Pleasant Rest Cemetery, access limits, and the power of community

Picture of cemetery I visited today

Recently, as I was walking around Towson, me and my dad stumbled upon an unmarked cemetery. I took a few pictures and examined a few headstones. I wasn’t there to examine anything, but just explore. I did the same at a cemetery in Cape Cod and have gone to a bunch of cemeteries in the course of my genealogy research. But this was different. I had a suspicion it was a Black cemetery because one of the stones for a 64-year-old man named John E. Forman read as follows, who I’ll focus on later:

John E. Foreman who died on the 11th August 1909 in the 64th year of his age. He was a Trustee and Class Leader of the Zion African Methodist Church, Govanstown, of which his Father was one of the founders. He was an upright, industrious and…[cut off by grass]

After taking a couple other pictures, I went on my way, later posting them on Instagram. Once I got back home, I did some digging and found the name of the cemetery: Pleasant Rest Cemetery. As it turned out, the cemetery was a historic Black cemetery owned by Mt. Olive Baptist Church as noted in the Baltimore Sun in September 2011. Apart from learning how the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County has set aside money to help preserve the cemetery (I’m not sure how much), the cemetery is still active with a burial there in September of last year. I also learned that the grandfather of Adelaide Bentley, President of the North East Towson Improvement Association, born in 1928, co-founded “the Mount Olive Baptist Church at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue” as the Baltimore Sun reported in February 2019. Not long after, the Mount Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church was built, with the first stones laid in 1855. The church is specifically located on the corner of York Rd. and Bosley Ave. in Towson, with “a white steeple and a unique & stain glass window facing the road” as MapQuest describes it. I put together this article in hopes of submitting a description of the cemetery to Find A Grave as I suggested on Twitter. I learned a lot more than about the cemetery however.

Getting back to John E. Foreman. Who was this man, anyway? We know that the Zion African Methodist Church in Govanstown could have been a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, a historically Black Protestant denomination based in New York City, officially officially recognized in 1821 and also known as the Freedom Church. It is not the same as the AME Church as some have pointed out. If correct, this church would be part of the Mid-Atlantic Episcopal District. I did some searching and found a mention of church in Govanstown in the 1874 Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Years 1773-1881. Other books seemed to mention the church as well. After some searching, I came across a 1898 obituary of a man which appeared to be John E. Forman’s father, named William Waters Foreman, born in Govanstown, Md., October 12, 1821. This man was the son of Isaac Foreman, a local preacher of the Church. He was twice married, first to Miss Ruth Ann Weeks, of Baltimore, Md., November 12, 1843, and second to Mrs. Annie C. Molock, September 29, 1892.

Unfortunately, this obituary doesn’t list his children and I don’t know whether it was the correct person. We know that John E. Forman was born, approximately, in 1845 going by his age listed on his tombstone. Doing some searching, I found a John Forman living in Baltimore City in 1860, although it is not the same person. There is also one John Henry Foreman born in Prince George’s Parish in 1845, but I can’t confirm it is the same person. When I tried to search for ANYTHING on the 1900 census on FamilySearch, specifically to examine an entry for John Forman, I got this message:

This is a disgusting limitation on access. I remember when you used to be able to examine the 1900 census on FamilySearch. That’s no longer allowed unless you have special access. Why? This should be condemned without question. I also can’t access it on Ancestry unless I have a subscription. You can look through the ones added to the NARA catalog, but the entries for the 1900 census for Maryland have not been added yet. In any case, I continued onward.

Frustrated with this, I searched on some library databases and didn’t find much. Only some scattered articles, including one which lists a W.W. Foreman as a person being appointed for Buckeystown, Maryland in 1894. [1] Recommendations to help me fulfill this story are welcome.

Since that went nowhere, I decided to search for the church and cemetery. When it came to Mt. Olive Baptist Church, I found stories talking about its activities like entertaining the Relief Association of Baltimore County in 1926 and 1927 [2], how the Colored Baptist Convention was held there in 1911 [3], and the church hosted a bazaar in 1915. [4] There were a lot of false drops because of the number of churches also named “Mt. Olive Baptist Church” in other parts of the country. There are likely other stories there, but I’m not in the mood to weed through a bunch of sources right now. But, the door is open for others to expand this story. Undoubtedly, Louis Diggs writes about it in his book, Since the Beginning: African-American Communities in Towson, but more stories can still be told.

Searches for “Pleasant Rest Cemetery” were more successful. There were obituaries [5] and such, but most interesting was a 1921 article talking about the Timonium-Towson Trolley. [6] Here’s what it noted:

Shake hands with the only trolley car in Maryland that has a smokestack and coal scuttle, and travels a route that goes down hill both ways! ‘Tis the Timonium-Towson trolley. If  you think you can’t shake hands with her get in and take a ride, and you will not only shake hands but head, shoulders and teeth as well, particular in the neighborhood of the Pleasant Rest Cemetery, where departed members of the Mount Olive Baptist Church (colored) lie buried not far
from the track…But she stops anywhere. You can get right at your front door and now and then she goes around and stops at back doors. Of course she only stops at her regular stations, but they are plentiful enough; you wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of the woos or at the Pleasant Rest Cemetery, and those are about the only places where there aren’t any station.

That article was funny, but also revealing. I then came across an obituary in 1932 which revealed hat 73-year-old Alexander Frazier helped found and erect the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, seemingly with a man named James Williams. [7] What Rev. Avery Penn of the Mount Olive Baptist Church said, being tired of the county conducting negative actions that could affect his congregation, does give a bit of the background of the struggles the church has faced over the years:

In 1985 the county told us that we needed to move the church, move the church that had been there since 1888…To comply with the county, we tore it down, turned it around and moved back in. Guess what they told us. That is was going to be a gateway and it had to be something that would be pretty…We would walk out of the church, carry the body up to the cemetery on green ground. Baltimore County came along and decided that they would cut off the cemetery. They brought Bosley Avenue down across there, cut off what was Kenilworth and cut us off from the cemetery. They took the house — the church’s parsonage — you know where it was? It was right where Bosley Avenue is, right beside the church. The put it on telephone poles and they rolled it around behind the church, and that’s where it is today, that duplex house. Baltimore County did that. They built a fire house over there. They went where we walked up to the cemetery and they built a police station. And they told me I had to tear down the church and build something nice and I did it. Twenty six years later Baltimore County wants to take all my effort with the pretty church and come to the other side of the road and put a gas station.

This really shows the importance of the church to this community and its continuing value to this day. This is likely why White people have targeted the church in the past, not only by burning crosses outside the church but the vandalism of the church with White supremacist symbols in 2016. [8]

As a 1990s article about the church noted, it stands as a symbol of “the vibrant black community of Sandy Bottom that founded it and disappeared under the wheels of the commercial encroachment that has re-created Towson,” with much of the property which composed Sandy Bottom was “originally bought and settled by the families of freed slaves and eventually sold to white real estate agents and developers.” I personally stand with this church as it defends itself from encroachment by various forces, whether White developers, the County government, or anyone else.


Notes

[1] Special Dispatch to the,Baltimore Sun. “COLORED METHODISTS.: CLOSING SESSION–ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE APPOINTMENTS FOR 1894.” The Sun (1837-1994), Mar 13, 1894, pp. 6. ProQuest.

[2] “Towson, Md.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Nov 19, 1927, pp. 14. ProQuest; “TOWSON, MD.” Afro-American (1893-1988), May 29, 1926, pp. 12. ProQuest.

[3] “Maryland Baptist State Convention.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Jun 17, 1911, pp. 4. ProQuest.

[4] Special to The Afro-American Ledger. “Throughout the State of Maryland: LONG GREEN HAPPENINGS.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Apr 03, 1915, pp. 3. ProQuest.

[5] “DONALDSON, BARBARA A.: [FINAL EDITION].” The Sun, Jun 15, 2006, pp. 1. ProQuest; “JOHNSON, MADELON B.” The Sun, Mar 05, 2008. ProQuest; “BARGER, CHARLES.” The Sun, Sep 02, 2007. ProQuest; “JENKINS, SR., JAMES T.: [FINAL EDITION].” The Sun, Apr 02, 2006, pp. 1. ProQuest; “Mrs. Shurn.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Mar 12, 1966, pp. 18. ProQuest; “MRS. PINDER.” Afro-American (1893-1988), May 26, 1928, pp. 18. ProQuest. This is only a sampling of the obituaries listed for this cemetery on ProQuest.

[6] “Maryland’s Unique Trolley Car Runs Down Hill either Way: Voyage Over TimoniumTowson Route A Lesson to the Uninitiated “COASTING” SAVES BATTERIES’ “JUICE” One-Man Crew Becomes Expert in Conserving His Electricity.” The Sun (1837-1994), Dec 18, 1921, pp. 12. ProQuest.

[7] “AGED TOWSON MAN BURIED SUNDAY.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Feb 06, 1932, pp. 19. ProQuest. The church is also, apparently, mentioned within Neal A. Brooks and Eric G. Rockel‘s A History of Baltimore County, along other books.

[8] “2 from Towson Named in July Cross Burnings.” The Sun (1837-1994), Aug 26, 1980, pp. 1. ProQuest.

Interpreting history: thoughts on History Day

This post originally had thoughts on my presentation at the iSchool symposium, which has been incorporated into an upcoming e-book.

I’d like to talk about some thoughts on Maryland History Day, for which I judged this past weekend, including as a chief judge in the morning for senior individual websites. They included topics ranging from, as I noted on Twitter, the Apollo Missions to the Atomic Bomb. I also did runoffs for documentaries, with topics including “Cocoanut Grove, Stonewall Riot, Thalidomide tragedy, ACT-UP, the Osage indigenous people (and oil), and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” some of which I had not heard of before. As I awaited the winners, I already knew that the group documentaries I had reviewed had won, documentaries like “Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” (by Aidan Goldenberg-Hart, Daniel Greigg, Eli Protas, Joey Huang, and Charles Shi) which got first place, and “From Inefficient to Inspiring: How the Stonewall Riots Changed LGBT Activism” (by Pallavi Battina and Amulya Puttaraju) which got second place. However, when it came to individual websites, one of the ones I reviewed got first place! It was titled “Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington: How Their Investment in People Led from Tragedy to Triumph” and it was by Matthew Palatnik. None of the websites my group had nominated for special prizes won. So that was positive.

History Day made it clear to me that even the topics often written about can be talked about in a new way, with a new interpretation, with these students entering the process of historical research, so I wish them the best in the days going forward. In June, I will serve as a judge on the national level of History Day at College Park, which should be fun!

In closing, there is a strain that connects the visualizations I made this semester and Maryland History Day: the importance of history and interpretations of what happened, allowing for new insights and thoughts, enriching how our collective past is understood.

Challenges of archival digitization, Robert Caro, and digital archives

Recently, when going through LinkedIn, I came upon a post by Margot Note, whom wears many hats simultaneously as a records manager, archivist, author, and consultant, about the shifting concepts of preservation in the digital world, which had been written last fall. She argues that information professionals, like archivists, have questioned existing assumptions about preservation, with the creation of new principles to born-digital materials (like tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts) and those materials which are digitized. This change is happening while physical records deemed to have “enduring value” are still acquired, stored, and made accessible. She goes on to state that the ever-changing digital landscape has added complexities to archival practice, altering existing procedures, especially in the realm of preservation, since those methods used to preserve physical paper materials no longer translate to digital resources, requiring new methods. For example, she notes that you can’t reverse preservation treatments for digital records, unlike with paper records, such as migrating digital files to new formats when old ones are not usable anymore. These are transformations that, hopefully, do not constrain the original functionality of records.

She also adds that for digital materials, the content is what important, not the carrier for such content and that unlike physical paper materials, which may not deteriorate rapidly if they are ignored, digital files are stored on media that “deteriorates, and rely on hardware and software that may no longer be available” which means that neglect is not an option. This means that despite differences in preserving digital and paper materials (often called “analog” or “legacy” materials), some practices can apply to both, like appraisal and addressing information as a collection rather than on an individual level, while recognizing that all materials have “the tendency to decay.” She ends by saying that digital and paper preservation considers needs of patrons, with action needed, ultimately, to preserve materials in the immediate future, “ensure the survival of research materials for our users,” and ultimately sustain “cultural heritage for the next generation.”

