Beacon Street Blog

May 15, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In the information age, digitization is access.

When we digitize records, as either an individual or as an organization, we are actively deciding which materials will be more widely accessible, and to whom. Digitization is, at its heart, about providing access to the widest possible set of current and potential users. For the Congregational Library & Archives are as diverse as they come: institutionally backed researchers, family genealogists, church members, underserved populations within the Greater Boston Area, and more. Accessibility is not just about convenience – it is also about bridging the gap between historically-privileged groups with ready access to information and those who may have had minimal or no access to information. Accessibility is the key to understanding the selection and appraisal workflows within archives and correcting historical injustices found within today’s collections.

I find that there are fewer processes more fraught or stressful than appraisal within the archival workflow. New materials in hand, I am forced to ask, does this have a place within the archive – and, by extension, in the history that we make accessible to our patrons? This is the moment of most power for an archivist. We can single handedly alter the context and meaning of a collection in that moment. It is a daunting task, but it is one I often face as the archivist responsible for new acquisitions at the Congregational Library & Archives.

On their face, terms such as “appraisal” and “value” seem to have more to do with Wall Street than with the archival field. Within the archival context, appraisal is, according to the Dictionary of Archival Terms, “the process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be” added to the archive. Value, to an archivist, is “the usefulness, significance, or worth” of a record based on internal collecting policies and historical context. It is my job, when presented with new collection, to appraise records and determine whether they have value within their cultural and historical context. Only these materials of “value” will be formally archived.

If this process of deciding what pieces of our human story are of value sounds daunting (and it is!), it should be known that the CLA actually has a fairly relaxed acquisition and appraisal policy compared to other archives! That is mostly a function of the amount of materials we handle; large archives that receive many more materials must be stricter with their appraisal procedures. Still, there are times when I have to weed out materials which fall outside of our collecting purview – a print book unrelated to congregationalism or a single church bulletin without context may be among the first items to be removed from a collection. While these weeding decisions are never made lightly, and are backed by internal checks and balances, it is always difficult to throw away a recorded moment in our shared experience.

However heavy these decisions are on their own, however, their weight is magnified by the historically oppressive practices associated with archival work. The appraisal process has been used to bury and eliminate the history of marginalized and underserved groups Rarely were these appraisal processes blatantly exclusionist, but implicit biases born of the time and the archivist themselves largely resulted in today’s archives consisting predominantly of the records of white heterosexual men. Only in the last two decades has there been a growing awareness of this and active efforts undertaken to reverse this unfortunate pattern. In fact, it was only in 2010 that the Society of American Archivists added a diversity and inclusion statement into the code of ethics that archivists vow to uphold. The weight of this history bears down on all archivists and it is our duty to ensure it never happens again.

Small wonder, then, that born of all these momentous considerations comes one of the most fraught tasks of all: selecting which materials should be digitized. Selection is ostensibly the same process as appraisal; the archivist makes decisions about which materials will be digitized based on archival value. However, the cost, time, and preservation concerns associated with digitization limits the scope of any digitization project. Each time one document is digitized, it results in the delay, if not outright exclusion, of another document. This unfortunate reality, combined with the current lack of diversity within archives, can easily prolong historic exclusionary processes within the field. And the loss of digitization means the loss of information accessibility.

Increasing access must then become the guiding principal behind all selection decisions before cost and time come into consideration. The New England’s Hidden Histories is a great example of this selection criteria in action: the project began by bringing historic early-American church records, stored on site where they were minimally accessible to church members (let alone the general public), online, where they are freely available to anyone with an internet connection, either at home or at a public library. Selection will always be a balancing act between competing pressures, but keeping decisions focused on user accessibility, will help to guide selection criteria away from convenience, and aid in correcting historic injustices. When archivists focus on bridging the information gap, the documents they select for digitization are going to be those which are most inaccessible and most important for marginalized and underrepresented groups.

While there is incredible energy within the field to enact these guiding principles, there are always factors which slow down the rate of change. Issues of trust, internet access, and the outsized role academia in digital humanities are just some examples. However, the staff at the CLA are keyed into these incredibly important issues and are active participants in the dialogues taking place right now within the library and archives field. Sara Trotta’s recent work with the library collections has been foundational for these conversations. We are constantly working on improving our internal policies to ensure marginalized groups are not excluded from our records, including our digital and digitized content. The staff want to see the CLA become a leader when it comes to bridging the access gap between marginalized groups and information providers.

May 13, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

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

Today’s highlight is MS1009, the Woods Family papers, 1796-1896. This collection highlights various members of the extended Woods family, starting with the marriage of Leonard Woods and Abigail Wheeler. They would have 10 children together and this collection contains letters sent between various members of the family. The most well-known of their children was their son Leonard Woods Jr., who became the 4th president of Bowdoin College. The collection highlights a large, extended family in the 19th-century and how they dealt with various events both external and internal.

