Beacon Street Diary

Archives: November 2020

November 24, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Work on the CLA’s pamphlet for starting a church records program continues apace, though slowly. One of the topics that will be covered in that pamphlet will be role of digital records in a records program and how to preserve those records. Digital preservation is a tough topic to crack though, especially when so much of the discussion surrounding digital preservation is either impractical, mired in hyper-specific terminology, or both. The diagram pictured here is of the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) model. I am not going to go into it (I’ve largely pictured it because there is a running joke in the field that all discussions of digital preservation must ultimately picture this model) but I do show it as a segue into saying that even large, well-funded, institutions with mature digital programs struggle to adhere fully to the OAIS model.

What then is the point in talking about digital preservation if even the biggest places run into difficulties? While it is true that digital preservation, at the highest level, is difficult, it does not mean that digital preservation at any level is impractical. Too often I have seen an emphasis in the field on “perfect preservation.” This need for some perfect solution tends to eat up resources, such as money and time, that could have been better spent on something smaller that provides imperfect, but achievable, digital preservation. And that kind of practical digital preservation is what the CLA hopes to offer churches.

For starters, let us clear up one very common misconception related to digital preservation. Paper is still the most secure, stable, and cost-effective preservation medium in the archives. Digital files are prone to corruption and bit-loss, stored on carrier mediums which regularly fail (such as compact disks, flash drives, and hard drives), and digital storage is expensive, especially at scale. Therefore, the CLA never suggests for churches to actively digitize their own physical records for preservation. As a field, digitization has moved away from “digitization for preservation” towards “digitization for access.” In other words, when archivists digitize something nowadays, it is typically done to mediate access to the resource, for example, by making digital images of a physical object available online for everyone with an internet connection to see. For a basic records program at a church, digitization will often make more headaches than solve problems.

While the CLA does not ever suggest churches digitize their own paper-based records, we also do not suggest mass-printing digital materials onto paper. While it is true that paper is a great preservation medium, it conversely does not make sense to be printing out every email and PDF for the sake of preservation. It may make sense to have physical surrogates for particularly important digital files, such as any digital documents related to church governance, but for the vast majority of digital records, having a physical version can lead to confusion and takes up space, a commodity often in short supply.

So how can churches preserve their digital records? There are a few practical and easy to implement decisions that can make digital preservation easier. From a policy perspective the first step is to have a committee. The CLA always recommends that a church records program be operated by a committee and either the full committee can participate in digital preservation or it can be handled by a sub-committee. At their best, committees ensure that institutional knowledge is not lost, even if its members change over time, and that contiguous knowledge is the absolute most important thing for a successful records program.

The committee should first determine and document the genres of digital records the church regularly creates, the file types of those digital records, where those records are stored, and who creates them. For example, it is important to identify that the church admin regularly creates minutes for the weekly church administration committee and that these records are made using Microsoft Word and stored on a local file directory on the church admin’s office computer. Think of this as an audit. This does not need to be a full accounting of every single digital files created, but it should cover, in broad swaths, records which are created regularly.

Once there is a sufficient accounting of the types and forms of digital records being created, the next step is to determine the lifecycle of these records. As a committee, decide which genres of digital records do not need to be preserved and therefore shouldn’t be transferred to a digital archive, which must be maintained for a time for legal reasons but should be destroyed after a certain time, and which should be considered important for the archival records and transferred to permanent storage after a time. If these kinds of determinations sound similar, it is because it is the same set of suggestions given to records programs for physical records. As such, the National Council of Nonprofits “Document Retention Policies for Nonprofits” can become a solid foundation upon which to think about managing digital records.

On to the task of preserving digital records, one of the first tasks after the initial audit should be to create a physical digital archive that exists separate from your church’s existing digital architecture. The greatest danger to digital files is hardware failure, such as the hard drive of an office computer failing. By purchasing an external hard drive, one can create an archived file repository that is separate from the standard office environment. To make the external hard drive even more secure, consider purchasing a watertight lockbox, depositing it into a safety deposit box at your church’s bank, or keeping it within a fire-safe vault in the church if you already have one. If funds are available, consider having two external hard drives, each an exact duplicate of the other, and storing them in different locations, such as one in the safe and the other at the bank. The initial ingest of files onto the external hard drive, using the audit as a base, will be the most time consuming task; once that is complete the church records committee should meet regularly, probably between 2-4 times a year, to determine which newly created files should be added to the hard drive and ensure that the device still functions. Unfortunately, even external hard drives can fail, so plan to acquire a new external hard drive every five years or so to be safe (though lightly used hard drives should last at least 10 years before any real danger of failure).