While this is a good start, there is a lot more to talk about. I could bring in some of her other publications, like a book on family archives [1], but I’d like to broaden the scope. This article will talk about the challenge of digitization in archives (with connection to Robert Caro’s recent comments) and challenges of digital archives. There will also be a connection to sister institutions of archives, libraries, which are distinct in and of themselves [2], as I have noted on this blog in the past, even as you get a MLIS/MLS (Master of Library and Information Science or the rapidly dwindling Master of Library Science) to study…archives. As the SAA notes on their “So You Want to Be an Archivist” page, the “number and content of archival education offerings, especially multi-course programs, has continued to expand in recent years, and a few institutions now offer master’s degrees in archival studies.” I’ve recently wondered why degrees like archival science (or perhaps archival studies) are not more widely offered, but perhaps that is a discussion which can branch out from this post.

Robert Caro’s faulty argument and archival digitization

From the NARA Strategic Plan (2014-2018).

In order to begin this discussion, I am reminded of some dialogue in the 1971 science fiction movie, The Andromeda Strain. One character, Mr. Mark Hall (played by James Olson) asks “where is the library?” to which his colleague, Dr. Charles Dutton (played by David Wayne) responds: “No need for books. Everything’s in the computer.” And the movie goes on, as there is no more discussion. Later on, the computer does have an error and overload when too much information is inputted by the scientists, the “heroes” of this film in this top-secret facility in the Nevada desert called “Wildfire.” The fact that everything is stored on the computer is not mentioned in any reviews of the movie I have found, and as such, perhaps people should revisit this movie for just this reason, as it is still relatively enjoyable. We have gotten to the point that everything is “in the computer” like in this film, not only with libraries and other public institutions, but more and more with archival institutions in recent days.

That brings us to the recent debate of what Robert Caro, a presidential scholar of the Johnson Administration said about digitization, whom was criticized by fellow archivists on the Twittersphere (and likely elsewhere), of archival records. He tried to describe how people are differently interacting with the records now than they had in the past, in the “pre-internet” days, those before the internet was publicly available, the days in which it was available only to universities and the government which Joe McMillian tried to exploit in a few episodes (starting with the Yerba Buena episode) of the third season of the short-lived series, Halt and Catch Fire, but not having much success as the show is all about failure.

Caro’s words come from a recent interview by of Popular Mechanics because of the publication of his new book, Working, about his research process, apparently a #1 best-seller on Amazon. He told the interviewer  that he still does much of his writing on a typewriter although he has a laptop on his desk (apparently a Lenovo ThinkPad). This is because he was told by those at the Johnson Presidential Library that his “typewriter was so noisy, it was disturbing the other researchers” which is telling. He also tells the interviewer that he took notes on his computer but still uses his typewriter and writes in longhand (who does that anymore?). While some would argue that this is fine, what he stated next is what was criticized by archivists on Twitter:

It [writing on a typewriter] makes me think more. Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good. Almost two years ago, Ina [Caro’s wife] and I went down [to the archives], and I’m sitting there, in the reading room, writing my notes. Everybody else is standing there taking photographs of their documents. They do it with cell phones now. If you saw me there, you’d see one person who’s not in the modern age.

Now, while each researcher can choose their own way to use documents, it seems like he is glaring down on those whom use their phones, or other electronic devices, to take pictures of documents. How can you even argue that those individuals are not taking their own notes or that they can think the same amount when using digital devices? As Jan Murphy, a family historian whom is a big fan of encouraging people to take notes, added on Twitter, it wouldn’t be right to “insist on all handwritten notes all the time,” the latter of which is “just nuts.” Adding to this is the fact that digital photos can be transcribed at home, even comparing information from different archives. Additionally, sometimes people like Caro, whom could be considered to be part of the traditionalist/silent generation since he was born in 1935, may not even be able to read their own handwriting! This is the case with other people, especially those whom have dysgraphia, with the extent this learning disability affects the general population not currently known. With this, we should also consider that not everyone has the leisure/ability to transcribe material needed from an archive in longhand. Some, as Murphy noted in another tweet, would rather “spend the time in the archive, having taken my photo, making notes about the record’s condition & taking notes for my source citation etc.” The question is simple, as Murphy, who sometimes wishes she had a small manual typewriter when electricity is off, asks, posing a question which Caro never really answers: “But what’s wrong with taking digital photos of records in archives?” I could concur with that. I don’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, I would argue that institutions like the Maryland State Archives are examples of institutions which allow electronic devices such as phones to take photos of documents.

After this, he goes into the use of paper records:

I feel there’s something very important, to be able to turn the pages yourself. I don’t want anything standing in between me and the paper. People compliment me on finding out how [Johnson] rose to power so fast in Congress by using money. That happened down there, and it was a vague, amorphous thing. I was sitting there with all these boxes, taking all these notes. And you saw letters, his very subservient letters—“Can I have five minutes of your time?”—and then you see the same letters coming back to him. And I said, Something happened here. What’s the explanation? Why is a committee chairman writing to Lyndon Johnson, asking for a few minutes of his time? So I sat there and put my notes into chronological order. And then it became absolutely clear. Would the same thing have happened if I’d stood there taking photographs and went back? Possibly. But I don’t believe it. To me, being in the papers is really important.

While I understand what he is saying here, more and more records are online than ever before, meaning that the records of the Obama Administration and future presidencies will undoubtedly be different from those of the Johnson Administration. Caro is almost stuck back in time, part of the old guard of presidential scholars whom inhabited presidential libraries (which can more accurately be called presidential archives). I won’t touch on the plans for the Obama Library only because I have written on that topic for one of my classes at UMD and it may be published in an academic journal in the future (fingers crossed), so I don’t want to tread on the same topics in this post. I would add that using paper records is not the only way to interact with records, as users can easily interact with them online using new and exciting methods.

From here, Caro becomes a bit ridiculous:

Well, there’s no reason why that [a deep dive through thousands of digital pages of emails] has to be a different kind of research. Someone else could come along who was nuts like me and say, I’m going to look at every email. What’s more worrisome to me is that, when you talk about digitization, somebody has to decide what’s digitized. I don’t want anyone deciding what I can see. It’s very hard to destroy a complete paper trail of something. Lyndon Johnson was very secretive, and he wanted a lot of stuff destroyed. But the fact is, they were cross-referencing these pages into ten or twenty or thirty different files. There’s always something. But the whole idea of emails—I don’t use emails, I may be wrong—I’m not sure there’s a trail like that. It’s too easy to delete.

While he makes a good point that there can be the same kind of research, that doesn’t mean he is right overall. It is laughable for him to claim that “when you talk about digitization, somebody has to decide what’s digitized” and to then declare “I don’t want anyone deciding what I can see.” Clearly, he does not, understand the fundamental archival principle of appraisal, which has been debated from the time of those like British archivist Hilary Jenkinson in 1922 and U.S. archivist T.R. Schellenberg in 1956, the selection and description within archives. The records he is looking at, while researching at the Johnson Library, are chosen by professional archivists, specifically those from NARA, so people are deciding what he can see. As such, deciding what records are digitized is also a responsibility of archivists, which will be explained later in this post.

He further claims that it is “very hard to destroy a complete paper trail of something.” I’m not actually completely sure about that. Taking from NARA’s official history of presidential libraries, they write that before these libraries came about, with impetus from FDR in 1939 when he donated his personal papers to the federal government, presidential papers were often dispersed by former presidents and their heirs after their time in office. They further note that while many collections of records exist of presidents before Hoover at the Library of Congress, others are divided between historical societies, libraries, and private collectors. Even worse, as they acknowledge, “many materials have been lost or deliberately destroyed.” So, a “complete paper trail,” as he described it, CAN be destroyed.

Considering that “Lyndon Johnson was very secretive, and he wanted a lot of stuff destroyed” as he notes, this contradicts his point that it is “very hard to destroy a complete paper trail of something.” I mention this because it would mean that if Johnson wanted, he could have worked to destroy a complete paper trail, especially since it was after Watergate that presidential records were considered property of the federal government rather than “private property” of the former Presidents, a view also widely held in the archival profession at the time. Furthermore, when he talks about cross-referencing of the pages, he seems to not understand how emails work. This is no surprise from someone who doesn’t “use emails,” as he admits! He claims that he is not “sure there’s a trail like that” and that “it’s too easy to delete” emails. While it is true is easy to “delete” them, think about “deleted” files on a computer. They are not really deleted but rather the directory to them is eliminated. The same is also true of any file, whether a PDF, a photograph, or something else you upload online: the file is never truly deleted, but only the directory to it is deleted. Just like when you throw something away in a garbage can, it is not simply eliminated, but it is sent somewhere else, like a horrid waste-to-energy plant or an overflowing landfill. There was actually a whole Futurama episode about an overly wasteful society back in May 1999, titled “A Big Piece of Garbage.”

As Curl Hopkins wrote in The Daily Dot six years ago, when a user “deletes” an email normally it becomes “invisible to that user and is immediately a candidate to be overwritten” but until then it exists and it may even “persist longer on company servers.” He further notes that even if a computer is “taken off your computer, it may still be available on the host’s server,” adding that you must “presume that any email you compose will be available remain accessible forever,” although secure email services are available. There may still be “elements that indicate the prior presence of the email” and logins that are often retained, to say the least. Even one article recommending how to delete emails forever warns that “some online email services maintain an offline backup of email accounts,” adding that “your permanently deleted email may still reside in these inaccessible backups…There is no way to force immediate deletion of emails in these backups.” Also, there are specific data retention rules on the federal level and likely within various organizations, which require retention of such emails. I am also reminded here of “Testimony” (S4, ep9) of Veep. I mention this because, at one point during the episode, Mike McLintock (played by Matt Walsh), the incompetent press secretary, is brought before a congressional committee. He thinks he deleted the voice memos of then-president, Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus). In fact, as the committee reminds him, these memos exist in the cloud and they plan to listen to them for any further evidence in their investigation! [3]

With that, it leads to the next part of this post, which goes to a question that the public, taken in by stereotypes about archivists, often asks of archivists and archival institutions.

Why can’t everything be digitized?

In May 2017, Samantha Thompson, an archivist at the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives, wrote a post which aimed to answer the question of why archivists don’t digitize everything since it is a common question. As such, it is clearly important to remind people who not everything is digitized and that, in fact, “only a tiny fraction of the world’s primary resources are available digitally,” coupled with the fact that archivists and librarians themselves are “behind the abundance of primary sources already available on the internet” while organizations like the Internet Archive, or Ancestry.com have raised “public expectations about access to historical resources.” [4] She goes onto argue that digitization, the “production of an electronic image of these record,” saves information from a paper record, but it does not produce “a clone of the record” but rather results in an “approximation…of a dimension of the record,” often called a surrogate. She further notes that while archivists commonly digitize records in order to increase access (which some cataloguers do as well), they also argue (rightly) that mass digitization is costly in time and money, which sometimes people are skeptical of, not realizing that “large-scale digitization in an institutional setting is not your average home scanning operation.” There a few reasons for this, including archives holding vast amounts of material, with digitizing of even small archival collections as a big-time commitment since many groups of archival records are not easy to scan in quickly.

For instance, while you could use an automatic feeder to quickly scan a stack of pages, the benefits of such speed must be “weighed against the risk of a one-of-a-kind document being mangled by a paper jam” which is always a concern! This means you must engage in manually scanning which includes tasks such as removing staples (and paper clips), positioning the item, processing the images, and entering the appropriate metadata, all of which is a lot of work. As such, “scanning a single archival box of records can take days” as she puts it. This is even more the case if records within the file are various shapes and sizes, or if they are large enough that they must be scanned in sections and “digitally stitched together.” While sometimes taking a photograph is the best option, you need a “high-quality photographic set-up including lighting, document holders, and a camera with an appropriate lens” which obviously is expensive enough that not all institutions can afford such a set-up. This means that scanning produces not an exact copy of the record “but only an impression of certain aspects of it” and it may be hard to convey annotations (like sticky notes) on the paper record itself in a digital form, or physical characteristics of the paper records. This brings us to one of the most important parts: linking the digitized record to crucial information, which is often called metadata, some of which is technical and other parts that describe the record itself. The latter is information like a date or time the record was created. But some elements are more complex like determining the “story of the person or organization that created it.” As she puts it rightly, an individual record “within an archival collection does not tell us its whole story.” This means that without vital descriptive work of paper records in the first place, those electronic records which are produced through digitization would be an unusable and undifferentiated mass.