Leonard Woods was born in Princeton, Massachusetts and eventually graduated from Harvard in 1796. He was ordained at Second Church of West Newbury, Massachusetts on December 5, 1798; He held onto that position until May 25, 1808 to become Professor of Theology at the Andover Theological Seminary. He played a role in founding numerous societies including the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, the American Tract Society and the American Temperance Union. While a professor at Andover he educated nearly a thousand ministerial candidates and his lectures were known for their solid content and earnest delivery. During the 1820s he had a well-known disagreement with Henry Ware, professor at Harvard. They disagreed on ideas of human nature with Ware arguing that human nature was essentially good while Woods thought humans were depraved by nature. He would also write a five-part history on the Andover Seminary which would be completed by his son Leonard Jr. His son would also write a popular translation of George Christian Knapp’s Christian Theology.

Letters in this collection are family-focused and show a tight-knit family that continued to connect with one another even while apart. For Leonard Sr., many of the letters from him are directed to his daughter Mary Smith. Many of the letters by Abigail are addressed to “our children” and show the affection and care she had for her kids. The collection also has letters from most of the Woods’ children to other members of the family. The letters in this collection can illuminate how a large family communicated across the 19th century. They discuss news, events, stories, experiences, worries, and hopes, just like families today. While physical letter-writing is not the preferred method anymore in favor of text and email, this collection shows that the content may not be all that different.

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!

May 11, 2020

by Richard Elliott: Board Chair Elect, American Congregational Association; Director of Campus Operations, Park Street Church

Miss Treadwell had all the neighborhood kids over every Saturday to eat popcorn and watch movies— bonafide films from the library—on a projector that we used to fight to help her thread through the gates and sprockets.  Unlike our parents, she was always happy to see us with a cookie jar that was perpetually, magically full.  Years after she passed, I learned from my mother about the pain that Miss Treadwell experienced in her life.  The bigger, and not better, portion of her years were spent in bitter alcoholism where she lost friends, family, and entire years.  Somehow, thankfully, she found both recovery and faith and was guided by the poem, The Waking, by Theodore Roethke, which goes in part—

I wake to find, and take my waking slow
I learn by going where I have to go.

These days, we are all learning by going where we have to go, and it doesn’t feel entirely pleasant either.  The norms and comforts of our habits and traditions are disrupted and shaken, and we all wonder when we get back to normal after Covid 19…what will “normal” look like?  At Park Street Church, just around the corner from the Congregational Library and Archives, our 890 person sanctuary has turned into (of all things) a “production studio” where small numbers of appropriately socially distancing ministers, musicians, and choristers, gather to worship to a (thankfully) much larger streaming congregation.  The chat feature on the sidebar of the YouTube stream lights up at one particular point in the service:

…peace of Christ- Everybody.
…peace to you- wish I was there!
…peace of Christ.  I’m in Turkey right now, worshipping with you.

Passing the peace of Christ has gone virtual.  We are learning by going where we have to go, indeed.

We also learn, however, by discovering where others before us have gone; for example, a good friend and former Director of the Congregational Library, Margaret Bendroth, calls this engagement the “spiritual practice of remembering.”  And, when tired of swiping from our news feed, to Instagram, to Facebook, and back again while riding a dull carousel of boredom, we can remember that there is an entire world at our fingertips at 14 Beacon Street.  These archives can uplift and enrich us with a perspective, wisdom, and comfort where all the social media in the world will never scratch the surface.

The main perspective is simply this: the unsettling world of pandemics, contagion, and economic turmoil where we find ourselves is hardly “new” news.  The veneer that has been stripped away to expose our fragile mortality, which we are all seeing in technicolor through our news feeds today, was in fact a constant companion of life in the 1700s and 1800s.  In the Congregational Library and Archives’ New England Hidden Histories, one page of church records from the Byfield Parish Church heartbreakingly records the deaths of 11 different children in the congregation due to such maladies as “throat distemper,” or simply a vague “sudden illness”… and this all on one page.  Faith was not merely a comforting blanket; rather, it was a life preserver that our forefathers and foremothers clung to for dear life… as should we.

We are also learning that there is much encouragement to be gleaned in these trying times.  Last week, Park Street Church spent the week discussing how to meet the desperate and daunting challenges facing the homeless in our community.  By trying to find a way to respond in a meaningful way in the face of such need, I was encouraged by a church member who lived 160 years earlier.  In 1859, Senior Pastor Dr. Silas Aiken, who was able to choose from any number of illustrious members to pay tribute to for the church’s semicentennial, honored Mr. George Homer “which called out such an affecting demonstration of esteem on the part of crowds of the poor, and those in humble conditions in life, whom he had relieved or assisted in ways unsuspected by the world.”  Likewise, Jesus reminded his disciples that the poor would always be with us; but seeing how our church’s history has always been marked by acts of benevolence and charity, I was encouraged to think about the legacy that our churches should be leaving as I perused our archives.

