Know Your Archives: The Congregational Library

Randall Stephens

[Cross posted at the Historical Society blog.]

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mike Pasquier said…
Outstanding! I may try to match your iMovie wits by semester's end. And nice "Ken Burns" effect.
Thank you so much for this amazing article. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you while you were visiting. I'm working on screencasts for the library and we've been talking about getting a video recorder. I think you've inspired me on what a video can look like.
Randall said…
Jessica and Mike: Thanks for the compliments. The Congregational Library's blog and the general info on the site is impressive. I would like to see more archives make images available on-line.
Anonymous said…
you make movies too. Geez!!!
Paul Harvey said…
Randall is God. He's replacing Eric Clapton in that role.
Thomas Lannon said…
Randall Stephens:

I wonder if you'll be in New York in the near future. If so, please contact regarding the Sermons collection held in the Manuscripts & Archives Division of the New York Public Library. This collection was acquired in the same lot as the papers of Isaac P. Langworthy. At that time, the keeper of manuscripts set them aside to await the next revival. Langworthy, however, was corresponding secretary of the American Congregational Union and a brilliant collector of manuscript sermons. As a result, this collection of sermons is vital to any scholarship of the Congregational church in America and require much work in years ahead.

Thanks for your attention,

Thomas Lannon
Manuscripts & Archives Division
New York Public Library