Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Know Your Archives: The Congregational Library

Randall Stephens

[Cross posted at Religion in American History.]

Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most well-known 19th-century preacher, was into books and libraries. “A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life,” he famously remarked. Fortunately for historians and all those interested in America’s past, Beecher’s Congregational denomination was also into books and libraries.

Last week I paid a visit to the impressive Congregational Library, located right next to the State House
on Beacon Hill in Boston. The Library has an extraordinary collection of historic documents, books, maps, and a range of material related to the congregational church, world cultures, and America. Established in 1853, with a modest 56 books, the Library now holds 225,000 items that chronicle the history of one of America’s oldest denominations.

The Library ranks with some of the more beautiful archives in the states. Its interior reminds me of a miniature version of the grand Jefferson reading room at the Library of Congress, with arched ceilings, paintings, and historic furnishings.

I spoke to Peggy Bendroth, executive director of the Library, about the work being done with the collection, the kinds of material housed there, and the role of the Library. (Bendroth’s publications on evangelicalism and her intimate knowledge of American Protestantism benefits those researchers who work at the Library.) I post here the video I made of my visit. Call it “Religion in American History Television.” (Real original title, I know.)

The Congregational Library has much to recommend it. I’ve been to plenty of cramped, denominational archives nestled in southern and midwestern industrial sections of suburbs. Most have hung ceilings, florescent lights, and church-like, indoor/outdoor carpet. So what, I’ve figured. I’m here to do research, not meditate on interior design. Yet, a nicely lit, pleasant environment does add something to the experience. (It’s the Boston Public Library appeal.)

Beyond that, there’s the issue of scope/time frame. The Congregational Library spans the ages as few other denominational archives or research libraries do. And since it’s been around for eons, it’s collected an avalanche of material. It all makes for a great experience for the casual visitor or the dedicated researcher.

1 comment:

Randall said...

See the ongoing thread of posts on this topic at Religion in American History: