Beacon Street Blog

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.