metadata also becomes front and center, such as a list of subject terms which helps the user to understand what types of records might be present in the volume. Better yet, any of these terms can be clicked to bring up a search result for all other items that include these terms. And since all these terms are attached to the item-level record, no matter how someone searches, whether for churches in Shrewsbury, or for works by Ebenezer Morse, or even just by searching for Marriage records, this item will always appear within the list of results.

In the past, we had to sometimes bend the rules governing description to make an already imperfect system of browsing work best for our users at the cost of precision in description. While these decisions were made in good faith and internally consistent with policies, depending on peoples searches or expectations, this method of organizing and titling collections could easily obfuscate records from those who needed them. Quartex, with its ability to create true and complex item-level descriptions, largely solves this problem, by making all the metadata, complex and confusing as it might be, front and center.


December 8, 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 I want to highlight RG4936, the Cranston, Rhode Island, Knightsville-Franklin Congregational Church records; 1807, 1863-2008. The collection was donated by the church in April 2010 with additional materials arriving in December 2011. The collection was first processed in July of 2010 and updated in January 2012.

The Knightsville Meetinghouse was built in 1807 for the Benevolent Baptist Society in Cranston, Rhode Island. The meetinghouse was not only used for the society, but also served as the town meeting center. Around 1864, the Knightsville Mission Sabbath School was established and started to thrive quickly. Members of the school decided to organize into a church. In 1878, the organization officially became a branch of the Union Congregational Church of Providence, Rhode Island. Following a merger between Union Congregational and Plymouth Congregational Church in 1928, Knightsville Congregational Church officially became its own entity. The membership base started to grow, along with many auxiliary groups. The Franklin Congregational Church, founded in 1873, started to share minister Paul E. Duhamel in 1964 due to declining membership. The two groups officially merged in 1967, forming the Knightsville-Franklin Congregational Church. The community continued to see decline throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 2006, the members voted to leave the United Church of Christ and join the National Association for Congregational Christian Churches. The members voted to close the church in 2009 and officially ended in October 2009.

The collection is split into 9 different series across 11 boxes. Series 1, Governance, contains annual reports, committee reports, and other records dealing with church activities and decision making. Series 2 covers the financial records as early as 1863. Series 3 contains records related to the ministers, mostly focused on the church's search for new ministers. Series 4 is all about membership and contains an index card list, transfers, and a remembrance book. Series 5 chronicles the auxiliary organizations such as a women's club, the Fellowship Club, and the Sunday School. Series 6 contains published materials such as order of worships, pamphlets, and newsletters. Series 7 has historical material which covers anniversaries, certificates, and historical notes. Series 8 covers photos and has a videocassette from the 1994 Rhode Island conference. The final series is all about the dissolution of the church from 2009. As you can see, the collection has a wide variety of highlights that would be interesting to all our patrons!

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!

December 2, 2020

Guest Blog by Francis J. Bremer: Coordinator, New England Beginnings; Editor, the Winthrop Papers; Professor Emeritus of History, Millersville University; Program Commitee Chair; CLA Board

View a video version of this lecture here.

Recently, there has been considerable attention devoted to the “Mayflower Compact,” the agreement signed by the male passengers on the Mayflower on November 21, 1620, four hundred years ago.  Some of the commentary overstates the significance of the document, while other treatments are based on misunderstandings of the background of the signatories. Since we will likely hear much more about the Compact and the Plymouth colony during the ongoing commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the colony, I would like to offer some reflections on the document and its genesis.

While in the nineteenth century statesmen such as John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster praised the “Compact,” some of the new attention the “Compact” has received has gone further with assertions that it was the critical event in the formation of America, “the beginning of ordered liberty in the New World” as one individual has expressed it and “one of the great turning points in Christianity” as stated elsewhere.  The context for this new attention is largely a reaction to the “1619 Project” launched by the New York Times in August of last year.  That publication was a self-proclaimed effort to reframe our national history by pointing to the beginning of slavery in Virginia in August 1619, making slavery and race the determinative factors in the history of our country, and interpreting all that came later from the perspective of slavery and race.

One can, as I do, applaud efforts to devote more attention to the role of race in the history of the country, including the importance of racial dimensions in the colonial history of New England, while at the same time pointing out (as many scholars have) the exaggerations and lack of evidence for some of the bolder interpretations of the “1619 Project.”  But as is often the case, a bold call to revise our understanding of the past prompts negative critiques that are themselves polemical more than scholarly.  Thus, some (not all) political conservatives and religious evangelicals have responded to the 1619 Project with their own counter-proposals, one of which is the so-called “1620 Project.”  Books and articles have appeared denying that America’s beginning is to be found in the enslavement of African men and women, and contending that the true beginning was the assertion of self-governance and religious liberty by the Pilgrims in 1620. 

The danger such efforts for historians, and for Americans as citizens, lies in trying to point to any one event or idea as the beginning of the nation.  If one engages in such an enterprise, there are many events that could be pointed to as the beginning of America – 1492, the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, the arrival of slavery in 1619, the Mayflower Compact in 1620, the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, and so on and so forth.  Picking one – any one -- is an expression of what the particular investigator sees as the character of the country.  It is simplistic and misleading.  But, as the scholar Abram Van Engen has explained, our understanding of the past is “dynamic and provisional.” 

Examining different perspectives and evidence is a process of “engaging in the effort to see from a new angle what before had gone unseen, developing the capacity to read in a new way what before had been read over, and practicing the skill of reading carefully what before might never have been read at all.”  “History,” he concludes, “is not just an account of the period covered but an accrual or perceptions.”  What we need to do is to give up the effort to find one single source of America and its values, and to continue to explore the many influences that shaped our culture.

To come back to the “Mayflower Compact,” 400 years after its signing, it is appropriate to examine what that document contributed to the character of America.  But we need to avoid overstating its importance, and our examination has to be factually accurate.    First, let’s set out what we know.  The passengers on the Mayflower had planned to settle in the colony of Virginia, authorized to do so by a patent from the Virginia Company, which controlled that colony.  In an effort to attract more colonists, such as those on the Mayflower, the Virginia Company had adopted a policy of granting settler groups a large amount of autonomy in ordering their own affairs under the broad supervision of the colony government.  The specific patent granted to the Pilgrims does not survive and, additionally, we have no information on how they would have used the freedom the patent gave them.  We also need to remember that the colonial venture was being subsidized by a group of English merchants, and the colonists were contractually obligated to them for certain details of how the colony would operate.  When it became evident that it would not be possible to reach their intended destination and that they would be settling in an area outside the Virginia colony, the passengers on the Mayflower needed to reach an understanding regarding how they would be governed. 

Here we come across one of the misperceptions that I previously alluded to.  In a book, Saints and Strangers, written in 1945, George Willison wrongly identified most of the Mayflower passengers as non-Pilgrims and interpreted the colony’s early history as representing the triumph of more secular profit-seekers over a minority of religious fanatics.  This interpretation has been remarkably resilient, with the characterization of the majority of the passengers as non-religious leading to the argument that the Mayflower Compact was a plan of government imposed by a small religious minority over a secularly inclined majority.  The basis for this argument – that most of the passengers were seeking gold rather than God – is false.  Jeremy Bangs, the foremost scholar of the Pilgrims’ time in Leiden, has established that of the 102 passengers, eighty were either from Leiden or likely to have been from Leiden.  Furthermore, of the remaining two score, many had clear puritan sympathies that united them to the Pilgrims, as evidenced by the fact that some had been cited by the English church authorities for puritan behavior.  There were indeed some passengers who had expressed the idea that if they settled outside the land specified in the patent, they would be free to behave anyway they wished, but there is no evidence that more than a few claimed this freedom.

Someone, most likely William Brewster, the religious elder of the congregation, who had previous experience of government and diplomacy, drew up the compact, the essence of which was that those who signed did (to quote from the document) “solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation …, and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, act, constitutions, and offices, from time to time as shall be thought mete and convenient for the general good of the colony.”  All adult males signed it, thus agreeing to come together as a single community, choose their own leaders, and obey the laws approved by the majority.

