Archives and Special Collections

Archives, Historical Records, Special Collections

Little Buttons, Big Movements: Processing the Mary M. Leno Button Collection

Mary M. Leno Button Collection

NUASC estimates the collection contains about 5,000 buttons documenting a number of political and social movements, mostly since the 1960s. Original label for this box: “Peace Now; Bombs and Guns; Native Americans.”

Northeastern Archives and Special Collections holds the Mary M. Leno button collection (Z09-016 and Z19-011), a personal collection of about 5,000 items collected by Leno which document a range of social issues and political activism from the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century. The materials in this collection complement other special collections in the repository, and give voice to local, national, and international solidarity movements. The Archives has recently developed a plan to organize and inventory the collection, and is also considering digitization.

The collection consists mostly of pinback buttons featuring text and graphics, as well as enamel buttons, patches, and ribbons. Most buttons with text are in English, but we have also found items in Spanish, Russian, and Japanese. The topics the buttons cover include women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, African-American rights, Native American rights, prisoners’ rights, immigrant rights, civil rights, ecology and environmentalism, health issues, nuclear power, housing and development, war and imperialism, labor issues and unions, media power, consumer rights, and ageism, among other subjects. A large part of the collection consists of American political campaign and political party buttons, spanning back to at least 1916.

Despite spanning such a diverse range of topics, the majority of buttons are undated and typically provide little provenance information beyond manufacturing details. Text or graphics usually give some indication of context, but often we cannot place the buttons in a particular time and place, and know little about their background prior to donation. Because of this lack of context, we have decided to organize buttons by topic to the best of our ability. Most buttons were grouped into loose topics when they were donated. Apart from adding some additional topics and changing some language, we have decided to in large part retain Leno’s original organization of the materials.

One of the most interesting aspects of this collection is how many of the buttons address intersectional issues and activism. Buttons about eco-feminism, housework labor, environmental racism, consumer divestment, AIDS prevention, and political prisoners are just some examples of overlapping movements and topics. To accommodate this, we intend to inventory and record basic information about each button, to help users find specific items they may be looking for across topics. The hope is that this will support the discovery and research of intersectional issues and social movements.

We hope that by processing and enhancing access to the Mary M. Leno button collection, we can help patrons research and discover histories of social and political activism through archival objects. The collection is open for research, and we encourage you to come take a look when the reading room reopens. For more information, please contact us at archives@northeastern.edu.

Mary M. Leno Button Collection

Buttons arrived at the Archives in several boxes, with multiple topics represented in each box. Original label for this box: “Multi-Cultural; African-Americans; Native-Americans, Prisoners’ Rights; Imperialism.”

Mary M. Leno Button Collection

A box of buttons documenting LGBTQ- and AIDS-related activism.

Behind the Scenes of the Freedom House Digitization Project

Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections has thousands of archival records available online through our Digital Repository System (DRS). While exploring our digital collections, you can learn more about the University’s past or dive deep into the history of social movements and community organizations in Boston. One of the library’s ongoing digitization projects is to make the Freedom House records more broadly accessible by digitizing and describing the collection, which provides a fascinating look at community activism in Roxbury in the mid-late 20th century. 

Cover of the June 1973 issue of the Roxbury Goldenaires Heart Line newsletter

Digitized during this project: The Heart Line newsletter, a source of poetry, humor, political content, and more for elderly Roxbury community members

As a digital production assistant, I help to bring these documents from the archival box to your screen. Over the course of a typical day working on the project, I split my time between scanning materials and creating metadata. With archival documents, the scanning process is a bit more involved than simply feeding papers through a scanner. Once I have turned on our scanner and let it warm up, I open our digital imaging software and check to make sure that the settings match our project standards. Before scanning, I wipe the scanner down with an anti-static cloth to ensure there’s no dust or dirt in the image. I dust the scanner after every few documents, but if the materials are particularly dusty or dirty I may wipe it down between each individual scan. Once the scanner is ready, I set the item on the flatbed and pre-scan to get a preview of the digital image and make color and cropping adjustments as needed. From there, I hit “scan” and watch as the software scans and saves the file to our server. After scanning, I write the matching file name lightly in pencil on the back of the document. This creates an easy link between the digital file and the physical material, and helps us to quickly identify whether a document has been digitized. 

Depending on the size of the folders, I may get through several in a day or just one. As I go through a folder, I watch for duplicates (which I don’t scan) and staples, which I remove to avoid scratching the scanner and creasing the paper when scanning later pages in the document. There are a couple of intermediate steps that I take care of before I start working on metadata for a folder. First, I convert all of the newly-created TIFF image files to PDFs, combining any files that make up multi-page documents – the PDFs are the files that will be uploaded for use on the digital repository. Once I have PDFs for each item in the folder, I make the files text-searchable by running them through Adobe Acrobat’s OCR tool. From here, my supervisor conducts image quality control to make sure that the images are up to project standards and to catch any personal information (like a social security number) that may need to be restricted or redacted.

Once a folder has passed through image QC, I create a new metadata spreadsheet for it using a template that our metadata librarians have developed. When I work on metadata, I like to have the spreadsheet and digital files open side by side in my two monitors so that I can easily reference each item while I’m assigning its metadata. I move through the spreadsheet, filling in all of the applicable blanks, like title, creators, genre, dates, and subject headings. These are the pieces of information that will help you search through the digital repository, and they appear alongside items in the repository to provide contextual information about digitized records. The metadata creation process is collaborative: archival material can be complex, so when I come across something that I am unsure about, I reach out to my supervisor and metadata librarians to discuss the problem and come up with an appropriate solution. Once I have finished the metadata for a folder, the spreadsheet moves through a round of quality control before the digital files and accompanying metadata are uploaded to the digital repository. 

