It's no secret: we love the Cambridge Public Library staff! From circulation to admin, facilities to youth services - the enthusiasm, warmth, and dedication of Library workers makes Cambridge an amazing place to live and be.
While we look forward to life returning to normal, we'd like to share a series of conversations with Library staff members virtually conducted by the Foundation. We hope that reading about their work brightens your day, and reminds you that no matter what goes on the world, the Cambridge Public Library continues to support our community.
What do you do at the Library?
I am the archivist at the Cambridge Public Library, and, to make it very simple, I collect, preserve, describe and make available records of enduring value that document the history of Cambridge.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I am responsible for answering all reference requests – in person and remote requests. I interface a lot with the public in that way – answering questions, connecting patrons to resources, et cetera. I am responsible for curating the collection – going into the community and working with various community members, organizations and families to build the collection.
Once a collection comes in, there’s all kinds of administrative work that needs to be done around creating a Deed of Gift (the terms in which the donation comes to the Library). There is what we call processing in the profession, which is organizing the material in such a way that researchers can use it: describing it and making the description of the collection searchable online. The next step is digitizing the collection, and that entails a lot of technical pieces to make the images discoverable as well as making the collection freely available to anyone with an internet connection.
I’m in charge of exhibits and public programming, so, I’m teaching workshops that I develop curriculum for, and finding professionals or experts on a particular topic to give talks at the Library. I also do some social media outreach… my day-to-day job can touch any one of those pieces. It’s varied, and I’m using a lot of different skills all the time.
How do things come into the collection? People reaching out, you reaching out to them? I imagine it’s kind of a mix of those.
It is a mix! People do come to me when they have something that may be historically valuable. And usually I can make a decision right on the spot about whether it is or isn’t – and when I talk about historically valuable, I’m talking about things that are completely unique to Cambridge and to the Library. There are a lot of other collecting institutions in the city, and not a lot of space, so we want to make sure we’re not duplicating efforts – I have to triage what comes to me. But most of my efforts to get material entail going out to the community, working with various partners, and building a network to get collections to the Library for people to use.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working with Cambridge’s African American community, to document, preserve, and make available their wonderful, amazing, difficult, painful and nearly 400-year history in the city. It’s important to work with communities, especially communities that have been underserved, traditionally in our society, or under-documented because of institutionalized racism and prejudice. It takes a lot of trust building and creating relationships, and really saying: “Your history is essential to our city’s understanding of itself, and it is my job to document it and make it available to all in perpetuity.”
I’m slowly starting to receive donations, and it’s exciting. The Cambridge Community Center is donating their records – they’re a 91 year-old organization, located in the Riverside neighborhood of Cambridge, just off Western Avenue, that serves the city’s Black community.
Is there anything that’s come into the collection recently that’s been particularly exciting for you?
Yes! The Johnson-Cardozo Family Papers I received last year is a fantastic collection that documents four generations of African Americans in the city. The collection includes personal papers – and personal papers are often very difficult to collect because they have so much meaning and value to individuals. Families often prefer to keep these kinds of papers rather than donate them to an institution, which is totally understandable. There are phenomenal materials in this collection – photo albums going back to the early 20th century, portraits, diplomas, family recipes, bibles, and published and unpublished manuscripts. There are even bronze cast baby shoes!
The most important piece from this collection is a bible from the donor’s great-grandfather, Robert Johnson. Johnson was a formerly enslaved man who sought freedom from a plantation in Virginia through the Underground Railroad and came to Boston in 1829. This family bible has Johnson’s genealogy on the inside cover. The bible in and of itself has no historic value: it’s an inexpensive, mass produced bible from the mid-19th century, but its provenance is just so incredible. I received some funding to get it conserved so that researchers can use it and it can be displayed. This bible is just such an amazing addition to the Library.
Could you talk a little about working at the Library? What do you like about working in the Cambridge Room, and working at the CPL in general?
There are many things that go into the love of my job. It’s great to be an archivist in a public library, where the barriers to entry are so low. In a lot of archival repositories, researchers are required to make appointments or have an academic reason to use collections. When the Cambridge Room is open, I can just prop open the door and anybody can wander in and explore. And, we have such a dedicated patron base that is enthusiastic about the history of the city.
The Cambridge Public Library building is special. The space is beautiful here, in the Archives and Special Collections – a lot of archives are in the basement or in the attic or tucked away, but this collection is on the second floor, prominently displayed. Even the thought of where the Archives is placed in the building is brilliant – it’s on the north side of the building, so there’s no direct light to damage the rare books and artifacts that are on display. It’s just a beautiful space for researchers and staff to work in with all the amenities, like high density storage, that an archival repository needs.
Another aspect of my job that I really enjoy is teaching. I try to bring my skills as an archivist to the community with public programming – for example, I offer workshops on how to preserve family photographs and how to conduct oral histories. These classes are very popular. We have an engaged citizenry who is interested in their own history and the history of Cambridge. That’s inspiring – to present to a full room of engaged and truly interested people. Lastly, our staff is amazing! They are knowledgeable, kind, excellent professionals to work with.
How did you get interested in archival studies? Do you have any advice for anyone who is interested in working in an archive?
I studied humanities in undergrad and was not interested in pursuing a teaching path. I was exploring career options and saw that I could get a dual degree Master of Archives and Master of History at Simmons University and I thought, this is great, I can continue studying humanities and have a practical application for it. It really fit my academic desires as well as my career goals. I’m such a typical librarian – I love to get information to people! There’s a lot of independent work that is done in archives. You can spend a lot of time cataloging rare books or processing collections, which is intense, detail oriented work, so there’s that aspect of it that I enjoy. On the other hand, there’s a social aspect to it that I love – teaching, working with researchers, working with the community, and making connections. There’s a nice balance.
Advice for aspiring archivists? I think that if you’re interested in humanities and interested in history, working in the archives profession is a wonderful way to continue in that vein while also providing public service. Having a Master’s degree in History is useful – it gives you a leg up in the field as you’re applying for jobs. An internship where you’re actually processing collections is important, because you’ll know if you like the work and you’ll get the experience.
What can people explore from the collection online while the Library is closed during the pandemic?
Our most popular online resource is the Historic Cambridge Newspaper Collection, which offers four newspaper titles, including the Cambridge Chronicle, the longest running newspaper in the city’s history. The collection, spanning the years 1846 to 2015, is fully searchable and has the additional advantage of creating a community of users who share and tag articles as well as correct newspaper text that has been garbled in the process of being digitized. The crowdsourcing component of the collection has been fantastic: nearly 650,000 lines of text have been corrected so that articles are more easily discoverable.
Cambridge City Directories from 1848 to 1972 are also freely available. The directories list the names and addresses of people living in the city, along with businesses, schools, organizations, and local government officials. Included in the directories are wonderful advertisements from long defunct Cambridge and Boston businesses. This resource is widely used by historians and genealogist worldwide.
Several photograph and textural collections are available to browse. Users can look at the full collection of renowned documentary photographer and lifelong political activist Olive Pierce, who made Cambridge the subject of her mid-career. Her photos depict the turbulent political scene of the 1970s, the lives of the children of the North Cambridge Housing Project Jefferson Park, and Cambridge Rindge and Latin students from the 1980s. A selection of Pierce’s photographs is currently on display at the Library. All the Archives and Special Collections digital collections are easily accessible on the Library’s website. Lastly, people can follow the Cambridge Room blog for news about the Archives and Special Collections as well as stories about Cambridge history.
Thank you, Alyssa!