In our Pre-Covid 19 culture, it was not a cognitive leap to suggest that the world was becoming more insular, less connected, more narcissistic, and vapid… what we needed most was to turn off the computer and get outside.  Consider then the irony of Coronavirus as we were asked to turn to technology more, stay indoors, and rely on the internet for education, familial and social connections.  Perhaps the better part of learning “by going where we have to go” lies in realizing that our amazing history has not been tried and found wanting—maybe it just needed to be tried.

In the past weeks, I have taken the opportunity to read testimonies of faith, and pour over journals, sermons, and church histories; real hours have been spent wandering the virtual stacks of the Congregational Library and Archives.  I have been encouraged, uplifted, and instructed, and I am grateful.

May 7, 2020

by Jules Thomson

Move over, Tiger King. There's a new cathartic docu-drama for these pandemic times, and it's called: Congregational Meeting House Location Disputes! (we're still workshopping the title).

What better way to escape our current worst timeline than full immersion into the bitter, decades-long rivalries of New England townsfolk upset about the location of their meeting houses? And when I say upset, I mean full on, mobs-fighting-in-the-streets upset.

This Reality-TV worthy material comes to us from the New England Hidden Histories program. In the last few weeks my work with NEHH has revolved around digitized materials from our partners at the Connecticut Historical Society, and in particular the collections of the First Congregational Churches in Durham and Lebanon, CT (Lebanon is still pending publication). While describing the documents for public consumption, I was surprised to see how much of both church's records were taken up with fierce battles over the location of their meeting houses.

There is already a lot of drama in our collections at large - a sizeable portion of NEHH records consist of documents generated in the course of disputes, whether on behalf of an entire church, a subset of aggrieved bretheren, or an individual congregant or minister. (I choose to interpret this plethora of argumentative material as a consequence of the denomination's robust mediation and appellate processes, rather than evidence of a particular orneriness on the part of Congregationalists themselves - though actual congregants may beg to differ).

Even within this context, however, the protracted and sometimes explosive battles in Durham and Lebanon stand out. When I initially looked over the Durham First records, I thought the frequent references to "Northerners" and "Southerners" had something to do with the Civil War. While it actually had nothing to do with the national conflict, it was indeed a civil war on a local scale. Lebanon's dramatic dispute also tellingly became known to history as "the Meeting House War".

Both the Durham and Lebanon "wars" had a similar catalyst; a previous meeting house building had become untenable (in Durham's case, it was destroyed by fire), and the situation stoked pre-existing tensions over the building's location. And the real issue in both cases, besides time spent travelling to and fro, was money. Members who were far removed from the meeting house resented having to pay for the repair or replacement of a structure on the same inconvenient spot.

In Durham, the argument was between residents living north and south, respectively, of the central "Mill Bridge" in the mid-1800s. When their third meeting house burned down in November of 1844, subscriptions were immediately raised for its replacement. However, a dispute soon arose over whether to build on the former site or to move it north, with factions forming on both sides. Among many records produced as part of the ensuing arguments, one letter by the southern faction, written for the benefit of the First Church at large, accused the northerners of inciting prejudice:

"the members of your Church and Society, residing south of your impassable gulf, would represent that the proceedings of many of the members residing north of the gulf by influencing the committee in their decision in locating the meeting-house, were fallacious, and unexpected from the followers of him whose character was without guile."

the authors conclude with the ominous warning:

"do not drive us to a step which we must take to ward off a greater evil."

The conflict eventually resulted in the separation of the First Church and Society into separate North Congregational and South Congregational churches in Durham by 1850.

This schism, as traumatic as it must have been at the time, was a far happier result than what occurred in Lebanon. Their Meeting House War began in 1724, when the Society voted to replace the former building, and lasted a whopping eight decades. Residents living north of the historic town center (amusingly referred to as "the Village People") were eager to move the building closer to what had become, effectively, the new parish center. However, a somewhat murky "ancient agreement" from Lebanon's foundation had stipulated that the building could never be moved from its location on the town common. Upon a major renewal of hostilities in 1772, the southerners enlisted some of the oldest town residents, who remembered "the ancient agreement" firsthand, to testify to its legality.

Meanwhile, the old meeting house was in a sorry state, and each round of repairs fostered new conflicts over who would pay for them. After decades of infighting, in which the Connecticut General Assembly was frequently called on to intervene, a concillatory agreement was reached in 1804. It was decided that the old meeting house should be disassembled and relocated to the north. However, when southern residents saw their beloved church under the hammer, they formed a mob and arrested the workmen who were attempting to demolish the structure. According to D. Hamilton Hurd in his History of New London County, Connecticut:

"A large crowd assembled from every quarter, with mingled emotions of grief and anger so highly excited, as to forebode actual violence."

This was followed in the ensuing days by a rallying of the northerners, who formed their own mob and arrested any southerners trying to prevent the demolition.

After multiple lawsuits in which both sides sued each other for damages incurred in the riots, the state's "Supreme Court of Errors" finally ruled in favor of the southerners, and the First Congregational Church in Lebanon is, to this day, situated at the town common as the "ancient agreement" intended.


Special Thanks

This digital resource has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

May 4, 2020

When you tell someone you’re a librarian, it’s only a matter of time before you hear a Dewey Decimal joke. Surer than the sun rising in the east, or people’s eyes beginning to glaze over when I tell them that, actually(!), Dewey Decimal is only one of many classification systems, and isn’t usually found outside schools or small public libraries. The Congregational Library, for instance, has its own bespoke way of classifying books. A recent deep dive into our collection has resulted in taking a much closer look at our classification scheme and its quirks. I’ve come to know it intimately the way you know an old house. Because you’ve lived inside it, leaky roof, drafty windows and all. I’d like to offer a glimpse behind the curtain.

Most classification schemes used in academic or public libraries are designed to describe and organize the whole of human knowledge--a lofty goal! The parameters of the CLA’s collection are far narrower, and so while our classification scheme doesn’t need to be quite so expansive, it does need to allow our patrons to find the very specific things they’re looking for, such as sermons about murders and dueling or the histories of small churches in New England. Dewey is simply not up to the task. As far as anyone can tell, our classification scheme began with the library. Librarians tend to be inveterate record keepers, but unfortunately any documentation about how our classification scheme came to be or changes that have been made over time were either not recorded or have been lost. What that means is that when I go through the collection now, a large part of my job is imagining what some long-gone previous cataloger was thinking.

The CLA’s classification scheme is an artifact in and of itself. The particular language choices and ideas about how things are organized in relation to one another reveals a lot about the worldview of whoever first created it. In the American history section, I was amused to find material about the Civil War described as “the War of Southern Rebellion”. As someone who grew up watching an irate Yosemite Sam insist it should be called “the War betwixt the states”, this was a nice counterpoint. Of course, when you take into account Congregationalists’ historical support for abolition, this makes sense. Some peculiarities are mostly a testament to inertia. Also within the American history section, we have material on the states arranged alphabetically across four sections; however, many books on the history of Hawaii are actually found under a fifth section, the one for U.S. territories. Hawaii hadn’t yet become a state when the scheme was created, and these books were never reclassified (more recently published books on Hawaii are classified correctly). Because our stacks are closed, correct classification is generally less important than robust description which allows material to be found by patrons in our online catalog. Since these books have always been findable, I can see why other projects were prioritized ahead of correcting these errors, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be changed going forward. To leave material on Hawaii in this section for the past 60 years is to reinforce the idea of it as different from other states, something fundamentally ‘other’.

Sometimes, it takes a bit of research to understand the scheme’s peculiarities. Before restructuring our section about non-religious societies, I was confused to find that the section about Freemasons listed material on the Klu Klux Klan as a subset. After a bit of digging, I learned about a pervasive conspiracy theory that the KKK was founded as a wing or reincarnation of the Freemasons. Given that most of our Freemason material is actually ANTI Freemason material (and one very interesting 18th century pamphlet about the illuminati), it would appear that some mysterious past cataloger fully bought into that particular conspiracy theory. The section on Roman Catholicism is similarly reflective of the historic prejudice and mistrust Congregationalists felt towards them. It is divided into two sections, “general” and “controversial” works, but one is equally likely to find explicit anti-Catholic sentiment in either.

These quirks give us a glimpse into the mind of those who created the classification scheme and how they saw Congregationalism in relation to the rest of the world (and vice versa) and for that reason they are worth documenting. It’s also proof that the ways in which we organize information are only as neutral as we make them. Some of the language and organizational choices here may seem like humorous anachronisms, but leaving these descriptions unexamined and un-updated reinforces the same biases in place when they were created. When we are classifying material as ‘controversial’ or looking at which changes have been prioritized and which haven’t, it behooves the librarians and archivists on staff to ask ourselves “why” and make those things clear. As our classification scheme is rewritten and language is updated, we will strive to do better by correcting historical biases while preserving them in historical notes so that the information they convey won’t be lost to time. This work is on going, and the librarians and archivists on staff in the future will certainly be making similar changes years from now.

May 1, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Adapted from a recent article that appeared in the CLA’s monthly newsletter.

