The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around MHS

Counting Down to the Quasquibicentennial

In eleven days, the Massachusetts Historical Society will be celebrating its quasquibicentennial, or, if you prefer, its bicenquasquigenary. In other words, on January 24, the MHS will turn 225 years old! We don’t think it looks a day over 200.

The MHS was founded on 24 January 1791, when Rev. Jeremy Belknap and a group of like-minded men met in Boston to form a society that would “collect, preserve and communicate, materials for a complete history of this country.” It was the first historical society in America, so its founders called it simply “The Historical Society.” (The New York Historical Society came along in 1804, then the American Antiquarian Society in 1812.) The MHS lived at six different locations before moving in 1899 to its current building at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston.

 

 

Staff members at the MHS have been working on a web project to commemorate our 225-year history: a gallery highlighting 225 items from our collections, including manuscripts, artwork, artifacts, and printed material representing four centuries of American history. Helping out with this project, I’ve had the chance to see a broad cross-section of material, learn the stories behind individual items, and better understand their significance.

Of course, the MHS is well-known for its iconic collection of Adams family papers, which include the letters and other papers of John, Abigail, John Quincy, and many generations of family members. We’ll be featuring some of these papers in our 225th anniversary gallery, from an early love letter by John to correspondence about Abigail’s death. John Adams’ notes on the Boston Massacre trials and his son’s reflections on the Amistad case document fascinating milestones in this illustrious family’s story.

The MHS also holds the second largest collection of Thomas Jefferson papers after the Library of Congress. Not only will our project feature Jefferson’s original manuscript draft of the Declaration of Independence, but also John Adams’ manuscript copy, the first printing, and the first printing that included signers’ names.

Many of the items in our collections are, in fact, the only known surviving copies of printed works. These include Samuel Sewall’s seminal anti-slavery pamphlet The Selling of Joseph, Benjamin Franklin’s first published work, and an early engraving of Harvard discovered by accident in the MHS collections 85 years after its acquisition!

Other ground-breaking printed works you’ll find here are the first books of poetry by Anne Bradstreet (1650) and Phillis Wheatley (1773), as well as the first Bible (1663) published in North America, a translation into the Massachuset Native American language.

The MHS holdings also include some remarkable Civil War-era material, so these papers figure prominently in our gallery. Particularly heartbreaking is a letter from Lt. Col. Wilder Dwight to his mother, written as he lay dying on the battlefield of Antietam. And this broadside recruiting African American soldiers for Massachusetts’ famous 54th Regiment becomes more poignant when you learn how the U.S. government failed to make good on its promises to the men who answered its call.

As for papers related to slavery and abolition, we highlight an eight-page letter from Abraham Lincoln to his friend Joshua Fry Speed detailing Lincoln’s feelings about slavery and the Union, and one Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote on the day she finished her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I also really like our 1892 photograph of the African Meeting House, the site of many anti-slavery meetings.

Speaking of striking images, here are a few more in MHS collections that you may not know about: a watercolor painting of the Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp, John Noble’s illustrated letter to his children depicting scenes from the South Pacific, and the only known portrait of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone painted from life.

We hope you’ll enjoy our 225th anniversary celebration and visit us either in person or on-line. Keep an eye on our website, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter, as we count down to this momentous occasion.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 January, 2016, 4:18 PM

MHS Staff Meet with Librarians from Uzbekistan

Although there are many miles between Boston, Massachusetts and Tashkent, Uzbekistan (6,148 miles according to Google) and although the English language is quite different from the Uzbek language, librarians from the National Library of Uzbekistan and staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society found much common ground and camaraderie during a recent meeting at MHS. 

The scheduling logistics for the group - comprised of the Director, Deputy Director, Head, Reading Halls Lead Specialist, and Head of IT and Access to Foreign Library Collections - were handled by WorldBoston. The focus of the meeting and tour, which took place on 5 June, was on how the MHS makes special collections materials available to researchers both remotely and on-site.  During the visit, with the aid of two highly skilled interpreters, we were able to convey information about cataloging, archival storage, and collections management issues.

Following Librarian Elaine Heavey's  brief introduction to the MHS's history and collections, Digital Projects Coordinator Nancy Heywood and Web Developer Bill Beck showed some examples of how we make selections of our collections available online. The MHS website features a few different types of digital presentations—some sections of the website present sets of materials comprised of relatively small numbers of items with lots of contextual information and transcriptions, but other sections of the website present large sets of documents and/or fully digitized collection with minimal descriptive information and usually without transcriptions.

Elaine Heavey then conveyed information about how researchers use online catalogs and collection guides to prepare for their research visit and she demonstrated Portal1791, our new researcher request system.  The group toured the building and saw the spaces that researchers use (orientation room, reading room, catalog room) as well as some staff areas including the conservation lab and one of the larger stack floors.  They also saw a few highlights from the collections.

 

 

 

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 9 July, 2015, 1:00 AM

Sneak Peek! The Inaugural GLCA Boston Summer Seminar

Eighteen months ago, I sat down for lunch with former MHS research fellow Dr. Natalie Dykstra (Hope College), author of Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). Over the meal, Natalie mentioned that she had been offered the opportunity to develop a faculty-student collaborative research program here in Boston for the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA). From this seed of an idea, over the past year and a half, we have grown the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar, hosted here at the MHS this June.

