Monday, July 31, 2023

On Display at the State Library

In honor of August's designation as National Black Business Month, we're highlighting John P. Coburn, a Black Bostonian and business owner who lived just around the corner from the State House on Beacon Hill in the mid-1800s. On display in our reading room are a selection of Boston city directories showing Coburn’s home and business listings, and a facsimile of an advertisement for his business that was published in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1845.

John P. Coburn was a well-known clothier in Boston with two business locations, one on Brattle Street and one on Cornhill (today’s City Hall Plaza). Coburn was a free Black resident of Boston, born in the early 1800s. Between 1843 and 1844, he commissioned architect Asher Benjamin to design his home at 2 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill, where he lived until his death in 1873. The historic John Coburn House is now a private residence and not open to the public, but it is part of the Black Heritage Trail walking tour within the Boston African American National Historic Site. Beyond being a successful businessman with a stately home on Beacon Hill, there is much more to John Coburn’s story. He was also a community activist involved with the Boston Vigilance Committee and the New England Freedom Association, both organizations that aided those who had escaped from slavery. And he was a founder of the Massasoit Guards, which was an all-black militia whose purpose was to protect residents from slave catchers. You can read more about Coburn on the National Park Service’s webpage.

On display are Boston city directories from 1845 and 1850/1851. The 1845 directory is open to the page showing Coburn’s home address and the 1850/1851 directory is displayed showing his business listing. In the 1845 directory, Coburn is listed in the section designated for people of color. A few years later, the 1848/1849 directory would be the last one that would segregate residents by race, and from 1850 onward, all residents were listed in a single alphabetical order. In the 1845 residential listing, Coburn is shown as a clothes dealer at 51 Cornhill, with a house listing on Southac (Southac is the former name of Phillips Street). In the 1850/1851 business directory, Coburn is listed as one of the businesses under the “clothing - second hand” heading, with a location of 24 Brattle. If you are curious about other city and town directories in our collection, you can access the full list of our holdings here.

We’re also displaying a facsimile of an advertisement for John Coburn’s clothing business, as published in the January 31, 1845 issue of The Liberator. The facsimile is provided courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth but here at the State Library, we have a run of The Liberator available on microfilm, as well as a bound volume of issues dating from 1861 to 1865. The Liberator was an weekly abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp. In this advertisement, Coburn informs “abolitionists and friends in general” that his business has changed locations from 8 Brattle Street to 51 Cornhill and 24 Brattle Street. The advertisement goes on to list the services that he provides, including buying off-cast clothing (the 19th century version of thrifting!) and cleaning and mending garments at short notice.

John Coburn advertisement in The Liberator
Courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth

Visit us throughout the month to see these items on display and be sure to keep an eye out for resources in your own area promoting Black Business Month!

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Boston Common and Boston Public Garden

If you like history and you like parks you might like to browse our online exhibit titled Rest, Relaxation, and Recreation. This fun exhibit describes big and small parks in Massachusetts. It includes a brief history of the Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden with historical maps of the land's transformation over the years. You can access this exhibit through our Flickr page.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Summer at the State Library: Cape Coddities, Trail Maps, Novels, and More!

Summer is officially here! And the State Library has something for everyone to read and enjoy. Stop by the reading room (room 341 of the State House) to check out our latest display on the Cape and Islands. We have selected some unique titles from the collection which highlight Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard - popular vacation spots for many New Englanders! 

Cape Cod Old Salt, 1935 - Published by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and the Hyannis Board of Trade in support of the Cape Cod Canal Bridges, this pamphlet offers a collection of photographs of “old Cape Cod.” Of particular interest, there is a photo of the Legislature’s Committee on Railroads visiting Hyannis in 1896 (p. 7). Throughout the pamphlet are vintage advertisements for everything from theaters, to inns, ice cream shops, to general stores all located down the Cape.

Cape Cod IQ - Test your Cape Cod knowledge with this 1951 pamphlet which cost only 35 cents! This fun little pamphlet includes over 250 questions and answers as well as some Cape Cod lore. Here’s two questions from the pamphlet: In what town does the eastern entrance to the Cape Cod Canal lie? What town was the site of the Marconi wireless station?

Answers at the end of this blog post!

