Meet Molly Brown, Reference and Outreach Archivist at Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections

by Diana Beltrao de Macedo

           Molly Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in History and English. During her undergraduate days,  she completed an internship at a repository where she first discovered her passion for cultural heritage. Because of that, after her graduation she decided to join Simmons University’s dual degree in History and Archives Management to pursue a career as an archivist. In the meantime she worked at the Federal Reserve Archives where she had the opportunity of working with a digitization project and at Boston College’s library where she started working with reference.

Molly started at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections as a part-time employee. While she was still pursuing her MLS degree and working part-time, there was an opening for the reference and outreach archivist position to which she applied and was offered the position. Since then, she has been responsible for providing reference for users and developing inreach and outreach projects for the institution.

Northeastern University holds a large archival collection of records related to the institution such as theses, publications, photographs, yearbooks, etc. Additionally, the Special Collections houses thousands of documents regarding the history of the University’s surrounding neighborhoods and of Boston’s underrepresented communities such as the African American,  Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. They also hold the records of the Boston Globe as well as the extinct Boston Phoenix newspaper. Preserving such documents is in direct accordance with the archives mission of documenting “the teaching, research, community service, and administrative functions of the University” and of preserving “the records of private, non-profit, community-based organizations that document diverse and under-documented populations.”

According to Molly, a lot of the outreach connection work had already been done by the time she started in the position. That means, that currently her goal is mainly to sustain those relationships and to develop new projects. Currently, she focuses her outreach job on getting closer to the local community and attracting them to the archives. One of her recent projects consisted of developing a partnership with some of Boston’s public high schools. For this occasion, students visited the archives over a month to learn more about desegregation by looking into primary sources found in the Boston Public Schools Desegregation Collection. After that, they were asked to write a biography of an activist in school desegregation in Boston based on the information discovered at the repository. Another one of her projects consists in promoting conversations with the local community by hosting panels, bringing a specialist or screening film sessions at the archives. Called “Neighborhood Matters,” this outreach project happens three times each semester and it is a great opportunity to bring the community to the repository since the events are free and open to the public.

Within the university community, Molly partners with student groups and professors so that they are aware of the archives’ existence even though the repository is “hidden” at the basement of the library. She advocates for professors to use their resources as part of their classes, either by bringing students to see the archives or assigning homework that requires research at the repository. She also joins student groups to promote the archives holdings. A recent example that she shared with me was visiting an event hosted by the Asian-American student group to present a little bit about the Asian-American collections they have in their repository.

Along with her other two archivist colleagues, Molly Brown plays an essential role in keeping the archives alive and accessible. Through outreach programs, she wants to ensure that not only traditional users in the university community have access to the archives’ records. She also wants to attract other people, especially the young, and educate them about the importance of archives. Her goal is to demystify the idea that repositories are meant just for academic research. According to her, “everybody becomes a researcher when using the archives.”

Meet Nate Smith, Chief Archivist of the Boston Planning and Development Agency

by Clare Snyder

The BPDA’s model room houses a 1:40 inch scale, physical, basswood model of Boston’s downtown and portions of Beacon Hill, the North End, Charlestown, Back Bay and the South Boston Waterfront. The Agency hosts tours of the Model Room every Wednesday at 10 AM and 11 AM in two 30-minute sessions. Reservations are required for tours.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), formally known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), was established in 1957 by the Boston City Council and the Massachusetts Legislature to be the city’s official planning agency, taking over the responsibilities of the Boston Housing Authority. The BPDA’s archives work to preserve and make accessible the permanent and historical (at least 50 years old) records of the BRA. The BRA formerly had a library and a full-time librarian, but was at some point dissolved and a portion of its collections was given to the Boston Public Library. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the BRA established their archives. Some highlights of the archives’ holdings include Urban Renewal records, City Planning records, and early aerial photography of Boston.

For the past three years Nate Smith has served as BPDA’s Chief Archivist and Records Manager.  He began as the sole Records Manager, when there was no differentiation between records and archives. As Nate assessed the collection, he started to carve out records deemed archival material, having permanent historical and research value, and his job description expanded to encompass archival duties. Many of the archives’ oldest records from the early and mid-20th century were indanger of deterioration and in need of immediate attention. The situation led Nate to decide the best way to process the records were from oldest to newest.