Between June 1-18 we have three research teams in residence here in Boston, conducting research at five partner institutions: the MHS, the Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library, Houghton Library, Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, and Schlesinger Library. We are also offering behind-the-scenes archives tours and evening seminars with guest speakers who share their own experiences working with a wide range of archival materials. You can follow the Seminar in progress @GLCABOSTON.

Over the past five years, the MHS library has seen a dramatic increase in the number of undergraduate students who come through our doors or contact us remotely looking for sources to complete projects in various disciplines from architecture to English to history and political science. As a historian and librarian, I am excited to both observe and support these young researchers as they learn to navigate special collections material.

Some of these students will go on to careers in academic and public history or library science; hopefully all of them will develop a better appreciation for how historical sources can contribute to contemporary understanding. The six students participating in this inaugural Boston Summer Seminar are engaged in original, thoughtful research and I look forward to seeing where their projects take them!

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 12 June, 2015, 12:00 AM

Library Hours Changing

I write with sadness that as of 1 September 2014 the MHS library is reducing its hours, eliminating the extended hours on Tuesday evenings.  The new library hours will be:

Monday through Friday – 9:00 AM to 4:45 PM
Saturday – 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Unfortunately the reduction in hours was necessary. Once this became evident, many staff members looked at library use patterns to determine where cuts could best be made.  Over the years, especially since reinstating Saturday hours in the spring of 2008, evening use had steadily declined. That is not to say that we do not appreciate that this change will impact researchers – especially those visiting from great distances and those that enjoyed using the library until minutes before attending a Tuesday evening seminar. But it does mean that based on current use patterns, it is hoped that eliminating the evening hours would have the least impact on our researchers. In other words, the lesser of two evils. 

This morning, as I checked the MHS website, the outgoing phone messages, and library handouts to ensure that our hours had been updated in all the necessary places, I began to think about how an era was ending.  When I first started at the MHS in 2006 evening hours were a well-established part of the library schedule.  I knew we had switched the hours from Thursdays to Tuesdays a few years back (with almost no change in use statistics with that move), but as I began to wax nostalgic, I got to wondering just how long the MHS library had been offering evening hours to researchers. 

I went to the reference shelf and grabbed a box containing back issues of Miscellany, the MHS newsletter, and began browsing for notices of library hours. The first issue in the box I selected was dated 1990. I discovered that at that time the MHS was open Monday through Friday 9:00 AM to 4:45 PM.  Those hours did not change until June 1997 when Saturday hours (9:00 AM to 1:00 PM) were added.  I was surprised to learn that it was not until September 2001 that the Thursday evening hours (through 8:00 PM) were added.  And they were added as the Saturday hours were eliminated, hoping that the evenings would see greater readership. 

So as we say adieu to our evening hours, and offer researchers three less hours per week to explore our collections, I am happy to say that we are still offering Saturday hours, which on its second go-round was amazingly successful,** and that the MHS library continues to offer more operating hours than it did throughout most of the 20th century. 

 

 

**Perhaps being open until 4:00 PM allows weekend researchers to sleep in a bit on their Saturday morning and still feel they can have a worthwhile research day.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 29 August, 2014, 8:00 AM

Visiting Dyer Memorial Library

In “The McKay Stitcher,” I presented a letter from Henry H. Warden of the Russell & Company trade firm in Shanghai to colleague John Cunningham about potential shoe business in China. In response to my post, Joice Himawan, Director of the Dyer Memorial Library in Abington, Mass., kindly invited me to see an early wooden model of the McKay machine held there. Abington resident and inventor Lyman Blake created this particular model.  

  

The Georgian architecture of the Dyer Memorial Library really caught my attention with its pleasing symmetry and order. The building, a trove of genealogical and historical information of the residents of Old Abington (modern day towns of Abington, Rockland, and Whitman), sits atop a slight hill on Center Street. Though this elevation makes the two-story building appear perhaps imposing, I enjoyed how the centered five-bay façade threshold with aligned windows drew in my eye and invited my curious mind to enter.

Boy, was I curious! I learned that the library opened its doors to the public in 1930 by the will and trust of resident inheritress Marietta White Dyer (1853 – 1918). Her uncle Samuel Brown Dyer (1809-1894) amassed quite a fortune as an international banker in France and bequeathed this inheritance to his niece, Marietta White Dyer.  As part of her will, Dyer established the Dyer Fund to construct and maintain the Dyer Memorial Library, leaving $80,000, land, and personal estate to the fund upon her death in 1918. Today the library collection focuses on local history with a concentration on materials by and about people connected to the area known as Old Abington.

As Old Abington's history deeply involved the 19th century shoe industry, the inclusion of Lyman Blake's early model of the McKay shoe stitcher to the library's collections makes perfect sense. I would like to thank Joice Himawan of the Dyer Memorial Library for the invitation to visit. What a great gem of 19th century shoe production history!

The library is free and open to the public. I encourage all readers to plan a visit this special library.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 30 May, 2014, 1:00 AM

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