Nantucket, 1925 - We love this colorful pamphlet by Walter Prichard Eaton with illustrations by John Held Jr. The pamphlet includes a history of the island written by Prichard, with points of interest, details of the island’s architecture, beaches, popular sports, with fun illustrations and photos throughout.  

Cape Coddities - This 1920 book by Dennis and Marion Chatham (a fitting last name) is a collection of essays that “should not be taken as a serious attempt to describe the Cape..” Included are quirky essays on scallop farming, the Cape’s freshwater ponds, cottages and more. 

We hope these items inspire your next beach trip or bring about a sense of nostalgia for past summer trips.

Speaking of beach trips - looking for a good book to bring to the beach? State Employees, come check-out some of our latest titles or use your State Library card to download Libby and read ebooks no matter where you go this summer. Non-state employees, if you’re looking for a spot to cool down, the library is open, Monday through Friday, 9-5. 

In addition, reference services are available for all your research needs whether you are an intern or taking a summer course, we are here to help you navigate legislative materials. Contact us via email at

Answers: Sandwich and Wellfleet

April Pascucci 
Legislative Librarian

Monday, July 10, 2023

Service Spotlight: Interlibrary Loan at the State Library

If you’re a state employee, this blog post is for you! Did you know that the State Library offers an interlibrary loan (ILL) borrowing service to all state employees? If the State Library does not own or have access to a book or journal article you need, we can try to obtain it at no cost to you. This means that you have access to books owned by other libraries. All you need is a State Library card, which you can obtain by filling out our online request form if you don’t have one already.

You qualify for use of this service if you are a current, permanent employee of the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial branches of government in Massachusetts and have a valid Commonwealth of Massachusetts identification card.

If you meet these criteria and you also have a library card, you’re ready to make your request! You can use either our journal article request form or our book request form and we’ll try our best to acquire the material you need. You can also email us at with your ILL requests or ILL-related questions. 

We recommend  checking our catalog first to see if we own the book you’re interested in. You can also look through our online journals and databases to see if we have access to an article you might need. WorldCat is another great resource you can use to find materials relevant to your work. Once you find a title you’re interested in, WorldCat lists which libraries own the item.  

Not sure if we already own something you need? Reach out to us! We’re always happy to help. 

The State Library’s membership in the Boston Library Consortium is another benefit of the interlibrary loan service we offer to you as a state employee. The BLC is composed of 26 academic institutions in the New England area, which helps to ensure a faster turnaround time for requests. As a state employee, you can get on-site access to local academic libraries projects you may be working on. You’ll just need a valid BLC card, which is separate from your State Library card. Contact the Reference Department at for more information on obtaining one of these cards.

A couple of things to remember about interlibrary loan at the State Library: the purpose of this service is to obtain materials in support of research programs for the state government. While we cannot supply non-work related materials for personal reading or continuing education, we do have some bestsellers and other fiction titles you can check out from the library. You’ll find many of these titles on the two bookshelves right when you walk into the library, but you can check our catalog for others.

If you don’t find what you need at our library, we suggest contacting your local public library’s interlibrary loan service. The Boston Public Library will issue a physical card or ecard to all residents of Massachusetts. You can find more information on this service here.

For more information on interlibrary loan at the State Library, take a look at this page or contact us at

Jessica Shrey
Reference Librarian

Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Bird of Washington Soars Into the Library!

This July, we have picked a patriotic print from Birds of America for our Audubon display – visit us from July 3 through August 2 to see Bird of Washington (plate 11) on exhibit. This bird is a large sea eagle whose stature inspired Audubon to name it after the country’s first president, George Washington. 

Unlike many of the other bird specimens found in Birds of America, the Bird of Washington flies shrouded in mystery. By Audubon’s account, he discovered this four-foot-tall bird in the Great Lakes region in 1814 and claimed it as a new species. Due to its impressive size and noble appearance, Audubon named the bird after George Washington. But scholars and ornithologists in the ensuing years have questioned if the bird ever existed, or if it did, perhaps it was misidentified or became extinct soon after Audubon’s discovery, or it is only located in remote locations unobserved by humans. But the fact remained that there have been very few substantiated sightings of this majestic, and possibly fabricated, eagle. 

