International Museum Day – Concord Museum

Today is International Museum Day 2011. To mark the occasion, I am re-posting a blog entry I wrote about one of my all-time favorite heritage institutions: The Concord Museum.

(Originally published on September 2, 2008)

For me, the Concord Museum in Massachusetts holds a special place in my heart. Although there are many museums that I frequent, this is the one that I travel across the country to visit on a yearly basis. Being a native of the Northeast and an enthusiast of 18th- and 19th-Century American history, I am drawn to the museum’s collections. There are two pieces that are especially appealing: the lantern and Thoreau’s desk.

The lantern is one of two that shone from the belfry of the Old North Church on April 18, 1775–the night of Paul Revere’s legendary ride. That lantern is one of the greatest symbols of the American Revolution. It represents the inexorable drive behind the fight for freedom as the patriots worked surreptitiously, under the cover of darkness, to gather forces. That light shining into Boston preceded the shot heard ’round the world, which would take place the following day. One can only imagine the anticipation with which the lantern was lit that fateful night.

The small wooden desk on which Henry David Thoreau penned Walden is an artifact that draws in patrons from around the world. It is understated and totally indicative of Thoreau’s two years in the woods. Some of his greatest thoughts–the purest expressions of transcendentalism–were written upon this simple piece of furniture. How can an anyone interested in American history, literature, and philosophy not be in awe of this exhibit?

There are countless other thought-provoking exhibits at the Concord Museum, but these two will certainly make the visit worthwhile.


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Be an Eco-Friendly Researcher in Celebration of Earth Day

So many of us diligently sort and recycle our glass and plastic, take re-usable bags to the supermarket, and make an effort to purchase recycled paper products all in an effort to benefit our planet. But do we always apply those earth-loving principles to our work? How many times have we printed off more pages than we really need? How often have we innocently tossed a spent ink cartridge in the trash without a second thought?

In honor of Earth Day, I have composed a list of simple eco-friendly practices that we researchers can easily implement.

1. The next time you head to the local library to pick up your hefty stack of inter-library loan items or other requested books, bring a tote bag with you. That way you can politely decline the plastic bag they may have otherwise given you at check-out.

2. When printing drafts at home, print on both sides of the page or on the back of previously-used paper. (Unless I am submitting a piece or printing an especially important item, I always print on scrap pages).

3. Save and re-use your print cards. Many libraries and research centers require patrons to use plastic print cards to make photocopies or computer print-outs. Rather than tossing the card at the end of the day, save it for your next visit to that repository. In many–if not most–cases, you can add value to a previously-purchased card.

4. Recycle your ink and toner cartridges. You can drop these off at office and electronics stores, such as Best Buy or Staples.

5. Take notes and save website information electronically when conducting online research. There are many services that make this simple, including Diigo and Evernote (among others).

6. Think about fuel efficiency when traveling to repositories and conferences. You can improve your gas mileage by keeping your tires inflated, regularly changing your oil, and scheduling routine maintenance.

7. Better yet, walk or use public transportation when traveling to a research site whenever feasible.

These changes are easy to put into practice and none of them will break the bank–in fact, most will save you money. We spend a lot of time digging into the past, but we shouldn’t forget about the future. Happy Earth Day!

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The Undiscovered Repository

Recently, I wrote about what to expect when visiting an archives or special collections department for the first time. My tips included checking the researcher policies ahead of time and bringing pencils, rather than pens. Today, I will focus on utilizing the “undiscovered” repository.

When new researchers look for a starting point, their first stop–after online resources, of course–is probably going to be the local library. And this is a terrific place to begin. There they will have access to reference staff, microfilm/microfiche readers, and, in many cases, a state or local history collection. As an added perk, with a valid library card, researchers can request needed materials from other library systems through inter-library loan (ILL).

If you are a researcher, you may have asked yourself, “Where can I go besides the local public library?” Some of the more common options include state libraries, local historical societies, and state archives. Once again, these are all great choices. But don’t stop there. Broaden your search and look for smaller, perhaps lesser known repositories that may have useful specialized collections.

I can think of two examples where this approach has benefited my own research. When I was working on a project in Kansas City, I naturally visited the Missouri Valley Special Collections at Kansas City Public Library and the Midwest Genealogy Center at Mid-Continent Public Library. And I was fortunate to find a wealth of information at both of these repositories. However, when I became stumped on a few questions, I looked for other sources of information.

For this particular project, I was looking for background information and dates (or date ranges) for various artifacts. The items in question ranged from typical kitchen implements and household furnishings to farm equipment.

To research the household pieces, I visited the archives department at Union Station. (An experienced museum consultant with whom I had been working made this extremely helpful suggestion). There I was able to pour over a collection of old catalogs dating back to the Late 19th Century. Getting a sense of what products and styles were popular in given years helped me to narrow down the date ranges for some of the artifacts. (Note: The research policies and collection availability may have changed in the last few years. Contact the Collections Department before planning a research trip).

Another hidden gem turned out to be the Agricultural Hall of Fame. This facility had books and catalogs that helped me to identify some of the farm equipment. Being that antique farm machinery was not one of my specific areas of expertise, this small but specialized collection proved to be a great service.

In the broadest sense, the lesson is that the answers to your research questions can lie in unexpected places. Look for the unique collections in your area. Ask the librarians, as well as your fellow researchers, what other research centers are available that might help you in your search. You may be surprised to learn that the perfect “undiscovered” repository was right under your nose all along.