The Pilgrims were puritan congregationalists, and the Mayflower Compact was clearly derived from their religious background.  Over a decade earlier a group of men and women had gathered in Scrooby Manor House, William Brewster’s English home, and “by the most wise and good providence of God [been] brought together … to unite ourselves into one congregation or church.”  They had promised and bound themselves “to walk in all our ways according to the Rule of the Gospel and in all sincere conformity to His holy ordinances and in mutual love to and watchfulness over one another.”  Prior to their departure and to their failure to reach Virginia, the Pilgrim’s pastor, John Robinson, had advised the colonists on the need to govern themselves in such a fashion.  Perhaps suggesting how they should operate under the terms of the Virginia Colony patent, Robinson had urged them as a body to “let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good.”  He also advised them to repress all impulses that might detract from the common good.   This last point, a commitment to the welfare of all over individual aspirations – what I have elsewhere referred to as the puritan social gospel – was implicit in the covenant of the Scrooby congregation, and in the Mayflower Compact.

The values expressed in the Mayflower Compact did contribute to the character of New England.  Puritan congregationalism was a system of participatory democracy, reflecting a trust in the individual believer that expanded into the civil realm, as in the Mayflower Compact.  That impulse, spreading from the formation and governance of a church of believers, to a colony system of government, would underpin the system of town meetings whereby local New England communities would be governed.  This was not the only source for the democracy that took shape in our country, but it was one contribution to that process.  That does not mean that we ignore other, less positive parts of our history, nor the ways in which the early English settlers of New England violated the principles that their faith seemed to demand.  But it is something worth commemorating and considering four hundred years later.

November 24, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Work on the CLA’s pamphlet for starting a church records program continues apace, though slowly. One of the topics that will be covered in that pamphlet will be role of digital records in a records program and how to preserve those records. Digital preservation is a tough topic to crack though, especially when so much of the discussion surrounding digital preservation is either impractical, mired in hyper-specific terminology, or both. The diagram pictured here is of the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) model. I am not going to go into it (I’ve largely pictured it because there is a running joke in the field that all discussions of digital preservation must ultimately picture this model) but I do show it as a segue into saying that even large, well-funded, institutions with mature digital programs struggle to adhere fully to the OAIS model.

What then is the point in talking about digital preservation if even the biggest places run into difficulties? While it is true that digital preservation, at the highest level, is difficult, it does not mean that digital preservation at any level is impractical. Too often I have seen an emphasis in the field on “perfect preservation.” This need for some perfect solution tends to eat up resources, such as money and time, that could have been better spent on something smaller that provides imperfect, but achievable, digital preservation. And that kind of practical digital preservation is what the CLA hopes to offer churches.

For starters, let us clear up one very common misconception related to digital preservation. Paper is still the most secure, stable, and cost-effective preservation medium in the archives. Digital files are prone to corruption and bit-loss, stored on carrier mediums which regularly fail (such as compact disks, flash drives, and hard drives), and digital storage is expensive, especially at scale. Therefore, the CLA never suggests for churches to actively digitize their own physical records for preservation. As a field, digitization has moved away from “digitization for preservation” towards “digitization for access.” In other words, when archivists digitize something nowadays, it is typically done to mediate access to the resource, for example, by making digital images of a physical object available online for everyone with an internet connection to see. For a basic records program at a church, digitization will often make more headaches than solve problems.

While the CLA does not ever suggest churches digitize their own paper-based records, we also do not suggest mass-printing digital materials onto paper. While it is true that paper is a great preservation medium, it conversely does not make sense to be printing out every email and PDF for the sake of preservation. It may make sense to have physical surrogates for particularly important digital files, such as any digital documents related to church governance, but for the vast majority of digital records, having a physical version can lead to confusion and takes up space, a commodity often in short supply.

So how can churches preserve their digital records? There are a few practical and easy to implement decisions that can make digital preservation easier. From a policy perspective the first step is to have a committee. The CLA always recommends that a church records program be operated by a committee and either the full committee can participate in digital preservation or it can be handled by a sub-committee. At their best, committees ensure that institutional knowledge is not lost, even if its members change over time, and that contiguous knowledge is the absolute most important thing for a successful records program.

The committee should first determine and document the genres of digital records the church regularly creates, the file types of those digital records, where those records are stored, and who creates them. For example, it is important to identify that the church admin regularly creates minutes for the weekly church administration committee and that these records are made using Microsoft Word and stored on a local file directory on the church admin’s office computer. Think of this as an audit. This does not need to be a full accounting of every single digital files created, but it should cover, in broad swaths, records which are created regularly.

Once there is a sufficient accounting of the types and forms of digital records being created, the next step is to determine the lifecycle of these records. As a committee, decide which genres of digital records do not need to be preserved and therefore shouldn’t be transferred to a digital archive, which must be maintained for a time for legal reasons but should be destroyed after a certain time, and which should be considered important for the archival records and transferred to permanent storage after a time. If these kinds of determinations sound similar, it is because it is the same set of suggestions given to records programs for physical records. As such, the National Council of Nonprofits “Document Retention Policies for Nonprofits” can become a solid foundation upon which to think about managing digital records.

On to the task of preserving digital records, one of the first tasks after the initial audit should be to create a physical digital archive that exists separate from your church’s existing digital architecture. The greatest danger to digital files is hardware failure, such as the hard drive of an office computer failing. By purchasing an external hard drive, one can create an archived file repository that is separate from the standard office environment. To make the external hard drive even more secure, consider purchasing a watertight lockbox, depositing it into a safety deposit box at your church’s bank, or keeping it within a fire-safe vault in the church if you already have one. If funds are available, consider having two external hard drives, each an exact duplicate of the other, and storing them in different locations, such as one in the safe and the other at the bank. The initial ingest of files onto the external hard drive, using the audit as a base, will be the most time consuming task; once that is complete the church records committee should meet regularly, probably between 2-4 times a year, to determine which newly created files should be added to the hard drive and ensure that the device still functions. Unfortunately, even external hard drives can fail, so plan to acquire a new external hard drive every five years or so to be safe (though lightly used hard drives should last at least 10 years before any real danger of failure).

Another policy initiative that a church can undertake is to regularly convert old permanent files which are unlikely to be edited or modified in the future. While Microsoft’s Office suit is ubiquitous, it, and other similar office programs, are proprietary and the files they create are not guaranteed to be accessible in the future. Fortunately, most office programs allow you to save a file as a pdf, which is an acceptable and standard archival format for digital preservation. This conversion can be done before files are transferred to the external hard drive but should at minimum be done annually to help prevent backlogs and minimize the risk of any files suddenly becoming unsupported due to new software versions.

One final bit of advice would be to figure out a way to collect digital content from church members. Church events are the lifeblood of church communities, and they bring with them a plethora of records, many of them digital nowadays. The greatest bulk of these records might be videos and images taken on cell phones, but even the files created in preparation of the event, such as fliers, pamphlets, and programs, are likewise important records. Collections of these kinds of records can be done passively by setting up an email or a cloud-based Dropbox account specifically designed for collecting community records. With a particularly active community and records committee, churches could even organize events where community members volunteer their time and knowledge to tag digital photographs with the names of the people pictured in them. In general, outreach to the entire church community should be an important and regular part of the records committee’s work.

A lot has been covered in this post, and perhaps much of it not in the depth the topic requires, but I hope it can at least be a starting point to thinking about digital preservation. Digital records are here to stay and must be thought of as equal in importance to physical records. Ensuring their preservation is incredibly important to the future of a church’s community as they hold the memories of the present day. This is even more true now with COVID where many church activities have, like in much of society, become remote and digital. If ever there was a time to begin thinking about how your church can best manage and maintain its digital records, now is that time. And of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us via email!
Speaking of email! One absolute final bit of advice: do not worry about preserving emails. As much as it is talked about in the field, email preservation is neither practicable nor useful for basically any non-government entity.

November 24, 2020

The story of Thanksgiving gets a lot of play in New England in general and the Congregational Library in particular, especially this year as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing. Rather than re-examine that story--we have scholars and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving for that--I have taken the time to consider the library and archives related things I am particularly grateful for this year, and polled other members of the library’s staff for theirs.