The process requires patience and an eye for detail. What I love most about working on this project is getting to learn about the activities that Freedom House was engaged in while working toward racial, economic, and housing justice in Roxbury. It’s exciting to help connect users with these interesting and inspiring pieces of Boston history.

Discovering Roxbury

Northeastern University has the advantage of being surrounded by many different and distinct Boston neighborhoods. The Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections works to preserve the voices from these communities by collecting from different organizations. One of the newest collections available is from the non-profit organization Discover Roxbury.

As its name implies, Discover Roxbury aims to help people, both locals and tourists, to discover all of the things Roxbury has to offer. Originally named the Bridges Program, this organization was started by Marcia Butman in 1995 in order to introduce urban neighborhoods to suburban parents and students in the METCO program. The organization offers foot, trolley, and bike tours that include visits to historic sites, art galleries, and restaurants. These themed tours are lead by trained Roxbury residents passionate about sharing their knowledge on the history of the neighborhood and its current vibrant arts and culture scene.

Butman’s vision for the organization has always been collaboration, which has led to partnerships with organizations such as the Roxbury Cultural Network, The First Church in Roxbury, Roxbury Heritage State Park, and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Through these partnerships Discover Roxbury has been able to hold events supporting local artists such as Roxbury Open Studios and ArtRox, events supporting local restaurants and cuisines like Roxtoberfest, as well as holiday pop ups and their annual fundraiser Heart of the Hub held at the historic Hibernian Hall located in Dudley Square. 

The collection includes marketing materials for events and programs, administrative materials, and research used for teaching resources and tour scripts. The collection is currently unprocessed, but if researchers are interested in using the materials, please contact archive staff at archives@northeastern.edu.

Beyond the Reading Room: Access the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections Online

It’s easy to think of an archives as being bound to one space: a reading room. However the organizational, descriptive, and educational work of the archivists at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections goes well beyond the reading room. There are many resources available so that your archival goals can be met no matter where you are.

Even though we cannot take you through a physical tour of the Archives, we have a series of webinars that introduce you to the Archives and how to work with us, highlight our Asian American and African American digital collections, and teach you how to navigate a finding aid. Find our recorded webinars here and watch the library calendar for more webinars coming this summer!

Experiential learning with the Archives and Special Collections doesn’t stop when you can’t visit the reading room. Instead it shifts to engaged digital pedagogy with our over 64,000 digitized archival records. We are able to hold remote class sessions introducing you to Latinx history in Boston, using archival visual resources, telling stories informed by archival material, and more. Learn how to schedule a class session or workshop and view some of our class examples on our newly published Teaching with Archives Program page.

Want to learn more about our variety of digitized collections? Visit some of our CERES exhibit portals where you can view online exhibits and browse collections’ records in context. Find our collection sites with exhibits and contextual resources below: 

Have a question about Boston history or using Archives? Our reference services are still open and available by contacting archives@northeastern.edu or filling out this form to contact us here.

We look forward to working with you beyond the reading room to continue activating the history of Greater Boston and Northeastern through the use of our records. 

 

Women’s History Month in the Archive: Remembering Phyllis Ryan

This Women’s History Month we’re proud to highlight the collection of  Boston-based activist Phyllis Ryan. The Phyllis M. Ryan papers at the Northeastern University Library Archives and Special Collections trace the arc Ryan’s career trajectory through the 1960s to late ’80s in Boston, documenting her role as a communicator, facilitator, and radical activist. However, Ryan is not the only figure present in her own collection. While the papers cover her work in Boston’s civil rights scene, combating institutional and political discrimination on the basis of race, ability, class, and faith, Ryan’s name and image appear alongside those of other public figures of the time.

A large portion of the papers are composed of newspaper clippings from and press releases to a wide range of publications. Many of Ryan’s most effective roles were operating as a go-between for progressive candidates and causes which she would relate to the press. The nature of Ryan’s work frequently relegated her to a voluntary role of background character in the many political narratives she shaped, promoting movements and voices without promoting herself, creating access and elevating the voices of the marginalized without taking personal advantage.

Phyllis Ryan’s work in political activism began in school clubs while she attended Northeastern University, supporting local progressive campaigns, writing for the Northeastern News, and promoting collegiate activism on campus. After obtaining her degree, Ryan’s first major political successes began with raising awareness of housing discrimination in the Boston area with the Fair Housing Federation of Greater Boston. Ryan continued on to work in advisement and press representation for the Boston Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and was particularly active in the movement for racial integration of the Boston Public Schools. In response to the church bombings in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s, Ryan organized marches, sit ins, and a rally of 30,000 people on the Boston Common to raise awareness and solidarity. Significantly, she also organized Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to Boston in April of 1965, working with local religious leaders to spend hours briefing Dr. King on the difficulties facing the Boston communities, and writing the speeches that he would give throughout his stay.

Ryan’s final political act of her long public career was a successful unification of Newton’s local politicians to create wheelchair access for a nearby public lake. This act of path-making, public service, and barrier lifting is beautifully characteristic of Ryan’s public career.

Ryan’s careful voice and clear mind were operating influentially behind the scenes of so many political and social advances in Massachusetts, from combating right-wing extremist political campaigns to protesting the misuse of urban renewal funds, suing the New Haven (Conn.) Police Department for illegal wiretapping of politically active citizens’ homes, and advancing reform at Walpole State Prison. We invite you to look further at the life and work of an extraordinary public servant and iconic piece of Boston’s history of activism. While our reading room is currently closed, you can view the digitized collection online in the Digital Repository Service, and we hope to see you in person once the archive reopens!