This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

Mark you calendars and prepare to join us at one or more of this week’s events.

We have two events happening on Wednesday, February 2. At noon, in the Dowse library, Marc-William Palen of University of Texas at Austin will present a brown bag lunch talk: The Cleveland “Conspiracy”: Mugwumpery, Free Trade Ideology, and Foreign Policy in Gilded Age America. And at 5:30 PM producer Andrew Buckley will present a screening of Hit & Run History, a series of documentary shorts about the Columbia Expedition. 

On Thursday, February 3, the Boston Early American History Seminar continues with Jason T. Sharples of American Academy of Arts and Sciences & Catholic University of America
presenting his paper “The Politics of Fear: Slave Conspiracy Panics, Community Mobilization, and the Coming of the American Revolution.”  Benjamin Carp of Tufts University will give the comment. 

And on Saturday, February 5, our weekly building tour will begin at 10:00 AM. 

If the weather is poor please call our front desk (617-536-1608) or check our webpage to confirm that events are happening as scheduled. 


Local Researcher Uses MHS to Populate Wikipedia Pages

By Anna J. Cook

A local independent researcher recently made her way to the MHS to conduct research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Boston-area libraries. She reports that while a substantial amount of research for her project can be completed online, thanks to mass scanning projects like GoogleBooks, the Society holds a number of early library circulars and catalogs that are unique and which she is unable to locate in digitized format.

Two examples of the types of documents she has found useful in her research are a small notice printed in 1818 for the Charlestown Social Library, and a catalogue of books belonging to the subscribers of the library of Milton and Dorchester (1790). The Catalogue of Books includes some 95 titles including a handful of works still familiar to readers today: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.

Subscription libraries were “Netflix for an era of readers,” according to the historian Robert E. Sullivan [1]. An early type of lending library, they were privately funded and one paid a fee in order to join and have access to the collections. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Boston metropolitan area boasted a large number of these institutions. Our researcher is attempting to flesh out the history of individual libraries. She reports that she shares the fruits of her labor on Wikipedia, thus making the information available in these rare documents accessible to a much wider audience. This is a unique example of the working relationship between brick-and-mortar institutions like the MHS, the researchers who work in them, and the world of internet-based, crowd-sourced information.

[1] Robert E. Sullivan, Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 409.

This Week @ MHS

By Carol Knauff

The Boston Immigration and Urban History Seminar continues on Thursday, 27 January, at 5:15 PM with a talk by Llana Barber of Boston College, “If we would…leave the city, this would be a ghost town”: Urban Crisis and Latino Migration in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000.  Ramon Borges-Mendez of Clark University will give the comment.


Stay tuned for information on our upcoming exhibition History Drawn with Light: Early Photographs from the MHS Collections opening on 11 March.


The Unpredictable New England Weather

By Elaine Grublin

In the library this morning, while looking for information in a manuscript collection, I found something else entirely: hope.

Sitting safely ensconced in the warm and flake free library, I watched as just outside the window Boston received yet another solid coating of snow — adding to the several inches still on the ground from the storm last week. And I began to despair. Is there any hope that warmth and sunshine will return to us? Will the snow ever melt?

As a life long New Englander, deep down I know that the melting will happen. But I also know you cannot predict when the winter weather will end. And even with the Red Sox preparing to depart for spring training, actual spring seems so far away. So after drudging through the over 40 inches of snow we have received so far this year, and seeing the below zero temperatures predicted for the coming weekend, I was having a hard time feeling hopeful about a change in the weather.

Until I sat down with the microfilm edition of the diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam (Sally), that is. I had gone to the diary looking for her observations about Civil War soldiers in the city of Boston, but in browsing the diary’s pages I found words of hope, as her entries for January reminded me of the truth in the old saying “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes.”

On 13 January 1863, twelve year old Sally writes about wrapping herself in layers in order to go outside of the house and of a skating party on Jamaica Pond. Just days later, on 24 January, she writes “It is just like summer now. we [sic] such nice warm weather.”

