Monday, May 27, 2019

Secrets in the Spine

As one of the most vulnerable parts of a book, the spine takes a beating – quite literally! User handling, the mechanics of repeatedly opening and closing the book, and exposure to light and dust all take a toll on the spine. Consequently, many of the books that make their way to the preservation lab are in need of some spine repair. This process, known as rebacking, involves replacing the materials that were originally used to line and cover the spine of the book. I begin rebacking a book by removing the damaged materials that are already on the spine, and while the majority of the spine materials that I remove are plain paper with no illustrations or writing, every now and then I peel back the spine covering and see printed materials or even a picture. This is always an exciting surprise, because I feel like I’ve uncovered a hidden message from a past bookbinder!

Two of my favorite spine linings are below:

This first one was found in Alexander Hamilton by Henry Cabot Lodge, published in Boston in 1882. The spine lining is a colorful image of a young woman looking down while seated next to a grated window. A crescent moon and city skyline can be seen outside of the window. There’s no identifying information with this image, so its origin remains unknown, but I think it is a pretty dreamy illustration to be found hidden in the spine of a biography of a founding father.

Both the spine and spine cover were lined with printed paper in Suffolk County Deeds, Liber I, published in Boston in 1880.  The paper on the spine cover is the bottom ledger line of a piece of sheet music titled Over the River. The spine is covered with a sheet of advertisements for tailoring, needles, and suits. The addresses for the businesses shown are located in London, Belfast, and Redditch, so we can safely speculate that this sheet of advertisements came from the United Kingdom. One advertisement promotes overcoats and ulsters for men, women, and children. I was unfamiliar with an “ulster” but a little bit of research revealed that it is a type of long and loose overcoat that was popular during the Victorian period. I think it is especially interesting when the spine linings provide extra information like this, setting the bookbinder in a specific time and place in history!

So how did these decorated pieces of paper end up hidden in the spine of a book? In most cases, it is simply a matter of recycling. Recycling paper as scrap is a common office practice now, and it was in bookbinderies of the past, too. When lining a spine, bookbinders would sometimes reach for a piece of used scrap rather than a new clean piece of paper. Up until the 20th century, paper was a valuable commodity, and it wasn’t necessary or economical to use a clean piece when lining a spine – after all, the spine lining would end up covered and no one would know what was underneath! 

As interesting as these recycled spine coverings are, I do have to remove them and replace them with archival quality materials. Paper from the mid-19th and 20th centuries are acidic, so they could cause damage to the books that they are adhered to, and I need to repair books with stable materials that won’t cause any harm. But if possible, I can preserve the original binding materials by encasing them in polyester sheets like Mylar, labeling them, and placing them back in the book or in an envelope that accompanies the book. 

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian

Monday, May 20, 2019

Help Us Identify These Mystery Photos!

The State Library is in the midst of a large-scale photo cataloging project, and we’ve come across a handful of photographs so far that were not supplied with information that would help us describe them.  So we need your help!  We’re pretty sure these photographs were taken in the Boston area, or at least somewhere in Massachusetts, and we are hoping members of the public who are Boston urban history buffs can help us with a couple things:  where the photo was taken (city/town, neighborhood, street); the time period in which the photo was taken; and what construction projects are being depicted.

To view more scans of these images, please visit our Flickr site:

If you think you’ve cracked the mystery to one or all of the images, send what information you have to our Special Collections Department at

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Librarian

Monday, May 13, 2019

Charles Sumner and his legacy today

A portrait hangs near Doric Hall and the State Library of Massachusetts cares for his Haitian Medal, but the name of Charles Sumner is not nearly as well-known to most modern day Massachusetts residents as his friends and contemporaries might be: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Gridley Howe, Horace Mann, and Frederick Douglass. However, Sumner became one of the most outspoken and controversial politicians in the mid-1800’s and paid a heavy price for his politics.

Charles Sumner was born in Boston in 1811. In fact, the home where he was born and lived as an adult in Beacon Hill is marked by a plaque and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His father was an early abolitionist, and Sumner shared these beliefs with a fiery passion. As a young man, he stood about 6 foot 4 inches tall and his voice was clear and loud, and his impressive stature coupled with his talent for speaking made him a sought-after orator. After attending Harvard, he became a lawyer and took on a more active role in the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts. During one of his cases, he represented the plaintiffs of the Roberts v. City of Boston case which sought to end racial discrimination in Boston public schools. His arguments would later be cited in Brown v. Board of Education.

Charles Sumner circa 1850

In 1851, Charles Sumner was elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing famous orator and politician Daniel Webster. Webster, while also anti-slavery, had been supportive of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, and Sumner’s first speech in the Senate made it clear that he was taking a very different stand than his predecessor.  He attacked both the institution of slavery as well as these recent pieces of legislation, specifically stating that the Fugitive Slave Act was a violation of the Constitution. He continued to be an aggressive opponent of any sort of compromise regarding slavery and slaveholders, a stance which culminated into violence in 1856.

That year, the Kansas territory was seeking statehood, and the political decision regarding whether it would be either a slave or free state had erupted into the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis characterized by raids, assaults, and electoral fraud in and around the territory. On May 19th and 20th, Charles Sumner gave a speech arguing for the admission of Kansas as a free state, during which he verbally attacked the writers of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Representative Preston Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, heard Sumner’s vicious attacks and confronted Sumner two days later on the floor of the Senate. Before Sumner could defend himself, Brooks beat him severely with his cane, causing Sumner to lose consciousness. The “Caning of Charles Sumner” nearly killed him, sparking intense outrage in the North and transforming Sumner into a martyr for the abolitionist movement.

