Monday, May 21, 2018

State Government Open Data

From March 12th to April 30th I completed the Civic Data Ambassadors program, which was offered by the City of Boston in collaboration with the Engagement Lab at Emerson College.  The program was advertised to Boston librarians who were curious about civic data and were interested in becoming Civic Data Ambassadors.  As student ambassadors, we learned about what civic data is, how it can be used to answer questions, how it impacts the Boston community, methods on searching and filtering open data, tools that can be used to create visualizations that can help with analysis, and how to identify when someone else can make use of such data.  “Open data,” as defined by the Open Data Handbook, is data that “can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone;” “use” could mean simply viewing the information for general interest or research purposes, or it could mean using it to create a helpful tool (i.e. weather app, traffic app, etc.).  As part of the course we completed projects using primarily the open data published in Analyze Boston; however, I came out of the program wanting to learn more about open data that is published by the Massachusetts state government.  It’s important to keep in mind that data is just as important and useful for research as published reports are—maybe even more so!  Below are examples of open data portals available online that are maintained by state and quasi-state agencies on a regular basis; they also allow data to be downloaded or exported into user-friendly formats (i.e. CSV and Excel files).

Dataset titled “Lead and Copper Drinking Water Results in Schools/Childcare,”
published via the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Data Portal.

MassData: the Open Data Initiative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Data Center
MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) School & District Statewide Reports

Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Open Data Portal
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Data Dashboard

Office of the Comptroller’s CTHRU:  Financial Records Transparency Platform
Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Open Checkbook
Division of Banks Foreclosure Petition Website
Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance Contributions and Expenditures Data
Department of Unemployment Assistance - Labor Market Information (LMI)

Energy and Environment
Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Data Portal
Mass Save Data

Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA) Databooks
Massachusetts Environmental Public Health Tracking

Division of Local Services (DLS) Municipal Databank
Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) Open Data

If you are interested in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, check out our earlier blog about shapefiles, data layers, and mapping tools published by the state: 

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department

Monday, May 14, 2018

The War against the Gypsy Moth in Massachusetts

If you aren’t an entomologist, there are probably few insect varieties that you know by species name. But most, if not all, citizens of Massachusetts and her surrounding states know the gypsy moth. Known by the Latin name Lymantria dispar, this particular moth has been devastating woodlands and forests in Massachusetts for over a century.

Image provided by the Department of Conservation and Recreation

The moth was accidentally introduced to Massachusetts in 1869, when a French-born amateur entomologist named Étienne Léopold Trouvelot imported the insect, probably via egg masses, to his home in Medford, Mass. He was occupied with experiments involving silk worms and he hypothesized that breeding silk worms with the robust gypsy moth found in Europe would allow the resultant cross breed to better survive handling and relocation as well as have a more varied diet and avoid existing natural predators, all of which made it ideal for commercial production of silk.

At the time, entomology was still a growing and disorganized science and the importation of insect species was not considered as potentially harmful or invasive. These “men of science were slow to understand the adverse consequences, and government authorities were ambivalent about regulating the practice… there were no legal, moral, or ethical restraints against the practice of transporting alien insects anywhere” Robert J. Spear wrote in his book The Great Gypsy Moth War (2005). Further, Trouvelot’s friend remembered that the backyard enclosure that he used to breed moths was enclosed by netting with significant holes, often large enough for native birds to get in and eat the experimental larvae. Despite these recollections, today we have no evidence of how the first eggs, larvae, caterpillars or adult gypsy moths escaped the enclosure.

Photograph of Trouvelot’s home in Medford, from
Ravages of the Gypsy and Brown Tail Moths 1905 (1906)

Trouvelot eventually turned his attention to other projects and experiments and the moth did not appear to trouble many people for several decades. Later in the 1890’s some witnesses and neighbors remembered Trouvelot searching for the insects, even destroying egg clusters and notifying local authorities of the insect’s escape. However, there is no evidence of these warnings, and by the time the gypsy moth became a problem in the 1890s, Trouvelot had long since moved back to France.

In 1889, swarms of gypsy moths invaded Medford. “Citizens could only stare in disbelief as the dirt streets became carpeted with millions of larvae that seemed to have materialized out of the earth… Great pulsating masses of larvae stripped any plant along their path in minutes,” (Spear). The train rails running through Medford were stained green by crushed larvae, and as they swarmed homes the sound of the larvae eating any and all vegetable matter both inside and outside homes was audible (Spear). The town roads commission attempted to battle the insects, but eventually the fear that the insect would attack agricultural communities inspired ambitious entomologists to urge Medford selectmen to petition the Legislature for assistance.

