Collections of Distinction

8th graders in Missouri transcribe anti-slavery documents and learn about the abolitionist movement

Posted on February 7th, 2018 by tblake in Collections of Distinction

Dr. Lisa Gilbert, a Social Studies teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, recently tweeted about her experience with her 8th grade class transcribing and examining some of the BPL’s anti-slavery manuscripts. She blogs about it here…

As a social studies teacher, I hope for my students to develop an appreciation of the discipline of history itself. Rather than emphasizing memorization of dates and names – the kind of things that fall out of our memory as soon as we put them down on the test – my goals include exposing students to the intricacies of professional work done by historians.

Recently, my 8th grade Ancient World History students were reading John H. Arnold’s History: A Very Short IntroductionIn chapter four, Voices and Silences, Arnold describes the process of working with sources. He notes that historians need the ability to decipher handwriting and spelling that can vary widely across time periods.

I wanted to give my students a concrete experience of what this meant, and the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project at Zooniverse gave us the perfect opportunity. Knowing the logistics would be simpler if I used my Zooniverse account to centralize our class submissions, I selected a document and used screenshots to assign each student a series of lines for homework.

When students brought their initial attempts to class the next day, we had a good laugh over how nonsensical some of their results were:


But then, working together as a team, we redoubled our efforts. One student cheered out loud when she realized this set of three markings spelled out the word ‘embellishments’:


Another student was positively indignant to learn that the sharp S could be used in English and therefore the following word read “expressed”:


We agonized over each line, but eventually prevailed. Once we had compiled and submitted a full transcription, we turned to investigate the document itself. We took our inspiration from our continued reading of Arnold’s History: A Very Short Introduction, in which he narrates a historical investigation of an archival document.

We generated a list of what we wondered about while we read, noting that these were the kind of things that could develop into questions for historical inquiry:


My 8th graders brainstormed questions about the document we transcribed for the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project. How could we track down people and documents hinted at in the text? What did it say about women’s roles? What is said (and unsaid) about race?

Having identified these questions, we set about searching for additional information that could help us answer them. This included viewing other documents by Anne Warren Weston on Digital Commonwealth and learning of the existence of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. From there, we used some of our research skills learned during our National History Day projects to look at secondary literature, for example finding Debra Gold Hansen’s Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America.

Our goal was not to come to any definitive conclusions about the manuscript. Having read Arnold’s estimation in History: A Very Short Introduction that “The process of creating a story is not simply that of placing one brick upon another, until a structure arises; it involves deciding the causes and effects of the things described, negotiating what has already been said by other historians, and arguing for what the story means” (p. 81), we knew this was a bigger project than we could reasonably approach.

Our real accomplishment was that we became more aware of just how many questions we could ask about a single document, and how many paths sprung forward from the questions we asked. Further, we became more aware of the work of archivists in preserving these materials and making them accessible.

Being able to participate in the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project for the Boston Public Library added meaning to our investigation of the work of historians. While we could have transcribed anything, my middle school students found it motivational to know that their Zooniverse transcriptions would make a tangible contribution to the work of real historians.

Of course, documents from 19th-century America are a far cry from the primary sources my Ancient History students typically encountered in my class. But those sources would have required us to learn both language and letters (imagine being given a tablet in Phoenician as homework in the 8th grade!). Further, the fact that these manuscripts testified to the persistence of abolitionism in American history was, in my mind, a bonus. Having worked so hard to decipher these words, their meaning was more deeply engraved on my students’ hearts: it would be much harder, from here on out, to believe that slavery was “just something people thought differently about back then.” Instead, my students know that resistance has long been a part of American society – a worthy lesson to glean from a document that we initially believed so hard to understand.