Audubon financed Birds of America through subscription, and subscribers would receive five prints at a time. Since the Bird of Washington is plate 11, it would have been among the first prints that subscribers received. Some have speculated that Audubon played on some patriotic sentiment when he released this stately bird named after George Washington so early in the subscription process, perhaps to entice new subscribers and secure additional financial backing. You can read more about this marketing idea, as well as an in-depth analysis of the veracity of the Bird of Washington in the two articles below:

  • Is it a fake? Read “Audubon’s Bird of Washington: Unravelling the Fraud That Launched The Birds of America
  • Is it real? Read “Substantiating Audubon's Washington Eagle

Regardless of whether this patriotic bird is real or not, it is still an impressive print to see in person. And the connection to George Washington is surprisingly effective. Though they were painted years apart, there is an uncanny resemblance when the Bird of Washington is juxtaposed with a detail image from Washington Crossing the Delaware (which was painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 and is held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Draw your own conclusion about the Bird of Washington from the articles listed above, and then be sure to visit us to see this stately bird on display.

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

State Library Newsletter – July Issue

Happy July! Find out everything that’s going on at the State Library in this month’s newsletter! Pictured here is a preview, but the full issue can be accessed by clicking here. And you can also sign up for our mailing list to receive the newsletter straight to your inbox.

Monday, July 3, 2023

On Display in the State Library

Massachusetts is home to a number of great libraries and has been for many years! But do you know just how many libraries were functioning in Massachusetts in the late 1800s? Visit us throughout this month to find out! We’re displaying Free Public Libraries of Massachusetts, a map designed and hand-drawn by George Hartnell Bartlett in 1893.

While we were closed to the public in 2021, we shared a 1904 version of this map in our “virtual display case.” You can read more about that version and about Bartlett himself here. The version that we’re displaying this month differs a bit in design. Instead of drawings of each library, this map is much more number focused. In this version, each city or town is identified along with a number signifying its population. If the town includes a library, then a little book is drawn, and within that book is a number that shows how many volumes are included in its library. For example, Worcester has a population size of 84,656 and a volume size of 89,268 - enough for each person in the city to check out a book at the same time, and then still have almost 5,000 left on the shelves! The map also gives some state-wide figures and shows that in 1893 there were 352 cities and towns in Massachusetts and 300 of them had free public libraries. In 1892, the number of volumes circulated for home use throughout the Commonwealth was 5,040,629 – that’s pretty impressive considering that the population of Massachusetts at the time of the 1890 census was 2,228,943!

We typically try to highlight a collection item that has some sort of seasonal connection, and at first glance this might not seem like a likely contender for July, a time when in the past we’ve shared more blatantly patriotic items like our newspaper copy of the Declaration of Independence, our broadside version of the Declaration of Independence, a 1849 program of 4th of July events and an 1890 photograph of the State House adorned in bunting. But this map is, in fact, a timely collection item because it speaks to the role that libraries play in supporting our democratic society. Massachusetts is home to the first and longest continuously running public lending library. The town of Franklin was incorporated in 1790 and was named after Benjamin Franklin. When it was suggested that Franklin donate a bell for the meeting house tower, he instead donated a small collection of books. This collection went on to become the foundation of the first circulating library in the country, accessible to all citizens in the town, and is still currently housed at the Franklin Public Library. Of the donation over books instead of a bell, Franklin was said to have stated that “sense” was preferable to “sound.” And as Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, is quoted as saying, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." Both quotes support the statement that libraries are a cornerstone of our democracy. Libraries give citizens the opportunity to establish and engage in an informed discourse, which is at the foundation of a free society. Circulating collections, database access, public programming, and research assistance are just some of the ways that librarians strive to provide all citizens, regardless of race, religious affiliation, age, gender, with safe access to resources and services that promote education, well-being, and engagement.

From the first circulating library in 1790, to the publication of this map in 1893, to today, libraries have been hubs of resources for those seeking knowledge. Check out the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights to see the policies that libraries abide by to ensure that they continue to be forums for information for all. And stop by the library throughout the month to see the map of Commonwealth libraries on display! If you can’t visit us in person, click on the image above or explore a high-resolution copy available through the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian