MHS Librarians Hit the Road
Today, the library at the MHS is closed in preparation for our annual fundraising event, Cocktails with Clio. What is a group of librarians to do with a day off? Rather than sit by and toil in our respective offices as set-up goes on around us, we instead are opting to go on a field trip. Specifically, we are jumping on the Mass Pike to go see our counterparts at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.
The reader services staff here recently decided that we should better our knowledge of at least some of the many institutions in the area that are similar to ours. With that in mind, we compiled a list of such “sister institutions” to visit so that we can get a better sense of what they do, what collections they hold, and what a user’s experience is like.
While the MHS holds incredible and unique collections relating to the history of the state and the nation, we do not always have the right materials for every researcher. One thing that we hope to take away from these site visits is a better understanding of the holdings and specialties of some nearby institutions. This will in turn allow us to better serve our own researchers by knowing the proper direction to send them when we cannot answer their questions.
Also, these experiences give us the chance to network with colleagues and peers working in other libraries around the Boston-area. We can discuss emerging scholarship relevant to our respective institutions and talk about trends in research topics and researcher questions and behavior.
Another hope is that the places and people we visit will get the same from us in return. It is easy to think that every library professional in the area knows who we are and what we do but that is not always the case. These site visits give us the opportunity to expose ourselves more widely to the academic community in Massachusetts and to help our peers understand what material we hold and what we might do to help their researchers.
In a profession – and an institution – where it is sometimes easy to insulate ourselves from the outside, this is an opportunity for us to reach beyond our four walls to communicate our mission to other institutions. We also get the chance to increase our own ability to pursue that mission.
| Published: Friday, 7 November, 2014, 12:00 PM
A Church for a Zombie: Architecture in Salem, MA
By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services
One thing that I like about working as a reference librarian is the extreme variation in the nature of questions I receive from outside researchers. In a library like the MHS, it is commonplace to work on inquiries relating to 17th century matters, such as King Philip’s War or early Puritan evangelization of the Indians. In the same day, a researcher might ask about the Revolutionary or Civil Wars and the role of Massachusetts men in them. Then a researcher in Europe e-mails me looking for a single letter held at the Society written by composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1845. Some of these are stranger than others but all fit the description of historical research and pertain to materials we hold.
Something that I do not expect is to field a question that crosses over with my own enjoyment of heavy metal music. Specifically, we recently received via e-mail a very brief question from a researcher who was looking for information about a church that appeared in the horror film the Lords of Salem (2012). The movie was directed by Haverhill, MA native Rob Zombie (a.k.a. Robert Bartleh Cummings). Before getting into movie-making, he founded the band White Zombie in the late-1980s and the group went on to produce two multi-platinum albums in the ‘90s. After that band dissolved he continued on to a solo career. Unfamiliar with the movie, the connection gave me a chuckle and I decided to field the question myself.
I started by looking up the movie online to find screenshots that feature a church. It took a few tries, but soon enough I found an image of a woman sitting with a dog in front of a small stone church. Part of the movie was filmed on location in Salem, MA, so I thought it likely that the church was located there. I continued searching the web for more shots of and/or information about the church but to no avail. So, I took to the Society’s online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what resources might be of use.
Beginning the search with the subject term “Salem (Mass.)” I soon found a sub-heading “Salem (Mass.) -- Buildings, Structures, etc., -- Guide Books.” This seemed to be an appropriate place to check and, lo and behold, the only title under this heading is Architecture in Salem: An Illustrated Guide. I called for the volume and, using the index, flipped through for images of churches in Salem. There were far more than I expected to see, a few of which looked like potential candidates. Then, near the back of the book, I found an image of the Dickson Memorial Chapel and Conservatory located in the Greenlawn Cemetery in Salem.
While the still shot that I saw from the movie showed only the back of the church, I used this photo and a couple others online to compare some prominent features to conclude that they are the same.
With Halloween quickly approaching, why not visit Salem and take a stroll around Greenlawn Cemetery to get a closer look at this little church? And, if you are so inclined and want to disrupt your sleep patterns, follow it up with some of Mr. Zombie’s horror films.
| Published: Friday, 24 October, 2014, 12:00 PM
Debrief the Reader: Researcher as Resource
As a reference librarian at the Society I work regularly with the more than three thousand individual manuscript collections in the holdings. Often the job is a search for a specific piece of information in order to answer a defined question, perhaps for a remote researcher who cannot visit the library. In other instances, reference work might entail giving researchers suggestions for collections that are relevant to their particular project. Usually this second type relies heavily on searching the online catalog, ABIGAIL, or other in-house resources, to find collections that carry certain subject headings or involve certain people.
