Time & Demise: Document Descriptions at the Massachusetts Historical Society

By Andrew Kettler, University of Toronto, Andrew W. Mellon short-term research fellow at the MHS

Time is the historian’s obsession. Wasting time is the academic’s demise. For a cultural historian, the archive can often seem like the proverbial haystack. Because the focus of cultural research is frequently upon specific and often obscure topics rather than narrative or quantitative history, the manuscript archive is often a daunting and byzantine maze where searching for single references that relate to a defined subject can be an obstructed and time consuming journey.

Occasionally, finding single references can take hours of laborious reading of problematic handwritten materials. As such, many cultural historians turn their works towards theoretical analysis and printed materials to avoid wasteful hours of archival research when the buried needle is difficult to discover. However, the general concern with these archival mazes is commonly overcome when document descriptions within library and manuscript catalogs provide enough detailed summaries to help cultural historians, and all researchers, narrow their focus prior to possibly wasting time reading unnecessary materials.

While completing research for my project on the history of smell and slavery in the Atlantic World, I recently worked at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). While serving as a short-term fellow under the auspices of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, I worked often with the Beck-Alleyne family papers, 1787-1936. I had not originally sought out this collection prior to arriving in Boston, as my work at the MHS focused on searching for descriptions of slave bodies and plantation life within different paper collections from the 18th century.

Despite my initial oversight of this collection, the notes in the introduction to the Beck-Alleyne collection provided by the library staff involved great detail regarding the correspondence of family members and the specific papers within the collection. As a part of this assortment, and nearly all other collections at the MHS, researchers are frequently guided through centuries of papers through these simple keyword connections.

Specifically included as keyword links in the summaries for the Beck-Alleyne papers are topics related to slavery, trade, secession, and rebellion that cover vast areas from Boston to Barbados. Rarely would a scholar of plantation culture look to correspondence from a New England shipping family for notes on Bussa’s Rebellion in Bridgetown of 1816. However, because of the primary details provided in the document description by the library staff, keyword searches trigger important summaries of this rebellion that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

As portrayed by the ease of maneuvering through the Beck-Alleyne papers, the MHS is the premier archive for discovering specific references through these detailed document descriptions. The research team, from those who worked at the archive decades ago to the current library staff, have consistently provided document summaries that offer much more details than nearly all other archives with similar collections. Practically every manuscript document to be accessed at the MHS includes paragraph length descriptions that provide the cultural historian keyword search terms to help focus research much more quickly and consequently avoid wasting the researcher’s time with reading irrelevant materials for their projects.

The keyword searches that are now common within historical research due to the vast accessibility of digital materials makes exploration much quicker and frequently less precise. However, the greater force of historical research remains within the manuscript archive, where materials are recovered and interpreted for the broader historical audience and the public sphere. The detailed descriptions provided within primary keyword searches at the MHS deliver researchers markedly more time to produce engaging scholarship through limiting wasted time upon documents that could be poorly, lightly, or mistakenly described in the hands of less caring and coordinated research teams.