Here is hoping there is nice warm weather on the way for us.


Summer Fellowship Opportunities for K-12 Educators

By Kathleen Barker

Are you (or do you know) a K-12 educator in search of a fun and rewarding summer opportunity? The MHS is offering at least three fellowships to public and/or parochial schoolteachers and library media specialists during the summer of 2011. The fellowships carry a stipend of $4,000 for four weeks of on-site research at the MHS. Applications are welcome from any K-12 teacher or library media specialist who has a serious interest in using the collections at the MHS to prepare primary-source-based curricula, supported by documents and visual aids, in the fields of American history, world history, or English/language arts. For more information about teacher fellowship, including application guidelines, visit our Swensrud Teacher Fellowship webpage, or contact Kathleen Barker, Education Coordinator, at or 617-646-0557.

Since 2001, the MHS has offered more than 50 fellowships to teachers representing school districts throughout Massachusetts and New England. These talented men and women have created projects on dozens of fascinating topics, including “Eighteenth-Century Broadsides,” “Massachusetts Soldiers and the Civil War Experience,” and “The Good Government Association and Political Reform in Early-Twentieth-Century Boston.” Look here to view examples of curriculum projects created by former teacher fellows.


This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

Mark your calendars and plan to attend one of our events offered this week: 

Tuesday, 18 January, at 12:00 PM the lunch hour mini-course series What does Massachusetts have to do with … continues with What does Massachusetts have to do with … the French Revolution?  presented by Sara Martin and Sara Sikes, members of the Adams Papers Staff at the MHS. THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED.  CHECK OUR EVENTS CALENDAR FOR NEW DATE WHEN ANNOUNCED. 

Saturday, 22 January, at 10:00 AM join us for our Saturday building tour The History and Collections of the MHSThis is a regularly scheduled tour, so if you cannot make it this week, plan for a future Saturday visit.


Please note that on Wednesday, 19 January, the library will be closing at 4:00 PM. 

Our Youngest Researcher

By Anna J. Cook

While the majority of researchers who use our library are adults – college students and above – the MHS often fields research questions from and serves patrons who are in their teens and even younger. Last week, we were visited by a family from California who were visiting relatives in Boston. The youngest daughter, currently in second grade, was working on a class project for Black History Month focusing on the poet Phillis Wheatley (d. 1784). The family came to the library in hopes of viewing an artifact or document in Wheatley’s own hand.

After giving the family a short introduction to the research library and our procedures for handling rare books and manuscripts, we arranged for them to view two items from our collection. One item was the first edition of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, printed in London in 1773 and now held at the MHS as part of the Waterston Library. The second was a letter written by Wheatley to David Wooster on 18 October 1773 about a recent visit to London, where she traveled in hopes of recovering from ill-health and to attend to the publication of her book of poems. We discussed the care and handling of fragile books and manuscripts, and our eight-year-old researcher delighted us by reading the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” aloud.

All of the items held at the MHS that relate to Wheatley’s life and work have been digitized and made available online as part of the African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts web presentation.


Alexander Kluger Presents @ Brown Bag Lunch

By Anna J. Cook

Last Wednesday (January 5th) visiting scholar Alexander Kluger from the Universitat Wurzburg (Germany) spoke at a brown bag lunch event on the subject of his research while in residence here at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In this post, I offer a brief summary of Alex’s prepared talk, “What Is ‘Influence’? German Literature and American Transcendentalism,” and the discussion that followed.

Prior to beginning his year-long residency, Kluger proposed to examine the influence of German literature on the work of the American Transcendentalists. With this research, he sought to fill a gap in the existing scholarship, providing a more focused study than many previous works that have explored (for example) broader themes such as the German influence on New England authors, or narrower studies that constructed direct lines of connection between German author A and American scholar B.