Another policy initiative that a church can undertake is to regularly convert old permanent files which are unlikely to be edited or modified in the future. While Microsoft’s Office suit is ubiquitous, it, and other similar office programs, are proprietary and the files they create are not guaranteed to be accessible in the future. Fortunately, most office programs allow you to save a file as a pdf, which is an acceptable and standard archival format for digital preservation. This conversion can be done before files are transferred to the external hard drive but should at minimum be done annually to help prevent backlogs and minimize the risk of any files suddenly becoming unsupported due to new software versions.

One final bit of advice would be to figure out a way to collect digital content from church members. Church events are the lifeblood of church communities, and they bring with them a plethora of records, many of them digital nowadays. The greatest bulk of these records might be videos and images taken on cell phones, but even the files created in preparation of the event, such as fliers, pamphlets, and programs, are likewise important records. Collections of these kinds of records can be done passively by setting up an email or a cloud-based Dropbox account specifically designed for collecting community records. With a particularly active community and records committee, churches could even organize events where community members volunteer their time and knowledge to tag digital photographs with the names of the people pictured in them. In general, outreach to the entire church community should be an important and regular part of the records committee’s work.

A lot has been covered in this post, and perhaps much of it not in the depth the topic requires, but I hope it can at least be a starting point to thinking about digital preservation. Digital records are here to stay and must be thought of as equal in importance to physical records. Ensuring their preservation is incredibly important to the future of a church’s community as they hold the memories of the present day. This is even more true now with COVID where many church activities have, like in much of society, become remote and digital. If ever there was a time to begin thinking about how your church can best manage and maintain its digital records, now is that time. And of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us via email!
Speaking of email! One absolute final bit of advice: do not worry about preserving emails. As much as it is talked about in the field, email preservation is neither practicable nor useful for basically any non-government entity.

November 24, 2020

The story of Thanksgiving gets a lot of play in New England in general and the Congregational Library in particular, especially this year as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing. Rather than re-examine that story--we have scholars and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving for that--I have taken the time to consider the library and archives related things I am particularly grateful for this year, and polled other members of the library’s staff for theirs.

I spend a not insignificant amount of time shaking a fist at librarians past, usually when I stumble across a cataloging choice I cannot fathom the reasoning behind, as I’m sure librarians of the future will be shaking their angry bionic fists at me. But I do want to take the time to appreciate the good work done by everyone who came before me which makes my job easier all the time, sometimes in quite unexpected ways. A few years ago, I was working the reference desk when a disheveled-looking patron arrived less than an hour before we were about to close. He was in town from Korea doing research at another library when they told him the CLA had in our collection the signature of evangelist Dwight L. Moody and he rushed over hoping to catch us before we closed. He was leaving the next day.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t excited about this request. It was close enough to the end of the day that it was almost too late to pull new material, and usually, searching for one signature in a collection is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I hate delivering bad news, so I agreed to take a look, and I have the work of previous CLA staff members to thank for what happened next. Dwight Moody was a member of the Mount Vernon Congregational church and was included in the list of subject headings in the finding aid and catalog record. Not only that, but some helpful previous staff member had indicated on the finding aid not only in which record book Moody’s signature could be found, but also on which page. This allowed me to find and pull the book so the patron could take a picture in record time. He was so thrilled he cried, and later, sent me the article he wrote about it. Without the work of previous archivists, this wouldn’t have been possible. I have them to thank for a well-processed collection, the foresight it requires to anticipate what pieces are going to appeal to researchers, and the wherewithal to write it down to make their successor’s lives easier. Plus, without this I wouldn’t have gotten the satisfaction of making one of our patrons cry from happiness.

There’s a lot to be grateful for at the Congregational Library and in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) field generally. Here’s what other members of the staff had to say:


  • A good spatula. This invaluable tool makes removing all those rusty staples and crusty rubber bands if not ‘a breeze’ then at least less of a chore.
  • The knowledge that we’re providing a useful service in taking a church’s records and that we’re able to validate for them that the work they’ve done is important and worth preserving.
  • The existence of archives as a bastion of evidentiary source material in the face of misinformation, fake news, propaganda, and nationalist myth-making.
  • The ability to make records accessible online! The opportunities the internet provides for democratization of access and breaking down geographical boundaries.
  • that archivists and librarians seem to be some of the best work colleagues imaginable (even if we do say so ourselves!)
November 10, 2020

By Jules Thomson, Associate Archivist / Social Media Manager

Adapted from an article originally published in the CLA’s September 2019 Bulletin

Who invented the internet? (No, not Al Gore!) You may have heard of Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee, usually hailed as the founding fathers of the World Wide Web. But if you answered "a Jesuit priest named Roberto Busa" you also wouldn’t be wrong.

