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Westborough Center Pastimes – September 17, 2021

Community, Memory, Stories

Workers from the J. R. Cooper Co., a leather works, in front of the factory on Beach St., ca. 1880-1899.
Hanging Out around the Rotary, by Brandin Tumeinski, 2018

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”

–Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture” in What Are People For?

In my last two newsletters, I have been reflecting on why Maureen Amyot, the WPL library director, and I selected the name “Westborough Center for History and Culture” for the library’s local history department (August 20) and outlined some of the activities that happens in it (September 3). But a title and a list of programs does not get to the heart of why such a department is necessary. Wendell Berry can help us with this question.

Three words pop out when I read Berry’s quotation above: community, memory, stories. Together, these words could form a tagline for what the Westborough Center is all about and why it is important. Let’s find out why.

Westborough has always had a strong community even though the town and its area have experienced momentous changes over the years. Economically, it was a place for hunting and foraging by indigenous people and then became a farming community starting with an influx of Europeans mainly from the British Isles. In the nineteenth century, our town became an industrial center, which brought even more Europeans from more diverse countries to our area to work in the factories and lay down railroad tracks. Today, multinational corporations located in and around the town draw people from all over the world, most notably from South Asia. All of these changes have shaped our history and our community.

With so much change, how have we remained such a strong community through each iteration? One might think that such constant change—both economically and demographically—would create disorientation and keep people from ever truly getting to know one another. And to be sure, these various changes did involve struggle for the people who for a time were perceived as “outsiders.” But a strong element of Westborough culture is its history. Our town historical records are basically complete, which means that throughout this time the people of Westborough have always seen them as being important and necessary to save and preserve. That’s not necessarily the case in other Massachusetts towns. We have an active historical society that goes back to 1889. And the celebration of the town’s 300th anniversary in 2017 involved hundreds of events throughout the year and drew thousands of people to its parade.

We often think of history in terms of preserving an unchanging past, but really, a true love of history entails an acknowledgment and embrace of change, because without change we have no history. So history brings us to the second important word in Berry’s quotation: memory. Historical records hold the memory of what we once were as a community and offer us the chance to gain better clarity into what we are today. When we remember the people who lived in our town, what they did, and how they lived, we really never leave them behind, no matter how much change takes place. And if we remember them, then we are likely to be remembered as well. Memory, or history, is the glue that keeps a community together and makes it strong.

And now we arrive at the third word: stories. We experience memory and keep it alive by telling and listening to stories, and then by retelling and passing along those stories again. The Westborough Center has lots of tools for learning about, telling, and sharing stories about Westborough, our community, and its past. The historical records in the Westborough Center’s archive hold infinite stories just waiting to be unsealed and discovered by researchers. Programs sponsored by the Westborough Center often create records that capture how we live today, so that the people of tomorrow can tell stories about us. And the Westborough Center itself tells stories, through exhibits, sponsored lectures, and this newsletter.

The history of our town belongs to all of us, because we are all a part of its history. We all have memories of living here and have stories to tell each other about doing so. And the more stories we tell about ourselves, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, the more we learn from each other, the more we trust each other, the more we help each other, the less we fear of one another, and the stronger our community becomes. And that is why the Westborough Center for History and Culture is so important.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

I am always looking for new ways to talk about and better understand Westborough. Do you have a story that you want to discover and/or tell to the people of Westborough? Stop by or drop me a note at avaver@cwmars.org.

Recommended Reading:

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Last Call

“Changing Pictures of Childhood,” the current exhibit at the Westborough Public Library, will be taken down for a new exhibit at the end of this month (September). The exhibit has received a lot of attention lately in the local press, so if you want to see and experience the full exhibit, you need to do so within the next couple weeks.

The exhibit will continue to be available indefinitely online, and a truncated version will be available in the Westborough Center once the major exhibit is taken down.

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National Voter Registration Day

The Westborough Center is a strong supporter of civic engagement. With this year being an off-election year, you may be surprised that nonetheless this year’s National Voter Registration Day is coming up on Tuesday, September 28.

Even though Westborough is not going to the polls this fall, voter registration also gives you the chance to participate in Town Meetings, where important decisions about our town are made. You can register to vote or check your registration status at the Town Clerk’s Office or do both online at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Voter Resources page.

You can learn more about National Voter Registration Day through this link.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – September 3, 2021

What’s In a Name? Part II

In my last newsletter, I parsed out the name of the Westborough Center for History and Culture and explained why we selected it, so perhaps a review of how well the title reflects what happens behind its glass windows is in order.