Unfortunately, in both of these situations, I do not always get the chance to look at a given collection in-depth and thereby gain a more complete understanding of the contents and how it might complement other resources or collections we have. This can be troublesome in a place where the reference librarians are sometimes expected to have deep knowledge of every collection in the building. In order to level the field a bit I try to focus my attention on the occurrences of the early days of colonial New England, roughly the period of the founding of Plymouth colony in 1620 up to the end of King Philip's War in 1676. When researchers come forward with questions concerning this time period I try to direct them toward collections or reference materials that, hopefully, will be of use.
While my colleagues in the collection services department are able to delve deeply into collections while going through the processes of arrangement and description, I do not always get that opportunity. Further, if a collection lacks descriptive aids then it can still be difficult to ascertain exactly what lies within and how it might fit with other collections. Yet, there is one recourse that I have left at my disposal should the chance arise.
Enter: the genial long-term researcher.
When a researcher brings an in-depth project to the MHS, we on the library staff have a wonderful opportunity to gain insights into the collections with which they work and to learn the topical connections existing among them. To illustrate: over the last couple of weeks we have had a researcher visit us nearly every day to work on a project involving 17th century colonial interactions between the English settlers and the native inhabitants. The researcher, who worked at the MHS in the past, came prepared with a few ideas of relevant collections with which to work. I suggested one or two other collections that I knew by name but of which I did not have intimate knowledge, with the idea that maybe one or two items would be relevant. As it happens, these collections turned out to be a veritable goldmine for our researcher. This also spurred her to investigate a couple of other things that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
This entire process is a benefit to both the researcher and myself. While I was able to point her to a collection she did not know about and which aided her research, she was able to identify to me the content of the collection, why it was so important for her research, and how it fits in with other collections that touch on the same time period. Because I lack the very thorough knowledge of the topics and themes involved, the researcher helps establish and explain the web of connections among the characters contained in our holdings. Without a doubt, the knowledge graciously passed on to me with regard to these collections will now help me to better direct future researchers in their endeavors to unlock the long-past and lesser-documented realities of 17th century New England.
| Published: Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 4:07 PM
Considering Collation: Decoding the Formula (2)
By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services
If you have ever had the pleasure of perusing books from the 18th century, or earlier, you may have noticed the appearance of sequences of letters and numbers that appear at the bottom of pages. Maybe you saw a series of four pages that had C, C2, C3, C4, in that order, followed by four pages without those letters. Then, four pages with the same sequence using the letter D, and so on through the alphabet. If you have noticed these, have you ever wondered what they mean? Well if so, keep reading because this post is for you.
During the hand-press period of printing books, the printers included these alpha-numeric sequences, called signatures, to indicate to the binder the order in which the material should be bound together. Nowadays, when constructing descriptive bibliographies of these rare books, examination of the signatures can show anomalies in the printing process and can help distinguish among various printings of a single title.
In my last post I provided a collation formula for a book called The Doctrine of Devils and explained how to determine the format of the book. Now we can look at the collation and signing statement. As you might remember, the collation formula for the book looks like this:
8°: A4 B-O8; [$4 (-A3,4) signed; missigning I4 as I3]; 108 leaves; pp.  1-205 .
We know that the first part means that the book is an octavo which we determined by looking at various physical clues to find out that the pages were created on large sheets of paper that were folded three times to create gatherings of eight leaves, or 16 pages. Now, we can use that information to explain the collation of the book and the signing statement. These two pieces of the puzzle appear in the formula as:
A4 B-O8; [$4 (-A3,4) signed; missigning I4 as I3]
The first part, the collation, tells us how many sections are in the book and how many leaves are in each section. Here, we see that section A has four leaves, while sections B-O have eight leaves each. [If the book was longer, it might go from B, all the way to Cc, meaning that we ended the alphabet once and started again in double]. The second piece, appearing in brackets, is the signing statement, which informs us of the pattern of signatures throughout the book and also indicates any mistakes or deviations. $4 tells us that the printer signed the first four leaves of each gathering, or half of the gathering (-A3,4 indicates that in gathering A only the first two leaves had signatures). Also, we see that the printer incorrectly signed the leaf that was to be I4 and instead used I3 again. Otherwise, there appear to be no other mistakes or deviations, pretty simple.
One last step is to do a leaf count, which is just as it sounds, and then determine the pagination. We can use the leaf count to double-check our collation to ensure it makes sense. In this case, the leaf count yielded a total of 108 leaves. We know from the collation that section A has four leaves, and that each section, B-O (excluding J*) contains eight leaves. So, we have 4 + (8 x 13) = 108. It appears to all match up.
pp.  1-205 
The pagination statement is a check to see how the pages are numbered and if any got skipped or left out. The statement above means that there were eight pages of front matter that did not get numbered, so they are in brackets. Then we have the pages that were numbered, 1-205, with no mistakes. Finally, there are three pages at the end that also are unnumbered. Adding those together, we get a page count of 216, which is exactly double the leaf count. Everything agrees!