Father Busa was an Italian linguist and seminarian, who studied Theology at the Episcopal Seminary of Belluno - along with Albino Luciani, later known as Pope John Paul I. But Busa is best known as the creator of the Index Thomisticus, a vast digital database of the works of the prolific Saint Thomas Aquinas. In this role, he also pioneered experimental applications of digital technology which would become foundational to the internet as we experience it today.

In 1949 at the Papal Gregorian University of Rome, Busa published a PhD thesis on Aquinas; but it wasn’t until his collaboration with the top brass at IBM, 30 years later, that he was able to convert decades of linguistic research into a dynamic database using emergent computing and internet technology. It was the first time in history that a humanities project had been subject to organization and analysis by computer algorithms. One of the abilities unique to this technology, and crucial for analyzing the works of Aquinas in particular, was its allowance for lemmatisation - grouping together different forms of a word to allow analysis as a single item. Another obvious advantage was the ability to share the database, first across local area networks and eventually globally through the World Wide Web.

The project is widely hailed as the first to introduce digital computing to the humanities – or vice versa, depending on how you look at it - so much so that a Roberto Busa Prize has been established by the international umbrella organization for humanities computing, ADHO, to recognize “outstanding lifetime achievements in the application of information and communications technologies to humanistic research”. Index Thomisticus both anticipated and typified what would later come to be known as "digital humanities", an ever-expanding field marrying the potential of digital technology with history, linguistics, sociology, and the arts.

Nigh on 40 years later, digital humanities (also known as DH) is more popular than ever. One has only to dip a toe into the world of grant-writing to understand that the phrase itself, for better or worse, is veritable currency. A combination of access potential, perceived value for money, and perceived digital preservation of data has contributed to an all-embracing attitude on the part of granting bodies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2018 the NEH awarded the fourth largest share of its funds specifically to DH projects, after federal/state partnership funding, programming, and general preservation and access.  And to quote the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “activities with a substantial digital component receive funds under all NEH program areas, thus the percentage of funds allocated to ODH understates the share of monies NEH invests in digital projects and materials.” [emphasis mine].

Few technological advancements throughout recorded history have rivalled that of computing and the internet. As far as the arts and humanities are concerned, the last innovation of equal magnitude was the invention of the printing press. And as was the case in the 15th century, it behooves scholars, historians and information professionals to align with popular media as a means to preserve and promote their work. The Darwinian model, when applied outside of the field of evolutionary science for which it was solely intended, is notoriously problematic. But the ‘change or die’ aphorism is nonetheless demonstrably relevant in the world of business and technology, in which new innovations must keep pace with evolving formats and public expectations. By now, models of commercial technology have permeated academia, information science, and the heritage sector to such an extent that the demarcations between them are increasingly blurry. Faceted search algorithms pioneered by the likes of Amazon have been put to use in public library catalogues. Museums are ‘gamifying’ their collections with 3D modelling, VR headsets, and augmented reality. The science of analyzing and improving user experience (known as UX) is increasingly indispensable in the public sector as well as the private.

Far from being left in the dust, Father Busa’s work continues to resonate today. His harnessing of lemmatization, the grouping of differently-inflected words together, anticipated a wider need for embedded, machine-readable iterations of human-readable text. (i.e., hidden code behind the words you see on the page, which accomplishes all sorts of functions). There are as many reasons why this might be desirable as there are digital humanities projects, but they commonly include semantic grouping of related words and phrases, and the ability to search across non-standardized spellings. The latter are, of course, extremely common in manuscripts dating from before the 20th century. These functions assist not only with research and analysis but also with accessibility, as they facilitate search and retrieval within host websites, and discoverability on search engines such as Google.

