Saturday, April 18, 2020

Crowdsourcing a 19th Century Brookline Diary

Would you like to help bring the story of a 19th century Brookline woman and her family to life?

About five years ago I photographed the 1851-1865 diary of Mary Johanna Wild at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College. Wild lived with her family in a Brookline house that she and her husband, Dr. Charles Wild, built in 1822. It still stands, on Weybridge Road near  the intersection of Washington and Greenough Streets.

Pages from Mary Wild diary
Pages from Mary Joanna Wild diary (click image for larger view)

The Wild house in 1868 and 2016
The Wild House, built in 1822, shown in 1868 (left) and after a 2016 renovation (right)
I started, but never quite completed, transcribing the diary, page-by-page. It was painstaking work, partly because the page images, shot with my iPad camera, were not very good. Some of them were pretty unreadable. Fortunately, the entire diary was digitized by Boston College in 2018 and is available in high resolution, zoomable images online.

Now, I'm asking for your help in bringing this project to fruition. Here is what you can do.
  • I will send each volunteer 1-3 pages of the diary at a time. I'll send you a copy of my transcription and instructions for viewing the handwritten pages online. 
  • Your task will be to read through the original diary pages, confirm or correct errors in my transcription, and fill in parts I was unable to transcribe or was uncertain about.
When it is completed, we will have a crowdsourced transcription of the diary that I will make publicly available online.

But this will be more than just a transcription. I've compiled annotations of the diary noting, among other things, details about the people Mary mentions, the places, events, and objects she describes, books she reads, and more. That will all be included in the final project.

For example, at the bottom of the very first page of the diary, on Saturday,  January 11, 1851, Mary writes: "I went to the musical Fund in the eve with C. Rhodes & Dr. Sen." Here is that entry from her diary and, below it, the program from that concert digitized from the collections of the New York Public Library. (The concert, featuring the Beethoven Pastorale, took place at the Tremont Temple on Tremont Street in Boston.)
Diary entry and program from the Boston Musical Fund Society concert, January 11, 1851

But it all starts with completing a good transcription.

Are you interested in contributing to this project? Let me know— email me at — and I will send you pages and detailed instructions.

- Ken

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Local History in the Time of COVID-19

Like most of us in this time of crisis, I'm working from home and maintaining social distance while worrying about myself, my family and friends, my community, the nation, and the world.

My day job keeps me plenty busy: I'm coordinating the Boston University Libraries support for remote teaching and learning. But as volunteer head of the Brookline Historical Society I haven't stopped engaging—mostly on the weekends—in the local history work I enjoy so much. It's good for my mental health, and I hope it provides some distraction, entertainment, and education for others.

Ken doing research in the kitchen
I've turned two of my neighborhood walking tours—Coolidge Corner and the Beaconsfield Terraces—into video tours you can watch on your computers or other devices. I'm hoping to develop virtual tours you can consult on your phones to learn more about different sites as you go for walks, one of the few external activities we can still enjoy.

I was interviewed last weekend by the Brookline Interactive Group about Brookline in the 1918-19 flu pandemic, which I wrote about back in 2009. (It will air soon on the Web and local cable TV.)

I'll be producing more of these videos and other ways of sharing local history (as time and energy allow). I hope to put together some online guides to doing local history research and other ways of helping others explore the history of our town.

The coronavirus crisis has delayed our usual Brookline Historical Society membership drive, but if you're a current or past member, please renew your membership. And if you're not a member but enjoy local history, please join us. (I confess it feels a little awkward to ask when we are all worried not just about our health but about our financial futures and those of local businesses, government services, and the more vulnerable among us and in society.)

Membership dues and donations provide essential support for our free educational programs, including lectures, open houses, and walking tours, and for the care and maintenance of our collections. As a member you will also receive the Society newsletter, advanced notice of events, and invitations to annual members-only presentations in historic homes and buildings.

Membership information is available on our website (along with historic photos, stories, research sources, and much more.)

In any case, I hope you can enjoy learning about the past even while worrying about the future and, most importantly, taking care of yourselves and others in the present.


Ken Liss
President, Brookline Historical Society