During his research, it became clear to Alex that to speak of German “influence” on the Transcendentalists, particularly in the narrow sense of German authors’ style and thought substantially altering an American author’s work, would be a mischaracterization of the relationship between the two intellectual traditions. Instead, Alex has come to think about the “role” of German writers, or German writing as “objects of reference” for the Transcendentalist thinkers. He gives as an example Margaret Fuller’s poetry, which often references German writers, whom she greatly admired, but does not give any noticeable sign, in style or form or overall opinion, of having been substantially changed by her reading of (for example) Goethe.

Instead of being “influenced” by German intellectuals, Alex suggests that the Transcendentalists felt a kinship with their German contemporaries, with whom they shared the experience of having come of age as thinkers within a common “salon culture.” Therefore, many similarities observed their approach and thinking previously attributed to German-to-American influence may in fact be a case of simultaneous development. As Alex put it, the Transcendentalists gravitated toward German writers because they looked at them as kindred spirits: “These are people who have thought the thoughts that we are thinking right now!”

During the discussion period following Alex’s presentation, participants sought to clarify what the Transcendentalists, particularly, found so compelling about German thinkers. German intellectual culture was popular within a much broader group of Americans than the Transcendentalist circle. However, Alex suggests that many others who felt an affinity with German culture, such as George Ticknor, emphasized the lessons that could be learned from Germany concerning the development of educational institutions, whereas the Transcendentalists emphasized a more emotive, romantic connections. They used German thought as a vantage point from which they could critique American society. Also discussed were the intersections between theology, nationalism, and literary discourse, all of which energized young thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.

We congratulate Alex on a fruitful six months here at the Society and look forward to seeing where the next six months will take his research.


Welcome Short-Term Fellow Mary Kelley

By Anna J. Cook, Assistant Reference Librarian

This week the MHS welcomes Dr. Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI). Dr. Kelley is a long-time friend of the MHS, having been elected as a Massachusetts Historical Society Fellow in 1994 and, among other programs, last spoke at the MHS in April 2010, delivering the keynote address at the conference “Margaret Fuller and Her Circles.”

Dr. Kelley has been awarded the Malcolm and Mildred Freiberg Fellowship at the MHS to conduct research for her book-length project, “What are you reading and what are you saying?”, a quotation drawn from a letter written in the 1820s by Mary Telfair of Savannah, Georgia, to her friend Mary Few of New York City. As a scholar of 18th and 19th century intellectual and cultural history, Kelley plans to explore the way in which reading and writing between family members are “cultural acts [that] generate and articulate meaning within a specific historical context.” She asks what might happen if books, texts, authors, and readers were understood as “cultural practices,” part of the “cultural labor individuals deploy in making meaning of daily existence.” To investigate this question, Kelley will utilize the myriad family papers, rich with correspondence, which the society holds.

The MHS staff welcomes Dr. Kelley back to the Society and wishes her a fruitful research visit.


Kudos to the Reader Services Staff

By Elaine Grublin


Last week the American Historical Society (AHA)  held their annual meeting in Boston.  The meeting spanned January 6 through January 9 and brought an influx of historians, graduate students, and other history professionals to the Back Bay area. 

Many of those in town for AHA, made it a point to stop at the MHS as part of their trip to Boston.  Some even arranged to come to town a few days early so they could fit in a few full-day sessions in the reading room before attending AHA events at the end of the week.  We were happy to see many familiar faces returning to the library, as well as a large number of first time researchers.

Over the course of the week, the library was visited by 72 individual researchers for a total of 119 research visits.  In servicing those researchers the members of the library staff offered 35 new reader orientations for first time researchers, paged over 260 requests for materials from the closed stacks, produced over 300 pages of photocopies, and engaged in countless one-on-one interactions with our researchers.  These numbers exceed what we typically see in a single week during our busy summer months. Kudos for a job well done to our Reader Services staff.  They managed the atypical mid-winter rush with smiles and quick delivery of all library services.  We hope everyone enjoyed the AHA meeting and hope to see all who visited us last week back in the library in the near future.