The Nathan Dane Collaborative is a model project designed to expand the archival resources of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Beverly Historical Society. The Collaborative is designed to provide a catalyst for local historical societies to catalog and digitize various manuscript collections that are particular to their local institution.
In this model, these documents will then be linked to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s catalog ABIGAIL. This connection would be of benefit to anyone doing research on a particular topic where the research needs to go beyond the walls of the Massachusetts Historical Society to connect with digitized documents owned by other local Massachusetts historical institutions. Researchers at local historical societies would now, via the internet, have access to documents that had not previously been accessible. The usefulness of these documents is increased by the connection to the manuscript catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The challenges that generated this project came from the lack public access to documents stored at local historical societies. There are many conditions that create this lack of access to these documents, although most of these can be traced to lack of space and financial support. Many historical societies have valuable collections that due to the lack of professional staff, have never been cataloged. This lack of cataloging creates two major challenges to the researcher: first, do we know where in the archives the sources are located? and second, do we even know what sources we have?
The Nathan Dane Archival Collaboration may not be the perfect solution, but at least it has identified the challenge and is an attempt at a solution.
The idea for this project germinated from the Swensrud Teacher Fellowship funded and administered by the Massachusetts Historical Society. I was fortunate to be included as one of these Massachusetts teachers in the first class of Swensrud Fellows in the summer of 2001.
The Swensrud Fellows were given desks, unlimited support,and research assistance. I have never been in a more productive and supportive research environment. Each of the Swensrud Fellows chose a project that would in some way take advantage of the tremendous facilities and personnel at MHS, and would in turn benefit our students and respective communities.
After numerous discussions with Massachusetts Historical Society director William Fowler, Stephen F. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey, and Swensrud Fellow Director Linda Smith Rhoads, the concept of an archival collaborative project began to take shape. We then contacted Paige Roberts, director of the Beverly Historical Society, and Thomas Scully, director of the Beverly Public Library. They enthusiastically added their expertise, energy, and work ethic to the Nathan Dane Archival Collaboration. As usual, Reed Ueda, a history professor at Tufts University and a close friend, served as my sounding board and educational advisor.
|One of the large leather-bound scrapbooks containing Dane’s papers at the Beverly Historical Society. (Photo by Patrick Murray)|
We all felt that the best method to attempt this project would be to choose a notable person from Beverly history who had an impact beyond the local community, and whose papers were disseminated between both the Beverly Historical Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society. We decided on Nathan Dane as our focus. Dane had a notable career; he was a Massachusetts Delegate for the Articles of Confederation, the architect of the Northwest Ordinance, a Massachusetts State legislator, a member of the Hartford Convention, a founder of the Massachusetts Temperance Society. He also wrote a law book whose proceeds established the first endowed chair at Harvard Law School. Dane was a resident member of the Massachusetts Historical Society (ironically, the personal letters documenting this are at the Beverly Historical Society).
The first step was to survey what Dane materials were at the Beverly Historical Society, as these materals had not previously been cataloged. Many of Dane’s documents were found to be pasted in large leather-bound scrapbooks.
Marc Mahan, one of my best United States History students, had been volunteering at the Beverly Historical Society over the summer of 2001. I asked him if he would like to be involved in this project. Marc spent over 150 hours (working 8 hours a week for 20 weeks) photocopying, digitizing, and cataloging over 100 Dane manuscripts. This was truly a herculean effort that was successful in no small part due to the support and expertise of Beverly Historical Society archivist Samantha Grantham and director Paige Roberts.
Over 50 of Dane’s manuscripts were written in cursive and needed to be transcribed as part of the digitization project. Marc Mahan brought in photocopies of Dane’s manuscripts and asked classmates for help in transcribing them. Both of my government classes unanimously volunteered to help as an act of civic virtue (as no extra credit was offered).
We now needed a person with the technological expertise to create the website that would make the documents accessible. Kevin McGrath, Beverly High School librarian, and without reservation the finest young educator with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work, volunteered his time and technological and editorial skills.
The final piece of the project would demonstrate the practical application of the collaborative. The students from my Primary Research through the History of Beverly class were now ready to use documents from both the Massachusetts Historical Society and Beverly Historical Society to research various aspects of Dane’s illustrious career. Each student would then write an original research paper using the Dane documents.
The student’s topics concerning Dane are as follows:
- The Northwest Ordinance (Patrick Murray)
- Dane’s Influence on Manassas Cutler and the settlement of Marietta, Ohio (Lindsey Gendall)
- American Foreign Relations During the Articles of Confederation (Shauna Cahill)
- The Harford Convention (Ethan Norton)
- The Massachusetts Temperance Society (Matt Bray)
- The Legacy of General Abridgement and Digest of American Law and Harvard Law School (Becky Engle)
In addition to workng under the enthusiastic guidance of Samantha Grantham and Paige Roberts at the Beverly Historical Society, these students spent innumerable hours at the Massachusetts Historical Society. They took the train from Beverly to Boston and then the subway to 1145 Boylston Street on Thursdays after school until 8:00 PM and on Saturday mornings. The staff at MHS created an atmosphere where students always wanted to return. In addition to being scholars, Bill Fowler, Peter Drummey and Nick Graham demonstrated that they are also caring and passionate teachers.
The efforts of these students — Marc Mahan, Matt Bray, Shauna Cahill, Rebecca Engle, Lindsey Gendall, Ethan Norton, and Patrick Murray — should not be understated. In a world where elementary schools often provide banquets and trophies for little effort or commitment, where there is rampant grade inflation (even at Harvard University), where there is already little free time in their busy and complicated lives, these students made the ultimate commitment. They leave a legacy that was not motivated by personal gain or recognition but by civic virtue and the desire to make their community a better place. Although these modest heroes will never be given a banquet, trophy, or letter jacket, they will always be champions in my book. Their parents and community should be proud. I know that I am!
W. Dean Eastman
To read more, please see “Portals to the Past”, an article featuring the project published at Common-place.org.