The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Local Researcher Uses MHS to Populate Wikipedia Pages

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.

permalink | Published: Thursday, 27 January, 2011, 10:00 AM