Dr. Lisa Gilbert (@gilbertlisak)
Instructor in Social Studies
Thomas Jefferson School (Saint Louis, MO)


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Anti-Slavery Manuscripts now available for the public to transcribe

Posted on January 23rd, 2018 by tblake in Collections of Distinction


For the past several years, we have been diligently cataloging and digitizing manuscript correspondences from our Anti-Slavery collection. These items document the thoughts, transactions, and activities of the abolitionist movement in Boston, Massachusetts, and throughout New England. Over 12,000 of these letters were recently made available on Digital Commonwealth. This work was made possible through the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

In order to make this collection more valuable to researchers, scholars, and historians we are pleased to announce the launch of a new website which will make these handwritten items available for you to transcribe into machine readable text. This site was created and will be hosted by the development team at Transcription will allow the text corpus to be more precisely searchable and better suited for natural language processing applications – helping researchers better understand patterns, relationships, and trends embedded in the linguistics of this particular community. We are especially excited to be launching on National Handwriting Day. We encourage you to celebrate by registering for the site and trying it out!

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Digitizing the BPL’s Earliest Printed Books

Posted on February 27th, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
Tags: , ,

Thanks in large part to the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, cataloging, conservation, and digitization of the BPL’s 550+ incunables continues to move forward. In recent months, copies of many rare, early, and critically important editions have been digitized and made freely available online.

Listed below are a few recent highlights:


Higden, Ranulf. Policronicon
Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1495
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The Policronicon was compiled by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364). A historical chronicle divided into seven books, the Policronicon recounts the history of the world from Creation through Higden’s lifetime. One of many early chronicles in the BPL’s collections, the Policronicon, takes a special interest in Anglo-Saxon history. This edition is also noteworthy for the fact that it contains, on leaf 101, what is believed to be the earliest piece of music printed in England.


The small woodcut on fol. 101 of the 1495 Policronicon is the first piece of music printed in England (Q.404.21 FOLIO)


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Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens

Posted on January 19th, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, English lute music flourished. Bookended by the publication of John Dowland’s extraordinarily influential First booke of songes in 1597 and his Pilgrim’s solace in 1612, this period also saw a bloom of lute music in print, with at least thirty collections of songs for lute, voice, and small ensemble published in England.1

John Dowland (1563-1626) is generally considered to be first among the many lutenists who were active during this period. In 1597, while living abroad under the employ of King Christian IVth of Denmark, Dowland temporarily returned to England, where he published The first booke of songes, or, Ayres of fowre partes with tableture for the lute. The first booke was tremendously successful, going through four editions over the next sixteen years. He followed it in 1600 with The second booke of songs, or, Ayres, of 2, 4, and 5 parts and published a number of other highly influential books of lute songs.

Surviving copies of lute books from the golden age of English lutenists (ca. 1585-1615) are relatively scarce. Indeed, the English Short Title Catalogue only records four surviving copies of The first booke: one imperfect copy at the British Library and three copies in America (Folger Shakespeare, Huntington, and Boston Public Libraries).


The title page opening of the BPL’s First booke of songes (G.401.51 FOLIO)

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Only at the BPL: Fadrique de Basilea’s anonymous Passion

Posted on January 1st, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
Tags: ,

The survival rates of early printed books can vary widely. Some, like the first Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, survive in great numbers. Others have vanished altogether. The majority of early books, however, survive in one copy only.1 These lonely exemplars are critical, if endangered witnesses to the early history of printing and to the various nascent economies that sprang up around the production and dissemination of books in early modern Europe.

In 1940, the BPL purchased just such an artifact: the last surviving copy of a book printed anonymously and without a date in northern Spain during the final years of the 15th century.2 A curious book, the main body of the text is excerpted from Jean Gerson’s Monotessaron and contains a version of the Passion of Jesus Christdrawn together from the four gospels and illustrated with a series of highly stylized woodcuts.


The frontispiece of Biel’s 1493 edition of the Passion is a distinctly stylized woodcut showing the crucifixion flanked by the four symbols of the evangelists. The distinctive woodcut initial on the opposite page appears in other editions by Biel.

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