The current lockdown caused by the coronavirus may have shuttered the Congregational Library & Archives’ physical space, but it certainly has not stopped the staff from looking towards the CLA’s future. This is especially true on the digital side of things where there is plenty of exciting movement happening even as our weekly meetings have migrated to Zoom and much of our work has focused on metadata stored in the cloud. Digitization and born-digital collections have been very much at the forefront of our thoughts recently. First, three members of the CLA’s staff, Jules Thomson, Tom Clark, and Zachary Bodnar, were able to attend the virtual version of Digital Commonwealth’s annual conference in April. And beyond that, the CLA staff have recently partnered with AVP to bring proper access to the CLA’s digital holdings.

Digital Commonwealth is a non-profit collaborative digital library organization that “provides resources and services to support the creation, management, and dissemination of cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives.” Each year Digital Commonwealth hosts a conference where library, archives, and museum professionals can come together to share their digitization projects and discuss varied topics related to digitization. This year the conference was held on April 7 and the bulk of the conference was devoted to the ethics of digitization and social justice. The conference began with Elaine Westbrooks’ (University Librarian, UNC Chapel Hill) keynote discussing the pervasive systems of inequality which have led to racial disparities in the preserved record. In order to correct these systematic issues, Westbrooks encouraged conference attendees to reflect on our organizations and identify how we have contributed to exclusion, both historically and currently. The theme of self-examination continued through discussions on privacy concerns, content warnings, use of language, and how to identify and create projects that promote diversity. Some of those projects that were highlighted throughout the day included the Visibility for Disability Project out of UMass Amherst, a digital history of Chinese students at the Phillips Academy, and various projects devoted to LGBTQ+ history.

The CLA is not immune to the need to self-reflect. New England’s Hidden Histories has been, to date, the largest sustained digitization project undertaken by the CLA. While the project has been able to uncover and capture some of the history of Congregationalists of color, the fraught history of slavery and New England churches, and the history of relations between European colonists and Native Americans, the very nature of the records in question ensures that the NEHH project cannot capture the type of diversity that Westbrooks and others argue we must begin actively seeking out and making accessible. NEHH is an incredibly important digitization project, and there is little chance that the momentum we’ve built up over the years with the project will let up, but there will be conversations going forward about how we at the CLA can expand the scope and breadth of the project in the coming years. The CLA also recognizes that it holds within its collections important records related to marginalized groups and it will be necessary to bring these collections to the forefront in the immediate future. For example, the CLA’s vast missionary records, while often problematic and colonialist, can also be used to give voices to minority populations and restore their place properly within Congregationalist history. And the CLA holds records important to understanding the impact LGBTQ+ individuals have had on Congregationalism through our Open and Affirming Coalition collection and the papers of Robert Wood, a WWII veteran, gay clergyman, and author of “Christ and the Homosexual.” Making these valuable collections widely available through digitization efforts will be incredibly important for the CLA as an organization moving forward.

The good news is that the CLA is also currently working on the infrastructure necessary to truly operate a robust and standards-focused digital archive. The CLA has recently begun to work with AVP, a consulting and software development house focusing on the management and preservation of digital materials with an eye towards the needs of cultural institutions, to find and begin implementing a digital asset management system (DAMS).
Digital asset management systems come in many shapes and forms, but at their most basic function, they allow an organization to manage, organize, and share digital materials. DAMS have increasingly become an important part of how libraries and archives deliver their digital content to their users. To give an idea of what these systems can look like, you need look no further than the likes of Digital Commonwealth and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). These digital libraries, and many like them, run off a highly specialized and powerful DAMS built specifically for libraries and archives.

While we do not yet know what specific DAMS the CLA will end up with, that is what AVP is for after all, we do have some idea of how this will change and improve everyone’s ability to find and interact with our digital materials. Long gone will be the days of browsing through our website to find an item digitized as part of the NEHH program. Instead each digital object, such as a volume, will be independently searchable through a robust faceted search system that will allow users to refine by keywords, dates, creators, and more. The NEHH viewer will also be replaced by this DAMS with a built-in media viewer that will be able to handle multi-page volumes on top of audio, text, and video files. Users will also be able to download access copies of most digital files directly from the online record. And the system will expose the CLA to many new users; metadata from our DAMS will be harvestable and searchable by larger systems like the DPLA and Digital Commonwealth so their users will also ultimately become our users.