The outbreak had inspired the organization of the American Association of Official Economic Entomologists, later simply the Association of Economic Entomologists. Economic Entomologists believed that the insect had to be fully exterminated, rather than suppressed and controlled, to protect agricultural interests and with their urging the State Legislature passed an act that more or less declared war on the invasive species in 1890.

Section 1 of Chapter 95 of the Acts and Resolve of 1890,
which created the Gypsy Moth Commission

The Commission, under the Board of Agriculture, organized an army to exterminate the insect. By then the gypsy moth was spreading, found in the surrounding towns of Malden, Melrose, Stoneham, and more. The bulk of the army was made up of “privates” who were trained to spray Paris green, an arsenic-based insecticide. Spraying was expensive, and other crews instead scrapped egg masses away, wrapped trees with burlap to stop caterpillars from climbing to the foliage, or burned trees and brush altogether to kill off potential feeding grounds. Only after years of using arsenic-based insecticide would entomologists discover that gypsy moths are impervious to this particular chemical and that spraying arsenic had actually damaged native populations of birds and insects that might have fed on the gypsy moth.

The Gypsy Moth Commission was dependent on yearly appropriations from the Legislature, which made it difficult to hold on to trained personnel when funds ran out for a particular year. They also encountered resistance from private citizens who disapproved of the Commission’s employees coming onto their land without their permission, and much of the testimony provided in hearings regarding the gypsy moth war was given from these individuals. When the infestation threatened Middlesex Fells, the new Metropolitan Park Commission also stood in opposition to any destruction of public woodlands.

A page of testimony from the 1896 hearings

Despite years of work and reports swearing that the Commission was curbing the infestation, the moth continued to gain ground through Massachusetts to the utter bafflement of the economic entomologists involved in the Gypsy Moth Commission. They began to doubt that extermination was even possible. By 1900, an investigative committee began looking into the Gypsy Moth Commission and hearings were held to question those involved. The resultant report found that the efforts were misdirected and the expenditure of state funds had been “extravagant” due to mismanagement. The Commission did not remain for much longer.

The gypsy moth infestation continued to spread and by 1922 they were found in every single town and city in Massachusetts. The federal government eventually got involved as the infestation crossed state lines, and with the invention of DDT (a synthetic chemical compound) in 1946 aerial spraying began on infested areas. However, that didn’t stop the infestation of 1981, which is believed to be “the nadir of the struggle against the gypsy moth, a time when the insect seemed unstoppable and when its voracious habits results in the ‘defoliation’ of thirteen million acres--the greatest damage to trees ever caused by a single insect species in the United States” (Spear). Today, the state’s management has shifted from spraying to relying on nature to manage gypsy moth populations, including a fungus known as Entomophaga maimaiga that spreads quickly and causes significant gypsy moth mortality (Gypsy Moth in Massachusetts). Even so, the insect continues to be an issue both in the state of Massachusetts and throughout the United States.

Further reading:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff

Monday, April 30, 2018

Library of Congress Magazine: A Plethora of Information

The State Library is a selective Federal documents depository library. One publication from the Library of Congress is called Library of Congress Magazine. This publication focuses on the collections and projects in the Library of Congress and frequently covers topics of a historical nature.  In the November/December 2017 issue one topic covered is “The Hamilton Papers: A Founding Father Online.”  The Library placed thousands of Hamilton’s letters online for the first time including one he wrote in 1769 as a 12 or 13 year old clerk in St Croix that covered topics such as excise taxes and how to avoid them, and his ambition to raise himself up to a higher station in life.  The Library goes on to say that “The Library holds the world’s largest collection of Hamilton papers, some 12,000 items concentrated from 1777 to Hamilton’s death by duel in 1804.” The letters include correspondence with well- known men such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Jay.  After Hamilton died his wife Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton held onto her husband’s papers. She tried to get the US government to buy them and she succeeded in 1848 when Congress appropriated $20,000 to buy the papers.

This issue also has a story of “Veterans on the Homefront.”  This article includes a profile of Violet Clara Thurn Cowden of South Dakota who was a Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  She served her country by being employed as a pilot to fly domestically in order to liberate men for service overseas.  She was underweight and under the height requirement so she gorged on bananas and put a wrap in her hair to pass the physical examination.  She thought joining the WASPS would allow her to “do the thing I love most, and I didn’t have to pay for the gas.”

In another article called “An App for Them,” two sisters have created a user-friendly tool that allows veterans to record their stories of their service using just their smartphones.  It was developed for the Veterans History Project, which the U.S. Congress created in October 2000.  The app was started by two sisters in Massachusetts Jean Rhodes and Nancy McNamara.  It started when Rhodes first encountered the Veterans History Project.  She was conducting interviews with veterans alongside her son and found the process cumbersome.  She called her sister who owns her own web design company for advice.  They built a pilot app and tested it out and hired a firm to develop the app. Their product which they are donating to the Library has been tested by folklorists, oral historians from universities, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who have both used the app to interview veterans in their home states.

Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

State Library participates in ArtWeek

The State Library will participate in the Spring 2018 celebration of ArtWeek (April 27-May 6) on Friday, May 4, at 3:30pm, with a presentation of treasures in the Library’s Special Collections Department. Visitors will see treasures from the State Library collections that are not normally on public view, including some of the earliest published laws of Massachusetts, a realistic facsimile of Mayflower passenger William Bradford’s manuscript journal Of Plimoth Plantation, broadsides recruiting soldiers for the Civil War, photographs of African-American soldiers from the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, early maps of Boston, and especially for this year’s event, items relating to tourism in Massachusetts.

ArtWeek, now a state-wide event produced by the Boch Center and with continued support from the Highland Street Foundation, began in 2013 with mostly Boston-area events. The ArtWeek website describes it as an “innovative festival featuring unique and unexpected experiences that are hands-on, interactive or offer behind-the-scenes access to artists or the creative process.” Many events are free, including ours.

The State Library’s treasures tour has limited seating, so registration is required. Please join us!

Register here:

State Library of Massachusetts, Special Collections Department
State House, Room 55 (Basement level, West Wing)
24 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02133

Monday, April 23, 2018

May Author Talk: Kathleen Teahan

The Cookie Loved ‘Round the World: The Story of the Chocolate Chip Cookie by Kathleen Teahan
Wednesday, May 9, 2018—Noon to 1:00pm
State Library of Massachusetts—Room 341, Massachusetts State House

Did you know that the chocolate chip cookie is the official cookie of Massachusetts? We invite you to come to our next author talk on May 9th to hear author (and former State Representative) Kathleen Teahan share the story of the much-loved chocolate chip cookie, invented right here in the Commonwealth!

Kathleen Teahan’s children’s book, The Cookie Loved ‘Round the World: The Story of the Chocolate Chip Cookie is a fictionalized history of the invention of the chocolate chip cookie during the Great Depression in Whitman, Massachusetts. According to local legend, Toll House Restaurant owner and chef Ruth Wakefield stumbled upon this delicious creation due to a shortage of walnuts at the restaurant. Wakefield’s decision to substitute chocolate chunks in her Butter Do Drops cookies resulted in what would soon become the quintessential American cookie.

Author Kathleen Teahan taught English at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School and the Gordon Mitchell Middle School in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. She also represented the 7th Plymouth District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1997 to 2007, during which time she served on a number of committees and focused on the issues of equal rights, quality education, and improved health (especially oral health) for all. During her first year as a legislator, Rep. Teahan co-sponsored the bill (originally proposed by a third-grade class in Somerset) to make the chocolate chip cookie the official cookie of Massachusetts.

At the conclusion of Representative Teahan’s talk, she will be offering copies of her book for purchase and signing.

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Our upcoming Author Talks:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Interconnected History of the State Library of Massachusetts and the “Law Library of Suffolk County Massachusetts”

Why doesn’t Suffolk County have its own, dedicated law library like every other designated county in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? That is the question. The origins of a shared law library in Boston (which makes up most of today’s Suffolk County) go back to 1803 with the creation of what would come to be known as the “Social Law Library.” Formally incorporated on Oct. 21, 1814 by Ch. 79, Acts of 1814, the Social Law Library to this day still remains a quasi-public agency supported by both private membership fees and state taxpayer funds. A few years prior, on Feb. 16, 1811, the Massachusetts General Court passed a resolve that provided “for an exchange of laws with the several states in the Union”. The statute books collected in this exchange would eventually overwhelm the offices in the State House and would be assembled to make up the first collections of the State Library of Massachusetts, which was formally established as the Library of the General Court on Mar. 3, 1826 by Ch. 123, Acts of 1825.

The original “exchange of laws” that had begun in 1811 to start the Library of the General Court was expanded by a resolve on Mar. 11, 1844 to include “an exchange of reported decisions of the Supreme Court, with the several states of the Union” and then again by another resolve on Feb. 27, 1845  “to promote Mutual Literary and Scientific Exchange with Foreign Countries … to exchange copies of the state map … and bound copies of the laws and legislative documents of the Commonwealth … for books and other works of science and art from foreign countries, to be deposited in the Library of the General Court.”  This expansion in the scope of collections would lead to the Library of the General Court being called the “State Library” by Ch. 155, Acts of 1849 which put the library under the office of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Not long after this change, Ch. 182, Acts of 1850 placed the State Library under the “management and control of three trustees, appointed by the governor” but the Secretary of the Board of Education would remain also as the State Librarian.

State Library of Massachusetts
The State Library and its expanding collections moved to a newly dedicated library space in the State House “Bryant Addition” in 1856, however, this section would be removed by the later “Brigham Addition” to the State House where the State Library would eventually move again in 1895 (and where the main library still resides today in Rooms 341 and 442 of the State House) after having become its own department directly under the governor in 1893 (Ch. 86, Acts of 1893). The State Library is now under the administration of the Executive Branch Office for Administration and Finance (Ch. 329, Acts of 1980) after spending a short time under the former Executive Office of Educational Affairs (Ch. 704, Acts of 1969) until that department was reorganized. The State Library would officially and legally become the “depository library for Massachusetts state publications” by the passing of Ch. 259, Acts of 1966 (later amended by Ch. 412, Acts of 1984).

The State Library is laser focused on its legislative mandate to “maintain a complete collection of Massachusetts state publications, both current and historic” (M.G.L. Ch. 6, Section 39A) and on their digitization and addition to the State Library’s growing digital repository.  And what of practical legal research needs rather than the historical?  The State Library provides free in-library access to WESTLAW, Instatrac, the State House News Service, and Social Law Library legal databases. And what about those needs outside the scope of the State Library’s collections? Members of the public can freely use the collections of the State Library’s law library partners—any of the libraries of the Trial Court Library System (either in person or online), the First Circuit Law Library of the United States Court of Appeals in Boston, or by obtaining a courtesy pass to the Social Law Library at the John Adams Courthouse. We thank our legal partners for helping with the enormous and ever changing responsibility of excluding no one from accessing the legal resources they need.

Judy Carlstrom
Technical Services

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Great Elm on Boston Common

Did you know that the American elm (ulmus americana) is the official tree of Massachusetts?  Elm trees have played a significant role in Massachusetts history and folklore, many of which were venerated for their old age and associations with important people and events.  One famous American elm witnessed the founding of Boston, saw the excitement and violence during the American Revolution, stood through the city’s industrial age, and was finally felled by a winter storm in 1876—which caused an outpouring of sorrow in Boston and around the commonwealth.

A facsimile of a map drawn by John Bonner in 1722
 providing an early depiction of Boston, including
the Great Elm. (Source:  Library of Congress).
The “Great Elm” was considered old even as far back as the early 18th century, and it was estimated to have been planted sometime between the 1620s-1670s.  It stood in a central location on the Boston Common and later in its life drew many visitors due to its age and unusually large size; in 1855 the City Engineer measured it as “height, seventy-two and one-half feet; girth one foot above the ground, twenty-two and one-half feet; girth four feet above the ground, seventeen feet; average diameter of greatest extent of branches, one hundred and one feet.” (Source, p. 51)  In fact, one of the tree’s earliest depictions is on a 1722 map of Boston by John Bonner, which reveals it as being much larger than other trees in the area.

An engraving, circa 1792, that shows the Great Elm
centered on the Boston Common (Source). 
The Boston Common, founded in 1634, is a historically rich location, and it goes without saying that the elm bore witness to many events throughout its lifetime.  The British Red Coats encamped on the Common for eight years starting in 1768, and the colonial militia also mustered here; it is also said that the Sons of Liberty often met in the neighborhood near the tree during the Revolutionary era.  Methodist Episcopal clergyman Jesse Lee delivered a sermon under the Great Elm in 1790, and some believe that this was the origin of Methodism in New England.  A memorial of Jesse Lee’s sermon, published in 1875, traces the history of the elm and describes a duel that occurred nearby in 1728 between Benjamin Woodbridge and Henry Phillips.  The elm is also believed to have been the site of public executions, including the hangings of Quakers William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson in 1659, and Mary Dyer in 1660.

Over time, the effects of age, its size, weather-related events, and constant visitors caused the tree to weaken; Jerome V. C. Smith, the mayor of Boston from 1854-1855, took special interest in its care and preservation and built an iron enclosure around it—upon which was a tablet that read:

This tree has been standing here for an unknown 
period.  It is believed to have existed before 
the settlement of Boston, being full
grown in 1722.  Exhibited marks of
old age in 1792, and was nearly
destroyed by a storm in 1832.
Protected by an iron
enclosure in 1854.
J. V. C. Smith, Mayor

A photograph of the 1866 New England Centenary Convention,
with the Great Elm pictured in the background.(Source)

The elm weathered a damaging storm in 1860 and stood for another 16 years until a strong gale took it down on February 15, 1876.  People sought to collect pieces of its wood as mementos, and some even repurposed the wood to build various items, such as a chair that can be found today in the Boston Public Library’s rare book department.

For more information about the Great Elm and other famous trees in Massachusetts history, check out the following resources below.

Resources and Further Reading

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department