JFK Library and Massachusetts Historical Society

My library visits resumed this morning with a trip to the John F Kennedy Presidential Library, which has a fabulous location overlooking the water on the University of Massachusetts campus. It was rather a misty and dull morning, so the views were not as impressive as I imagine they often can be, but it really is a beautifully designed building. I first met with Stephen Plotkin, the reference archivist, who took me up to the reading room and talked to me about their collections (again it was particularly interesting to learn about the collections they have that aren't what you'd expect, such as Ernest Hemingway's papers) and their online finding aids. They have pretty extensive finding aids available online, which go along with their extensive online collections - the Kennedy Library made a big splash earlier in the summer with their launch of their very ambitious digital collections, which I talked further about with Erica Boudreau who looks after this aspect of the library's work. They have been systematically digitising since 2007 and had some 350,000 documents and images available at launch, growing at an estimated 2000 items each week. They are the only Presidential Library, and really the only part of the National Archives, engaged in such an extensive and systematic programme, although as I learnt on Monday, the Roosevelt Library is also now starting a massive project of their own. I was interesting to hear both Stephen and Erica's takes on the benefits and reservations surrounding the work. They are fortunate to have had a lot of funding and sponsorship which has enabled them to take this project on, which is of course the main stumbling block most other institutions have cited for being unable to do as much in the way of digitisation as they may have liked. Erica explained that they don't see their digitisation as an extra project, but rather as a part of what they do and integral to how they operate, and eventually hope to make their way right through their collections. I was interested to learn more about the decision-making process behind the order of priority for scanning - obviously they began with the no-brainers and the popular collections, but when you're working through so much material, how do you decide what to do when? They are digitising in a way that really reflects the archival organisation of the documents - folders, collections and series of collections are digitised together, and you navigate through the online environment in much the same way as you would the physical one. It's hugely ambitious, and a different approach to many of the other institutions I have visited, so it'll be interesting to see over the coming years whether this becomes a model that is taken up elsewhere (and attracts funding), or whether it will remain such a unique approach for this kind of institution.

I was also able to pick Stephen's brain on a few other aspects of the library and the Presidential Libraries system as a whole, which, along with my conversations with Nancy Smith at NARA and with the staff at the Roosevelt Library, have really given me a much better appreciation of the system as a whole and the context in which they operate. They are, as I was told by everyone I met, a unique public-private partnership with two distinct and occasionally conflicting missions - on the one hand these institutions are charged with preserving and promoting the legacy of the President they are there to commemorate, but on the other they have an important role to play in contributing to the historical record. There was an article in the New York Times about this a couple of months ago with regard to the Nixon and Reagan libraries which caused a bit of a stir, so it has been interesting to hear the take on this subject from the various people I have met in the Presidential Library system. It is a system that seems very different and a little unintuitive from the outside, not just for the fact that the libraries and papers are so widely dispersed geographically, but for this very mix of history and what could veer dangerously close to hagiography.

In the afternoon I made my way to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which is a world-renowned and venerable institution dating back to the late 18th century. They are known for their extensive and very impressive collections relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary and Early Republic periods, but also have huge 19th century collections and even a lot of 20th century material. I was greeted by their librarian, Peter Drummey, who gave me a fascinating and informative tour of the building, culminating in a visit to the inner sanctum of the stacks where some of their most special special collections are kept, including the Adams and Jefferson papers. Peter brought out a selection of documents for me to see - they keep some of the real treasures in display drawers to have them readily available to show people - including letters from Adams, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, and a beautifully illustrated diary from a girl in the 19th century talking about going to the circus to see elephants and a beluga whale. He also pulled out Jefferson's farm book and, most excitingly for a librarian, Jefferson's own library catalogue, with his description of his classification scheme in the front, and many careful checkmarks and erasures throughout. He was a thoroughly entertaining and informative guide to the history of the society and its collections, and it was a great start to my visit.

I then spent time talking to Tracy Potter, their reference librarian, and Elaine Grublin, who is Head of Reader Services, learning more about how they work to make their collections more accessible and the services they offer to researchers, both in person and from a distance. I was able to pick up various tidbits of information on a very practical level that is really useful to know. They also supplemented what I'd just learnt from Peter about the type and extent of their collections, especially some of the things they have which they are less obviously known for. Peter had explained that there are two types of state historical societies in the US - the older ones such as the MHS were generally privately established and as such don't hold public records, whereas a lot of the newer ones do have that more formal official role. I haven't been able to get to an example of that kind of library on this trip, but it would be interesting to visit one in the future and learn more to compare.

Tracy and Elaine also spoke to me a bit about the society's digitisation efforts, which I then learnt more about from Nancy Heywood, their Digital Projects Coordinator. They have been doing quite a lot of digitisation, both in the way of one-off, individual items for object of the month type posts and in more curated selections and collections. We had an interesting discussion about the findability of this kind of material, and usability of their site - at the moment you can find their digitised collections in a couple of places, which is not so intuitive, but they are working on a redesign which should improve things. I've offered to help provide some feedback when they do get the new site up and running, which will also prompt me to make sure I take a good look at it myself when it is ready. We also talked a little about their approach to and experiments with putting material outside their site - they do a bit of this at present, and are definitely thinking about ways to make their collections more visible in this kind of way. They already have a good twitter feed posting John Quincy Adams's 'line-by-line' diary day by day, and are actually doing some good work with that very collection in terms of creating links between the different versions of the diary so that you can compare entries in the short and longer versions by each day - the kind of thing that a digitised version allows you to do very easily but which are cumbersome to achieve in the microfilmed edition such as we have at the VHL. Many of e issues they face with this aspect of their work are much the same as most of the other institutions I've visited, and again highlighted just how unusual the approach of the Kennedy Library from earlier in the day is.


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