As he steadily processes the archives’ records and establishes archival collections to be made accessible to the public, Nate is making strides to reach out to the public. It wasn’t until six months to a year ago when the archives was finally able to establish their own webpage within the BPDA’s website. Nate is using the webpage to present the agency’s material in a more clear and public manner, and will showcase the institution’s finding aids and inventories once they are created.

The lack of visibility and online accessibility has been an obstacle for the archives. Currently, due to the narrow focus of the BPDA’s records and archival material, its audience has been limited primarily to real estate professionals or property owners, looking for information about properties impacted by urban renewal; media, looking for visual material of Boston; and students, doing research on subjects like urban renewal. Through Nate’s networking efforts, lines of communication and referrals between local institutions have helped steadily increase the public’s knowledge of the BPDA’s archives. For example, he reached out to the West End Museum to inform them the BDPA had records associated with the West End Urban Renewal Program for which to the museum to refer interested researchers.  The City Archives has also been a major partner for the BPDA archives, due to a good portion of the BDPA records and archival material being held at the City Archival Center.

Even though the BPDA is located within City Hall and some of their holdings are located at the City Archival Center, it is not a part of the city, receiving no funding from taxes. Its income derives from the real estate properties they own and operate.  Nate is planning to use the web page traffic statistics, especially when a few finding aids are made available online, to show interest in the archives and justify more directing more BPDA resources toward the archives.

For being the BPDA’s Chief Archivist and Records Manager for only three years, Nate Smith has accomplished a lot from creating archival collections to establishing a webpage to elevate the archives’ public profile. Nonetheless, an archivist’s job is never done and Nate has a vision for the archives to be as accessible, approachable, and relevant as possible to the city government and general public.

Meet Meg Winikates, Director of Engagement at the New England Museum Association

by Hannah Elder

For Meg Winikates, working in the cultural heritage field “felt accidentally inevitable.” She was always interested in education, but was unsure whether she wanted to teach formally or informally. In high school, she worked as an intern at the Museum of Science, but it was really an encounter with a Park Ranger at the Grand Canyon that inspired her to work in cultural heritage. In college, she majored in English Literature & Language while also working at a number of cultural heritage institutions and taking a wide variety of courses. After college, she tried teaching, but ultimately decided that the realm of informal education was the one for her. She combined her passion for education and love of museums, serving as the Associate Education Director at the Discovery Museum and as the Programs Coordinator for the Art & Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum. Currently, she is the Director of Engagement at the New England Museum Association (NEMA).

NEMA is the professional service organization serving the museum people of New England. Its members include institutions, museum professionals, and businesses and individuals that serve museums. A few of its members may be a surprise to some; NEMA welcomes zoos, aquariums, historic sites, and history enactors to join its family of museum people. In addition to its advocacy, NEMA provides many services to its members, including professional development, workshops, a free webinar series, regional networking opportunities, and a plethora of online resources. NEMA also produces a quarterly journal, New England Museums Now, which Winikates co-edits. The journal includes articles on a central issue relevant to museums, news from NEMA and the museum world, and notices of professional development opportunities.

Winikates’ role as Director of Engagement at NEMA includes outreach to museums and outreach and advocacy on behalf of them. One of the major ways she practices outreach to museums is through trainings for museum people, including museum staff, boards, and trustees. She teaches introductory and advanced workshops in advocacy techniques, teaching professional museum people what they can do in advocacy. Topics can include the difference between advocacy and lobbying or understanding how visitors really use exhibits. Winikates says that in her workshops, she is helping museum people understand how to tell stories. She views stories as an important part of advocacy, as they help the public engage with the museum. Effective storytelling is effective advocacy and Winikates helps museums help themselves through storytelling.

Winikates advocates for museums by organizing advocacy events at state and national levels. At state events, Winikates works with state-level museum associations to meet with legislators at the state house of each state. She helps the museums advocate for themselves, but also sets them up for success in the future, by making sure they follow through on plans and continue their own advocacy efforts. In early February, Winikates and NEMA visited Maine for Maine Museums Day, where they hosted an advocacy training, coordinated appointments with legislators, and hosted a reception at the State House.