I spend a not insignificant amount of time shaking a fist at librarians past, usually when I stumble across a cataloging choice I cannot fathom the reasoning behind, as I’m sure librarians of the future will be shaking their angry bionic fists at me. But I do want to take the time to appreciate the good work done by everyone who came before me which makes my job easier all the time, sometimes in quite unexpected ways. A few years ago, I was working the reference desk when a disheveled-looking patron arrived less than an hour before we were about to close. He was in town from Korea doing research at another library when they told him the CLA had in our collection the signature of evangelist Dwight L. Moody and he rushed over hoping to catch us before we closed. He was leaving the next day.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t excited about this request. It was close enough to the end of the day that it was almost too late to pull new material, and usually, searching for one signature in a collection is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I hate delivering bad news, so I agreed to take a look, and I have the work of previous CLA staff members to thank for what happened next. Dwight Moody was a member of the Mount Vernon Congregational church and was included in the list of subject headings in the finding aid and catalog record. Not only that, but some helpful previous staff member had indicated on the finding aid not only in which record book Moody’s signature could be found, but also on which page. This allowed me to find and pull the book so the patron could take a picture in record time. He was so thrilled he cried, and later, sent me the article he wrote about it. Without the work of previous archivists, this wouldn’t have been possible. I have them to thank for a well-processed collection, the foresight it requires to anticipate what pieces are going to appeal to researchers, and the wherewithal to write it down to make their successor’s lives easier. Plus, without this I wouldn’t have gotten the satisfaction of making one of our patrons cry from happiness.

There’s a lot to be grateful for at the Congregational Library and in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) field generally. Here’s what other members of the staff had to say:


  • A good spatula. This invaluable tool makes removing all those rusty staples and crusty rubber bands if not ‘a breeze’ then at least less of a chore.
  • The knowledge that we’re providing a useful service in taking a church’s records and that we’re able to validate for them that the work they’ve done is important and worth preserving.
  • The existence of archives as a bastion of evidentiary source material in the face of misinformation, fake news, propaganda, and nationalist myth-making.
  • The ability to make records accessible online! The opportunities the internet provides for democratization of access and breaking down geographical boundaries.
  • that archivists and librarians seem to be some of the best work colleagues imaginable (even if we do say so ourselves!)
November 10, 2020

By Jules Thomson, Associate Archivist / Social Media Manager

Adapted from an article originally published in the CLA’s September 2019 Bulletin

Who invented the internet? (No, not Al Gore!) You may have heard of Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee, usually hailed as the founding fathers of the World Wide Web. But if you answered "a Jesuit priest named Roberto Busa" you also wouldn’t be wrong.

Father Busa was an Italian linguist and seminarian, who studied Theology at the Episcopal Seminary of Belluno - along with Albino Luciani, later known as Pope John Paul I. But Busa is best known as the creator of the Index Thomisticus, a vast digital database of the works of the prolific Saint Thomas Aquinas. In this role, he also pioneered experimental applications of digital technology which would become foundational to the internet as we experience it today.

In 1949 at the Papal Gregorian University of Rome, Busa published a PhD thesis on Aquinas; but it wasn’t until his collaboration with the top brass at IBM, 30 years later, that he was able to convert decades of linguistic research into a dynamic database using emergent computing and internet technology. It was the first time in history that a humanities project had been subject to organization and analysis by computer algorithms. One of the abilities unique to this technology, and crucial for analyzing the works of Aquinas in particular, was its allowance for lemmatisation - grouping together different forms of a word to allow analysis as a single item. Another obvious advantage was the ability to share the database, first across local area networks and eventually globally through the World Wide Web.

The project is widely hailed as the first to introduce digital computing to the humanities – or vice versa, depending on how you look at it - so much so that a Roberto Busa Prize has been established by the international umbrella organization for humanities computing, ADHO, to recognize “outstanding lifetime achievements in the application of information and communications technologies to humanistic research”. Index Thomisticus both anticipated and typified what would later come to be known as "digital humanities", an ever-expanding field marrying the potential of digital technology with history, linguistics, sociology, and the arts.

Nigh on 40 years later, digital humanities (also known as DH) is more popular than ever. One has only to dip a toe into the world of grant-writing to understand that the phrase itself, for better or worse, is veritable currency. A combination of access potential, perceived value for money, and perceived digital preservation of data has contributed to an all-embracing attitude on the part of granting bodies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2018 the NEH awarded the fourth largest share of its funds specifically to DH projects, after federal/state partnership funding, programming, and general preservation and access.  And to quote the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “activities with a substantial digital component receive funds under all NEH program areas, thus the percentage of funds allocated to ODH understates the share of monies NEH invests in digital projects and materials.” [emphasis mine].

Few technological advancements throughout recorded history have rivalled that of computing and the internet. As far as the arts and humanities are concerned, the last innovation of equal magnitude was the invention of the printing press. And as was the case in the 15th century, it behooves scholars, historians and information professionals to align with popular media as a means to preserve and promote their work. The Darwinian model, when applied outside of the field of evolutionary science for which it was solely intended, is notoriously problematic. But the ‘change or die’ aphorism is nonetheless demonstrably relevant in the world of business and technology, in which new innovations must keep pace with evolving formats and public expectations. By now, models of commercial technology have permeated academia, information science, and the heritage sector to such an extent that the demarcations between them are increasingly blurry. Faceted search algorithms pioneered by the likes of Amazon have been put to use in public library catalogues. Museums are ‘gamifying’ their collections with 3D modelling, VR headsets, and augmented reality. The science of analyzing and improving user experience (known as UX) is increasingly indispensable in the public sector as well as the private.

Far from being left in the dust, Father Busa’s work continues to resonate today. His harnessing of lemmatization, the grouping of differently-inflected words together, anticipated a wider need for embedded, machine-readable iterations of human-readable text. (i.e., hidden code behind the words you see on the page, which accomplishes all sorts of functions). There are as many reasons why this might be desirable as there are digital humanities projects, but they commonly include semantic grouping of related words and phrases, and the ability to search across non-standardized spellings. The latter are, of course, extremely common in manuscripts dating from before the 20th century. These functions assist not only with research and analysis but also with accessibility, as they facilitate search and retrieval within host websites, and discoverability on search engines such as Google.

The encoding itself is largely accomplished through the process of XML tagging. Most people have at least heard of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the primary language of the web, designed to display text. XML (Extensible Markup Language), contrastingly, is the semantic, machine-readable encoding hidden behind the textual web, which allows for dynamic organization as well as mere display. In simple terms, it works by attaching “tags” to visible text which describe the meta-categories to which the text belongs, allowing for analysis and regrouping based on these. There are some immediately obvious applications, such as interactive websites and databases, whose functionality is built upon the language’s dynamism.

XML is extensible – meaning that infinite iterations of it can be tailor-made for any project. In the digital humanities field, one of the most important iterations is TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) format, which is utilized primarily by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation. Notable examples include the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has used TEI in its Folger Digital Texts project to lemmatize words across different versions of Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and the Library of Congress’s American Memory project which used a simplified form of TEI to encode a wide array of archival material types. A related schema was developed for the encoding of musical scores (MEI – Music Encoding Initiative format) which has enabled machine-reading of music archives, recently applied to the works of Beethoven and Delius, as well as a large corpus of mediaeval sheet music.

Busa’s methodology also spawned an array of lauded pioneer projects in the decades after the development of his Index, largely in the fields of literature and history. These include the Walt Whitman Archive, the Slave Societies Digital Archive, and the Emily Dickinson Archives, among many others. In addition to textual analysis, these projects also allowed for the virtual confederation of historical materials physically housed in diverse locations – a revolutionary hallmark of the field, now largely taken for granted.

Today the web is littered with other examples, large and small, including dynamic literary compendiums, image libraries, interactive historical mapping projects, visualizations, phone apps, and crowdsourcing projects. You will also find masses of scholarly articles and publications discussing the potential merits and issues inherent to the field, and several degree programs in the subject at universities such as UC Berkeley and Tufts. Some DH projects explore and confederate myriad works or subjects. Sometimes the same subjects or creators are revisited in different ways. Increasingly, the detailed textual encoding which typified early projects is expanding to allow for analysis of “big data”, i.e. wider patterns and trends, and “linked data”, expanding access across subject siloes to allow for a more holistic, big-picture understanding of a given topic.