She goes onto note that since digitization involves investment of resources and time, archivists need to be clear that the electronic files produced adequately represent the originals, meaning there need to be quality control checks in place. This involves factors such as scanning resolutions, typing accuracy and photographic skill, since archivists are responsible for ensuring that “people are getting a reliable and authentic view of records.” There is another conundrum with digitization itself: archivists are required to not only retain the paper originals but the digital files as well. These are files that are subject to disorder and decay just like paper records, with a tiny shift causing a set of errors, with even unused data subject to random degradation and loss, often called “bit rot.” Coupled with this is the question of future readability of the data, since digitization of files is not worthwhile if no one can open the files as software and the accompanying “hardware inevitably becomes obsolete.” Luckily for all of us, especially those in the archival field, archivists are at the forefront of pushing boundaries of digital longevity as technologies and file format standards are improving. However,as she notes, the “average lifespan of a hard or flash drive is still a fraction of that of a piece of paper stored in optimal conditions” with digital data needing to be stored in specific temperature conditions as well. All of this means that when anything is digitized, archivists commit to maintaining the digital file and the original on which that file is based.

This connects to the resources required for digitization and post-digitization duties. For one, cameras and scanners which are high-resolution which can accurately capture the data are relatively expensive, with the same being the case for software to process images and attain digital storage which is secure. In order for digitization to “make a dent” in an average archival collection, a scanner, or several scanners, need to be constantly working, with some large archivists maintaining specific digitization units while smaller institutions fit it in when and where they can among their other duties. As a result, digitization of specific records is often part of projects which are funded by partnerships or grants, as she notes. In terms of the post-digitization duties, it is needed to make sure that the records are responsibly shared on the web, after checking with donor(s) to make sure the records can be freely shared in the first place with some not wanting this to happen for various reasons or due to copyright restrictions. Such sharing is important as it allows archivists to make the full meaning of records available to those accessing them online.

As such, digitization itself, as she argues, is a process that is approached by archivists methodically. This requires, of course, assessing archival collections beforehand in order to determine whether the records are worth being shared and digitized. Such a process takes time, even if an “inexpensive pool” of labor can be mobilized, along with a big investment of resources and time. As a result, as she puts it, we may never, in fact, have everything digitized, with trials and triumphs of digitization being a “constantly unfolding process” while new models are coming about. With that, access is still important, as is digitization, with archivists continuing to “grapple with this immensely powerful way to broadcast the knowledge we steward.” Her article ends by stating that everyone can help support digitization through sharing information that goes with a photograph from an institutional collection, and to, most important of all: “be curious about what archivists, information professionals, and cultural workers do.” The latter requires, of course, asking questions and spreading answers, since the more people who understand the value of archivists, the more support they will get, and the more support archivists can provide to the public at-large.

It is worth recalling here a paper I wrote last semester (which will likely never be published anywhere academically) where I asked different archival institutions about their approach to digitization, using different forms of interaction, like Twitter, email, web-form submissions, and web-chat (AskUsNow!), the latter which is relatively horrible/annoying from my experience, although others may have had different experiences. [5] One of the best responses I got was from Corey Lewis of the Maryland State Archives (MSA) whom told me that I could personally contact him if I was interested in their digitization efforts. It was a response of high quality I wouldn’t have gotten if I had just looked on their website. To this day, they still don’t have their digitization strategy on their website from what I can tell (perhaps its hidden somewhere). I also got responses back from the Council of State Archives (CoSA) on digitization and even from the Oregon State Archives, the latter of which I hadn’t even tweeted to, which was impressive. In a similar manner to the person from the MSA, I got a message from Joanne Archer, the head of Access and Outreach Services at Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland Libraries, which said I could send her any further questions. Interestingly, when it comes to digitization they do not “directly solicit campus input.”

With that, we can move into the final part of this post which focuses on challenges of digital archives and the digital world.

Challenges of digital archives and the current digital landscape

In the “Mars University” episode of Futurama, which first aired on October 3rd, 1999, the Planet Express crew go to Mars, which has, in the universe of this wondrous animated sitcom, been terraformed and has a typical college campus called Mars University. Before the episode becomes an homage/parody to Animal House, there is a scene where Professor Farnsworth tells Leela, Fry, and Bender about the Wong Library, adding that it has “the largest collection of literature in the Western universe.” After that, Fry looks in and sees these two disks:

That’s obviously the joke, and is more than a “bookish moment.” It’s basically saying that all the knowledge can be stored on two disks. It’s still kinda funny, although the joke is dated, as these are supposed to be something like CDs (which first came about in 1982). In a future post I’ll definitely bring in the Futurama episode (“Lethal Inspection”) that fellow archivist Samantha Cross of POP Archives reviewed, when I get to that season, as I’m currently only on Season 2 of the show as I plan to re-watch all the show’s episodes, over time.

This brings us to digital archives, specifically, which goes beyond the digitization of paper files. This applies to files which are born-digital. It requires, of course, a digital preservation policy as Margot Note, who was cited at the beginning of this article, writes about, which would need to be integrated into the program of an archives itself. It would also necessitate collaboration with other institutions and individuals in preserving digital records, and making sure that digital preservation is specifically tailored to your institution. Beyond this, there are two elements that apply to digital archives: choosing what will be preserved and file formats that are sustainable.

For the first element, I turn to an article, again, by Margot Note. She writes that selection and appraisal of digital records is similar to physical records,but that long-term preservation of digital records relies on “understanding of how file formats work.” It also requires, as she notes, access to the appropriate hardware and software, with the appropriate skills, with the unavailability of these factors in an archival institution meaning that preservation of the digital files will not be successful. As such, technical appraisal of the digital files, themselves, considers whether they can be read, then subsequently documented, processed and finally preserved. Helping choose what digital archives preserve depends on whether the content itself is relevant to the mission of the archival institution, the historical value of the records, specifically if they have enduring value or are significant socially or culturally. For the digital records themselves, archivists also need to consider the integrity of the files, if they are usable or reliable. This means answering whether the materials themselves are in “preservation-friendly file formats” and if there are limits on the records, in terms of privacy or intellectual property, which makes them “inaccessible for research.” Another important factor, as she describes is funding since the preservation and management of such digital records is by no means cheap. Finally, she notes that one must consider whether the digital records are unique or whether they are fully documented. She adds that keeping everything, when it comes to digital files, is not wise, since there are limited resources and mechanisms to search (and access) collections of a large-scale are often not adequate, and that selection curates collections which will ultimately have “high research value.” She ends with her point that no matter how complicated the systems for managing digital records become, people need to be involved in choosing what is preserved as digital archival records. Even with the possible automation of some decisions in days to come, archivists would need to balance benefits of saving certain digital records over other digital records, at a time that archivists continue to rise to the challenge of selecting and maintenance of “digital artifacts in a changing technological landscape” as she puts it.

In a related article, she writes about archivists choosing the right and sustainable file formats. This relates to digital archives because the sustainability of digital records in and of themselves depends on file formats that will last for long times, with the Library of Congress putting in place “some criteria for predicting sustainable file formats in digital archives” as she puts it. It further requires considering whether a format is widely used, the files can be identified, specifications of file formats are publicly available and documented, the files can function on a variety of services (be interoperable), and they have an open format since issues with licensing, patents, digital rights, and property rights complicate preservation efforts. She points to efforts by the Digital Preservation Coalition to analyze file formats which are commonly used. She also writes that over time some file formats have become preferred over others, like TIFF files used as master images for preservation during digitization and PDF/A as a standard file format. Even so, some standards for file formats are still in flux, with no consensus among archivists, as she puts it, as to what “file format or codecs should be used for preservation purposes for digital video”! At the closing of her article, she argues that regardless of the preservation actions you take, having file formats that are sustainable is crucial, since having file formats which are lasting influences the “feasibility of protecting content” in the face of a changing environment in the technological world where repositories and users co-exist at the present.

Speaking of all of this, I am reminded of an ongoing study by S.C. Healy, a PhD candidate in digital humanities at a university based in Ireland (Maynooth University), trying to find how “wider research and cultural heritage communities’ can progress from creating web archives to establishing paradigms to use web archives for study and research.” I plan to sign up for this study as I’ve talked about web archiving in several classes. This is relevant since, as Genealogy Jude, as she calls herself on Twitter, noted, “the Internet…has shifted the demographic profile of genealogists.” This matters to archives and archivists because many of those genealogists are some of the most common users of libraries. [6] In fact, one of the articles I found during my research for my paper on the Obama Library, a scholar in the 1990s (I don’t remember the exact date), National History Day, where I am being a judge again this year on the state and national levels, and connecting with genealogists as a way to bring in more users to archival institutions.

Perhaps we can even bring in one of the SAA words of the week, specifically level of description. Simply it is defined as the “level of arrangement of the unit being described” and the “completeness or exhaustiveness of the description.” It connects to recent discussions like one at Hornbake Library recently which focuses on impact of digital repositories, which is in the same realm as digital archives. Perhaps discussions like this will make it easier to define what archivists do and what archives are, as some have tried to do through teaching.

I also think about, apart from creation of some digital archives portals, of what Lilly Carrel, archivist at the Menil Archives in Houston said about digital preservation: “I think digital preservation offers creative ways to enhance the post-custodial approach and ensure important records are preserved” whom was recently interviewed by Vince Lee of the SAA’s Committee of Public Awareness, also known as COPA. That is even more the case when there are digital archives, whether completely digital or part of traditional archival institutions like those at universities or serving specific states. There is also a job at the Library of Congress about web archiving, with applications that close on May 1.

With all of this, there is, not surprisingly, a debate among scholars, especially in the field of archives and libraries, over a possible difference between a digital library and a digital archives. Some within the field say there is a difference, while others dismiss that, arguing that there is not. Currently, I don’t want to go down that road, or talk about some continuing tension between historians and archivists, despite past efforts by the SAA to make connections with the AHA, the American Historians Association. I also could talk more about the challenges when it comes to archiving born-digital material, but perhaps I will revisit that in a future post on here.

I’ll end with what one archivist, blogging on the New Archivist WordPress over five years ago, put it, “please keep up the discussions, and contribute in ways that you think have value,” adding that the “seeming lack of support in public” doesn’t mean that archivists are not doing anything. [7] That is what I am trying to do with post and this blog, as a whole, changing from a focus on historical explorations about the Maryland Extra Regiment, the Maryland Loyalist Regiment, reprinting past posts and biographies I wrote when I worked at the MSA on the First Maryland Regiment, which is often called the Maryland 400, and other topics, as readers of this blog from the beginning will know. This all connects to my newfangled newsletter on SubStack, which I recommend readers of this blog subscribe to, which I hope expands in the days to come.

Until next time! I look forward to all of your comments.


Notes

[1] She has written so much that I recommended that she could even write a few e-books. She has actually written a number of books already, like Creating Family Archives: How to Preserve Your Papers and Photographs, a paperback book, and two other books more specifically for information professionals: Project Management for Information Professionals (seems like a textbook, although she calls it a “handbook“) and Managing Image Collections: A Practical Guide (Chandos Information Professional Series) (a guide for those at institutional archives, perhaps?).

[2] If you want to know more about the distinction between the two, there is a new book published by the SAA (Society of American Archivists), titled Archives in Libraries: What Librarians and Archivists Need to Know to Work Together, which seems to make these distinctions and could be a good read. I can’t give a firmer assessment as I have not read the book.

[3] Interestingly, in the review of this episode by Kate Kulzick of A.V. Club, this part of the episode is not mentioned. In fact, Mike’s role in the episode is not mentioned at all!

[4] If you are interested, I’d also recommend reading “How do archivists organize collections?“, “How Do Archivists Describe Collections? (or, How to Read a Finding Aid)“, and most importantly “What do archivists do all day?“, two of which are also by Samantha Thompson.

[5] Perhaps at a later time I’ll bring in my other papers I have currently uploaded to academia.edu like “The concept of a Baltimorean Homeless Library (BHL),” “Uggles and the University of Illinois: a very furry situation indeed!,” and “Strategic Plan Analysis–Maryland State Library Resource Center (SLRC),” the latter of which is relatively technical. All of these are mainly in the realm of libraries rather than archives, however.