As a Center, the program is designed to support the interests of people who wish to engage in activities relating to Westborough’s history and culture. How has this aim manifested itself so far? We started a Photographer-in-Residence program both to support the work of talented photographers in town and to add the documentation of life in Westborough that they create to the archives. We sponsored Architectural Walking Tours given by R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby and worked with them to produce supporting documentation that shows Westborough’s architectural history. We also worked with two girl scouts, Emily Bartee and Kayla Niece, on a Silver Award project to create a self-guided architecture tour of Westborough’s downtown.

We have also partnered with people in town to publish and make available important records, documents, and histories relating to Westborough. We worked with the Town Clerk’s office to digitize all of our town records up until 1930 through the Digital Commonwealth, which includes the town’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence. We also helped Kristina Nilson Allen digitize her seminal history of Westborough, On the Beaten Path: Westborough, Massachusetts, so that anyone with access to the Internet can now read it for free. And we have created a website, the Ebenezer Parkman Project, by working with two other scholars, Ross W. Beales and James F. Cooper, to make the entire diary of Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, available in one place and searchable for the first time. Overall, the website provides unprecedented access to a large number of historical records that make Westborough the best place to study colonial life in a rural New England town.

History, of course, plays a central role in the Westborough Center’s activity, so we have made the records that document the town’s history more accessible to everyone. Historical records that were hidden away, unorganized, and, as a consequence, generally inaccessible have now been boxed up, cataloged, and made discoverable through the Westborough Archive Catalog. People seeking information about a topic relating to Westborough can start here and identify collections that can help with their research. Some of the more important collections have been digitized and are available online at the Digital Commonwealth or in the Westborough Digital Repository. Westborough’s historical newspapers have also been digitized, so that sitting in front of a microfilm machine to read them is now in the past. And all of these resources and more are available through the Westborough Archive website.

And finally, what about Culture? We regularly create exhibits and online publications that try to place Westborough’s local history into a broader cultural context. Our current exhibit, Changing Pictures of Childhood, connects local practices relating to child welfare to changing notions of childhood itself through history. Years ago, we published a series of blog articles under the title, “How Does History Connect Westborough and India?,” and we worked with Westborough TV and the Westborough Cricket Club to film an in-person program on An Introduction to the Game of Cricket. We also explored Westborough’s folk tales through another program and then published them online as another blog series.

Unfortunately, many of these activities have been curtailed due to the pandemic, but our sincere hope is that we can get many of them up and running again in the near future. So if you have any interest in exploring Westborough’s history and culture, or perhaps even working with us to create an exhibit, a program, or an article to share your local knowledge with the community, we are here to help.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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Photograph by Gary Kessler.

One of the strengths of Westborough is its green spaces. Are you curious about the wild plants and animals you might see locally in September? Check out the Westborough Community Land Trust’s online monthly Nature Notes index for September, written by Annie Reid. All of the listed articles for the month continue to be relevant today!

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With its focus on history, culture, and knowledge, the Smithsonian Institution serves as a model of inspiration for the Westborough Center. In many ways, we try to replicate the spirit of inquiry that it represents and to use its leadership to explore themes that affect us at a more local level here in Westborough.

This summer, the Smithsonian Institution has launched an institution-wide initiative, Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past, to explore the history and legacy of race and racism in the United States and across the globe. The initiative will include a series of integrated events across the U.S., including conferences, town halls, and pop-up events. The hope is to spark conversations in a safe space among people who may normally never interact with one another about a topic that can admittedly become uncomfortable. The first forum on Race, Health, and Wealth was held just over a week ago, and it can now be viewed online.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – August 20, 2021

What’s In a Name?

When I got the chance to rebrand the Westborough Room several years ago, I wanted to find a name that better captured my vision for how Westborough’s rich historical resources could be used. Library Director Maureen Amyot and I together settled on “The Westborough Center for History and Culture.” Why did we choose this name?

In rethinking the purpose of the room, our first priority was to make the collections more accessible to the general public. All of us own the collections that are in our keep, so not only do people have a right to see, study, and enjoy them, they need to know that they have this right even though most of the materials sit behind locked doors for security reasons. As part of this effort, we instituted a digitization program. Digitizing our most important collections and items means that people can use them at any time and from practically anywhere. Plus, every time someone uses the digital copy, it saves the original from the necessary wear and tear that occurs whenever it is accessed in person. Digital copies are not replacements for the originals—physical copies have much longer shelf lives for a variety of reasons, which is why we continue to store and maintain them even after digitization—but they offer different ways to use the originals and help protect them over time.