Overall, the DAMS will make the CLA’s digital files more accessible than ever before. Most immediately this will affect the CLA’s NEHH content, as that is the biggest source of digital content right now. But a DAMS will also open many new avenues of collecting for the CLA. Born digital content created by churches and individuals are already collected by the CLA, but currently we have little way of making these files accessible to users except by providing them in person through a USB device. With a DAMS in place, the CLA will be able to make these born digital materials available to all without the hindrances of physical and technical restrictions. Further, this system will allow us to more proactively collect digital content from churches and individuals shortly after the creation of that digital material. For example, the CLA is currently planning on soon directly collecting church records and digital content, such as streamed services and sermon texts, created in direct response to this COVID-19 crisis and the DAMS is already a vital part of that plan.

There is lots of work to be done yet to prepare the CLA for the digital future, but we are already actively doing that work. We are having the tough internal discussions regarding how the CLA can ensure equitable access to our collections and diversity in the voices represented within our collections, digital and physical. And we have just completed phase one of our work with AVP to develop a requirements short-list which we can present to potential DAMS providers. There is much to be excited about regarding the digital future of the CLA and while it may be somewhat premature, I am confident that we will make heavy strides towards that vision within the next year.

April 29, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

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

Today’s highlight is collection number MS0087, the William A. Hallock journal, 1822-1823. Mr. Hallock was an agent of the New England Tract Society and the journal highlights his time working for them between September 1822 and September 1823. The New England Tract Society was formed in 1814 with the goal “ promote the interests of vital godliness and good morals, by the distribution of such Tracts, as shall be calculated to receive the approbation of serious Christians of all denominations”.(1) They sold tracts across the country and also had yearly and lifetime memberships. The organization decided to formally change its name in 1823 to the American Tract Society. In 1825, the New York-based Religious Tract Society called for a national American Tract Society; the formation of that society happened the same year. During his time working with these organizations, Mr. Hallock served as a Corresponding Secretary for the New England Tract Society and as a member of the American Tract Society’s Publishing Committee. (2)

Our collection contains a single journal from William A. Hallock which chronicles his work for the society between 1822-1823. The journal indicates that his job took him to various towns within New England in order to sell tracts, promote society subscriptions, and occasionally preach. The journal itself is organized into 5 columns throughout, though he does stop filling in some of the columns starting in May 1823. The columns included the date, his location, a description of his day, the miles he traveled, and the amount of money he made. From May-September 1823, Mr. Hallock switches to talking mainly about his day and indicates the date. The journal’s overall impression is that Mr. Hallock traveled extensively and was highly dedicated to both the New England Tract Society and American Tract Society.

Mr. Hallock’s travels took him to towns across New England and the journal takes a few “breaks” to tally his travels within a particular time frame. One such example can be found on page 19 of the journal where he comments “Thus in 17 days, I have travelled 383 miles mostly on foot, and collected $434.45. It has been me breaking up of spring, and I ought to be thankful that I am still in health. Expenses have been $13!!!!!!!” This statement is striking on multiple fronts as his numbers would indicate he walked an average of 22 miles a day and collected an average of $25 dollars of subscriptions a day, all while keeping his expenses under a dollar a day. His efficiency is certainly something to admire and his journal entries indicate nearly every action he undertook in that period. The historical value of Mr. Hallock’s journal is multifaceted and can inform us on the state of economics, travel, salesmanship, and more in 1822-1823 New England.

A link to the catalog record for this collection can be found here. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at Stay safe and have a great day!


1. S.J. Wolfe, “Dating American Tract Society Publications Through 1876 from External Evidences,” last modified 2001,

2. “A Brief History of the American Tract Society, Instituted in Boston, 1814, and Its Relations to the American Tract Society at New York, instituted 1825.” MSU Libraries, 1857,

April 1, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist

Elder bark, succory root, rum, madeira, turpentine, quicksilver, hog’s lard, white lead, clove oil…

Snake oil cures for Covid-19? No, but good guess. These are some ingredients from medical “recipes” compiled in the mid-18th century by Congregational minister Ebenezer Parkman. Rev. Parkman, a Harvard graduate who resided mainly in Westborough, Mass., is most historically notable for the detailed diaries which he kept throughout his life. He also amassed a large amount of documentary material in the course of his daily affairs which provide a fascinating window into life in New England in the 1700s.

Separate collections of these materials are held across several cultural institutions including the Congregational Library & Archives, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Westborough Public Library. The Congregational Library & Archives digitized many of his personal and professional paper as a part of the New England Hidden Histories project, resulting in the confederation of physically disparate records, all of which can be found here.

Rev. Parkman’s medical remedies, for ailments as diverse as consumption [tuberculosis], dropsy [edema], jaundice, epilepsy, worms, lock-jaw, sore nipples, and “great fatigue” are kept in loosely bound notebooks and at first glance appear to be culinary recipes. At the time there was little distinction between the two, and indeed most manuscript cookbooks before the 20th century were interspersed with such remedies, many of which utilized common kitchen ingredients.