[6] She also stated, in a tweet following, that it is good that genealogy has found new people with “energy and new ideas, otherwise it would be a dying hobby” which I will agree with, as a millennial genealogist myself, beyond what someone like fellow genealogist Amy Johnson Crow will describe. Others whom responded to her said that its a time-consuming hobby, while others said that retired people still have some advantages over young people, and her responding to a concern that the internet has isolated people (not an invalid concern), that “the Internet has enabled people to contact relatives and share research much more easily than before” which also is a valid point! This also includes, as Carolynn, another genealogist, argued: “challenging racist, misogynistic and xenophobic genealogists” even if that can be hard. At the same time, I see those, in the wake of the racist ancestry.com ad (for Ancestry Canada) to grumble about how much they “hate” them, for justified reasons, although I don’t necessarily feel the same as a person whom runs two genealogy blogs and is a family historian for both my mom and dad’s side of the family. I seem to sympathize more with those whom say that there are reasons “why you can’t rely on search engines like @Ancestry” with misspellings and mistaken listings.

[7] They also said that the lack of supportive views on Twitter or lists “does not mean that the vast majority of people are not appalled by the few rude ones” but rather that the latter are shown indifference by the many.

The Library of Congress, its digital strategy, and crowdsourcing

Screenshot of the homepage of the Library of Congress’s Crowd program

In late October, I asked the Preservation Directorate of the Library of Congress (LOC), about what they decide to digitize and if they have a process similar to NARA (National Archives and Records Administration, called National Archives in the rest of this article), with their own digitization priorities including working with external partners. After thanking me for my interest in the LOC’s preservation work, Jon Sweitzer-Lamme of the Preservation Directorate responded by saying:

The Library’s digital strategy is available here: https://www.loc.gov/digital-strategy. Our prioritization is driven by demand, such as demand for our presidential papers collections like the newly released Theodore Roosevelt Papers (https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-18-132/), and preservation needs, especially if an item can’t be served to researchers anymore due to its condition. We have excellent in-house digitization capabilities and also utilize external contractors and partners to digitize our content.

Generally, that does answer my question, but unfortunately the answer from LOC did not come soon enough for a class assignment I had where I asked reference questions in the same vein of different institutions (AskUsNow!, Maryland State Archives, and UMD Archives). I’ll post that on Academia.edu likely later this month.

This also shows the site is made possible with a partnership via Amazon’s SES [Simple Email Service], a worrying infiltration of public institutions with those from the corporate world. Even so, the Crowd program runs on open source software, so that is a positive.
Most exciting of all is not the digital strategy, but LOC’s new “crowd” program, which is a bit like the citizen archivist initiative of the National Archives which I have participated a bit with in the past. While there are only five campaigns to transcribe, review, or tag information currently, but it is only in its beta stage, so this will likely be expanded in the future, without a doubt. This could become something of linked open data at its finest, not only connecting people with content, but bringing them further into the process to make the usage of records more collaborative for all, going beyond past efforts. In the coming days, I will test out the site and let the rest of you know on this blog what it is like. They even tied in the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to this program.

With that, this new program fulfills the digital strategy of LOC (without a doubt different than the one in 2000), which states that their mission is to “engage, inspire, and inform the Congress and the American people with a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity,” with initiatives such as this one trying to ensure that “all Americans are connected to the Library of Congress.” This is also connected to their strategic plan which has four major goals: expanding access, enhancing services, optimizing resources, and measuring results. As for the digital strategy it also notes the role of digital technology in fulfilling the mission of this institution, while also “throwing open the treasure chest, connecting, and investing in our future.” This strategy is also forward-thinking, stating that:

The Library’s content, programs, and expertise are national treasures…We will make that content available and accessible to more people, work carefully to respect the expectations of the Congress and the rights of creators, and support the use of our content in software-enabled research, art, exploration, and learning The Library will continue to build a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity…We will expedite the availability of newly acquired or created content to the web and on-site access systems…We will explore creative solutions to reduce the barriers to material while respecting the rights of creators, the desires of our donors, and our other legal and ethical responsibilities…We will continue to enable computational use of our content and metadata…The Library offers an incredible wealth of content, programs, and services to Congress and the American people. We strive to connect with more users by making those services and content accessible for all…Many of the Library’s digital users come directly to our websites to discover content. To expose even more people to the Library’s content and services, we will bring digital content to users by making more of our material available in other websites and apps that they are already using…We will continue to participate in professional organizations and cooperatives that expand our perspectives and enable us to share our experiences. Additionally, developing partners in industry can allow us to connect the Library with new areas of expertise and resources…We will cultivate an innovation culture by empowering our staff, who have expertise in a wide range of subject areas, including the work of Congress, United States copyright law, American and foreign law, and our collections…Our plans for the future must entail preserving and protecting our collections and content…While we plan for our future, we are also paying close attention to innovations and trends that will present future challenges and opportunities. Newer tools, such as augmented and virtual reality, computer vision, natural language processing, and machine learning, are already transforming how we live and work.

Screenshot of the opening section of LOC’s digital strategy

There aren’t many other articles on this subject [1], from a quick online search, but all of the ones I found are relatively positive, although some are more critical than others. Roll Call, in their article on the subject, described how the digital strategy is “digital forward,” advocated strongly by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (who heads LOC, and formerly the Pratt Library in Baltimore), and Kate Zwaard, the Director of Digital Strategy. Most interesting in this article was not that Accenture, a huge contractor, won a contract “to build the long-planned new data center” for LOC, or that the plan includes “employing user-centered design to invite digital and physical visitors to explore more offerings” but that the organization has been stuck in the past, trying to shed this past, because it has “a computing system built in the 1970s to static processes for staff.” Having a 21st century computing system is important for LOC, which holds over 167 million items in its collections which sit on “approximately 838 miles of bookshelves,” making it the “largest library in the world.”

FedScoop also wrote about the digital strategy, noting that the “The Library of Congress…is interested in exploring what artificial intelligence and similar technologies can do for its mission,” saying this focus on digital aspects is not “out of the blue” as LOC launched labs.loc.gov, “a home for digital experiments…last year…[and] it…recently began experimenting with geographic information systems mapping as a way to explore collections online.” Both are positive aspects, to say the least.

Finally, there is Cory Doctrow of Boing Boing, which often has short articles with little content other than the document(s) they are quoting from. Regardless, Doctrow describes how the digital strategy supports “data-driven research with giant bulk-downloadable corpuses of materials and metadata…crowdsourc[ing] the acquisition of new materials…[and] preserv[ing] digital assets with the same assiduousness that the Library has shown with its physical collection for centuries,” among other aspects. He interestingly notes how the LOC has an “outsized role” in the current digital era because it contains the Copyright Office, which is “patient zero in the epidemic of terrible internet law that reaches into every corner of our lives.” This clashes with the fact that Carl Hayden, the Librarian of Congress “is the most freedom-friendly, internet-friendly, access-friendly leader in the Library’s history, replacing unfit leaders who were brought down in grotesque corruption scandals” even though her leadership has fallen short, in Doctrow’s view, because “the Copyright Office is still a creature of Big Content, and it has direct oversight over your ability to modify, repair, sell, and use all of your digital property.” Still, he argues that

…this digital strategy is a very bright light, but it shines in a dark and menacing cave. I love the Library — I love its work, its collections, its diligent and thoughtful staff, its magnificent building. But for all that, the Library has become a locus of terrible policy that runs directly counter to its mission. The contradiction between the Library’s mission and its real role in policy has never been more clear than it is in this wonderful document. [2]

That brings me to the end of this article. What are your thoughts on this new digital strategy of LOC and its new Crowd program?


Notes

[1] Through a further search I found a snippet from the report on infodocket, dh+lib blog of the ALA, and the Digital Journal.

[2] James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star makes a similar point, but says that LOC is not “certainly not the leader in the number and value of their online offerings” since the “the recent history of the Library of Congress is far from promising” with the closure of the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room in 2013, and the “inherent contradiction in the current efforts of the Library of Congress due to the fact that they are also the agency responsible for the controversial access policies inherent in the United States Copyright Law because the Copyright Office is an integral part of the Library.” This means, as Tanner argues,due to “Congressional action, use and access to many valuable research materials have been overwhelmingly restricted” while adding that “policies and budgetary constraints at both the Library of Congress and the National Archives have severely limited the number and availability of digitized records from both institutions. It would be a huge change if this present plan includes real changes in the number and availability to access items in both institutions collections.” Still, he is optimistic, saying that “it will be interesting to see what will happen, although I do not expect any significant changes during what is left of my lifetime,” although he says that the Internet Archive “may become the largest library in the world considering its growth during the past few months and years assuming they catch up with the National Library of Australia.”

Lisa Oakley and the saga of John Plant

On June 26, I received a voicemail message from Lisa Oakley, a family eldercare coach in California, about her Maryland ancestor, John Plant, a member of the Maryland 400. [1] This blog aims to address her email, adding new information to John Plant’s story. I begin by using content from existing blogposts: “The post-war lives of Maryland’s revolutionary soldiers“; ““Ready to march Southward”: The story of the Maryland Extra Regiment”; “The story of the Extra Regiment’s ordinary soldiers: From McCay to Patton“;  and ““…the new Regiment now raising”: Continuing the story of the Extra Regiment.” All copyrighted material used falls under the fair use exception to U.S. copyright law as it is used for educational purposes here.

John Plant was a Charles County man who had fought in the Maryland Line, specifically part of Captain John Hoskins Stone’s First Company of the First Maryland Regiment, enlisting in Port Tobacco, Maryland. In 1781, as an experienced soldier, he served as an ensign, then lieutenant in the new Maryland Extra Regiment. He likely resigned in January 1782 as he could not retain this rank in the new unit. Still he returned as a “supernumerary” to Annapolis, beginning to receive payments after his military service eventually resulting in a pension years later.

After the war, he lived in Charles County, becoming a “well-off small farmer and slaveowner who owned two horses, one cattle, and one enslaved black child.” On June 15, 1788 he married an eighteen-year-old woman named Mary Ann Davis, with some recalling his military service in later years.Later on, Plant and Mary lived in Washington, D.C., which was then a “largely rural and sparsely populated area which had thriving ports at Georgetown and Alexanders, in addition to the federal town of Washington City, which had about 8,200 inhabitants,” with slavemasters and over 7,900 enslaved blacks being an important part of society. Plant died in DC on November 14, 1808. Many years after his death, his widow, Mary, tried to get John’s pension payments but had trouble doing so, leading her to almost be “deprived of a pension.”

What new information does Ms. Oakley add to this story? Well, John Plant’s bio managed by the Maryland State Archives, which I originally wrote back in 2016, reflects some changes, but not all. She says that he went to Prince William County, Virginia after the war as a “tenant farmer,” with a witness to his will being a “tavern owner just to the south side of the Occoquan River.” The will she attached is transcribed below, which was  tough due to the quality of the image she sent of the will (likely because it was taken on a cell phone). However, by  happenstance, someone else had transcribed this already (which I stumbled upon), so I’ll reprint their transcription, with bolding being my  emphasis:

JOHN PLANT Will

Prince William County Will Book I, pg. 3414 [sic, 414?]

10 Nov 1808; proved 5 Dec 1808

In the name of God Amen I JOHN PLANT of County of Prince William and State of Virginia being sick and weak in body but of perfect mind and memory knowing it is appointed for all men once to die do make and ordain this my last will and testament that is to say principally and first of all I give and recommend my soul into the hand of Almighty God that gave it and my body I recommend to the Earth to buried in decent Christian bureal at the discretion of my Executrix nothing doubting but at the general resurrection I shall receive the same again by the mighty power of God and as touching such worldly estate wharewith it has pleased God to bless me in this life.  I devise and dispose of the same in the following manner and form.  First I give and bequeath to MARY PLANT my loving wife al my estate real and personal for and during her life and at her death to be equally divided between my two daughters GRAYSON and SARAH to them and their heirs forever.  I constitute my loving wife MARY PLANT my sole Exetrix of this my last will and testament.  In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this tenth day of November in the year 1808.

JOHN PLANT {seal}

Witness

ZACH WARD

DAVID JOHNSTON

At a Court held for Prince William County Decemr. 5th 1808

This last will and testament of JOHN PLANT decd was presented to the Court by MARY PLANT the Executrix therein named who made oath to the same according to law and being proved by the oaths of ZACHARIAH WARD and DAVID JOHNSTON is ordered to be recorded and the said Executrix having performed what is usual in such cases certificate is granted her for obtaining a probate thereof in due form.