Also in February, Winikates visited Washington, D.C. for the 2019 Museums Advocacy Day. Winikates and Dan Yaeger, NEMA Executive Director, led a contingent of New England museum people. They visited legislative offices and spoke on behalf of NEMA member organizations, touching on topics like the importance of museum education and charitable giving to museums. They also spoke in support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services and encouraged legislators to continue funding it.

The final major component of Winikates’ advocacy work involves legislative tracking. She keeps an eye on state and national legislatures to track legislation that may impact museums. She pays particular attention to state budgets and any legislation that could affect the museum tax protections currently in place. If she identifies any such legislation, she can make museums in that state aware of it and encourage them to speak to their representatives about it.

Winikates is passionate about museums engaging in civics education. One of her favorite advocacy events at NEMA was Being “the Room Where It Happens:” Museum Opportunities for Civic Engagement, a workshop that encouraged museums to engage in discourses around civics. It educated museum people on the importance of civic education in museums and gave guidance on how to advocate for civic education programming. The workshop reflects a wider shift in the museum world, of museums really embracing their role as trusted institutions and standard bearers against what some may call “fake news.” It’s a shift that Winikates is excited about and she looks forward to watching it continue to develop.

Meet Laurie Lamarre, Curator at the Fairfield Museum and History Center

by Will Gregg

Laurie Lamarre, Curator at the Fairfield Museum and History Center
Laurie Lamarre, Curator at the Fairfield Museum and History Center

From the Fairfield Museum and History Center in central Fairfield, Connecticut,  Curator Laurie Lamarre merges the town’s past and present in exhibits that appeal to a wide audience.

The Fairfield Museum and History Center is an active space with over 30,000 visitors per year, nearly 5,500 of which are students.[1] Though situated close to Fairfield Beach and downtown Fairfield, and attracting a number of serendipitous visitors from outside the community, most of the museum’s visitors are local. Laurie feels that hers is a community with a passion for cultural heritage, as evidenced by its support for numerous arts organizations: a museum, theatre company, art galleries, and a 10,000 seat auditorium.[2]

Ms. Lamarre seeks to gain community engagement through thought provoking and varied exhibits. The most recent exhibits at the Fairfield Museum include Alice in Museumland, displaying 19th century artifacts in an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed atmosphere, Flappers: Fashion and Freedom, examining “history and social impact of fashion and its relationship to the women’s movement of the 1920s,” and An American Story: Finding Home in Fairfield County, highlighting refugee experiences in Fairfield County.[3]

These exhibits curate a mix of past and present, drawing on collaborations with community members and national and regional artists. Coordinating these efforts requires good communication and long-term relationship building, as most exhibits need to be planned two or three years in advance. Ms. Lamarre feels that the payoff for these efforts is extremely valuable: for exhibits to engage, they need to relate to people as they are in the present.

At the same time, each exhibit must relate to an audience diverse in age, origin, and educational background. Rather than see some exhibits as ‘for adults’ and others ‘for kids,’ Laurie believes that the kinds of learning that appeal to all ages — experiential and imaginative — can be the most effective in a museum setting.[4] For instance, Alice in Museumland features both a text-based guide for adults and a scavenger hunt for kids. The three-dimensional nature of the exhibit moreover lends a whimsical and interactive element, and the space is designed so as to bring groups and families into face-to-face contact with each other.

“We have this understanding,” Laurie commented, “particularly in the academic community, that we can’t learn for real if [the material] isn’t a well researched document. But there are many other kinds of learning.” Text, while certainly important, has played an out sized role: its hegemony on learning is bound up in a tradition that also treats museums as austere and somewhat unapproachable.