The quote “hominem unius libri timeo” - I fear the man of a single book - is often attributed to Thomas Aquinas. The phrase has variously been interpreted as either critical or supportive of single-minded subject expertise (with ‘fear’ sometimes denoting reverence rather than admonition). Perhaps, in the world of digital humanities, both meanings apply equally. Father Busa’s Thomistic research was the result of decades of intensely focused academic study. And yet, without his interdisciplinary foray into the brave new world of computer science, the Index Thomisticus would have existed only in the confines of a few bound paper volumes, infinitely less dynamic and accessible, and – more importantly – its creator would not have spawned a global movement which continues to evolve new iterations and potentials today.

It is this marriage of academic rigor with the expansive potential of the digital world that typifies digital humanities as an emergent field, allowing knowledge previously encased in academic silos and physically static archives to be shared more easily with other institutions and simultaneously broadcast to the public at large. At their most successful, these projects breathe new life into the documentary and material record, recreate and enhance our knowledge and understanding of history, and bring it, with all its surprises and idiosyncrasies, into the limelight as never before.



Bonzio, Roberto. “Father Busa, Pioneer of Computing in Humanities with Index Thomisticus, Dies at 98.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, August 19, 2011.

“Distribution of NEH Program Funding.” Humanities Indicators. Accessed August 14, 2019.

"Emily Dickinson, From Fascicle to Open Access | Harvard University Press". Retrieved 2016-12-26.. See Emily Dickinson Archive website

Mary Loeffelholz. "Networking Dickinson: Some Thought Experiments in Digital Humanities." The Emily Dickinson Journal 23, no. 1 (2014): 106-119. (accessed August 14, 2019).

Priego, Ernesto. “Father Roberto Busa: One Academic's Impact on HE and My Career.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 12, 2011.

Projects and users. Accessed August 14, 2019.

“Slave Societies Digital Archive.” Slave Societies Digital Archive. Accessed August 14, 2019.

“TEI: Projects Using the TEI.” TEI Text Encoding Initiative. Accessed August 14, 2019.

“The Walt Whitman Archive.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Accessed August 14, 2019.

November 5, 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 I want to highlight RG4680, the Newton, Mass, Central Congregational Church records, 1868-2003. This collection was donated in 2002 after the closing of the church. The collection was processed the following year.

The church was first organized in 1868 with a chapel on Washington Street. The first pastor was Joseph B. Clark. The community would continue to expand, and a new church building was eventually commissioned in 1985 with architectural work by Hartwell and Richardson(1). The church continued to thrive through the first half of the 1900s, with peak membership of 1000 in the 1940s. In 1971, the community joined forces with Newtonville Methodist Church as it had seen continual membership declines. In the 1980s the church would be involved in peace activism, particularly regarding Ethiopia, the USSR and Nicaragua. The church would continue to struggle with membership and in 2001 a task force on the future of the church decided it was time to close. The following year the building was sold to the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church, which is still there today. Central Congregational Church held its final service on January 12th, 2003.

This collection is one of our largest church collections and is housed in 36 boxes! With a collection this size, we have it split into 6 separate series. The first series covers the church records and includes committee minutes, annual minutes, by-laws, constitution, covenant of faith correspondence, financial, and building records. The collection contains items from the church's first year in 1868 all the way to its last days in 2003. The second series focuses on the membership records and includes baptisms, deaths, marriages, admission, and dismissions. There is also a comprehensive membership index file organized by last name. The third series contains records related to the various pastors across Central Congregational Church’s history. Pastor A.J. Muste (1915-1918) has the most representation in this series and the collection also has sermons that cover most of the church’s life. The fourth series covers the various auxiliary and social groups affiliated with the church, including the Sunday School, Women’s Association, and music-related items. The fifth series covers Central Congregational Church’s newsletter, The Courier and contains a nearly complete set except for the 1950s. The final series focuses on historical items such as photographs, programs from events, orders of service, anniversary celebrations, histories of the church, biographies of some members, newspaper clippings and a list of World War II servicemen. This collection is incredibly detailed and showcases the history of Central Congregational Church from its beginning to its end, a truly worthwhile collection to discover!

The legacy finding aid for this collection can be found online on our website. 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!

(1) - Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System: Central Congregational Church

November 3, 2020

He who ne’er learns his A, B, C, for ever will a Blockhead be;/ But he who to his Book’s inclin’d, will soon a golden Treasure find

So begins the earliest edition of The New-England Primer in the library’s collection, printed in Boston some time in the 1780’s. As Zack mentioned in his recent post, the staff here just recently finished reading and discussing Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. It seemed fitting, then, to take another look at America’s first textbook.

The first edition of the Primer was printed in Boston in the late 1680’s by Benjamin Harris who was also the likely author of the alphabetic couplets it is known for today; however, the first known extant copy of the Primer was printed in 1727. Unlike today’s history textbooks, copies of the Primer were treasured by their owners and often loved to death which is why so few early editions survive. Our earliest copy, printed nearly a century after the first Primer, bears this out: the pages are so worn in places they’re barely legible. You can imagine how many different fingers have turned these pages over the last 300 years.

1727 was also about the time that the Primer began to take its most familiar form. First, general literacy instruction: the alphabet, wordlists of variable syllable lengths, alphabetized couplets and the woodcuts to go with them. Many editions also included the Lord’s Prayer and John Cotton’s catechism “Spiritual Milk for Babes” as well as Isaac Watts’ “Divine Songs” became standard inclusions in later editions. As with contemporary textbooks, political and cultural shifts in society were reflected in changes to the content of the Primer. After the American Revolution, references to the king were removed and his portrait was replaced with one of George Washington. Some editions had lines like “The British King lost states thirteen” added into the text. Periods of religious revival saw editions that included more prayers and hymns.

There are hundreds of different editions of The New-England Primer, all with slight variations, including five in the library’s collection spanning the years from 1780? to 1849. As with the textbooks of today, the Primer reflects the beliefs and opinions of its authors and the culture in which it was produced. Puritans had always been very concerned with their children’s education and the emphasis on literacy instruction at the beginning of each Primer reflects this. Before one could read the Bible, one had to learn to read, after all. The puritan concern with the world to come also features prominently in the text. Barely a page goes by without the reader being reminded of their own mortality with lines like: “time cuts down all/ both great and small”. This might seem morbid to us today, but it’s indicative of the importance placed on education: it was necessary to save one’s soul.

Our recent reading shows the ways in which our educational texts are still attempting to inculcate certain values, though, as the author empahsizes, which values those are is worth further examination. No one is carrying around their high school history textbook until it falls apart, unless it’s the same book that’s been assigned for the last two decades. Certainly, The New-England Primer benefitted from relatively little competition when it came to children’s entertainment, but given the importance of the study of history (especially when the chances of repeating seem alarmingly high), finding something that speaks to children in the same way can only help.

October 30, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

This past week, the staff of the CLA read and discussed the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. The book was an excellent read and the discussions thereafter were even better. Loewen’s breakdown of how high school history textbooks routinely and systematically present false, incomplete, or problematic versions of US history is damning and underscores why high schoolers regularly rate history as their least favorite subject. The fault does not lie with educators though. The need to “teach to the test” plays a huge part in the problem, and the outsized influence of certain textbook markets means publishers create textbooks with as little controversy as possible. The results are that teachers must teach the answers that appear in multichoice tests and that the textbooks that contain those answers rarely, if ever, present history as the chaotic mess that it really is. In the end we are left to forget that Woodrow Wilson was a proud racist whose destabilizing interventions in Latin America are still felt today and remember Helen Keller only for the uplifting story of her overcoming her dual disabilities and not for her socialist politics and support for eugenics. History is messy but you would never know from an AP US History course.

One of the things that struck me after reading Lies was the complete absence of primary and secondary sources from history textbooks. Sure, excerpts of primary sources, some comically inserted or distorted, might appear within textbooks, but they are rarely engaged with. The field of history is messy, and that mess all starts with primary sources. The best history assignment I was ever given was during my sophomore year of college in an early-US history course. We were given a packet of primary and early-secondary sources about the Boston Massacre and told “describe what happened during the Boston Massacre.” Of course, if you know anything about the Boston Massacre, you know that basically no sources corroborate one another, so the exercise was to piece together a plausible narrative based on the available sources. The Boston Massacre is a particularly messy example, but this is basically how all history is done. Except you would never know if by reading your history textbook.

In the past, it would never have been particularly feasible though for high schoolers to look at primary sources. Access the primary sources, especially in the yesteryears, was not exactly the most accessible due to problems of geography, money, and repository policies. But the internet has slowly, and steadily, been changing that. Digitization does not only provide access to researchers, but it also provides access to students, and creates opportunities that they might never have had before digitization and new ways of accessing those digital records. And we at the CLA are so proud to be a part of this story of increasing access through digitization. But digitization alone is not enough.

As I have talked in the past, access is more than simply publishing digital content to the web. It is necessary to properly describe digital content and provide both the tools necessary to search for content and find “like” content through linked data. But even that is not necessarily enough. It is important too the present digital content in ways that fit various audiences. For a seasoned researcher, examining digital records found via search results will likely be enough. But if we are to bring the CLA’s digital resources into the classroom, we must also be thinking about how to engage that audience. Complex searches alone are not enough.

Fortunately, there is one clear avenue of access when it comes to the classroom, and that is the teacher. One of the highlights of the CLA’s internal discussion of Lies was an acknowledgement that the CLA needs to be producing more curricula-like content. The excitement and activity surrounding the release of the “Plymouth’s Pilgrims” curriculum was palpable. We want to be doing more of that in the future! We want to create opportunities for students, educators, and interested parties to use our resources for educational purposes. While we alone might not be able to change how history is taught in high school, we do hope to play some part in the changing face of American education by encouraging educators to use our unique collection of digital resources.

October 16, 2020

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 RG5332, the Churchmen’s League records, 1940-1989. This collection found its way to the Congregational Library and Archives through a gift from Andover Newton Theological Seminary in 2017. The collection was processed by one of our archivists in 2018.

The Churchman’s League was an organization created for the purpose of promoting programs of study, research, education, legislation, and action. Their work was dedicated to raising the values of civic righteousness, social justice, moral decent and an overall better life for society. They used meetings, readings, discussions, and more to promote these goals. The organizationformed sometime around 1940 and by the 1960s was often referred to simply as “The League”. In 1963, the Churchman’s League expanded its original structure and opted to become three organizations wrapped into one. These new branches were the Massachusetts Temperance League, Lord’s Day League, and the Churchman’s League for Civic Welfare.

This collection is one worth highlighting because it showcases how an organization dedicated todirect change in society went about learning, spreading, and defending its message. The first series covers the wide topics of interest that the group sought to confront. These topics include blasphemy, alcoholism, court reform, prison reform, divorce, poverty and more. Each one of these topics has a dedicated folder which contains information about the League’s stance, efforts to increase awareness of their stance, and ways to turn the stances into concrete politicalaction. Another area of interest to the league was the status of religiosity, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. In this area, the focus is less on action and more on learning and understanding the current realities of religion in the United States.

The next two series deal with the operations of the Churchman’s League from an organizational and financial sense. Beyond basic finances, the collection has contributor lists, the creation of various funds, reports and tracking of office rentals. On the organizational side, the collection has a nearly complete run of meeting minutes and annual reports from the 1950s through the 1980s. While it was not possible to completely ascertain when the League officially disbanded, this collection’s meeting minutes and reports end in 1989.

The last part of the collection worth highlighting focuses on letters, handouts and newsletters which served as the League’s outward attempt to gain support for their positions. This includes letters to state and federal politicians, pamphlets on various League campaigns, and newsletters which describe their activities from 1976-1989.

This collection is one worth highlighting because of the amount of information related to the Churchman’s League and their activities. It also provides a snapshot into how a religious organization thought and tackled a variety of different political issues. The collection will greatly serve future researchers and hopefully sooner rather than later!

The 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!

October 14, 2020

Some of my favorite bits of typography--which is a thing you get to have opinions on once you’ve spent enough time with the books--are historiated initials. These are the large capital letters that can be found at the beginnings of chapters or other sections of text with an illustrated scene either surrounding or inside of it. These initials are referred to in a variety of ways which can make research more difficult. You may see references to historiated capitals, or floriated capitals/initials (which are letters decorated with drawings of flowers and other botanical imagery, rather than a scene) or illustrated or decorated initials/capitals (which refer to any kind of decoration).

  When printed books first appeared in Europe in the 15th century, they looked very much like the manuscripts that were already in circulation from the physical layout of the pages and the book itself to the style and subject matter of decorations. Historiated initials are a continuation of the same artistic tradition as the illuminated initials found in medieval manuscripts. A tremendous amount of variety in subject matter ranging from the serious to the whimsical can be found in these initials, often referencing common medieval subjects. Scenes from the BIble and classical mythology are very common as are depictions of animals and historical figures. You can see a galloping centaur, a sassy dragon, and a man reading to a dog pictured here. You’ll also often find “putti” or artistic depictions of chubby male children common in Renaissance art at various tasks.

The design of historiated letters was its own artform. It’s typical to see differences in style based on region and time period and use these as further clues when learning about how a book was made. Printers typically worked with a limited set of capitals, so this means you’ll often see the same images repeated in a single work and that the images depicted in the letters generally were unrelated to the subject matter of the book they were printed in. There are a few notable exceptions to this like, for example Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica. This early medical textbook first published in 1543 features historiated initials designed specifically for its text. Most of them depict putti performing the medical works being described in the text: handling body parts, dissecting animals, and reading from their own medical textbook.

This example puts me in mind of one the mysteries from the Congregational Library’s collection. If you’ve been on a visit or for a tour, I have almost certainly pulled this out to show you:Theophylacti Bulgariae Archiepiscopi Tomus Primus by Joanne Oecolampadio (1524). A very religious book that features multiple historiated letters of a scatalogical nature. This could mean nothing--these sorts of images were very common in the medieval manuscript tradition and other art and this could simply be a coincidence, but I think it has to mean something when your printer uses these so liberally in your very religious book. The printer was Andreas Cratander, known for  printing Protestant works. Once research avenues open back up again, I’m hoping to look into some of his other work to get an answer for myself.

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.

August 25, 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 MS0914, the Loy and Edna Long missionary papers, 1929-1968. In 2010, staff members working on an inventory project came across this unprocessed, previously unknown collection. It was immediately accessioned and processed into the collection we have today.

The focus of the collection is on the Long’s three separate trips to India which took place between 1931-1946 and 1949-1956. Much of their time in India was spent working in Ahmednagar. Loy was a social and industrial welfare worker and organized the Probation and After-Care Association. (1) Scattered through the collection are news bulletins called “The Long’s Broadcast” which goes into detail about the work they were doing and events they saw in Ahmednagar. As an example, the January 1938 edition discusses the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Loy’s work starting the City Games Association, his work with their charity organization, and the local neighborhood house they manage.

In the same broadcast, Edna Long describes the origins of her work with sisal fibre and ropemaking. Edna, on a trip to the market, finds a large set of sisal fibres for sale in Ahmednagar and purchases them. She then worked with women in the community to help modernize the process of using the sisal fibre to make rope. She says that “We experimented together, sharing ideas, and in less than a month we discovered how to clean, dye, drain, spin and weave this hemp...within a remarkably short time these women were making beautiful, saleable articles, including purses, belts, luncheon sets, serviette rings, sandals and brushes.” The rest of the report chronicles how the work evolved from the initial 1938 broadcast into a consistent part of the Long’s lives. The information in these records should be explored as this is only the surface of what is available!
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!

1. United Church of Christ's Whole Earth Newsletter, Spring 1979, p 14-15

August 20, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Libraries and archives cannot just be repositories of knowledge and memories. At the heart of our mission at the CLA is access, and that takes many forms. One of the most visible and engaging forms of access available to us is through exhibits. Rotating exhibits and show-and-tell events have always been an incredibly important part of the CLA’s access and outreach repertoire. Exhibits especially are an important, not only because they can be used to teach and tell the story of Congregationalism in the United States, but because they bring our materials, both library and archival, outside the stacks and into the (metaphorical) hands of our users.

Exhibits, and the display of the CLA’s physical materials, were so valuable and central to the mission of the CLA that, during renovation, the old Pratt Room was converted into a new exhibit space. Unfortunately, right as renovations completed on the new exhibit space, the CLA necessarily closed its doors to the public due to the ongoing global pandemic. We were not alone, most galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs) remain closed or partially closed months after the pandemic’s onset. However, the closure of physical space does not mean that GLAM institutions cannot continue making their materials available through exhibits.