Teste

J.WILLIAMS  Ct. Cur.

I tried to look for another version of this on Family Search and Ancestry, but was sadly unsuccessful.We do know from this that he died between November 10 and December 5th. According to his pension, we know he died on November 14. Finding his cemetery may be extremely hard, as there are no results for the name Plant in Prince William County, Virginia and Find A Grave lists 279 cemeteries in that county! We know that Prince William County sits right on the Potomac and is 36 miles away from the heart of D.C. Still, possible candidates  for where he could be buried includes Woodbridge, Sudley Springs, or elsewhere. Yet, the family narrative, noted at the end of this post claims he is buried in Charles County, Maryland. But no results come up for Plant in that county either. Some sources seemed to say he had land in the county.I looked at MDLandRec to see if I could find anything. I found a listing for Horatio Plant in 1814, interestingly enough:

He is listed on Liber 213, no. 10, p. 519

I looked further, finding a James Plant in 1755 (Liber A, no. 1 1/2, p. 345) and 1757 (Liber G, no. 3, pp 129, 157). On the next page there were no listings for any individuals with the Plant surname at all! Looking at it in another indice gave me the same exact result:

Should be IB, not JB

I tried to look for Liber A, no. 1 1/2, p. 345 but no results came up. The link to it in the Guide to Government Records did not work when I tried it. I looked at pages 129 and 157 of Liber G, no.  3. It shows James Plant owning a piece of land called St. Michaels, which was 100 acres in 1757. Other records that year show Plant buying even more land, related to the Saint Michaels tract, from Richard Coffer. The next set of records are in 1814. Its between George Bradley Stewart of D.C., Horatio Plant and his wife Mary Cassandra Plant of Montgomery County, MD, Mary Eleanor Stewart of Montgomery County, MD, and William Dement of Charles County, MD. George, Horatio, Mary, and Mary paid William Dement $500 for a tract of land called South Hampton which is between tracts owned by John Thurman Stoddert (later a congressmember who would introduce Mary Ann’s pension claim), and Mary  Truman Fendall. And that’s it!

I checked on Plats to see if there was anything on Saint Michaels. It turns out there was an entry, but it was back in 1664. But, it doesn’t seem to be on Plats. I did find South Hampton however. It was unpatented in 1799. There is a long history, with the specifics of the land. The land itself is basically a set of rectangles and squares, nothing to write home about:

Courtesy of plats.net

The family trees on Ancestry aren’t very reliable on this subject, claiming that John was born in England in 1755,  with debate on whether he died in  Charles, Maryland or Prince William County, Virginia. I seem to think that he died in the latter place. [2] One Ancestry user and high school social studies teacher, named Adam Parry (who also commented below this post, vouching for the accuracy of his information, but I’ll still keep this comment here), writes that “John lived for a time in Northern Virginia in Prince William County based upon his will and my ability to locate one of the witnesses to the will.” Both of these trees cite the U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 database, which is notoriously unreliable, having no source for their information put reprints, some pages from his pension:

Through Ancestry’s Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files database, I  was able to find the whole pension, which I have uploaded as a PDF onto this website (I eliminated the pages with little or no content, as they are irrelevant).

But, saying he lived in Washington, D.C., as my old bio said, was not totally wrong, as it says now: “By 1808, the family had settled in Prince William County, Virginia, not far from Washington, DC.” [3] This connects to the fact that 6 months before he died (in November 1808), ” he apprenticed his sons Nathaniel and John to business people in DC.” The records are shown below:

In her third point, she writes that “John Plant had a sister Sarah Ann Plant Stewart Jones” with her obituary she was “able to determine that she attended St. Ignatius Parish prior to moving to DC in 1795. It states that she was born in Charles County.” That record, from page 3 of the National Journal on September 26, 1829, is shown below:

On her fourth point, she says that “Mary Ann Davis, [as] 2nd wife to John Plant,” living out “the rest of her life in DC with her youngest daughter Sarah Ann Plant Hay and son in law.” She adds that Mary Ann died in 1841 with a “burial location is the now- abandoned St. Patricks Church cemetery in DC” (as also evidenced by the Find A Grave she put up) with “notes written up by Agnes Plant who was the great-granddaughter of John Plant of Revolutionary War.” Mary’s obit is shown below, and after it is from the notes written by Agnes Plant.

Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Interestingly, we find (abstracted from John’s pension) that “William Stewart, age about 62, deposes that when he was about 12 years old, he recollects hearing of the marriage of the said Mary Ann and John Plant in Charles County, Maryland that the said John Plant was his mother’s brother and this deponent lived near them.” This being the case, it means that William is a grandson of John, with William’s mother being a sibling of John. William’s mother is Sarah, who was talked about earlier in this post.


Notes

[1] In 2017, she had emailed me in saying that she believed that “Horatio Plant d. 1840 (son of Ann Shepard) was also the son of John Plant. I believe that Ann was his first wife and may have died in childbirth,” going onto say that “Ann is the sister of the famous Francis Shepard, their family has been written about at Port Tobacco and the property there that was handed down from their father John Shepard”  and that she has “a copy of John Plant’s Will, however, he only names his two daughters Grace and Sarah.” She was, at the time, looking for anything that named “Horatio Plant, or have some advice to give on finding it.” Later that year, she appreciated my transfer of John Plant’s virtual grave to her, and said that connecting to Owen Lourie helped, adding that “both Horatio, and John Plants other known son Nathaniel were in the same regiment for the war of 1812. Nathaniel is the one who took/picked up the pension paperwork for May Ann Davis.”

[3] The last paragraphs of the bio now read: “Plant settled in Charles County after his military service, at least for a few years. He was a modest farmer, who probably did not own any land, although he did have one slave. On June 5, 1788, he married Mary Ann Davis (b. ca. 1770) in Charles County. They had four children together: Grace (sometimes called Grayson), Sarah, John, and Nathaniel. [5] By 1808, the family had settled in Prince William County, Virginia, not far from Washington, DC. Plant apprenticed his sons to masters in the city that spring. John was indentured to William Worthington, a cabinetmaker, and Nathaniel to a cordwainer, or shoemaker, in Georgetown. Only six months later, in November or December, John Plant died. In 1835, Mary Ann applied for a Federal veteran’s pension as the widow of a Revolutionary War soldier, and she eventually was awarded $95 per year. She died in 1841. [6]” I posted  the older version on academia.edu.

New “1771 Massachusetts tax inventory” tells about my ancestors

Recently, Dick Eastman, wrote about a new online database titled “1771 Massachusetts Tax Inventory” which also includes Maine since it was, then, “the Province of Massachusetts Bay.” This database, as he describes it, has the names of nearly “38,000 individuals who resided in 152 Massachusetts towns in 1771” and data such as the “type and value of real estate and buildings, as well as tabulation of livestock and farm commodities produced” and it further has features allowing you to “browse the data by selecting items to view and “drilling down” through totals for counties and towns to the holdings of individual taxpayers.” Furthermore, there is an “interactive map [that] helps you locate towns and counties in the state” which is based “upon a map of Massachusetts drawn in 1792 and scanned from the Harvard University map collection.” Using this, I went to the database itself and searched for two families of my ancestors: the Hirsts and the Packards (the focus of my sister blog, Packed with Packards).

While no result for “Hirst” appeared, there were over 40 Packards listed, many of whom were living in Bridgewater.

Of these, I focused on two in particular: Barnabas and Zechariah, both subjects of my family history, as noted on Packed with Packards! Barnabas was described as a resident of Bridgewater who owned a dwelling house, half a gristmill, 8 acres of pasture for  4 cows, 3 acres which were tilled, 4 acres of upland mowing land, 3 acres of fresh meadow while producing 26 bushels of grain a year, 2 barrels of cider a year, 2.5 tons of hay from the upland area a year, and 2 tons of hay from the fresh meadow area a year. It also said that Barnabas had 1 horse, 6 goats and sheep, 1 swine, did not own a servant, had 26 pounds lent at interest, and had a property worth only 13 pounds! This meant that in total Barnabas owned 18 acres and was doing moderately well, but was not in the gentry of the Massachusetts colony, as one would expect for the Packards:

Then there’s Zechariah Packard, who was a slaveowner. He had a different situation. He was also living in Bridgewater. While he had one dwelling house, he had 5 acres of pasture for 6 cows, 6 tilled acres, 4 acres of upland mowed land, 3.8. acres of fresh meadow, while producing 71 bushels of grain, 2 tons of hay from his upland mowed land, and 8 tons of hay from his fresh meadow land. Additionally, he had 1 horse, 4 oxen, 6 goats & sheep, and 3 swine, along with one servant “for life” (a slave), with his real estate worth 14 pounds. He was definitely doing better than Barnabas, owning 18.8. acres compared to Barnabas’s 18, but was still not the most prosperous in the colony of Massachusetts.

Then there’s the interactive map (from 1792 but still can be used to find towns noted in the 1771 database itself) Using the available features, one is able to focus on Plymouth county:

From there, you can focus on Bridgewater, in the northwest corner of the county.

This is a good resource, on the whole of learning more about Massachusetts and one’s ancestors, without question.

A defense of grave rubbing: fun but controversial

“Getting a rubbing of a favorite headstone for personal records” as noted in a caption on a post on the Billion Graves blog, with a man named “Chuck Badger” commenting below the post that “I would suggest, though, not to post people making rubbings on headstones. This could be damaging to stones,” one indication of the controversy of grave rubbing.

Grave rubbing is an inherent part of genealogy. Thoughts about it among genealogists and other researchers are divided, without a surprise, with strong anger emanating from the preservation community on this issue. Case in point is the response of Jere Gibber, Executive Director of the National Preservation Institute, to my inqiry, noting the number of available online, and saying that “here are just a few of the articles I found on the subject. In general, I would say that the advice offered leans toward not doing gravestone rubbings for many good reasons” and sending forward links to Historic Cemetery Preservation in Maryland, a site titled “Vast Public Indifference” standing against grave rubbings, a “Cemetery Preservation Guide” by a Louisiana individual saying that grave rubbings are extremely harmful, and a link to a South Carolinan website. He ended by saying “best of luck with your own research.” It must be a small organization for the executive director to email me!

Introduction: the debate begins

Some sites like Wikihow and ThoughtCo have pages on “how” a grave rubbing (also called a stone rubbing or tombstone rubbing) should be done. Wikihow says that you need to check if its okay to take gravestone and tombstone rubbings, with some “headstones may be considered too fragile to take rubbings but on the whole, most people won’t mind you taking a rubbing,” says that you shouldn’t trespass, you should assemble the needed items, clean the gravestone with a soft brush (as one site states, “before cleaning any stone, carefully check its condition”), and how to make the rubbing itself. ThoughtCo says something similar: that you should have permission, only do a grave rubbing on a stable stone, making sure you don’t damage the stone, and how to make the rubbing once all the appropriate steps have been taken. However these, including the Wikipedia page on “stone rubbing,” and some other sites I found on the subject do not talk about the ethics of gravestone rubbing. [1]

There are hints to the debated nature of grave rubbing. A page on Save A Grave, notes that “gravestone rubbing can be controversial. Many rubbers are not careful, for this reason, some cemetery associations do not allow stone rubbing,” while giving the same general tips as WikiHow and ThoughtCo. Another site, savinggraves.net, adds, before outlining tips about how to do grave rubbing appropriately, that “this practice has been regulated or banned in some states and in many cemeteries (particularly in colonial graveyards) due to the damage it can cause to the stone” such as in New Hampshire, with many “cemeteries now ask for permits before you are allowed to do rubbings” and adding that “common courtesy tells us that we should first ask for permission from the cemetery or graveyard superintendent or sexton prior to doing rubbings or taking photographs.” Add to this the words of the Massachusetts Studies Project, which says that while grave rubbings is an “easy project to do with students,” it is controversial because “repeated rubbings degrade the stones and can cause damage if done improperly.”