The need to store our historical collections in special conditions is the main reason why we have a separate room in the library for them. These collections offer a means for learning about what Westborough was like in the past, for comparing what it was then with what it is now, and for assessing what we want our town to be in the future. Our addition of “Center” in the title for the space is meant to convey the idea that we, as residents, are all invested in the idea of what Westborough represents and that the library has a place devoted to exploring this idea. The room does not exist for a few select people to use and then tell us what the history of Westborough is all about. It is a place where different people can come together and utilize the stored resources in new and creative ways. The idea of the room being a Center was so central to our conception of it that we decided to use “Westborough Center” as the room’s nickname and URL (www.WestboroughCenter.com) in order to emphasize that it is a place where all are welcome to drop in and think more deeply about where we live.

The inclusion of  “History” in the title for the room was a no-brainer. Westborough loves its history, which makes my job incredibly easy. Much of what I do is met with enthusiasm, so I am continually inspired to find new ways to contextualize and make our town’s history even more accessible. Many of the people I meet in cultural and historical circles are amazed that a town of our size even has a local history librarian. The fact that we do is testament to the intense interest that residents have in our local history.

But we did not want to leave the impression that the historical records we keep are mere fossils from our past, that they have little relevance to our lives today, and that our lives today pale in comparison to those who lived in the distant past and so will be of little interest to those in the future. The study of our town’s past provides a better understanding of our present by helping us to self-reflect on who we are now. Through these reflections, we have an opportunity to represent ourselves to the future, to give those who succeed us a better understanding of who we think we are today. Doing so means actively creating records and collections that will be meaningful to the future, rather than passively relying on the important records we create to survive, emerge at some point, and somehow find their way into local history collections. That’s where the idea of adding “Culture” to the title came in.

The addition of “Culture” signals that as much as we enjoy exploring what Westborough was in the past, we also need to be invested in thinking about what Westborough is today and in ensuring that future residents have a means of exploring who we are and what we are all about. By fostering cultural activity in Westborough, creating records tied to that activity, and then adding those records to our collections, we are also participating in the process of creating history. “Culture” breathes life into our historical collections by creating continuities between our past, present, and future, and future generations will appreciate the breadcrumbs we left behind to help them carry out this very same process.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

The conclusion to the above essay begs the question, “What is Westborough culture?” What is unique about how we live our lives here in Westborough? Are there certain activities that stand out and encapsulate who we are?

Share your answers to these questions in the Comment section at the end of this newsletter or e-mail me at avaver@cwmars.org. If I get enough feedback, I will summarize the results in a future newsletter.

Recommended Reading:

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The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library continues to do incredibly creative work with maps. The center recently published an article that challenges the utility of red-blue political maps based on geography and, using recent U.S. Census data, has created an interactive map that organizes congressional districts by various characteristics, such as median household income, percent with a college degree, and percent speaking only English. The results give us a more nuanced picture of the U.S. electorate.

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What am I reading right now? I generally read a variety of books from different genres at the same time, so that I can pick up the right book that strikes my mood at the moment—do I want to settle in and enjoy a story or pick up a pencil and dive into some serious nonfiction? The problem with my approach, though, is that it seems to take forever to get through my pile of “active” books.

One of the books I am currently reading is The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, a New York Times notable book in 2020, by Joseph Henrich. As people who live in the contemporary Western World, we exhibit distinct psychological characteristics, such as individualism, self-obsession, nonconformity, and analytical thinking. We assume that all people hold similar values based on these characteristics and that people who do not are strange. But it turns out that we are the weird ones: these characteristics are highly unique when compared to populations that have inhabited the earth over a much broader span of history, and many populations continue to hold older, more “traditional” values that are different from ours today.

Henrich argues that prohibitions against certain kinship and marriage practices by the Roman Catholic Church over time led to changes in our very psychological makeup, towards a more individualistic sense of self and away from a self more embedded in relationships and social roles. Henrich’s argument is complicated, but he carefully takes us through his thinking as he creates psychological experiments and analyzes historical data. The descriptions of his process, though necessary, can sometimes create some rather dry reading, but if you stick with him, you will begin to question what you regard as perfectly normal and gain a more nuanced conception of human behavior across history.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – August 6, 2021

Down the Rabbit Hole of Local History

Local history librarians like me usually end up being both archivists and curators of the collections we oversee. In addition to organizing and servicing collections under our watch, we are tasked with making decisions about what items and collections to add. We make these decisions based on the context of existing collections (does the item or collection relate to others already in our possession?) and in anticipation of what we think people will want to use and see in the future. We are also charged with making the collections in our possession breathe by demonstrating their ability to add to our understanding of the world. We do so in the hope that others will follow our example and discover new ways to use and think about the collections under our care.

