J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Dealing Out the Cards at the B.P.L.

Earlier this month, the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts department announced that it had finished scanning its entire card catalogue and uploading the result to the Internet Archive.

“With this project now complete,” the department’s blog said, “information about nearly every manuscript in the BPL’s collections is available online in at least some form — a major first.”

Curator and cataloguer Jay Moschella explained further on Twitter:
The BPL manuscript card catalog is a collection of almost a quarter million index cards, each of which describes a specific manuscript or collection of manuscripts that the BPL holds. . . .

John AdamsBoston Massacre notes, Boston’s early town records, the Frederick Douglass letters, the William Lloyd Garrison papers and the anti-slavery collection — all are parts of BPL’s overall manuscript collections. Think of the card catalog as a *blueprint* to all this. . .

Each card in the catalog was typed by hand and describes a single item in the collection. Taken as a whole, the manuscript card catalog represents well over a century (100 years!) of painstaking work by BPL librarians.
The cards have been digitized as images, not sent through an optical character recognition system to be converted into 98%-accurate searchable text. That means finding what one might be interested in investigating further requires treating the card catalogue like a, well, card catalogue. You choose a topic, usually a proper noun; go to the right drawer alphabetically; and then thumb through the cards to one that catches your eye.

Those cards have varying levels of detail to alert users into what the actual manuscript holds. For example, here’s a letter from the young lawyer Christopher Gore in 1780, talking about how Boston had been frozen in and discussing prisoner of war exchanges.

Here’s Gore’s father, John Gore, Sr., billing John Hancock for painting his—or rather his aunt Lydia’s—carriage in 1765. I’ve actually looked at that document. That carriage was vermilion.

And speaking of Hancock’s carriage, here’s another bill he received, this one from carriage-maker Adino Paddock in December 1774. That’s interesting because by that time the Boston Patriots were ostracizing Paddock (and the older Gore, a good friend) for siding with the Crown. Yet until recently Hancock had still been doing business with him.

Some of the papers came into the collection through the Boston town government, such as Richard Clarke’s 5 Nov 1773 letter saying he really can’t cancel his order of East India Company tea.

Others reflect private correspondence. Nearly all the documents filed under the name of William Molineux involve the bankruptcy of Nathaniel Wheelwright as Molineux became one of the agents of Wheelwright’s brother-in-law and principal creditor, Charles Ward Apthorp.

Again, these cards don’t transcribe the manuscript but describe them in greater or less detail. For researchers looking for all clues about particular people, or planning a trip when the pandemic ends, being able to flip through those descriptions outside the library will be a great convenience.

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