Courtesy of ICH Blog. “One group started cleaning up the cemetery and the other group went with Terra who led a workshop about grave rubbing…[ultimately] everyone came away with a working knowledge of the process and an solid understanding of the value of grave rubbing.”- The ICH Blog
Even so, some, at least in the comments of this post, seem to enjoy grave rubbing. Some said that if grave rubbings are nicely framed “they make a bold statement,” or that it is “quite a pleasing technique,” and, with one adding that it’s a “very English thing, and usually free too.” Others called the grave rubbings “cool,” and one said they loved rubbing graves. In an online forum post, one person said that “a group of American tourists ambled along the path, taking pictures and ‘rubbings’ of headstones,” and in response some said that it is was good they “had an interest,” that rubbings of “some of the more famous graves/monuments” could be acceptable,” and that grave rubbing is a “popular pass time.” Even a group called the “Gravestone Girls,” which states that “everyone sometime in their life has probably done a gravestone rubbing,” once offered a 2 & 1/2 hour class to “teach proper techniques [of grave rubbing] and educate about these interesting and historical spaces.”

This post looks at the differing laws on grave rubbing within the United States and articulates a defense of grave rubbing as opposed to those who are angry at the practice. Note that any of the following text quoted from varying websites is done in accordance with the fair use exception under existing U.S. copyright law as this article constitutes “reproduction…for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research,” meaning that it is not an “infringement of copyright.”

Argument #1 against grave rubbings:

Photographs are so great now, they negate the need for grave rubbings, which harm the stone!

“Tombstone rubbings have been popular for centuries, and are often still touted as a fun and interesting way to keep a visual record of a tombstone. But the truth is, it is harmful to tombstones and is currently being banned and outlawed in many different areas. Rubbing is, in itself, very abrasive to stones. It will eventually wear away the carving on stones and loosen bits of the stone causing flaking and breaking. Remember, even gentle rubbings cause decay. With photography what it is today, there is no reason to do a rubbing for recording or memorialising a tombstone. Photographs can provide a much greater and more artistic visual remembrance of any stone.”- New Hanover County North Carolina GenWeb

“…gravestone rubbing…can cause serious harm to a gravestone. The practice of gravestone rubbing was to place a piece of paper against the front of the gravestone and then use a crayon or pencil to rub against the paper. This was a method of recording the look and words of the gravestone. Unfortunately, with many gravestones being centuries old, this practice would often cause the stone in the gravestone to chip and flake…Your best bet is to take along a good digital camera, on a bright, sunny day where you get the best contrast, and to take the pictures. Even subtle shadows can be emphasized in most digital software packages, and you’ll be able to see exactly what those letters were saying to you.”- Lisa Shea 

“Gravestone rubbing is the process of reproducing a gravestone’s inscription on paper by rubbing chalk, crayon, or charcoal over it. Rubbing can quickly reproduce a life-size reproduction of the stone. It is a popular graveyard activity that has sparked many people’s initial interest in cemetery preservation. While rubbing may seem harmless, it can damage the tombstone. The friction and pressure hastens the natural erosion of the inscription that occurs with exposure to weather. Fragile tombstones are especially susceptible to this deterioration. Rubbings also leave remnants of wax or charcoal on the tombstone. Encouraging rubbing perpetuates the false notion that tombstones are impervious to damage. Therefore, gravestone rubbings are not recommended. Similarly, the use of shaving cream to highlight inscriptions is not recommended because it causes chemical damage. High-resolution digital photography is a safe alternative to rubbing that still allows a surveyor or visitor to record the inscription”- Prince George’s County, Maryland Cemetery Preservation Manual 

“What about tombstone rubbings? These are controversial for the risk they may place on the stones, and have been banned in some places. There are safer ways to capture what’s engraved on the grave marker…Take a picture; it will last longer. Here are some steps you can take when shooting the picture to make the inscription more readable”- Family History Daily.

My Response:

There is no doubt that having a good camera can replace grave rubbing. However, if such rubbing is done properly, then it can be as good, if not better than photography. Cameras which have a good lens and work well are not always accessible to everyone. Not everyone, from what you might think, has an iPhone. If you don’t know how to take a good picture (not everyone is skilled at photography as others are), then saying “you should take a photo, not do a grave-rubbing” is silly!

As one blog, focusing on gravestone rubbings at Fort Snelling National Park in Minnesota puts it, the rubbings themselves are hard work! Not only that, but it is fun! As the blogger notes, as you can experiment a bit, with the “look of layered colors” including wax crayons, applied with varying pressure. Even one critic of gravestone rubbing admitted that “a good gravestone rubbing is a thing of tremendous beauty.” I can’t agree more. Just take this grave rubbing of Jane Austen’s grave on the website of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

A favorable sentiment of grave rubbing is echoed by the Bullitt County History Museum. The latter which reprints the leaflet from the Association of Gravestone Studies titled “Gravestone Rubbing for Beginners,” who describes why grave rubbing is so important (after giving do’s and don’t as any good person does about grave rubbing):

Gravestone rubbing is fun. It is possible to collect some beautiful artwork that can be framed and displayed. A carver’s skill can be preserved, or an ancestor’s stone recorded and appreciated through this craft. However, gravestone rubbing is also controversial. Especially in cemeteries where a restoration project is in progress, rubbing is often banned. This is to enable the restorers to have an opportunity to preserve all the stones possible before more damage occurs. Even if a restoration project is not in progress, if those who care for the cemetery have determined there are very fragile stones there which may be damaged if pressure is applied to the surface as happens in rubbing, there may be prohibitions in place. So be sure to check.

There is something about grave rubbing that photography doesn’t have. In a spiritual way, grave rubbing allows you to be close to the stone, even touch it, even though through paper. You gain a direct connection to the stone that you don’t gain from a photograph, which you are doing removed from the stone itself. It’s almost like the energy of gravestone (and/or the grave site) comes out to touch you and effect you in a positive way, which is powerful especially if some of your family are buried there in that very grave site!

Grave rubbing at Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest, courtesy of a blog titled “Field Notes from Fatherhood

Apart from a spiritual feeling you could feel, grave rubbing is, I’d argue more creative than photography. I’m a young person, or as society wants to label me, a “millennial” (whatever that means), but I detest people being on their phones all the time taking photographs. I guess I’m “old fashioned” in that way, but I don’t mind that much at all. Most people don’t carry around cameras anymore, but have it on their small smartphones in their pockets. Engaging in grave rubbing, it can be a family activity, of someone bringing scissors to cut the drafting, transparent paper, another doing the taping, and one doing the coloring with crayons of some kind.

Just taking a photograph is boring and loses the creative, and I would argue, interactive element of grave rubbing. I understand the arguments against grave rubbing, but using a camera or a phone with a camera is losing that human feeling, that human touch with something that is part of our past. Instead of just touching a button on your phone, you feel that you are part of history, that you are recording something for future generations. Additionally, just taking a photograph assumes that technology will work and not fail. That is, I can say from my own experience, not a safe assumption to make. Technology fails all the time. Hard drives and disk drives, memory sticks and power cords, work one day but don’t work the next. As one article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it,

Gravestone rubbings may not be everyone’s idea of weekend fun, but folks who dig history and art say it’s the best of both worlds…Several students chose the graves of children, some dating back more than a hundred years. Under Foster’s direction, they used tracing paper, which is exceptionally fine, and charcoal to capture epitaphs and designs…Kelly says he does a lot of rubbings himself, not as an artistic pursuit but for clients who want to have headstones made to match those in nearby plots. He also processes requests from folks who want to rub gravestones for fun or to create artwork to frame.

Julie Kohl of Only in Arkansas adds to the above that “grave rubbings can be beautiful pieces of art themselves but should be made with extreme care and caution.” She further writes that “never force any debris off of the stone and never select a stone that is damaged or fragile in any way” and adds that “when you have completed all of your rubbings and it is time to leave, clean up after yourself. Make sure you gently remove all of your tape and collect any trash” along with many other helpful suggestions. Recently, as the National Blues Museum noted, John Wegrzyn traveled the country “visiting grave sites of famous blues musicians for the past 20 years,” creating “gravestone rubbings on album record sleeves from these sites” with the process transforming “the images of the gravestone onto paper making a unique artful homage to each musician.” You can’t do that with photography! As one blogger comments, there is “no better way to spend a beautiful fall afternoon than in your local graveyard” engaging in grave rubbings, with the right supplies, saying that a “simple crayon works better than pastels or charcoal for gravestone rubbings.”

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Mom’s Blog, in an article by Kristi, which celebrates the joy of grave rubbing and going around cemeteries.

To the final part of the argument, those who argue against grave rubbing harp on the “harm to the stone.” I get that some people are clumsy and can damage stones too easily (only do the grave rubbing on stones which are stable). But some of these grave sites are not tended well and clearly have few visitors (like one I visited in Bridgewater, MA near a church). As such, few visit these places. Saying all of that, I do think that people should follow all the right tips for grave rubbing, as noted in the first part of this article, and generally use “common sense,” as my mom always says, when it comes to this creative endeavor. As noted by the Florida Division of Historical Resources, “do not make a rubbing of a gravestone if it is in poor condition and may fracture from the pressure applied to its face” and while making a rubbing, “be sure that the marker is completely covered with paper and the rubbing medium will not leave any residue.”

There is a point that those who sneer at grave rubbing seem to forget however: a grave rubbing can include details that a photograph cannot. Sometimes gravestones are hard to photograph, or even if they can be photographed in a good way, you miss something. If you do it diligently, and with discipline, a grave rubbing can show all the nooks and crannies of a stone. This is especially important as stones tend to sink into the ground, meaning that they are submerged partially below the ground. However, if a grave rubbing was done before that, then a photograph taken of the partially submerged stone will tell you less than the grave rubbing. There should be no question about that.

The Holmes County Cemeteries WordPress, which says that “extreme caution” should be done while doing a grave rubbing and getting permission (as some cemeteries do not allow it), describes the practice of grave rubbing as a

technique that can be used to preserve the unique artwork found on many tombstones. If done properly, it can be a way to help decipher the tombstone’s inscription which may be worn with age.

Can you preserve the “unique artwork” with a camera and decipher an inscription worn with age? This is unlikely to be the case especially of a photograph of the stone doesn’t turn out well.

Sure, grave rubbing can “potentially damage” a stone if done incorrectly. However, just taking a photograph is like restraining yourself from touching something in a museum. Why not interact with history, instead of physically removing yourself by taking a picture? I understand what too much rubbing of a stone can degrade it over time. If one stone or a cemetery is a popular one for grave rubbing, that the cemetery should do their own (professionally done) grave rubbing(s) and have them available to those visiting the cemetery. I wouldn’t be opposed to that at all. This is something those who sneer at grave rubbing don’t seem to think about or propose as a possible compromise.

Courtesy of a blogger named Gwendolyn with a blog titled “60 Days of Halloween” with this one titled “Day 56: Gravestone Rubbings”

If you want to take a photograph, go ahead, but you will be engaging in an activity which does not have as much of a connection to the past, is something that is easy, simple, and thoughtless. Grave rubbing is something that requires thought but is creative and interactive. Saying all of this, I still enjoy Find A Grave and BillionGraves, with photographs of tombstones within their profiles even if I personally prefer grave rubbing better.

Argument #2 against grave rubbings:

It’s against the law, just take a photograph!

“I did not take this rubbing, in fact because I live in Massachusetts, I have never done a gravestone rubbing. It is considered gravestone desecration and it against the law here. I don’t know if it is against the law in other states. This rubbing was done in Connecticut and probably many years ago. It is a reminder to all how well preserved this gravestone is to be able to do that…I raised my hand and politely informed him that this was an illegal practice in Massachusetts and that he should be teaching gravestone photography instead. He replied that it wasn’t the SAME and that he would continue to teach them to rub gravestones…It occurs to me now that gravestone photography would be quicker and easier for his students to accomplish (and more educationally appropriate for 21st century learning and sharing online) and perhaps the time it took to make the gravestone rubbing and then to hang them somewhere in the college’s halls (adding to his fame and reputation) was the point to the assignment in his mind.”- a blog titled Granite in my Blood 

“…gravestone rubbings…are harmful to the gravestone…I consider them temporary and my digital photo of the rubbed stone to be my permanent record.”-  Janine Adams of Organize Your Family History

“NHOGA does not recommend rubbings as a means of documenting the stones. Old gravestones are surprisingly fragile and any pressure on the stone can easily cause it to snap in half. Because of this, gravestone rubbing is often prohibited by law. Photography is a much safer option.”- New Hampshire Old Graveyard Association

The part about taking a photograph is addressed in response to the previous argument, as noted above.

In Massachusetts (MA), as noted by the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation, general governmental guidelines say that cemeteries should “prohibit stone rubbing, which can leave trace oils and wax on historic stone,” recommending the directing of a “raking light across the stone’s surface to illuminate inscriptions,” saying to use “a strong flashlight or a large mirror,” then taking a photograph. This prohibition would see seems to have harsh penalties in existing law (also see here) although grave rubbing doesn’t seem to mentioned specifically, but alluded to and considered to be part of the law, by places such as Family Tree Magazine. There is even a sign at King’s Chapel Cemetery in Boston discouraging grave rubbing, as one blogger noted in 2011:

There is a similar sign in Sudbury, MA, as noted by a blogger also in 2011, saying “the revolutionary cemetery is under the jurisdiction of the Sudbury Historical Commission. There is to be no gravestone rubbing or metal detection allowed.”

With the image and other assertions, it was unclear to me whether grave rubbing was illegal in Massachusetts or not so I asked. Here is my email exchange with Ed Bell of Massachusetts Historical Commission, part of the Massachusetts State Archives, starting with my email on December 26th:

Good evening.

I’m getting ready to write a blogpost about grave rubbing (nationwide) and would like to know about its legal status in your state. I’ve read your states Department of Conservation and Recreation, general governmental guidelines say that cemeteries should “prohibit stone rubbing, which can leave trace oils and wax on historic stone,” recommending an alternative. I’ve also read specific parts of Massachusetts law here and here, and although some places, like Family Tree Magazine, seem to say it is illegal in Massachusetts, I still haven’t found anything definitive within Massachusetts law as of yet.

I guess I’m asking: is grave rubbing (also called stone rubbing, gravestone rubbing, monument rubbing or tombstone rubbing) illegal in Massachusetts? If not, is it only discouraged, but still legal?

If you can’t answer my question, I ask that you direct me toward someone who can answer my questions.

Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you in the coming week.

Best Regards

[my name and contact info]

Apparently, Mr. Bell thought I was female (maybe because they get a lot of emails from concerned ladies?), writing back the following day:

Dear Madam,

For Mass. state laws about cemeteries and gravestones, see Mass Gen Law c. 114 and Mass Gen Laws c. 272, ss. 71-73. Municipalities in Mass. and private cemetery corporations may have their own ordinances and rules. We are otherwise unable to offer legal advice.

Ed Bell MHC

I responded the next day writing

Mr. Bell,
Thanks for your email. I was not thinking you would provide legal advice but was hoping for further resources on laws on grave rubbings. I will take a look at Mass Gen Laws c. 114 (https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXVI/Chapter114) and c. 272, ss. 71-73
(https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartIV/TitleI/Chapter272/Section73). I recognize that “municipalities in Mass. and private cemetery corporations may have their own ordinances and rules” as you note.

Thanks again for responding in a timely fashion.

Best regards,

[my name]

The first law is chapter 114 titled “cemeteries and burials.” After going past varying provisions on cemetery corporations within this chapter of MA general laws, there are provisions about maintaining cemeteries, prohibiting individuals from using cemeteries as a cut through, not actually looking at the stones, saying that cemeteries cannot be used for commercial purposes without permission, and prohibiting towns from removing any “fence, tomb, monument or other structure” in a cemetery, but allowing them to repair and restore.

Then there is section 73, within chapter 272 of MA general laws, titled “tombs, graves, memorials, trees, plants; injuring, removing.” It says and I quote:

Whoever wilfully destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures or removes a tomb, monument, gravestone, American flag, veteran’s grave marker, metal plaque, veteran’s commemorative flag holder, commemorative flag holder representing service in a police or fire department, veteran’s flag holder that commemorates a particular war, conflict or period of service or flag, or other structure or thing which is placed or designed for a memorial of the dead, or a fence railing, curb or other thing which is intended for the protection or ornament of a structure or thing before mentioned or of an enclosure for the burial of the dead, or wilfully removes, destroys, mutilates, cuts, breaks or injures a tree, shrub or plant placed or being within such enclosure, or wantonly or maliciously disturbs the contents of a tomb or a grave, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or by imprisonment in the jail or house of correction for not more than two and one-half years and by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars. In addition, the court shall order any person convicted of an offense pursuant to this section to pay restitution to the owner of the property that was damaged, destroyed, mutilated, defaced, injured or removed.

This would obviously prohibit scratches of a stone or damaging a tombstone in any other way. Even with this, however, I can’t tell if this would prohibit grave rubbing or not. Some people on reddit said that “if I recall correctly… gravestone rubbing is illegal in MA” but couldn’t find any source other than blogs, another said it is illegal to “deface” or “tamper with” gravestones in Massachusetts,” and someone else commented that: “I don’t know of any cemeteries that allow stone-rubbings.” I know that Reading, MA says that “unauthorized gravestone rubbing is not allowed” and Burying Point cemetery in Salem (as does the whole jurisdiction) bans the practice, as does Dennis, MA, but does this apply to all of MA? The same could be said for Princeton, MA which says that “only gravestone rubbings authorized by the PCC are permitted” with the same being the case for Amesbury, MA, and Provincetown arguing that “gravestone rubbing…is not allowed except by express written permission of the Cemetery Commission or their designee upon submission of written proposal.” There are similar regulations in Harvard, Andover, Ware, Harwich, Lakeville, Topsfield, and Ipswich. Perhaps people could do it more freely in the past as a photo on this website could indicate.

With this, I would say it is safer to take photographs in Massachusetts as, at least from my research, the law is unclear on the subject despite some declaring it is prohibited. Perhaps it a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, I’m not sure but it seems it is not illegal, but don’t quote me on that. As such, make sure to recognize the rules or regulations regarding photography in cemeteries.

“Volunteers helped with light ground cleaning and site care…Afterwards they had the opportunity to enjoy tours of the cemetery grounds, try a hand at grave rubbing, and participate in an archaeological scavenger hunt” with the text and above photo from archaelogical.org.

Then we get to Rhode Island. It seems to have strict laws relating the moving of anything from a grave site. However, grave rubbing does not seem to be mentioned, even if you said it was implied in bills (unsure if they passed) like this one (also see here). [2] Like with Massachusetts, I emailed the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, writing that

Good evening.

Your state seems to have strict laws relating the moving of anything from a grave site. However, grave rubbing does not seem to be mentioned, even if it seems implied in varying laws.

I had one simple question: what is the legal status of grave rubbing (also called tombstone rubbing, monument rubbing, and gravestone rubbing) in the state of Rhode Island? Is it illegal as in Massachusetts (as some assert), is it legal but needing a permit, or something completely different.

I hope you are having a good holiday and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best regards,

[name and contact info]

As of January 22, the date of the writing of this article, I have received no reply to this inquiry. I hope to get something considering that the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission (RIHPHC) suggests that grave rubbing be limited. On February 6th, Charlotte Taylor, an archaeologist with the RIHPHC, told me, in an email, “sorry for being so long in answering your question; it took a while to get to my mailbox. There is no law forbidding gravestone rubbings in RI, but the RI State Cemetery Commission strongly discourages it, because it might cause damage to the stone. Let me know directly if you have any further questions.” Why they would strongly discourage it is understandable, as I note in this article, although I still support the practice as this article notes.

Image via Ancestry Printing, a company which is so specialized, it only deals with printing genealogy charts! The person in the image seems to be Cheryl Spiegel of Ancestry Printing, a co-founder of the business.

In New Hampshire (NH) municipal cemeteries and burial grounds, one needs to obtain the “written permission of the town selectmen or the mayor of a city or designee” to do a grave rubbing, as stated in a law passed in 1994 in Section 289:22 of NH Law. Specific rules and procedures are laid out in the easy-to-read and interpret form issued by the town of Fitzwilliam. The town of Northfield, NH prohibits grave rubbing as does Amherst (also see here), Tuftonboro, Stoddard, and Oakland Cemetery, while Rumney, NH says you need written permission before doing a grave rubbing. The same is the case in Hancock, NH, which says that “headstone rubbing is permitted only by the Sexton. Persons wishing to perform rubbing must register with the Town Clerk and the Town Hall. Instructions for headstone rubbing will be issued at time of registration,” the same being the case for Walpole, NH, Brentwood, NH, Stratham, NH, Marlow, NH, Epping, NH, Gilmanton, NH, Windham, NH, Newton, NH,

Savannah, Georgia has a whole set of regulations relating to monument and headstone rubbing. Their regulations state that:

  1.  You need a “permit from the Department of Cemeteries” to do a grave rubbing that specifies “all lot numbers from which a rubbing is desired,” with a permit applied for every time the monuments are rubbed.
  2. A permit to rub a monument needs the written approval of the owner of the lot which contains “the monuments to be rubbed,” except if the owner is deceased with no heirs, and no burials “on that lot for at least seventy (70) years.”
  3. The person making the request for the permit is “responsible for any damage to monuments or the grounds incurred by the rubbing activities” and cannot rub monuments that are “cracked, split, spalling, flaking, or have seams,” but only those that are “sound stones”
  4. All rubbings of monuments has to be done under the “direct supervision of a responsible adult over eighteen (18) years of age”
  5. Stones may be cleaned but only with a soft brush and not with a wire brush, with the non-removal of “lichens or moss growing on the stones”
  6.  The entire area to be rubbed must be covered with paper held in place by making tape, with any pens not allowed for monument rubbing, but “chalk, charcoal, crayons, or graphite” being acceptable, with any tape, paper, and trash from the process either removed from the lot or put in trash cans

Another city in Georgia, Atlanta, has its own regulations. They only have one sentence, unlike Savannah, saying that “no person shall conduct any stone rubbings within the cemetery, unless approved by the commissioner or director, bureau of parks.” Madison, also in Georgia, has similar rules, saying that only permitted grave rubbing is allowed following proof of “family authorization” with guidelines for supervision, certain standards, cautions, approved rubbing methods, and approved rubbing materials.

This is very different from Nashville, Tennessee which prohibits grave rubbings because “the markers are very fragile [and] the pressure applied to the marker to make the rubbings can cause continued flaking,” adding that even “with the harder stone markers, crayons and pencil marks left on the stones are damaging.”

Wasco County Chief Deputy Lane Magill: “It was a cold day, about 20 degrees and brutal, and the wax didn’t want to work when I was trying to do the gravestone rubbings at Arlington. I ended up having to redo some of them but somewhere along the way these men became the faces of war for me; I never met them but they died for me.”- The Dalles Chronicle of The Dalles, Oregon.

Connecticut is unique. Since many of the gravestones in the state are sandstone and will “erode internally leaving the surface…seemingly very stable for rubbing when in fact the stone is hollow beneath.” Other laws on grave rubbing in Connecticut are not currently known except it is clearly prohibited in Somers, CT. With this, and the condition of the stones, I don’t think rubbing stones in Connecticut is a good idea! As the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association writes, “rubbings themselves are generally discouraged unless authorized by the gravestone owner…Do not touch any gravestone that looks delicate, unstable, or disaggregated.”

The same type of laws in place in Connecticut are also there for Pennsylvania. The latter undoubtedly has laws concerning cemeteries (as noted here, here, and here) but none seem to relate to grave rubbing. Already it is clear that someone was able to do a grave rubbing of Andy Warhol’s gravestone in PA, so perhaps it isn’t illegal? You could also say this is the case for New York which has a listing of laws applicable to cemeteries, and even has a Division of Cemeteries. Lafayette, Colorado is the most direct of all, saying point-bank on their website that “gravestone rubbings are not permitted.”