Exhibit at Fairfield Museum and History Center

Approachability is vital for attracting non-traditional visitors to the museum. One outreach challenge in the case of the Fairfield Museum is the economic divide between itself and the town of Bridgeport.  Bridgeport, while also part of Fairfield County, has a mean household income of $66,00 compared to Fairfield’s $184,000.[5] Economic status is a factor in a person’s likelihood to feel at home in traditional museum spaces, and so designing programs and exhibitions with this in mind can be particularly important in conjunction with outreach to schools, nonprofits, and community foundations. Exhibits built on existing connections can also help to form new connections. For instance, exhibits featuring community art bring in many new visitors from that group and from the community as a whole.

On the topic of outreach more generally, Laurie finds “reflection and introspection” to be essential. This effort to understand yourself in relation to your community is a two-way street. Not having grown up in Fairfield, Laurie has found it to be crucial to attend community events and to listen carefully to individuals. “Ours is a Fairfield story,” she remarked. “That’s who we need to appeal to.”

[1] “Fairfield Museum and History Center: About Us.”

[2] “About Fairfield. Arts, Culture & Entertainment.”

[3] “Fairfield Museum and History Center: Past Exhibitions.”

[4] For more on this topic, see Ms. Lamarre’s TedX talk, “Opening Pathways: Museums and Empathy,” patricularly starting at 6:15.

[5] U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Meet Amy Durban, Manager of Education at the Nantucket Historical Association

by Brigid Hogan

As an off-coast tourist destination, the population of Nantucket swells and dwindles with the seasons. In winter, about 13,000 Nantucket natives reign on the island. Come summertime, the population bursts upward to 50,000 as a result of tourist traffic. Amy Durbin, the Manager of Education at the Nantucket Historical Association, talks about the unique struggles of this human migration pattern. “It’s a difficult balance to strike,” she says, “how do we cater to the people who can fund us, the tourists who keep our lights on, while also understanding that they are not our primary audience for eight months of the year?”

Durbin has been in this role for almost a year, and she has responded to the challenge admirably. Previously, Durbin worked at the New Haven Museum, managing their education and visitor experience as one of only seven full-time staff members in the entire museum. While her three plus years in New Haven gave her invaluable background in designing and running educational programs for museums, she still felt a considerable adjustment when she entered a staff nearly four times the size of New Haven Museum’s.

At the NHA, Durbin’s first course of action was to assess the strengths of her new department, and the people in it. She conducted a long and careful observation each staff member in their work to determine whether they were most comfortable working with children or adults, tourists or locals, or if they’re the rare type (like Durbin herself) who is comfortable speaking to anyone. In a location subject to radical demographic shifts, it can be difficult to know which audience is going to show up for which events, so Durbin finds herself preparing for any and every audience. This is a lot easier to do when you know which members of your staff will be best equipped to help you in each possible case.

As Manager of Education, Durbin meets with every single class in the entire Nantucket school district. That’s around 2,000 students in all. She works hard to support class learning with real world examples. Luckily, she claims there is relatable material in Nantucket Historical Association on virtually any subject. Literature? Moby Dick. Economics? The whaling industry. Immigration, exploration, scientific discovery, native communities, manifest destiny, civil rights—if you take time to look through the records, Nantucket proves itself to be a microcosm of the vast American culture.

In collaboration with the Chair of Education & Community Relations, Durbin helped to spearhead a program called “We All Speak Moby-Dick,” a multi-lingual reading event that brought out many of the cultural communities of Nantucket to celebrate themselves and each other. Durbin pulled on many of the connections she had made through her outreach to local schools, and was able to create a hugely successful and diverse event that spoke to a broad cross-section of Nantucket.

Still, she says, there was room to grow. During the event, a number of people approached her asking where the representatives of the Jamaican community could be found. Durbin was forced to admit that she had not been able to get a reader who spoke Patoi; considering the sizable Jamaican population of Nantucket, this absence was pretty glaring. “It’s a lesson learned,” says Durbin, who ironically found that a recently hired coworker spoke Patoi the morning of the event, but didn’t have time to adjust the programming in order to make room for another reader.  The lesson? “Always do a deep change analysis after your event. And know your coworkers.”