While physical exhibitions are nearly impossible right now, digital exhibitions are currently having a renaissance. Online exhibits have always offered unique opportunities to bring users, unable to visit physical locations, into the exhibit space and make available an institution’s unique materials to a wider audience. Now, more than ever, online exhibits offer opportunities to document current affairs, celebrate important milestones, and connect people to physical materials through a digital interface.

The CLA, too, will soon be more capable than ever to present our materials to our users through online exhibitions. The adoption of a DAMS at the CLA will not only provide us new opportunities to create and share our digital materials but will also allow the CLA to create online exhibit spaces and showcase our digital projects more easily. While it may be a while away, it is safe to say the staff has already been brainstorming ideas for digital exhibits we can create once the DAMS is up and running.

Before I leave this entry in the Beacon Street Diary, the staff wanted to share some of our favorite current and past online exhibits from other institutions. Please give these exhibits a look! And let us know of your own favorite digital exhibits!

Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote

A brand-new exhibit from the Radcliff Institute that celebrates the ratification of the 19th amendment, this exhibit offers an amazing look at the cause of women’s suffrage through photography.

Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection

This amazing exhibit from the Duke University Libraries showcases the true breadth of what defines “women’s work” and show that long held assumptions about the historical work of women is more myth than fact.

Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words

This exhibit from the Library of Congress uses photographic and manuscript materials to track the life of Rosa Park through her own words. This collection is especially important because it takes a holistic look at her life beyond just her role in the Montgomery bus boycott.

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

While not a traditional exhibit, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project out of the Northeastern University School of Law showcases the power, importance, and flexibility of digital exhibit spaces. This incredible project documents anti-civil rights violence in the US to seek justice for past crimes.

August 17, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

I would be hard pressed to think of a more comprehensive Hidden Histories collection than that relating to Congregational and Separatist minister John Cleaveland (1722-1799). The digitized versions of his papers and sermons are provided in partnership with the Philips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, who hold the orginal documents.

Rev. Cleaveland's biography is fascinating in its own right. He chafed against religious orthodoxy and typified the revivalist spirit of the Great Awakening, earning him an expulsion from Yale and ultimately a successful career in the Chebacco parish of Ipswich (now Essex, Mass.), serving as pastor to both Separatist and orthodox congregations there. In addition to his regular ministerial career, Rev. Cleaveland lived through both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. He served as an army chaplain during both conflicts, first with British colonial forces, and later as an American revolutionary; Cleaveland was a notable patriot and exhorter of revolution from the pulpit, and father to four sons who served against the British. His story is both an intimate and universal example of shifting loyalties and identities during the formation of the United States.

In addition to these broad strokes, Rev. Cleaveland's papers reveal diverse aspects of 18th-century life in thrilling detail. These include an extensive array of correspondence, religious papers, biographical material, church administration, handwritten sermons, and relations of faith from local parishioners. Also included is a short diary by Rev. Cleaveland's first wife, Mary Cleaveland, in which she details the births of her children. Among the most notable historical records are documents related to Rev. Cleaveland's expulsion from Yale, a letter in which he urges the conversion of Native American peoples, and a sermon against British tyranny. Additionally there are a large number of financial and administrative records, offering glimpses into agricultural life and everyday provisions and payments in the 1700s. There are more personal, idiosyncratic records too; the most amusing to me personally is a loose collection of notes which include the "weight of the family of Rev. Cleaveland".

A substantial amount of records consist of correspondence between Rev. Cleaveland and his first wife, Mary (nee Dodge). A number of the letters between them predate the marriage, and comprise a somewhat fraught series of attempts by Rev. Cleaveland to convince Miss Dodge to marry him. Later, he wrote to her regularly while stationed with regiments at Lake George and Louisburg, Cape Breton during the French and Indian War.

Other records in the collection offer insights into local tensions in Cleaveland's eventual home parish of Chebacco (Essex). After the midcentury revivals of the Great Awakening, the Second Parish Church of Ipswich, under the pastorate of orthodox Congregationalist Rev. Theophilus Pickering, began losing members at an alarming rate. Rev. Cleaveland arrived in Chebacco in 1747 to minister to these evangelical defectors. Tensions between Rev. Pickering and Rev. Cleaveland escalated quickly. The resident minister wrote a scolding letter to "the gentleman stranger that is a minster at the house of Mr. James Eveleth". After this, the two became engaged in the 18th-century equivalent of a Twitter war, each writing letters of complaint and publishing pamphlets against the other. Rev. Cleaveland had the last laugh, as he went on to become minister of the Second Church in Ipswich in 1774, thus reuniting the two congregations.

The John Cleaveland Papers collection can be viewed in the New England's Hidden Histories portal, in additional to a collection of John Cleaveland Sermons.

Further Reading: 

Jedrey, Christopher M. The World of John Cleaveland: Family and Community in Eighteenth-Century New England. Norton, 1979.


August 12, 2020

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

Library staff are back in the stacks and while it’s wonderful to be reunited with all the books and manuscripts (and that delightful old book smell!), I’m still missing our patrons and all of the serendipitous interactions you get when someone wanders in off the street to discover the library for the first time. One of the most common questions we get during these interactions and on tours is “What’s the oldest thing you have here?” We get this question so often that I really should have a better answer for it by now. In a place where you can’t roll a bookcart without hitting* something ‘old’ this question resists a simple answer. And, like so many reference questions, it’s usually worthwhile to do some digging to get at the question behind the question first.

I could go by actual age, in which case there are the cuneiform tablets from the Pratt collection, allegedly several millennia old. When someone asks “what’s the oldest thing here?” they are in part making an appeal to authority. They’re asking “what’s the most important thing in your collection?”. This conflation of age and authority is nothing new. I’m reminded of the staff bookclub’s recent reading about the history of the Bible which describes Jerome’s trouble having his new translations accepted as canon for the first few hundred years of their existence, until they’d gained a fine patina of old age. Certainly, when Pratt acquired the tablets, being able to boast something so old lent a certain weight to his collection and his prowess as a collector, but unless you can read them, these tablets can’t be much more than a curiosity.

Sometimes this question is shorthand for “what’s the most valuable thing in your collection?”. This also has no easy answer. First, you have to ask “most valuable to whom?” And “valuable in what sense?” Age is only a small part of the equation. What one researcher considers an unparalleled find may be completely useless to another. Age may generally correlate with monetary value in the sense that the older a book is, the fewer there are likely to be in the world. But if no one is interested in buying a book, it doesn’t matter how old or how scarce it might be.

As someone who has several 300 year old items sitting on my desk at this very moment, I often have to remind myself that old is relative and my perception is quite skewed. Several years ago, a couple came into the library hoping to find the Museum of African American history which used to have its offices in our building. We got to talking about the Granary Burial Ground located right outside our reading room windows and the Boston Massacre and they asked if we had anything in the collection about it that they could see. I brought out The Trial of the British Soldiers, of the 29th Regiment of Foot, for the murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr, on Monday Evening March 5, 1770, originally published in 1807. I sheepishly apologized that I didn’t have something more contemporary on hand to show them, but I don’t think my apology had even registered. They were thrilled with the pamphlet, thrilled that they were able to hold it and read it for themselves, thrilled that they were allowed to handle something so ‘old’. It was a good reminder for me and my lack of enthusiasm for anything printed after 1800 about the capacity the material in our collection has to evoke wonder and how easy it is to invite someone in and make them feel part of the story. It’s good to be reminded that age is just a number, and selfishly, this is just the sort of thing I’m missing most while we wait for things to return to something resembling ‘normal’.

*Note: staff are very careful not to roll bookcarts into anything.

August 6, 2020

by Tom Clark, Library Director

I am lucky to have a family home in Rockport, MA on the ocean and have spent many a happy moment since childhood enjoying the seaside beauty of all of Cape Ann, located 30 miles north of Boston, including both the quaint, picturesque town of Rockport as well as neighboring Gloucester - the quintessential New England seaport. Both communities have a rich Congregational tradition starting with the original Gloucester parish in 1642 which spread to Rockport. Rockport’s beautiful Congregational Church with a towering steeple in the center of town, is noted for being fired upon by the British in the War of 1812. The church still has the cannonball.