When I look back on the exhibits that I have created over the years both here in Westborough and at other institutions, most of them were about subjects where I had little knowledge and only a tangential interest. In some cases, the idea for the exhibit was suggested to me by someone else, and I added my own spin once I started working on it. In others, the collection itself demanded to be featured in some kind of exhibit due to the quality of the items in it, the interest level on the part of the community, and its importance in relation to other collections. But in every case, what started out as a task ended up a passion as I continued going down the rabbit hole of the collection and its subject-matter.

Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” 1865

A couple years ago, the Robert Cleaves Collection of Lyman School Records (LH.070) was donated to our library, and as soon as I opened the box and started going through its contents, I knew that I had to create an exhibit around it. The collection contains the first volume of meeting minutes for the Trustees of the Reform School—the first state-run reform school in the country and what later became the Lyman School for Boys (both iterations were based here in Westborough). The collection also has printed reports and promotional materials for the school and, most importantly, pictures of the boys taken between the years 1905-1912.

I was originally planning to create a small exhibit inside the Westborough Center using the collection, but when I told Lynne Soukup, the Assistant Library Director, about my plans, she excitedly offered the entire wall in the main room of the library to me. Give any academic like me space, and we are going to fill it! My exhibit project suddenly had the potential to become something much bigger and more significant.

When I started to think about expanding the scope of my exhibit, my first thought was to pair these materials with a collection of indentured servant contracts I had always wanted to feature in some way. Back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, children who became wards of the town due to poverty or other circumstances were placed as servants in families who lived in and around Westborough. Such a practice was common in colonial America, and such agreements were governed by a written contract. Both these records and those of the Lyman School document two different approaches to helping children with similarly troubled backgrounds. What accounts for the difference? Why was the practice of pauper apprenticeship replaced with a more institutional approach to child welfare? And what do these differences tell us about how people thought about childhood itself?

In talking about my expanded ideas to Maureen Amyot, the Library Director, I speculated how the two approaches to child welfare could provide insight into how childhood was thought about at these two points in history. After all, any decision about how best to help a troubled child is necessarily informed by an idea of what constitutes a “normal” childhood. Maureen loved the idea and encouraged me to pursue it.

While researching the topic, I discovered how the concept of childhood itself went through substantial change in the nineteenth century. Indeed, ideas about childhood continue to evolve today, so that, from our perspective, the treatment of troubled children in early America and in the early twentieth century both seem cold-hearted at best. But in both cases more is going on than apparent cruelty: a different idea of what constitutes childhood is at play, so we need to think more about the historical context while assessing the successes and failures of the two approaches. We may still end up criticizing them, but we will better understand the motives behind the policies and better identify their true failings.

Needless to say, the more I dug into this topic, the more interesting I found it to be. I hope you take the time to visit the Westborough Public Library to explore “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” or visit the online version through the link. The exhibit begins in the main room of the library and ends in the Westborough Center with a 26 minute movie that illustrates life at the Lyman School in 1946. And don’t miss the “exhibit extras” included in the display case outside of the Westborough Center. The physical exhibit will be on display until the end of September.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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On the Beaten Path Is Now Available Online!

On the Beaten Path, Kristina Nilson Allen’s history of Westborough, has been considered the standard history of our town since the time it was published in 1984, and now it is available online. The digitization of her book by the Internet Archive now gives unprecedented access to the wealth of information that Allen put together about our town.

The writing of town and county histories became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of them were spearheaded by publishing companies who saw them as a way to capitalize on local pride of place. The companies enlisted local, amateur historians to write them, sought local business titans to fund the printing (in exchange for including their names in the town history), and in some cases used formulaic language and statistics to pad the content. Westborough published its own town history in 1891, The History of Westborough, Massachusetts by Heman DeForest and Edward Bates, which is also available online.

To capture the historic highlights, personalities, and development of “the Hundredth Town” for her book, Allen interviewed 65 residents who remembered Westborough from the early 1900’s on. Town officials supplied the background of their departments, while merchants and manufacturers told the story of Westborough’s economic growth. A new archeological study, completed by Prof. Curtiss Hoffman, filled in Westborough’s prehistory dating back 6,000 years.

The digital version of On the Beaten Path includes the ability to search the content of the book for keywords, download the text in multiple formats, and have the book read aloud for the visually impaired.

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The Westborough Archive Catalog Has a New Look

If you are interested in exploring the archival records of Westborough, the Westborough Archive Catalog is the place to search. And now it has a new interface that makes searching even easier. The catalog lists all of the collections housed in the Westborough Center and includes links to any online content or finding aid associated with the collection. Here’s your chance to experience real history and work with historical records like an historian!