So the next time you have your hands on an old book, pay attention to all of these little signs and indicators and you might just be able to figure out your own collation formula for the book and have your own little coded description.
And since this will probably be my last post about collation for a while, I want to leave you with one more example of a formula that is a bit more complex, just to illustrate how long and tedious these can get. Unfortunately, I no longer have the title of the work, just that it was published in London in 1773. Good luck deciphering!
2°: [A]1a2b1 B-6Z2 7B2*7B2 7D-7F2 χ7F2 7G-7I2 [$1signed]; 296 leaves; pp.1-548 553-557 [=553]  [misnumbering 200 as 300, 248 as 548, and 412 as 112].
*Printers used the 23-letter Latin alphabet when creating their signatures rather than our modern 26-letter alphabet. In the 23-letter alphabet, I and J are interchangeable, though never both used; ditto for the letters U and V; last, there is no W in the Latin alphabet.
| Published: Friday, 29 November, 2013, 1:00 AM
A Lesser-Known Massachusetts "First": 1812 Flag-Raising on Catamount Hill
By Elise Dunham, Reader Services
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is home to countless United States “firsts.” Among the most famous Massachusetts initiatives are claims to the first Thanksgiving celebration, the first public park, the first university, and the first public library. The Commonwealth took the lead in these and many other well-known realms, but one quiet act of patriotism that tends not to make the lists is this: In May of 1812 on the top of Catamount Hill, the Loyalists of Colrain, Massachusetts raised the first United States flag to fly over a public schoolhouse.
I had not heard of this Massachusetts first until an MHS researcher brought it to my attention earlier this summer. She was interested in learning more about the 1812 flag-raising to inform her planning of an Independence Day event at Pioneer Village at Friends of the Beaver State Park in East Liverpool, Ohio. Eager to provide the researcher with any information about this event the MHS collections might hold, I immediately took to our online catalog, ABIGAIL, and started down the path toward uncovering the story of the flag-raising on Catamount Hill.
Not hopeful that a search for “First flag-raising” would get me very far--specificity is important for conceptualizing a search, but broadening out is crucial to its success--I began with a “Subject” search for “Colrain (Mass.)”. The search led me to a number of resources that document the history of Colrain. I traversed the MHS stacks to retrieve the materials and parked myself in Ellis Hall for a good dose of reading room research. What ultimately stood out as the most compelling and useful source was A. F. Davenport’s A Sketch of the Origin and Growth of the Catamount Hill Association of Colrain, Mass ( North Adams, Mass.: Walden & Crawley, 1901). The purpose of this publication was to record the proceedings and goings-on of the Association’s various reunion events. Their Sixth Reunion, which took place in 1900, featured discussion and commemoration of the 1812 flag-raising. The momentous event was well-documented in this part of the text, and Mrs. Fanny B. Shippee’s recounting provides perspective on the political context that surrounded it:
Here, on the Hill, the Republicans largely outnumbered the Federalists, but the latter were very loud in maintaining their political views, and made up in noise what they lacked in numbers. At this, the Republicans were naturally incensed, and to show their loyalty to our government, concluded to make and erect an American flag....Those sturdy farmers were showing to the world and to the ‘Feds’ in particular that they were true to this republic.
I was certain that the researcher in Ohio would be happy to learn about the circumstances fueling the flag-raising, but I was personally eager to learn more about the story behind this event’s receipt of the “first flag-raising” accolade. I read on, and found that the MHS itself had a part to play in the construction of this snippet of collective memory:
In a reply to a communication sent to the Massachusetts Historical Society at Boston, for information in regard to the Catamount Hill flag being the first ever raised over a school-house, an answer was received saying that there was no record of any earlier flag, thus giving the Catamount Hill patriots of 1812 the credit of being the first to raise a flag over a school-house in this country.
I wish I could say that a gust of wind blew through the reading room when I read this tale of my late-19th-century counterpart’s response to a reference query about the Catamount Hill flag-raising, so similar to the one I was working on in 2013. The experience did not reach that level of melodrama, but it did bring with it an all-important reminder: “facts” are constructed, interpreted, and re-established over time, and our engagement with them will be best-informed when we manage to bear that in mind.
If you’re inspired to track down the source of another Massachusetts first, Reader Services will gladly welcome you to the library at the MHS!
***Image from A History of Colrain Massachusetts, (Lois McClellan Patrie, 1974): 9.
| Published: Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 1:00 AM