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Massachusetts Historical Society Visit

On Thursday night, my Introduction to Archival Methods and Services (LIS 438) class visited the Massachusetts Historical Society. Founded in 1791, the society is an independent research library open to the public that specializes in early American, Massachusetts, and New England historical documents. Before our visit even began, most of our class walked together from Simmons to the historical society, which is a little less than a mile away. It was (finally) one of those classic New England brisk fall evenings outside, and we walked over bright, damp leaves as everyone chatted and observed the omnipresent geese.

When we arrived, Director of Collection Services Brenda Lawson gave a short talk to welcome and orient us. She told our class that she too went on a tour of the historical society with her archives class when she was getting her MSLIS at Simmons over 25 years ago. Then, carrying out a long-running tradition, we broke into three groups and took a two-hour tour. We saw all the essential parts of the repository, like the processing room, the stacks, the reading room, and the reference services area.

My favorite part was seeing the conservation lab, which is deep in the building's basement. It has a very mad science vibe to it. There are illuminated tables to backlight paper being mended, vats of chemicals for aqueous fixes and soaking, and a huge press to flatten manuscripts after they've been repaired. Oona, the conservator, walked us through what her job entails and what a typical day is like for her. She showed us a family letter book with extensive water damage on one of her worktables. In this case, there wasn't anything she could do. Her task for that is to hold the pages open while someone else photographs the book to digitally capture its contents. With this project, even something as simple as turning a page means Oona spends time painstakingly arranging pieces of the thin, crumbling paper until the script is somewhat readable. She also gave us a really strong lecture about tape. Apparently, it's "evil" in any form.

When the tour was over, we thanked everyone at the historical society for staying late and giving us such an edifying experience. They had a large table of cookies and beverages for us, so we all lingered a bit to munch on the Milanos before walking back toward school. That beats a lecture any day!

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The reference room at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Look at the card catalog in front! Photo courtesy of the Society.

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