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Special Newsletter Addition for July 16, 2021

Call for Letters of Interest to Serve on the Town Seal Review Committee

The original Westborough town seal as it appears on the 1913 Annual Town Report.
The new Westborough seal design, as it appears on the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

I was going to include this item in my last newsletter for July 16, 2021 but did not do so in the belief that the deadline for letters was due that day. That initial deadline, however, has been extended to July 23, 2021.

Town Moderator, John Arnold, is seeking letters of interest from people willing to serve on the Town Seal Review Committee. Voters at the last Town Meeting approved the establishment of the committee to review the history of our town seals, consider whether or not the town should adopt a new one, and solicit feedback from the community about such a decision.

Controversy over the current town seal has centered on the depiction of a cotton gin that was invented and patented by Eli Whitney, a Westborough native, in 1793. The strain of cotton that was grown in the American South contained seeds that were extremely difficult to extract from the cotton balls. Whitney’s design made it much easier to separate the seeds, made growing cotton more profitable, and quickly turned the U.S. into a world leader in cotton production. But the invention was also responsible for the proliferation of slavery at a time when it was beginning to wane.

You can find information about how to serve on this committee here: https://www.town.westborough.ma.us/home/news/town-seal-review-committee-letters-interest-now-due-july-23-2021.

Westborough Center Pastimes – July 16, 2021

Parson Weems’ Fable, by Grant Wood (1939), depicting the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree as a boy.

National Narratives

I have lately been thinking about national narratives and their importance. National narratives give us a sense of purpose and unite us as we work together to reach common goals. But because such narratives are aspirational, they also easily spill into the realm of myth, which then creates problems in how we are supposed to interpret and learn from them.

Lately we are engaged in reevaluating our national narrative, which creates anxiety about who we are and what we are trying to accomplish as a country. In many ways, though, we as Americans are constantly engaged in reevaluating our national narrative. It’s one of our defining traits. Perhaps it is because we are still young in comparison to other “Old World” countries—although from an indigenous perspective, we are as old as anyone else. Perhaps it is because we were founded as a democratic nation, which creates an ever-shifting sense of perspective about who we are. Or perhaps it is because we are a land of immigrants, so we need to incorporate the new ideas and traditions that they bring with them into our own.

With these reflections in mind, I picked up These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. She is one of the first historians in a while to tackle writing a national narrative for the U.S., and I was curious to see how this Harvard professor approached such a daunting task in our politically fraught times. The bookstore where I purchased her book also carried a new translation of The Aeneid by Vergil that I had been looking for, the latest in what seems like a recent series of classic works to be translated into English for the first time by women, so I bought that as well. (By the way, the perspective that women bring to these translations does make a difference, and I find the clarity of their prose to be a revelation.)

But what I did not realize until I returned home with the two books and compared them side-by-side is that they are both national narratives. Even more, Shadi Bartsch, the translator of The Aeneid, argues in her introduction that embedded in Vergil’s epic is a critique of such narratives as national myths. How does such a critique play out in both works?

When Vergil started writing, he was presumed to have set out to create a Roman epic that would both honor the emperor Augustus by tying his consolidation of the Roman Empire to an ancient past and sit alongside Homer’s Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey (which, by the way, were written six to seven hundred years earlier). For his epic, Vergil uses the Trojan War from Homer’s works as context, but he connects Rome’s destiny to the fate of the Trojan warrior, Aeneas, who after losing the war must take his people on a quest to found what will eventually become a great empire.

Sounds great, except Vergil populates his text with elements of confusion and self-contradiction that end up complicating its status as a national narrative or myth. Aeneas is a problematic hero. We rarely see him act heroically, even though the text constantly refers to him in heroic terms. He lies, to the point where we question whether to believe any of the stories that he tells about himself. And the epic passes over what is clear in other ancient sources in which he appears: that Aeneas is a traitor. What Vergil seems to be arguing, Bartsch maintains, is that creating a collective memory in the form of a national narrative necessarily involves a collective forgetting (which leads us, by the way, back into the realm of myth).

But what happens when we start to remember—and what we remember starts chipping away at the foundation of what we thought was our collective memory? In some ways, Lepore’s approach to presenting our national narrative falls in line with Vergil. She points out the contradictions that are embodied in the three truths that sit at the foundation of our country: political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. All three become problematic once we start examining them from the perspective of various people with different needs and histories—not to mention that action adhering to one truth can oftentimes violate the sanctity of another—which is why the designers of our government created a balanced system of competing branches and political forces.