Beyond this, there are laws on gravesites (some specifically related to grave rubbing) for varying other states:

  • Indiana (the laws of the whole state are not currently known, but it is clear that you can do grave rubbings in Indianapolis)
  • Texas (also see here)
  • Virginia, which has laws about defacing, mutilating, and damaging stones, but nothing about grave rubbing per say (see here, here, and here)
  • Washington State
  • Ohio  (while it seemed that the state seems to prohibit rubbing of stones which would cover grave rubbing, with this specifically the case in Granville Township, other places allow it but only with permission, and it has been done in Antioch, Ohio, putting into question if it is prohibited at all)
  • North Carolina’s specific laws on cemeteries do not mention grave rubbing
  • Missouri has laws about damaging stones (as noted here and here) but nothing about grave rubbing to be exact
  • Kentucky has similar laws to Missouri, but nothing relating to grave rubbing
  • Tennessee has similar laws to Missouri and Kentucky.
  • Maryland seems to need some sort of approval for grave rubbing (“No ground disturbing activities may be conducted on state-owned or state-controlled property without obtaining a permit from MHT”), but I would have to look into that more as the guidelines don’t say.
  • Maine’s laws on cemeteries don’t even mention the word “rub.”  It seems that Maine allows grave rubbings, but more investigation would be needed as one needs permission for such rubbings in certain cemeteries in the state
  • Illinois, the laws of which don’t include the word “rub” (even so, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Historic Preservation Agency “strongly discourage” rubbings, further writing in a preservation handbook that “Making a rubbing of a marker does pose an unwarranted risk to the stone..although some preservation resources support making rubbings, we believe that the risks outweigh the end results. Digital photography provides an excellent opportunity to capture the motifs and inscriptions found on marble markers.”)
  • Utah, the laws of which seem unclear on grave rubbing.
  • Oregon doesn’t mention grave rubbing either!
  • Nebraska, which doesn’t mention it
  • Louisiana, with a website with dead links
  • South Carolina (The South Carolina Dept of Archives & History writes that “unfortunately, it can damage historic gravestones. Some cemeteries now even forbid the practice…If you decide to make gravestone rubbings, avoid as much damage as possible” but no comment on its legal status is made, although this website seems to suggest that prohibiting grave rubbing was floated)
  • West Virginia
  • Florida has resources about grave rubbings but nothing specifically on its legal status
  • Michigan, with the Michigan Historic Cemetery Preservation Manual writing that “gravestone rubbings are not recommended and are no longer considered an acceptable practice because of the harm and damage that can occur…With the currently available photographic capabilities, rubbings are an unnecessary risk for fragile historic headstones. High-resolution photography of stones is a safe and effective alternative to rubbing. Photography can document and reproduce the same information. A digital camera can achieve remarkable results without chemicals or stress to the stones.” The exact laws in Michigan are not known, although there are documented grave rubbings in the state.

There are federal laws, but these don’t relate to grave rubbing and neither does the cemetery brief by the National Park Service.

Courtesy of Episcopal Christchurch of Shrewsbury in Shrewsbury, NJ. Images taken in 2014.

As for Maryland, I asked about grave rubbing, writing an email on January 22nd:

Good morning Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight,

As a Marylander, I’d like to know about the legal status of grave rubbing (also called tombstone rubbing, monument rubbing, stone rubbing, and gravestone rubbing) as the burial law document compiled by the Maryland Historical Trust doesn’t seem to mention it. I’m not asking for legal advice or anything of the sort as I know you wouldn’t be able to provide that. But I see that “Maryland law provides protection against disturbance of burial sites and human remains” and that “No ground disturbing activities may be conducted on state-owned or state-controlled property without obtaining a permit from MHT” on the Historic Cemetery Preservation webpage. I was originally going to email the Maryland Historical Trust, but I thought I’d start with you first.

I look forward to hearing from you in the coming week.

Best regards,

[then listing my contact info and name]

I hope to hear from them soon. I will update this blog with their response. I know that the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites writes in their guide to stewardship of burial sites that

Do rubbings of stones only after permission has been granted by the cemetery office or owner. Your interest in burial grounds may be in creating a rubbing of the carvings and inscriptions found on the gravestones…on a very basic level, to lift an image from a gravestone you need…Permission to do a rubbing from the cemetery management…Note that it is important to not mark or mar the stone you are rubbing in any way. Placing the paper all the way over the edges and around the stone helps to ensure you do not get any wax on the stone…It’s better to learn the good rubbing techniques and try out your tools before you enter a burial ground. It is therefore recommended that you practice at home before you attempt to lift an image on site…If you want to create a rubbing of a stone and the cemetery refuses permission, state or local law forbids the practice, or a stone cannot be rubbed due to its deteriorated condition a photograph is a good alternative.

But that is general and doesn’t talk specifically about Maryland.

After saying all of this, it is clear that you should make sure you follow the relevant guidelines in your state regarding grave rubbing (not burial laws). You don’t want to be running away from the police with your grave rubbing in hand, pay a nasty fine, or spend time in the slammer! Allison Dolan of Family Tree Magazine wrote that:

A state, county, municipality or a cemetery itself can set rules regarding tombstone rubbings. Historic cemeteries and those popular with tourists…often prohibit tombstone rubbings because of the potential damage. Repeated rubbings of a stone, even when done properly, cause deterioration over time. Similarly, Department of Veterans Affairs national cemeteries also do not authorize gravestone rubbings…You also may find rubbings aren’t prohibited, but regulated…Before you visit a cemetery to do a rubbing, call ahead to see if it’s permitted. Most cemetery Web sites I checked didn’t address the issue; I’d try to talk to a person just to be safe. For some cemeteries, it’s not clear whom to call…A local genealogical or historical society might be able to give helpful information, too. Before visiting a cemetery located on private property…check cemetery access laws to ensure you’re not trespassing…Even when tombstone rubbings are allowed, use common sense: If a stone is unsteady, crumbling or fragile, don’t take a rubbing—take a picture and make a transcription instead.

From here, Genealogy Today puts it best, when it comes to the merits of grave rubbings, writing that “tombstone rubbings can be a great way to collect genealogical information. And the process can be fun for the entire family,” helping to preserve old tombstones which “crack and break apart or erode over time.” Additionally, they can create “interest and conversation with family members who aren’t normally interested in family history.” I doubt that a photograph of a tombstone can have the same effect as that. As Kristi of the Oklahoma blog, “Cemetery Fun!” writes,

the first time I ever did a grave rubbing was in a beautiful, old cemetery in Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was so fun.  This is a great way to not only teach about the symbols but it’s a great art project as well.  All you need is some paper and a crayon and possibly some tape to hold the paper on, if you are wanting to copy a large area…make sure the cemetery allows rubbings &…only do them on sturdy headstones.

Even saying this, looking at the laws above, some states, like Connecticut, undoubtedly require a method other than grave rubbing if the stones are that fragile, looking “stable” when they are actually hollow. As a post on Ancestry put it, “before you do any kind of gravestone rubbing, first check with the group that is in charge of the cemetery or find another method that is safer for the stone to get the information you need.” This applies whether you are doing grave rubbing in Ireland, North Carolina, Falls City, Nebraska, Kentucky, or in New Suffolk, NY. So do grave rubbing and have fun but be responsible while doing it!

Atop an article in the West Milford Messenger titled “Experiencing local history.” They caption this photo saying “West Milford student, Ryan, participates in a grave rubbing activity.”

Notes

[1] For instance see “How to Make a Grave Rubbing” on HowCast, and a story titled “Grave Rubbings,” in HandEye magazine about a woman named Susan Lenz who “draws upon the granite and marble studded cemetery landscape for her Grave Rubbings art quilts,” seeking out “gravestones and the words and symbols carved into them for future generations.” A pretty neat idea if you ask me. Also see “How to do Rubbings on Headstones,” and “How to Do Tombstone Rubbings.”

[2] Also see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Update:

Ms. Andrea Carlin of the Greenfield, MA-based Association for Gravestone Studies wrote to me on January 27, saying that I should “contact Gravestone Artwear, they sell rubbing supplies and I’m sure would have some advice” and attached a “guide that has some general info” for other helpful tips. That 8-page-guide is attached here. The website she sent for Gravestone Artwear says the following:

…Our brand NEW Old Stone Rubbing Kit’s contents are all manufactured here in the USA…In response to our customers requests for wider rubbing paper, we’ve added three inches to the width of our internationally known “Aqaba” brand rubbing paper. It now measures 27 inches by 36 inches to give you more rubbing surface. We have made the tube wider for easier access to its contents.
The half inch wider width also gives you more space for storing your rubbings…The NEWLY updated Old Stone Rubbing kit retails for $29.95, plus shipping. Additional copies of the Gravestone Rubbing Guide can be purchased at $5.00 each.

As always, I welcome all of your comments on the subject.

The “rules of genealogical research”: Responding to Tanner’s “Genealogy Star” blog

An image from a post on familytree.com titled “Long Lost Relatives from Across the Aisle

In late December James L. Tanner wrote, on his “Genealogy Star” blogspot, about genealogical research in the age of the internet. He wrote that “fundamental rules of genealogical research” necessitate that every conclusion cite a record or document.He added that “genealogy is not something you just make up in your spare time. The whole idea is that genealogy is based on history.” I write this post not to disagree with him, but to the contrary, to agree with him with a doubt.

In the rest of Tanner’s post, he notes how the “popular part of genealogy has evolved into a copycat deluge” with content of “record hints” ignored or dismissed, adding that there is “no way to purge the system of the old inaccurate information” meaning that such inaccuracies are “copied as well as the accurate information.” He gives examples of the “”Family Data Collection – Deaths” collection (which was “copied from copies”) , the “Family Data Collection – Births” collection (similar to the other family data collection), and the “U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Inde[x]s, 1936-2007” (which could be “accurate, but unless the person looking at the entry goes beyond this entry, there is no way to know if the information is useful”) on Ancestry.com. He ends his post by saying the following to the reader:

These are examples of the need to look carefully at the sources and to avoid copying copies. Without a general community-wide awareness of this need, we will keep getting copies of copies and preserving inaccurate information. Part of the blame for this situation lies with the individuals, but more lies with the large online companies who think they have “protected themselves” from criticism by explaining the traps but still promote the traps at the same time.

Before moving on, I’d like to respond to the above recommendations and comments. I agree that it is easy to preserve inaccurate information. However, I think it is horrible that companies like Ancestry and sites like Family Search promote bad records with inaccurate sources. So, you have to be careful with genealogical research without a doubt.

Now, let me add my two cents and personal experience.

When I originally started doing genealogy I was adding sources left and right, copying directly from family trees. These trees made it seem that the family on my mom’s side descended from English royalty. I used similar information to “prove” the link from my mom’s ancestors to a family of a similar name in England. However, this was all for naught: I only relied on family trees but little else. This meant I had to delete many individuals, deleting the “stinky” parts of my family tree on Ancestry.

Since then, my family tree on Ancestry has become a work in progress. I add and subtract information as needed, from time to time. I use “family trees” as a source but only when other sources are available.I recommend that one avoid other horrible sources like the “American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI)”, “Millennium File”, “U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900” and “Web: Netherlands, GenealogieOnline Trees Index, 1000-2015” if at all possible. One of the collections looks like this:

And here is an example of what the “hints” (or the green leaf on profiles) look like on Ancestry:

In this case, both of these hints are about the right person. However, I clicked “ignore” on both because the profile of his father already listed both censuses. I Just wrote “see 1850 census linked on his father’s page” (and the same for 1860), adding in the information from his father’s page. I did this because I don’t currently have an Ancestry.com subscription, but I have information attached to pages from the time I did have a subscription.

Anyway, more to the point of Tanner’s post is a biography on Cyrus Winfield Packard. I originally was going to do the entry on Samuel Packard, which is one of the earliest entries on my family tree but I mostly cite my Packed With Packards! blog (which cites original sources), so it probably isn’t a good example of good sourcing. So, I present the following biography (with certain identifying of the family tree information blacked out) as an example of something for other researchers to emulate.

Here is the top half of the page:

Census records and marriage records are the mainstay of this biography, whether federal or state censuses (only some states like Massachusetts have them). There is also a peppering of vital records of Massachusetts, Find A Grave, and posts from my Packed with Packards! blog about Cyrus. Now, census records and vital records can be found on ancestry, but if you don’t feel like paying for a subscription like yours truly then you can look up the same records on familysearch.org. You need to create an account now, but it is still relatively easy and a free-to-use service. This is an advantage of Family Search over Ancestry without a doubt.

Then there is the second half of the biography:

It continues in the same vein as the top half. I tried my best to source every bit of information I found. You may notice that I used photographs as a source. These come from a collection of Massachusetts Land Records at http://www.masslandrecords.com which you can search free and online. I was able to find a good many land records that way, which was very helpful to telling the story of Cyrus Winfield Packard. This blog is one, maybe of the first posts connecting my Packed With Packards! blog with this one.

I look forward to hearing your comments.