The notes comprise headings with the name of the particular ailment, followed by lists of ingredients and (often, but not always) relative amounts of each, and dosage instructions. The general sense is of a running roster of treatments jotted down as and when Rev. Parkman read or heard about them, creating a primitive version of a family first aid book – and he was indeed a family man, with no less than 16 children by his two wives, Mary Champney (d. 1736) and Hannah Breck, though as was common at the time, many of their offspring did not survive into adulthood.

Some of Rev. Parkman’s accumulated treatments seem to be derived from personal acquaintances or at least area locals, as in this fascinating account:

“Mr. Joseph Jacobs of Mansfield was cured of [scrofula] by a powder given him by an Indian at Middletown in Connecticut, which he has great reason to think was the root of meadow violet dried and pulverized”

Others are copied from newspapers, magazines, and similar publications:

“Frost Bitten: Fat of a dunghill fowl; rub the place affected with it morn and evening over a warm fire, and wrap it up with a piece of woolen cloth well greased with the said fat. It soon cures. See Boston Evening Post for January 21, 1765.”

“Against worms – White lead and linseed oil wonderfully cured a boy. See London Magazine for Aug. 1759.”

Locally-sourced remedies came to the fore during the Great Throat Distemper, a devastating outbreak of what was probably diphtheria. The Distemper ravaged most of New England from 1735 onwards, causing widespread childhood mortality. No less than three separate treatments for ‘the terrible & mortal throat disease’ are evidenced in Rev. Parkman’s papers. One is sourced “from Timothy Bryant in Middleborough” and one copied from The Boston Evening Post. The remedies contain a number of prescriptions almost guaranteed to make the condition worse, including ingesting mercury, bleeding the child “from under the tongue”, and induced vomiting. The third recipe (unattributed) also adds the unfortunate addendum: “in the beginning of the distemper use a plaster of dog’s dung & honey on the outside of the throat”.

It gets worse. Parkman goes on to note, for instance, that “The blood of a pigeon is a most excellent remedy in all wounds & contusions of the eyes” and blithely suggests, as a treatment for consumption, “The herb foxglove. Make a decoction in water or wine or half water half wine for ordinary drink.” (No dosage instructions are mentioned, which is rather unfortunate given the plant’s potentially deadly toxicity.)

It’s tempting to poke fun at the ignorance of our predecessors– something I admit I have done on many occasions, even as a trained historian. But Ebenezer Parkman and his contemporaries had no knowledge of germ theory, and limited understanding of sanitation and immunity. Inoculation, a precursor to vaccination, was controversially promoted in North America as early as the 17th century, by learned men such as the Rev. Cotton Mather, but medical science and epidemiology still had a long way to go.

Nowadays, we certainly don’t have the same excuse – but our supposedly rational modern society hasn’t yet eliminated the spread of medically unsound advice and snake oil salesmanship. Collodial silver, which sounds very much like something that might be included in one of Rev. Parkman’s medical recipes, was just proposed as a cure for the novel coronavirus by US televangelist Jim Bakker. Popular conspiracy theorist Alex Jones promoted the use of a toothpaste containing the same substance. Perhaps he could compliment his newly patented ‘paste with Rev. Parkman’s 1764 instructions on how to make and use a toothbrush:

“A Butcher’s skewer or the wood with which they are made, must be bruised a bit at the end, till with a little use it will become the softest and best brush for this purpose. Cleanse your teeth with this brush alone – only about once in a fortnight, not oftener, dip your skewer-brush into a few grains of gun-powder breaking them with the brush – wash the mouth well after the operation.”

Some of the alleged “cures” for Covid-19 being bandied about on social media are relatively benign, and perhaps even promote a modicum of wellbeing, though they are certainly no cure - garlic, hot baths, and “drinking lots of water”, for instance. Many of Parkman’s remedies are similarly innocuous, if ineffective, and in some cases sound downright pleasant to consume, such as this recipe “against weakness with a cough”:

One pound of raisins

½ pound figs

½ ounce liquorice

¼ ounce cloves beat up with a pound of sugar into a conserve

2 or 3 times a day

Never mind that sugar is likely an immunosuppressant - as is alcohol, frequently suggested as a recipe additive in Parkman’s notes, mainly in the form of wine and rum; one hopes that placebo effect was able to at least partially compensate.

However, you may well point to the horrifying addition of (among other things) “white lead” and “mercurial ointment” to some of Parkman’s recipes, as evidence of our ancestors’ laughable ignorance. But lo, what’s this from BBC news, March 8, 2020?

“YouTuber Jordan Sather, who has many thousands of followers across different platforms, has been claiming that a "miracle mineral supplement", called MMS, can "wipe out" coronavirus. It contains chlorine dioxide - a bleaching agent."