National narratives are complicated. Do we want history (as an act of remembering) or do we want myth (as an act of forgetting)? If we want history, we have to accept the contradictions that necessarily come with it, and if we can’t accept this condition, then we run the risk of losing any chance at a cohesive identity by means of a national narrative. And if we want myth, then we have to be comfortable with the forgetting and potential lies that come with it, and if we aren’t comfortable with misinformation, then we run the risk of memory, truth, and history popping up at any time to reveal how flimsy our social cohesion really is.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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New Exhibit!

The Westborough Center’s newest exhibit, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” is now on display in the Westborough Public Library through the end of September.

The exhibit compares two different approaches towards address the needs of children facing social challenges that were practiced in Westborough at different times. Pauper apprenticeship—where poor children were bound by contract to work as a servant in another family’s home—was used in Westborough during the colonial period and the early years of the United States. Westborough was also the site of the first publicly financed reform school for boys, which later became known as the Lyman School for Boys. Photographs taken during the years 1905-1912 illustrate the lives of the boys during this time, roughly one hundred years after pauper apprenticeship was the norm. By comparing these two approaches towards child welfare, we gain a window into how conceptions of childhood itself changed historically over this period of time.

The exhibit begins in the main room of the library on the first floor (over the computers) and continues into the Westborough Center. The exhibit is also enhanced by an online version. And don’t forget to take a look at the display case outside the Westborough Center, which contains a couple “exhibit extras.”

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – June 18, 2021

Charley Williams and Granddaughter, age 94

Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project

By the time you read this newsletter, Juneteenth—a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States after the American Civil War—will be designated a national holiday (or will be soon). No matter the timing, Massachusetts already passed legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday, so the Westborough Public Library will be closed on Saturday, June 19.

As I think about the legacy of slavery and its history in our country, I can’t help but recount my experience of discovering the existence of slave narratives that were gathered together as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. New to the position as Humanities Librarian at Brandeis University, I was working in the stacks and familiarizing myself with the U.S. history collection when I came upon them. I was in awe that they existed and grateful that someone somewhere had the foresight to conduct these interview and capture this information before the memories disappeared with their owners.

The Federal Writers’ Project, part of the larger Works Progress Administration (WPA) that Franklin D. Roosevelt set up during the Great Depression, was designed to employ people who worked in the humanities. Other projects that fell under the WPA included ones for art, music, theater, and public works. Every time I encounter a building, public park, or artwork that was funded through the WPA, I am always blown away by the quality and ingenuity of the endeavor, which was why I was particularly excited when I found Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.

The project was enormous. Over 2,300 first-hand accounts of slavery were collected along with more than 500 photographs. Today, the entire collection has been digitized and is available through the Library of Congress. The best way to approach this vast collection is through the “Articles and Essays” part of the website, which highlights just a handful of the people who were interviewed. A word of warning: a lot of the content, unsurprisingly, is difficult to take.

The collection is not without controversy. For years, the interviews were ignored by historians. Some of the reasons for this neglect stemmed from criticism that those still alive in the 1930’s were only children when slavery ended and so had unreliable memories. Others complained that despite the vast scope of the project, it included only 2% of the formerly enslaved population alive at the time and did not constitute an accurate “sample size.”

These reasons for neglect are pretty weak, but even though the collection is now firmly on the radar screen of historians, there is still reason to approach the collection with a certain amount of healthy skepticism. While some interviewers were African-American, the vast majority were white southerners, some of whom were descendants of slave holders and still others had ancestors who had enslaved the very people they were interviewing. Historical records are rarely straight-forward, which is why they require interpretation, interpretation that itself changes over time. You can read more about the Born in Slavery collection and the struggle to interpret it in an excellent article by Clint Smith in the March 2021 issue of The Atlantic.

In the end, the collection stands as testimony to the devastating effects of slavery on people and on our country. The economic, political, and social impact of slavery is so pervasive that it is impossible to untangle it from our national narrative in an attempt to create a “sanitized” version that we can all feel good about. Better to face up to its history, recognize the troubling contradictions that it created for our country both then and even now, and all work together to realize the ideals that we have so far failed to live up to but nonetheless form a common goal that will benefit us all.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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Coming Soon!

We are putting the finishing touches on installing a new exhibit here at the library, just in time for our post-pandemic opening. At some point next week, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” will be displayed in the Westborough Center and on the main floor of the library.

The exhibit compares two different approaches practiced in Westborough to address the needs of children facing social challenges. Pauper apprenticeship—where poor children were bound by contract to work as a servant in another family’s home—was used in Westborough during the colonial period and the early years of the United States. Westborough was also the site of the first publicly financed reform school for boys, which later became known as the Lyman School for Boys. Photographs taken during the years 1905-1912 illustrate the lives of the boys during this time, roughly one hundred years after pauper apprenticeship. By comparing these two approaches towards child welfare, we gain a window into how conceptions of childhood changed historically over this period of time.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – June 4, 2021

Charles M. Fay – Personal War Sketch, 1890

The Discovery of Charles M. Fay

The most exciting element of my job is Discovery. Every time I think that I have unearthed every possible historical record hidden away in our library, another one shows up. Such a discovery happened about two years ago when Cliff Rose, our Library Custodian, found tucked away in the basement of the library a large volume of Personal War Sketches put together in 1890 by the Arthur G. Biscoe Post No. 80 (Westborough) of the Grand Army of the Republic. The volume contains hand-written, first-hand accounts of soldier experiences in the American Civil War. What a gold mine!

In my last Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter, I wrote about the search for Herbert O. Smith, a Westborough soldier who died in the notorious Andersonville Prison in the Civil War. During that search, I made another discovery: Charles M. Fay, who was the only Westborough soldier who spent time in Andersonville and survived. Even more, Fay left an account of his experiences in the Personal War Sketches volume. I couldn’t fit his narrative in the last newsletter, so I am reproducing it in this one. While reading, keep an eye out for Herbert O. Smith, who also makes an appearance in Fay’s personal sketch.

First, some background on Charles M. Fay. He was born April 16, 1844 in Montague, MA in Franklin County. He enlisted to fight in the Civil War in July, 1861 at the age of seventeen and joined the Company K, 13th Reg. Massachusetts Volunteers. He participated in battles at Cedar Mountain, 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. He was wounded at Harper’s Ferry, Gettysbury, and Harrisburg and was confined in a hospital in Baltimore, MD when he was captured by the Confederacy.

Fay wrote the following account on December 29, 1890.

At the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, I was captured with our Captain and Lieut. and fifty men. I had already nearly served out my term of enlistment, there being less than two months more. As prisoners we were marched almost the entire night following our capture without rations, our guards also sharing our deprivations. Upon reaching Richmond we put up at Hotel Libby where we remained ten days, our bill of fare consisting daily of a small piece of corn bread, bacon and a spoonful of rice boiled. During our stay there we were all searched for valuables and unless one was very expert in secreting them he was sure to find himself stripped of everything which could in any way serve our captors.

At the expiration of the ten days we were started off in search of another boarding place. From Richmond we rode eight days and seven nights, to Andersonville, short of rations all the time. At Charlottesville we were transferred from one road to another causing a delay of two or three hours which were seized upon by such as had aught to purchase with to supply the craving for something to eat. Lieut. Dramwell handed me a $5 bill to buy him provisions with. I succeeded in obtaining some biscuit from a woman, six of which the Lieut. gave me for my trouble. These made one good square meal. Then we were packed into cars, the one I took passage in containing eighty five men. Upon reaching Augusta, we were unloaded and turned into a yard surrounded by sheds, for the night. While there I sold a pair of boots for $45. Confederate money to a “Johnnie” for which I had paid John M. Hill, a Westboro boy $2. I handed a $10. bill through the gate to a boy and requested him to buy me some bread and a little soap. He returned me six pieces of gingerbread and a small bit of soap. Gingerbread $1. each and $4. for soap. Upon reaching Andersonville, the following day, hungry and thirsty, we were introduced to the keeper, Capt. Wirz, who messed us into companies of ninety. Threatened me with a “ball and chain” if I did not “stand up in line.” As we looked over into the stockade and realized in some small degree the suffering and misery before us, our feelings can be better imagined than described. Are we asked to forget? Forgive! we may, but forget! never! From the ninety I was in twenty nine died inside of three months. Have heard it said that “there were rations enough issued for all but that the strong overpowered the weak,” but I deny the assertion. I have often scraped the hot sand to one side to make my bed(?) endurable. The death rate was from 120 to 135 daily, through the summer months. I helped carry out and bury Herbert O. Smith, a Westboro boy, and brought home to his father T. A. Smith letters written by him while in prison together with other mementoes. I messed with Charles Carter, Minot Adams, George Chickering and Irving Walker, all Westboro boys who afterward died in prison at Florence, S.C. Frank Kemp and Walter Ward, also from Westboro, were paroled but both died on the way home. An attempt to portray the amount of suffering and agony our poor boys endured, while in those horrible pens would be futile. For a very commendable and, as far as possible, truthful recital, I most respectfully recommend a perusal of the “Soldier’s Story” by Warren Lee Goss, a member of the 2nd. Mass. Reg. of Heavy Artillery.

Special note: in response to my last newsletter, Leslie Leslie, Curator of Collections at the Westborough Historical Society, posted on Facebook an image and transcription of a letter written by Herbert O. Smith to his father, which, given the account above, was most likely brought back to Westborough by Charles M. Fay after his stay in prison.

