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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Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Boston’s Special Collections Department Reopens

Earlier this month the Boston Public Library reopened its Special Collections Department after a $15.7 million renovation.

This was a five-year project funded by the city to improve the department’s public spaces, including a new reading room and lobby; to upgrade the collections storage for rare books and manuscripts; and to install a state-of-the-art conservation lab and fire-suppression system.

The collection includes everything from a First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare to Robert McCloskey’s preliminary drawings for Make Way for Ducklings.

But of course I’m fondest of the extensive holdings about the Revolutionary period, including the town archives. I’ve used B.P.L. materials to study the town’s watchmen, the militia armories, coroners’ inquests after the Boston Massacre, and even John Hancock’s bills for his aunt’s carriage (he contracted from Adino Paddock and John Gore—only the best).

The department’s rare books division holds John Adams’s large personal library and the Rev. Thomas Prince’s library, once housed in Old South, where the Rev. Ezra Stiles consulted it.

The Boston Public Library is one of only two public members of the Association of Research Libraries, the other being the New York Public Library. Most other members are at universities. Special Collections Department head Beth Prindle states, “Our collections are available for the study and enjoyment of everyone. As it says on the side of the McKim building, we are dedicated to making these treasured items ‘Free to All.’”

Having been closed during this renovation, the department now welcomes the public in three ways:
  • Visitors to the Boston Public Library’s central branch can view a selection of objects on display in the Special Collections Lobby.
  • Researchers can use the department website to learn more about its holdings.
  • And researchers who see something intriguing can create a reading room account and file a request to use materials at their preferred date and time.

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