The encoding itself is largely accomplished through the process of XML tagging. Most people have at least heard of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the primary language of the web, designed to display text. XML (Extensible Markup Language), contrastingly, is the semantic, machine-readable encoding hidden behind the textual web, which allows for dynamic organization as well as mere display. In simple terms, it works by attaching “tags” to visible text which describe the meta-categories to which the text belongs, allowing for analysis and regrouping based on these. There are some immediately obvious applications, such as interactive websites and databases, whose functionality is built upon the language’s dynamism.

XML is extensible – meaning that infinite iterations of it can be tailor-made for any project. In the digital humanities field, one of the most important iterations is TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) format, which is utilized primarily by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation. Notable examples include the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has used TEI in its Folger Digital Texts project to lemmatize words across different versions of Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and the Library of Congress’s American Memory project which used a simplified form of TEI to encode a wide array of archival material types. A related schema was developed for the encoding of musical scores (MEI – Music Encoding Initiative format) which has enabled machine-reading of music archives, recently applied to the works of Beethoven and Delius, as well as a large corpus of mediaeval sheet music.

Busa’s methodology also spawned an array of lauded pioneer projects in the decades after the development of his Index, largely in the fields of literature and history. These include the Walt Whitman Archive, the Slave Societies Digital Archive, and the Emily Dickinson Archives, among many others. In addition to textual analysis, these projects also allowed for the virtual confederation of historical materials physically housed in diverse locations – a revolutionary hallmark of the field, now largely taken for granted.

Today the web is littered with other examples, large and small, including dynamic literary compendiums, image libraries, interactive historical mapping projects, visualizations, phone apps, and crowdsourcing projects. You will also find masses of scholarly articles and publications discussing the potential merits and issues inherent to the field, and several degree programs in the subject at universities such as UC Berkeley and Tufts. Some DH projects explore and confederate myriad works or subjects. Sometimes the same subjects or creators are revisited in different ways. Increasingly, the detailed textual encoding which typified early projects is expanding to allow for analysis of “big data”, i.e. wider patterns and trends, and “linked data”, expanding access across subject siloes to allow for a more holistic, big-picture understanding of a given topic.

The quote “hominem unius libri timeo” - I fear the man of a single book - is often attributed to Thomas Aquinas. The phrase has variously been interpreted as either critical or supportive of single-minded subject expertise (with ‘fear’ sometimes denoting reverence rather than admonition). Perhaps, in the world of digital humanities, both meanings apply equally. Father Busa’s Thomistic research was the result of decades of intensely focused academic study. And yet, without his interdisciplinary foray into the brave new world of computer science, the Index Thomisticus would have existed only in the confines of a few bound paper volumes, infinitely less dynamic and accessible, and – more importantly – its creator would not have spawned a global movement which continues to evolve new iterations and potentials today.

It is this marriage of academic rigor with the expansive potential of the digital world that typifies digital humanities as an emergent field, allowing knowledge previously encased in academic silos and physically static archives to be shared more easily with other institutions and simultaneously broadcast to the public at large. At their most successful, these projects breathe new life into the documentary and material record, recreate and enhance our knowledge and understanding of history, and bring it, with all its surprises and idiosyncrasies, into the limelight as never before.



Bonzio, Roberto. “Father Busa, Pioneer of Computing in Humanities with Index Thomisticus, Dies at 98.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, August 19, 2011.

“Distribution of NEH Program Funding.” Humanities Indicators. Accessed August 14, 2019.

"Emily Dickinson, From Fascicle to Open Access | Harvard University Press". Retrieved 2016-12-26.. See Emily Dickinson Archive website

Mary Loeffelholz. "Networking Dickinson: Some Thought Experiments in Digital Humanities." The Emily Dickinson Journal 23, no. 1 (2014): 106-119. (accessed August 14, 2019).

Priego, Ernesto. “Father Roberto Busa: One Academic's Impact on HE and My Career.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 12, 2011.

Projects and users. Accessed August 14, 2019.

“Slave Societies Digital Archive.” Slave Societies Digital Archive. Accessed August 14, 2019.

“TEI: Projects Using the TEI.” TEI Text Encoding Initiative. Accessed August 14, 2019.

“The Walt Whitman Archive.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Accessed August 14, 2019.

November 5, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today I want to highlight RG4680, the Newton, Mass, Central Congregational Church records, 1868-2003. This collection was donated in 2002 after the closing of the church. The collection was processed the following year.