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How to Prepare for Special Collections Research

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a special collections department with someone who had never been before. As I was busy signing in and filling out call slips, it occurred to me that a first-timer might be overwhelmed by how different this type of research environment is, especially compared to a public or college library.

With that in mind, I drafted a list of tips that could help a budding researcher prepare for his or her first visit to the special collections.

Go to the organization’s website and review the policies for researchers.

You may find that you’ll need to register as a patron, show identification, or check in with the librarian (or archivist) on duty upon your arrival.  In some situations, you may have to pay a fee to use the collections. And services, such as photocopying, may or may not be provided. It’s much better to be prepared for these possibilities ahead of time.  (Of course, if you cannot find the policies online, you’ll want to call the department directly.)

Be prepared to deposit your belongings in a locker.

Those who are accustomed to settling in for long hours at the library with an over-sized backpack and a travel mug of coffee* may be surprised by the restrictions in place at an archives or special collections department. Bags may be subject to search (or prohibited) and drinks are rarely allowed. You may want to save yourself the hassle by leaving food, beverages*, and large bags at home.  Staff may direct you to place other forbidden items, such as cell phones or portfolios, in a locker.

*If necessary, you can always make an emergency Starbucks run after you leave.  However, if your research topic is engaging enough, you might be able to bypass the caffeine fix altogether!

Bring pencils, rather than pens.

It is very likely that only pencils will be allowed in the reading room, so sharpen a couple of trusty yellow #2’s before heading out to do your research. You may prefer pens, but this is a very small sacrifice for the sake of research. (Besides, you don’t want to be responsible for leaving a permanent inky blemish on a piece of history anyway.)

Do not feel persecuted if you find yourself under the scrutinizing eye of staff.

Staff members are looking out for the safety and security of irreplaceable collections. These individuals ensure that the documents are handled properly and that nothing inadvertently gets mixed in with your own papers.  (And, yes, they are monitoring all of the researchers, not just you.)

These are just a few of the things to consider before embarking on a research trip.  There are probably countless other guidelines and rules of thumb for new archival researchers, but this is a solid starting point. Just be prepared, go with the flow, and enjoy the fact that you are accessing amazing materials that most people will never see.

Best of luck!

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The Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen: A Brief Review

During my recent trip to Vermont, I had the opportunity to visit the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington. Because of my current interest in Ethan Allen’s involvement in the American Revolution, I was compelled to purchase a reprint of A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Observations During His Captivity, written by Ethan Allen himself. The following is my brief review and synopsis of that piece.

One of the great boons to an historian is a first-person account of historical events, reflecting the particular vernacular and sentiment of an era. Although such a depiction may reveal the biases and subjective memories of the writer as often as it presents factual information, it nonetheless provides an invaluable piece to the puzzle of American history.

The Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen is one such account. Originally published in 1779, it is the depiction of Allen’s approximately 2-year, 8-month imprisonment during the American Revolution. Unable to write freely during his captivity, Allen had to rely on his memory after the fact to complete this work, which he informs the reader in his introduction. The actual story begins with Allen’s description of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga wherein he tells of his valor and that of his Green Mountain Boys. He goes on to recount the quest for Crown Point, followed by the campaigns into Canada. Being captured and taken as a prisoner of war from Canada, the bulk of the narrative is a telling of his experiences in captivity–a mixture of brutal treatment, deplorable conditions, and occasional acts of sincere kindness. Allen concludes his saga with the details of his eventual release and return to Vermont.

The Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen is a worthwhile read for those interested in the life of Ethan Allen, as well as anyone who wishes to read a firsthand account of the American Revolution.

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Concord, Massachusetts

*September 12, 1635: The Town of Concord, Massachusetts was founded.

*April 19, 1775: Concord became the starting point of the American Revolution.

*July 12, 1817: Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord.

This fall, experience another historic moment in Concord as the town celebrates its 375th birthday!

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Thoreau’s Walden: A Review

July marks the anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s historic move to the woods of Walden Pond, just a short distance from his family home in the quaint village of Concord, Massachusetts. Setting out on July 4, 1845, he lived in his self-built, 10×15-foot cabin for two years, two months, and two days. During that period, he recorded his thoughts and experiences, drafting what would ultimately become Walden; Or, Life in the Woods.

Walden, however, is more than a diary of Thoreau’s time in the relative seclusion of the woods. It is an articulation of his observations and personal philosophies written in the context of his life at Walden Pond.

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” was one of Thoreau’s guiding principles and he demonstrated his commitment to that cause through his records published in Walden. His little house, for instance, amounted to just over $28–an extremely modest sum, even in his day. Nevertheless, those meager accommodations were more than adequate for Thoreau, whether in solitude or with company.

In fact, Thoreau denounced the people of his era who lived beyond their means, which, in his estimation, was blatantly unnecessary. Referring to his neighbors’ lifestyles of excess, he wrote that many are “needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.” Thoreau understood–and expressed–that it was possible to live comfortably with little expense if one could resist the temptation of competing with others.

Walden is also a statement of Thoreau’s profound appreciation of the natural world. His was a genuine respect for nature that spanned the scenery, plants, animals, and the changing of the seasons.

In a chapter describing the area ponds, he penned, “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Thoreau had the ability to look into the heart and soul of nature. And, fortunately, he gave a glimpse of his vision on the pages of Walden.

156 years have passed since the first edition of Walden was published. Today, it is considered one of the greatest pieces of American writing and has inspired generations of students, environmentalists, philosophers, researchers, writers, and historians. Thoreau’s Walden speaks to the natural human desire to live a meaningful life based on one’s own principles. As such, it will likely continue to stimulate and inspire its readers for years to come.

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