Turns out, we have a lot more in common with Rev. Parkman and his contemporaries than we might like to imagine. But we also have many more advantages: global epidemiology experts and advisors, a public health infrastructure with trained medical personnel, scientists working around the clock, and, despite some notable exceptions, a populace which is much better informed than they would have been 250 years ago. Still, I can think of no better time to meditate on the lessons of history, to look to our predecessors for perspective, insights into the peril of disease, and sometimes, warnings about “what not to do”.


 Links to primary documents:

loosely bound notebook of medical recipes and remedies, 1768-1771

notebook of various medical recipes, circa 1772

recipe for throat distemper, undated


Special Thanks

This digital resource has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

March 18, 2020

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

As we smile and wave to our neighbors from a respectable 6 foot’s distance before returning home to furiously wash our hands and anxiously wait for the next press conference, it may be comforting to remember that social distancing to brace ourselves against the spread of a global pandemic is nothing new.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, otherwise known as the Spanish flu1, was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. It infected 27% of the world’s population and resulted in the deaths of 50 million people. To slow the spread of the virus, public gatherings were discouraged. Schools, theatres and even churches were closed.

Across the country, churches closed either voluntarily or by order of the local government to contain the spread of the disease and, to use more modern parlance, “flatten the curve”. Some congregations refused to comply until police intervened while others moved services outdoors so church-goers could keep their distance. In the Congregational Library’s collection we have Seven Little Messages: Written during the Churchless Sundays of the influenza, for Utahns, through the Salt Lake Tribune by the Rev. Peter A. Simpkin of Phillips Congregational Church. Initially these messages, stand-ins for a regular sermon, were circulated weekly in the newspaper while churches were closed in the Fall of 1918.

On the topic of social distancing, Rev. Simpkin offers these thoughts: “That scourge that dims today the altar lights and closes the doors of God’s house offers to us a singular opportunity. In the midst of the home peace, where the dear ones gather, the compulsory apartness should be a thing of blessedness. Out of the quiet should rise to bless every home in the city some truths alike for comfort and consecration.”

He is speaking explicitly about the coming end of World War I and the hope that some time for quiet contemplation will allow people to feel grateful for peace and the sacrifices made to make it possible. Our present moment is not quite the same, and it might be difficult to feel blessed when your neighbors have hoarded all of the toilet paper in a 10 mile radius.

At this moment, it feels like a very fine line to walk between entertaining and informative and dismissive of the justified fear and uncertainty so many people are experiencing right now. The existence of this pamphlet is proof of the lengths people will go to reach out to one another in the face of isolation. These efforts towards connection may look quite different today--in neighbors coordinating sing-alongs from their windows or houses of worship live-streaming their weekly services--but the impulse is the same.

The staff at the library are grateful we are able to continue much of our work remotely. We’re here to answer your questions and we very much hope you reach out.

It became known as the Spanish flu because the earliest reports of the infection came from Spain. Spain had remained neutral during World War I which allowed them to report on the spread of the infection unencumbered by the wartime censorship in place in other countries.

February 3, 2020

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy ShipmatesIt should come as no surprise that when librarians (and archivists) want to learn more about something, they hit the books. In order to deepen our knowledge of the collection, the CLA staff has resolved to start 2020 off by reading and discussing one book a month related to the collection and our work within it.

We eased into this with our first book club pick, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, who you might know from NPR’s This American Life, or as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. In her characteristic arch style, Vowell introduces us to Boston’s Puritan forebears, led by John Withrop, and the ways in which the ethos of this group still impacts us today.

Vowell places heavy emphasis on Winthrop’s sermon, “On Christian Charity” which famously calls on those in the colony to establish “a city on a hill”, an image which has echoed through American culture. In many ways, this speech prefigures the best and the worst of the Puritans and of us, at once “yoked together” and committed to mutual aid and also chosen by God to serve as an example to others, and therefore above reproach.  Rather than revert to tired stereotypes of stodgy Puritans, Vowell imbues these complex historical figures--John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson--with humanity. She describes them lovingly, but doesn’t shy away from criticism. There’s a lesson here about how we can approach the discussion of more complicated aspects of material in our collection.

Throughout the book, Vowell weaves history with her contemporary experience of it, describing her visits to our neighbors, the MA State Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society,  and the Pequot History museum in Connecticut. She sheds light on a period of history often glossed over in textbooks and history class and describes the complicated conflicts of religion between the Boston colonists and others, and all of the factors that preceded King Philip’s War.

After finishing Wordy Shipmates, staff have come away with a better understanding of who the Puritans were (even those of us who grew up in close proximity to the Mayflower waterslide), a deeper understanding of parts of American history that are often glossed over in school and the ways material in our collection ties into these stories and how we can share them in a way that’s both engaging and informative.

Our February read will be The Book: a History of the Bible by Christopher De Hamel.