Monday, March 2, 2015

William Bradford’s manuscript volume “Of Plimoth plantation” now available online

Bradford manuscript special display case (bottom right)
in main Library, ca. 1908.

In 2014 the State Library completed a major project to conserve and digitize one of the Commonwealth’s greatest treasures, William Bradford’s manuscript titled Of Plimoth plantation. Bradford (1590-1657) was one of the original Mayflower passengers, arriving in what is now called Plymouth in 1620. Ten years later, he started to write an account of the Pilgrim’s history and travels, starting in England, moving to the Netherlands, crossing the Atlantic, and then their first thirty years in Massachusetts. He stopped writing his narrative in 1650, and ended the volume in 1659 with a descriptive list of the Mayflower passengers and their status at the time.

The volume’s history is long and complicated, but can be summarized in a few points: between 1650 and 1726 the manuscript remained in the hands of the Bradford family until the family loaned it to Thomas Prince, Rector of Old South Church in Boston.  Prince died before volume could be returned to the family. Legend has it that British soldiers removed the manuscript from Old South Church during the Revolutionary War. In 1855, Massachusetts historian William Barry discovered the volume in the Library of the Bishop of London in Fulham Palace, and then for the next forty years individuals and historical organizations in Massachusetts negotiated for its return. In 1897 the volume was returned to Massachusetts and placed in the custody of Governor Roger Wolcott; Governor Wolcott authorized the State Library to care for the volume. In 2012 the State Library won support to conserve and digitize the volume at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, with funding through the LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) Preservation of Library and Archival Materials Grant, as administered through the MBLC (Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners).

Top corner of binding, showing loose page, before treatment. 

Top corner of binding, after treatment. Conservators removed the
loose page, treated it, and stored it in a custom-sized archival
portfolio that is stored with the volume.  

The results of the project: the manuscript is fully conserved and can be handled (carefully, when necessary).  The pages were cleaned and repaired; the binding is more supple and flexible; the pages and other materials added after the volume’s return from England in the 1890s have been removed, repaired, and stored separately.  The manuscript now has a custom-designed box. There are also two facsimile volumes available in the State Library for patron use, printed from the digital images captured at NEDCC after the conservators finished their work.

The restored manuscript, in its custom-fitted clamshell box.
The portfolio at the top holds the 1890's documents that were
removed during treatment at the Northeast Document
Conservation Center.  

The best part of this story: There is a new record in the Library’s online catalog containing a full description of the volume as well as links to an updated finding aid, and to the State Library’s digital repository, DSpace, where all of the pages are now available for public viewing.

Special Collections Department