But this blog is about Gloucester’s Second Parish, formed when members of the First Parish petitioned in 1712 to form their own parish due to geographical constrains of traveling from West Gloucester (the Annisquam River and many adjacent tidal salt marshes made travel difficult to West Gloucester). The Meeting House was built in 1713 and was located near what is today the intersection of Concord Street and Bray Street in West Gloucester. Though it was torn down in 1842, it still lives on for those willing to explore the beautiful woods of the Tompson Street Reservation (named after Rev. Samuel Tompson, the first Pastor of the Second Parish) with a Meeting House clearing and an overgrown, forested burial ground.

Besides the scenic coast of which Cape Ann is most known for, the interiors are full of beautiful, hilly, rocky forests. Shared between Rockport and Gloucester is an area known as Dogtown, an early settlement with a storied past which I will write about in a future blog. In West Gloucester, is the Tompson Street Reservation, with many hiking paths ranging from easy to challenging.

There is an entrance to the Reservation off Bray Street identified by a sign for “Old Thompson Street Second Parish, Circa 1700 Historic Walking Path.” This is known as The Old Tompson Cart Path and was well traveled from the early 18th century through the mid-19th century. Less than a ½ mile up hilly path you arrive at a clearing in the woods with signage and a cross with benches commemorating the Meeting House. This spot along the old cart path was once the location of the 15-acre site dedicated to the Second Parish. I noticed there were no stone walls in this area which shows that the surroundings were not for farming, grazing or ownership – but rather, a peaceful gathering spot for worship.

On the northern end of the Concord Street loop is an overgrown entrance with another sign for the “Old Thompson Street Second Parish.” There are stone walls along the old cart path that show territorial usage from years ago. The woods are quite dense, so it would be easy to miss the burial ground unless you keep an eye out for a new formation in the stone walls. When you see the stone walls forming an enclosure, careful inspection reveals slate slabs that turn out to be grave markers (remember…Cape Ann is strewn with rocks everywhere, so it’s not unusual to see rock croppings in the woods).

Entering the burial ground yields several scattered headstones in various states of disrepair, but some are still legible, honoring the departed. Findagrave lists all the stones that have been identified (including several which were removed). The most interesting of these is that of Deacon William Haskell which has survived a tree trunk growing around the headstone.

If you decide to take a walk in the woods on Cape Ann, please set aside time to visit the Cape Ann Museum which has many of the records from the Second Parish.

Information for this blog was gathered from the following material in the Congregational Library Collection:

The Church in the Wilderness 1713 – 1988 by Carl F. Viator, in our West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational Church collection

History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Including the Town of Rockport by John J. Babson

Special thanks to Lise Breen, a Researcher, Writer and Gloucester Historian, and Jeff Cooper, New England Hidden Histories Program Director for sharing their historical knowledge of Second Parish.

August 4, 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 MS4981, the Edward Franklin Williams papers, 1859-1918. The Williams papers were given to us from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2011 and 2015. The Amistad Research Center in Tulane also has a collection on Williams which you can view by going HERE.

Edward Franklin Williams was born in Uxbridge, Massachusetts on July 22, 1832. He graduated from Yale in 1856 after which he spent three years teaching in Connecticut and Massachusetts. When the Civil War broke out, Williams joined the Christian Commission where he distributed religious literature, medical aid, and various supplies to Union troops. After the war, the Congregational church at Whitinsville, Massachusetts ordained him on October 17, 1866. After Whitinsville, Williams moved to Illinois and served the Tabernacle Congregational Church from 1869-1873. In 1873, he moved on to a pastorate at the South Congregational Church in Chicago, Illinois from until 1891. Afterwards, Williams was a delegate to the International Congregational Council in London, England. He spent several years abroad and studied at the University of Berlin after which he published “Christian Life in Germany” in 1896. Williams served as the Editor of the Congregationalist, Director of the Chicago Missionary Society, and president of the Chicago Tract Society which published and distributed Christian literature. Williams died in Evanston, Illinois on May 26, 1919.

This collection contains sermons, notes, and lectures across Williams life. One item of note is two diaries that cover Williams' life from 1959-1965, the earliest chronicling his time while at Princeton Theological Seminary. We also have numerous sermons that cover a variety of topics, from “The Law of Self-Sacrifice”, “Does God Care?”, and “Waiting for the Moving of the Water”. The final section of the collection contains various lectures that Williams gave while working at Beloit College. Some of the topics covered include “Christian and Medieval Ethics”, “Four Socratic Schools and Stoicism”, “Christianity and Philosophy of the Middle Age”, and “Greek Morality and Ethics”. You can see from his lectures that he was a passionate philosopher and took his teaching seriously. Research into his papers would be fruitful for anyone interested in philosophy, religion, the Civil War, and more!

The 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!

July 29, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publications

Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about the Salem witch trials is that our modern cultural understanding of them is plagued by inaccuracy. One such misconception is simple seasonality. Salem, both the town itself and the wider cultural concept, is now indelibly associated with Halloween, but the executions of the falsely-accused victims of the hysteria actually occured in the heat of the Massachusetts summer, from June to September, 1692.

An omnipresent darling of American folklore, the witch trials narrative is enjoying a notable resurgence ushered in with the publication of Stacy Schiff's The Witches, and, albeit on a less scholarly note, a plethora of TV shows including WGN's Salem, the Travel Channel's Witches of Salem, and Freeform's Motherland: Fort Salem. The latter features an alternate history in which the "witches" A) were actual witches, and B) shacked up with the local militia to provide supernatural assistance in battle, and seem to have subsequently been conscripted into the U.S. army.

I personally enjoy such whimsical adaptations and artistic license - Disney's Halloween classic Hocus Pocus remains one of my favorite films of all time - and censorship in the name of historical accuracy would be downright, well, Puritanical. However, I frequently find myself wondering how the events of 1692 have become so twisted in the American imagination. Outside of Massachusetts, the witch trials of the North Shore merit only a passing mention in the historical curriculum, high-school theater productions of The Crucible notwithstanding, allowing popular misinformation to flourish.

Sometimes misconception takes the form of conflation with the long-lived European trials, much more severe in both brutality and body count; although torture was also utilized in Salem, the total death toll was "only" 25. At the opposite end of the spectrum, supernatural powers continue to be attributed to the accused, who were in fact hapless victims of religious hysteria and score-settling, and mostly faithful church-goers. Not to mention the more subtle, but no less popular, proliferation of reductivist theories around the hysteria, like blaming the entire thing on moldy rye.

Popular scholarly tomes like Schiff's go some way toward redressing this balance. I am proud to say that the Congregational Library also played its part in advocating for better research and access, as part of the New England's Hidden Histories program. During CLIR-funded project work in 2016-17, we partnered with the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, digitizing and publishing their archival collections related to Congregationalism. Among these were a number of witchcraft trial records, which fall under the same nascent-Congregationalist category as other Puritan sources.

Unsurprisingly, PEM/Phillips holds a substantial portion of the legal documentation produced during the trials, including testimony and court transcripts, since the events occurred in their metaphorical backyard. (Others are held variously by the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Archives, Essex County Court Archives, Essex Institute, New York Public Library, and Maine Historical Society). Most of the Phillips Library trial records had already been digitized by the University of Virginia in 2002, as part of their comprehensive Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive project - even now the project website remains the "hub" for Salem witch trial research, a treasure trove of original records, transcriptions, and contextual information.

However, subsequent to UVA/PEM's digitization of the records in the early 2000s, several other trial documents were identified within the collections. These were the primary subject of the Hidden Histories digitization and publication scheme. In our Salem Witchcraft Trials collection page, we aligned our newly digitized records with UVA's digital library, filling in occasional gaps, and in some cases providing higher-resolution surrogates of previously digitized records. The resulting collection is the most complete roster of the PEM/Phillips trial documents available online.