A lithograph portraying the Brooks’ attack of Charles Sumner in 1856

People gathered in cities throughout the North to attend rallies and denounce the attack, but Sumner was not present. He suffered both physical head trauma as well as what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder and was not able to return to his seat in the Senate until the next year. Despite his absence, the people of Massachusetts re-elected him, confident that his empty chair served as a powerful reminder of his brutal beating, anti-slavery sentiment, and free speech rights. He attempted to resume his duties in 1857 but was still too unwell. He would not be able to return to the Senate until 1859.

Understandably, many of his friends in Congress advised him to be less aggressive now that he was back in the Senate, but Sumner would not abandon his beliefs. His first speech following his return continued to attack slavery and its impact on the South’s economy. If anything, he appeared even more passionate, perhaps even vindictive, after his return, even to his allies. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sumner and several other like-minded senators repeatedly visited Abraham Lincoln to discuss emancipation, which was eventually granted two years later. During this time, Sumner and Mary Todd Lincoln became lifelong friends.

During and after the Civil War, Charles Sumner would continue to support the rights of freedmen and those of African descent both in and outside of the United States. He fought for American diplomatic recognition of Haiti following their independence, and the country was finally recognized in 1862. Haiti awarded his efforts with the Haitian Medal, which is currently cared for as part of the State Library of Massachusetts’ collection. Sumner also introduced a motion that allowed John Rock of Boston to become the first African-American lawyer to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1865. After the Civil War ended, he supported the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and fought to provide rights for freed slaves. Many of his ideas were deemed too radical for his moderate allies, and he was largely excluded from the creation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Many of the legislation he subsequently introduced aimed to ameliorate the inadequacies of Reconstruction laws, such as ensuring equal access to education, equal accommodation in public places, and removing the term “White” from naturalization laws. He was unsuccessful.

The Haitian Medal awarded by the Haitian
government to U.S. Senator Charles Sumner,
now part of the State Library of Massachusetts’ collection.

After Reconstruction, Sumner lost much of his previously held prestige. He stood in opposition to President Grant’s plan to annex the Dominican Republic, inspiring bitter contention between himself and the new president. His unwillingness to abandon his beliefs and steadfast morals lost him many friends and allies during his late political career. Still a U.S. Senator, he died in 1874 at the age of 63, and his death revived the widespread respect and fondness for his unwavering work in the North. He lay in state in the U.S. Capitol and is currently buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sumner’s stubborn career in politics was divisive during his life time, and his legacy remains divided and complicated depending on who you ask. However, upon examining both his anti-slavery work, in addition to many of his views on the rights of women, Native Americans, and immigrants, many of them seem particularly progressive for his time. Being brutally attacked in the Senate may have cemented his place in American history textbooks, but his whole career deserves to be revisited in the modern day.

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff

Monday, May 6, 2019

Presidential Libraries

The State Library recently got a hardcover book of the Presidential Library of Dwight D. Eisenhower from the Federal Depository Program. This got me thinking about Presidential Libraries so I did some research.  Traditional Presidential Libraries are places that store the President’s paper and other memorabilia from being in office.  There are fourteen Presidential Libraries in the United States overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries, in the National Archives and Records Administration.

In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt decided to do something about the fact that many Presidential papers and records had been lost, destroyed, sold for profit, or ruined by poor storage conditions. As stated in the brief history of Presidential Archives:
The Presidential Library system formally began in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal Government. At the same time, Roosevelt pledged part of his estate at Hyde Park to the United States…. Roosevelt's decision stemmed from a firm belief that Presidential papers are an important part of the national heritage and should be accessible to the public. He asked the National Archives to take custody of his papers and other historical materials and to administer his library.
There are fourteen Presidential Libraries in the United States overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries, in the National Archives and Records Administration.  Here are the fourteen libraries with links to their online resources.

The Barack Obama Center is different because it will be completely digital and have a center but no library. The plan is for the Center to be built in a public park in South Chicago. According to the New York Times: The plans for the Center include a two-story event space, an athletic center, a recording studio, a winter garden, even a sledding hill but will not house any official presidential records.   “Instead, the Obama Foundation will pay to digitize the roughly 30 million pages of unclassified paper records from the administration so they can be made available online.”  The National Archives and record administration will oversee the housing of the paper records after they have been digitized.

Of course Massachusetts is home to John F. Kennedy Library and Museum on Columbia Point in Dorchester. The Library hosts political and historical talks called Kennedy Library Forums.  If you cannot go to a talk they often will live stream it and will post them to their website.  They have talks on The Bay of Pigs and its 50th anniversary, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her pins.

John F. Kennedy would celebrated his 100th birthday on May 26, 2017 so the library has an exhibit that started on his 100th birthday and ends November 28, 2019 called JFK 100 - Milestones & Mementos of pivotal events in his presidency and his life.

Some items permanently on exhibit include John F. Kennedy’s desk in the White House, Robert F. Kennedy’s desk, two versions of the President’s inaugural address a rough draft and final version, and materials from Kennedy’s campaign for President. 

Naomi Allen
Reference Staff

Wednesday, May 1, 2019