Beyond her more traditional efforts as Manager of Education, Durbin is pushing to involve the NHA more deeply in town, state, and national government, trying to bolster the strength of her community through political efforts. LAMs are in a unique position between the government and the people, and she strongly believes in their capacity to lead community action and help underserved populations. Her vision is to make the NHA a resource that can benefit every one of her constituents, and also to be a source of support and strength for other cultural institutions. Helping your allies can only help you in the long run. With these dual goals, a typical month can take her from designing the NHA’s free lesson plans for local teachers, to attending LAM advocacy events across the country. She has both the strategic mind needed to understand networks of social and political power, and the moral clarity required to redistribute that power where it is needed.

Meet Patricia Feeley, Co-Chair of the Digital Commonwealth Outreach and Education Committee

by Rachael Allen

Outreach is an important facet in keeping the Digital Commonwealth running and developing, and Patricia Feeley has been on board for the past 3 years as a member of the Outreach and Education Committee—2 of those years as co-chair. The committee helps to build awareness of the services the repository provides, promotes the culturally rich collections held by institutions throughout Massachusetts, and engages communities in the creation and use of digital collections.

Patricia studied history as an undergraduate, then went on to earn a Master of Library Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduating, Patricia worked for a short time organizing archival materials at the Northrup-King Seed Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then moved to Massachusetts and began work at the Boston Public Library (BPL), where she has been for the past 30 years. She is currently the Interlibrary Loan Librarian there.

The Digital Commonwealth is a non-profit independent agency that hosts digital collections for cultural heritage institutions across Massachusetts, such as public libraries and historical societies. Participating institutions transfer their materials for digitization, which is provided by the BPL as a service to the Digital Commonwealth. The digital collections are made freely available online, and the institutions receive copies of the digital files for their own use. In some cases, if an institution already has large digitized collections but wants the content to reach a wider audience, the Digital Commonwealth harvests the metadata and links back to the institution’s website.

With its members dispersed throughout the state, the Outreach and Education Committee meets each month by conference call. The committee supports the Digital Commonwealth through outreach planning and programming, and is responsible for social media for all of the Digital Commonwealth, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

One of Patricia’s first projects on the committee was to write blog posts about staff at member institutions, calling them up to conduct interviews. And now, in addition to other social media posts, Patricia writes blog posts featuring various items or collections, such as this recent post on the very large photograph collection of Leslie Jones, a staff photographer at the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1917 to 1956.

While there are plenty of interesting and entertaining collections to highlight, Patricia strives to promote the collections for all of the Digital Commonwealth’s members, including institutions outside of Metro Boston and those with smaller collections. She also writes monthly posts about recent additions to the repository, which helps to ensure that each collection and institution has a chance to shine.

The committee develops a great deal of educational programming to reach out to prospective members and to widen the skills of member institutions. To get new institutions involved in the repository and aware of services provided, Digital Commonwealth staff travel around the state to present introductory workshops on digitization. The Digital Commonwealth also hosts more in-depth workshops for member institutions on topics such as creating online exhibits and digital storytelling.

To help spread the word about these workshops, as well as to highlight the benefits of membership in the Digital Commonwealth, the repository sends out notifications through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioner’s AllRegions listserv, which reaches a wide audience of both institutions and individual cultural heritage professionals across the state.

Going forward, the outreach committee is aiming to add more digital resources to the Digital Commonwealth website, which would allow for members who are unable to attend workshops and programs in person to take advantage of the repository’s services. One aim is to record workshops and make the videos available on the website, as well as to hold workshops in the form of webinars.

Another aim is to add to the existing handful of lesson plans available on the website, which are provided by participating institutions to help educators incorporate the Digital Commonwealth’s collections into curricula. The committee hopes to gather additional lesson plans to include a greater variety of topics and educational levels, from elementary school to undergrad.

The committee is considering directing outreach more towards the general public going forward, underscoring the wealth of materials available in the repository. Often people associate the Digital Commonwealth with mainly visual media, such as photographs, but the repository also hosts a variety of other types of materials, including items like pamphlets and handwritten letters.

For those wishing to delve into the digital materials of Massachusetts’ cultural heritage institutions, a good place to start is the American Art Posters 1890-1920 collection on Golden Age illustration, which is Patricia’s favorite collection in the Digital Commonwealth.