The church was first organized in 1868 with a chapel on Washington Street. The first pastor was Joseph B. Clark. The community would continue to expand, and a new church building was eventually commissioned in 1985 with architectural work by Hartwell and Richardson(1). The church continued to thrive through the first half of the 1900s, with peak membership of 1000 in the 1940s. In 1971, the community joined forces with Newtonville Methodist Church as it had seen continual membership declines. In the 1980s the church would be involved in peace activism, particularly regarding Ethiopia, the USSR and Nicaragua. The church would continue to struggle with membership and in 2001 a task force on the future of the church decided it was time to close. The following year the building was sold to the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church, which is still there today. Central Congregational Church held its final service on January 12th, 2003.

This collection is one of our largest church collections and is housed in 36 boxes! With a collection this size, we have it split into 6 separate series. The first series covers the church records and includes committee minutes, annual minutes, by-laws, constitution, covenant of faith correspondence, financial, and building records. The collection contains items from the church's first year in 1868 all the way to its last days in 2003. The second series focuses on the membership records and includes baptisms, deaths, marriages, admission, and dismissions. There is also a comprehensive membership index file organized by last name. The third series contains records related to the various pastors across Central Congregational Church’s history. Pastor A.J. Muste (1915-1918) has the most representation in this series and the collection also has sermons that cover most of the church’s life. The fourth series covers the various auxiliary and social groups affiliated with the church, including the Sunday School, Women’s Association, and music-related items. The fifth series covers Central Congregational Church’s newsletter, The Courier and contains a nearly complete set except for the 1950s. The final series focuses on historical items such as photographs, programs from events, orders of service, anniversary celebrations, histories of the church, biographies of some members, newspaper clippings and a list of World War II servicemen. This collection is incredibly detailed and showcases the history of Central Congregational Church from its beginning to its end, a truly worthwhile collection to discover!

The legacy finding aid for this collection can be found online on our website. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at Stay safe and have a great day!

(1) - Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System: Central Congregational Church

November 3, 2020

He who ne’er learns his A, B, C, for ever will a Blockhead be;/ But he who to his Book’s inclin’d, will soon a golden Treasure find

So begins the earliest edition of The New-England Primer in the library’s collection, printed in Boston some time in the 1780’s. As Zack mentioned in his recent post, the staff here just recently finished reading and discussing Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. It seemed fitting, then, to take another look at America’s first textbook.

The first edition of the Primer was printed in Boston in the late 1680’s by Benjamin Harris who was also the likely author of the alphabetic couplets it is known for today; however, the first known extant copy of the Primer was printed in 1727. Unlike today’s history textbooks, copies of the Primer were treasured by their owners and often loved to death which is why so few early editions survive. Our earliest copy, printed nearly a century after the first Primer, bears this out: the pages are so worn in places they’re barely legible. You can imagine how many different fingers have turned these pages over the last 300 years.

1727 was also about the time that the Primer began to take its most familiar form. First, general literacy instruction: the alphabet, wordlists of variable syllable lengths, alphabetized couplets and the woodcuts to go with them. Many editions also included the Lord’s Prayer and John Cotton’s catechism “Spiritual Milk for Babes” as well as Isaac Watts’ “Divine Songs” became standard inclusions in later editions. As with contemporary textbooks, political and cultural shifts in society were reflected in changes to the content of the Primer. After the American Revolution, references to the king were removed and his portrait was replaced with one of George Washington. Some editions had lines like “The British King lost states thirteen” added into the text. Periods of religious revival saw editions that included more prayers and hymns.

There are hundreds of different editions of The New-England Primer, all with slight variations, including five in the library’s collection spanning the years from 1780? to 1849. As with the textbooks of today, the Primer reflects the beliefs and opinions of its authors and the culture in which it was produced. Puritans had always been very concerned with their children’s education and the emphasis on literacy instruction at the beginning of each Primer reflects this. Before one could read the Bible, one had to learn to read, after all. The puritan concern with the world to come also features prominently in the text. Barely a page goes by without the reader being reminded of their own mortality with lines like: “time cuts down all/ both great and small”. This might seem morbid to us today, but it’s indicative of the importance placed on education: it was necessary to save one’s soul.

Our recent reading shows the ways in which our educational texts are still attempting to inculcate certain values, though, as the author empahsizes, which values those are is worth further examination. No one is carrying around their high school history textbook until it falls apart, unless it’s the same book that’s been assigned for the last two decades. Certainly, The New-England Primer benefitted from relatively little competition when it came to children’s entertainment, but given the importance of the study of history (especially when the chances of repeating seem alarmingly high), finding something that speaks to children in the same way can only help.