I lately found myself returning to the primary-source narratives while listening to the audiobook of Schiff's The Witches, borrowed free-of-charge from my local library via the Libby smartphone app (FYI). For the second time since working with the digitized records, it struck me that the historical details of the trials and their supernatural testimonials are perhaps stranger than any modern re-imagining (yes, even Motherland: Fort Salem). Strolling along the Deer Island waterfront near my home in Winthrop, Mass. I can just glimpse the distant headlands of Salem and Marblehead, often overshadowed by dark pillars of cloud. On these blisteringly hot summer days, the events of 1692 seem very far away indeed. But the more I delve into the real story of Salem, the more I am reminded that these spectres of history are closer than we think, and certainly not relegated to Halloween alone.

July 21, 2020

The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP was first published in 1910. It is still available in digital form today where it is described as “a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color”. W.E.B. DuBois was already a well-known scholar and spokesman for African Americans and civil rights when he became founding editor of the magazine. He served as editor-in-chief until 1934.

Under DuBois’s leadership, the magazine flourished, growing from 1,000 subscribers in its first year to over 100,000 by 1918. DuBois exerted a tremendous amount of creative control during his tenure and used the magazine as a vehicle to express many of his own political views. He was particularly interested in promoting a progressive, dignified image of African-American people, promoting the rise of African American colleges, and expressing support for the Pan-African movement.  He also used the magazine to expose and criticize discrimination and call for action in response to violence and civil rights abuses perpetrated against Black people. In particular, he called attention to lynching, advocated a ban on the White supremacist film, Birth of a Nation, and discrimination faced by African-American military servicemen.

Politics and news was a major topical focus for the magazine, but under literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset’s leadership, The Crisis became a major showcase for African-American literary and artistic talent during the Harlem Renaissance. She published early works from such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Congregational Library holds issues from 1911-1926, some of the magazine’s most influential years. This includes Langston Hughes’s first published poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, originally printed in the June 1921 issue. These holdings and the fact that they came to us via a contemporary subscription rather than a donation are reflective of Congregationalists’ historical support for and involvement in civil rights movements. While the library’s reading room remains closed to the public, many of these issues have been digitized and are available for free online. If you have questions or would like a closer look at some of these issues (which I highly recommend--the illustrations and photographs are fantastic!), please email us at

July 16, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In past years, the Congregational Library & Archives has offered a workshop and booklet dedicated to helping church communities establish, develop, and maintain their own records management programs. I am happy to use this blog space to announce that we are currently working on a newly revised versions of these important resources. Over time, the information described in previous incarnations had become outdated and obsolete prompting our current endeavor. It is hoped that a new booklet might become available in the coming months, and that an in-person workshop will be developed shortly there-after.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to use this space to discuss some actions you and your church community can do to setup a records retention program. First though, it is important to note how a church records program is different from a church archive. While both hold your records, only the records program contains what are considered “active” documents. Active documents are living records which are maintained for legal, business, tax, or administrative purposes. These include everything from tax forms to employment records to board reports to policy documents. Anything that is an active record is something which may need to be quickly and readily retrieved as part of your organization’s daily operations. When they become inactive records, and are therefore no longer part of a records program, they are either destroyed or permanently placed into the archive.

A records retention program, simply put, is a set of policies which determine what happens to today’s records after they are produced. These are the records your church organization produces daily and may include everything from the Parish Committee’s meeting minutes, to the employee manual, to financial audit forms, to an email from the office admin to the head deaconess. It can be daunting to think about the plethora of documents you make year in and out, but by creating policies now, you can ensure that important records, and memories, are kept forever more. Below is an overview of steps your church can take to begin thinking about, and drafting policies for, your records retention program.

Step 1 – Create a Records Committee:

Establishing a Records Committee will be an important first step. More heads are better than one, especially when it comes to trying to get a handle on your church’s records. The committee should ideally include members of your church organization’s administrative staff, ministerial staff, volunteers, and parishioners. If your church has a history or archives committee, the records committee should include someone from those committees, but should otherwise be a separate entity which works alongside the archival program.

Step 2 – Audit your Records:

This will be the most difficult and time-consuming step. The records committee should, over a period of 1-3 months, establish a protocol to systematically determine the types and volume of records your church organization regularly produces. This audit should also determine how those records are stored, either physically or digitally, and if there are any current policies in place which affect the storage and preservation of those records. It may be best to assign record types to broad categories, such as financial records, administrative records, building records, board records, and activity/social records, to help break down this task into smaller parts and to help further contextualize your records.

Step 3 - Create a Draft Retention Schedule:

One of the most valuable tools for a records management program is a retention schedule, a broad policy document which uses the information from the audit to specify how long each record type is kept and maintained as an active document before either transferring to the archive or being destroyed. Every state will have slightly different rules for employment and financial records, but the MissionBox Global Network has a simple guide for how long most record types should be maintained for non-profit organizations which may be adapted for use by churches: Document Retention for US Nonprofits: A Simple Guide. May records created which do not fall into business, legal, and tax related categories may be able to be retained for short periods of time, less than a year, before transferring to an archive.

Step 4 – Create a Records Storage Policy

With a draft retention policy in place, the next step is to create a singular repository to store those records. This can be as simple as a filing cabinet or as complex as a storage closet, depending on your church’s physical space and resources, but in general, the goal is to create a policy which clearly states where records types should be stored while they remain active documents. This policy should also cover electronic records; one easy method to create a central repository for digital records is to purchase an external hard drive upon which copies of all digital records may be transferred. It is ideal, when handling digital records, to create a policy on how digital files should be named and to create a well-documented file folder structure into which digital files are placed.

Step 5 – Create a Transfer and Destruction Policy

Simply put, not all records, digital or physical, can be kept permanently. Using the audit and retention schedule, the records committee, in dialogue with the archives committee if applicable, should determine which records, after they become inactive, should be preserved, and transferred to a permanent archive, and which should be destroyed. There is not a perfect formula to determine this, and every church community will have different standards and practices that best fit their needs. As a starting point though, I find it helpful to think about which record types tell a story. For example, while board reports tell a story about the happenings of a church at specific moments in time, IRS forms typically say little about a church organization’s daily life that is not documented elsewhere. Another general rule to think about is that records which include personally identifiable information, such as bank account and social security numbers, are generally safer to destroy rather than keep permanently as part of an archive.

These five steps are broad and without much detail, but my hope is that they can become a starting point as you and your church organization think about creating a records retention program. And during this time of remote work and zoom meetings, much of this work can be done remotely. Of course, the CLA is always happy to help too; please always feel free to send us an email. Our goal is the preservation of your memories, regardless if your records are held with us or not. And of course, we look forward to going into more detail with our newly revised booklet in the near future.

Further Reading:

3 Steps to Establishing a Record Retention Schedule

Document Retention Best Practices & State Guidelines

Fundamentals of Records Retention Schedule

July 14, 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 we are going to look at collection RG0069, Dorchester, Mass. Second Church records. This collection originally formed out of a donation in 1963 but was not properly added to the collection until 1989. In 2019, the CLA received a large deposit of material and the collection was re-processed in June 2019. Our collection spans the entire life of the church, including records from before it was established.

The beginnings of Second Church in Dorchester started when it was organized on January 1, 1808 by 64 members of First Church of Dorchester. These 64 members included 27 men and 37 women who had decided to split from the "Mother Church". On January 19, 1810, the group voted to name the new church South Church in Dorchester. This name only lasted two years when on April 3, 1812 they renamed the church "Second Church". The expansion into a new church was mainly meant to tackle the expanding population of the area. The first official pastor for the newly formed Second Church was Dr. John Codman. Rev. Codman was a member of an influential family and graduated from Harvard. His pastorate would be the longest for the church and during this time the church was visited by Daniel Webster and (on occasion) John Adams. The records in our collection continue up until 1991, shortly after the transfer of the church to the Church of the Nazarene. (1)

This collection is over 30 full boxes and contains a wealth of information on the day-to-day happenings of the Second Church. One thing to note is that the collection holds records from 40 auxiliary organizations. Some highlights from this section include the Chinese Sunday School's Copy of The Book of Acts in Mandarin (1909), the Couples Club records (1943-1953) and the Dorchester Gentlemen's Driving Club (1913-1915). Another area I want to draw attention too is the church building information. Included here is information on the selling of land in 1854, the purchasing of an organ in 1857 and various plans on additional projects across the 20th century. Overall, the collection gives a complete picture of church operations and desires extra attention and research.

The 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!

Bib: "History." Second Church in Dorchester. March 23, 2019. Accessed July 8, 2020. http://