Beacon Street Blog
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. We at the Congregational Library & Archives are here to support you and your endeavors to preserve your church's memory, mission, and history.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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 email@example.com if you want to get connected with the author. Have a great day!
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.