Fay died on August 24, 1905 and is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Obituary – Charles M. Fay, Westborough Chronicle, August 26, 1905.

Recommended Reading:

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Coming Soon!

We are putting the finishing touches on installing a new exhibit here at the library, just in time for our post-pandemic opening. Within the next couple weeks, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” will be displayed in the Westborough Center and on the main floor of the library. The exhibit compares two different approaches toward addressing the needs of children facing severe social challenges that were practiced in Westborough at different points in time.

Pauper apprenticeship—where poor children were bound by contract to work as a servant in another family’s home—was commonly used in Massachusetts and other colonies during the colonial period and in the early years of the United States. The exhibit focuses on two children who were indentured as servants in Westborough: Stephen Pratt in 1794 and Patience Miller 1804.

Westborough was also the site of the first publicly financed reform school for boys, which later became known as the Lyman School for Boys. Photographs taken at the school during the years 1905-1912 illustrate the lives of the boys during this time, roughly one hundred years after Pratt and Miller were bound out to local families. By comparing these two approaches towards child welfare, we gain a window into how conceptions of childhood changed historically over this period of time.

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Spring Bazaar and Yard Sale

Treasures galore! The Westborough Historical Society is holding their Spring Bazaar and Yard Sale on Saturday, June 5 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Stop by the Sibley House at 13 Parkman Street (down from the library) to find and purchase jewelry, toys, housewares, collectibles, china, prints, and more! All proceeds benefit the Westborough Historical Society.

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The Westborough Public Library is revising its strategic plan for 2021-2023. Help us out by taking this short survey and giving us your feedback: http://tinyurl.com/wplsurvey2021.

Your input will help us plan future services, classes and events. The deadline for completion is June 30, 2021

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – May 21, 2021

The Search for Herbert O. Smith: A Memorial Day Remembrance

Several months ago, I received an e-mail from a Westborough resident and avid reader of the Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter:

Dear Dr Vaver,

I so very much enjoy all your essays. You might already be aware of this, but a Westborough resident, Herbert Smith, died at Andersonville. He is buried at Pine Grove. Not sure if anything might be written about Westborough during the Civil War. Perhaps to coincide with Memorial Day?

I look forward to your next piece.

Thank you

Janet

Janet included the above image of a gravestone, which most likely prompted her to write her e-mail to me.

I thanked her and filed her e-mail away along with a note to revisit it around Memorial Day. That day has finally arrived.

___

When people introduce me to others and want to include what I do as a profession, they often mistakenly call me “Westborough’s Town Historian” or “the Local Historian who works at the library.” I think the confusion gets caught up in the fact that Westborough’s interest in its own history is so deep that we have lots of organizations in town with similar sounding names and lots of people working at them: the Westborough Historical Society, the Westborough Historical Commission, the Westborough Center for History and Culture. It’s all admittedly confusing. The fact is that we are surrounded by so much history in Westborough that the organizational waters that chronicle it are a bit muddy. What a great problem for a town to have!

But in my capacity at the library, I am a librarian, not an historian. Sure, I consider myself to be a cultural historian as well as a librarian by training, but I have not devoted as much time to researching Westborough history in as much depth as other true town historians have—such as Kristina Nilson Allen, Phil Kittredge, Glenn Parker, or Leslie Leslie. My job as the local history librarian is to point people to the resources that can help them research and learn about Westborough and its history, and in doing so I certainly learn a lot about Westborough history along the way. That’s what makes my job so fun! And that’s why I love  receiving e-mails with questions like the one Janet sent me.

___

So who is Herbert O. Smith?

After consulting histories about American Civil War regiments from Massachusetts, military and genealogical databases, books about Westborough history, historical Westborough newspapers, and more, here’s what I could find.

Herbert O. Smith was born in Gloucester, MA on July 23, 1837 (other records claim 1838 as his birth date or are even less precise). At the time of his enlistment on March 31, 1864, he is described as having a light complexion, gray eyes, and brown hair and stood 5 ft, 11 inches tall. He was unmarried and a farmer by profession. Smith was mustered on April 6, 1864 in Company K of the 57th Infantry, the company where most Westborough enlistments ended up during the war.

Smith’s time in the army did not last long. He was wounded in the face at the battle of Wilderness, VA on May 6, 1864 and then was taken prisoner at North Anna on May 24, 1864 and sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Over the 14 months while the prison was in operation, Andersonville held 45,000 Union prisoners, of which nearly 13,000 died of “disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure.”

Smith wasn’t the only Westborough soldier to experience the horrors of Andersonville. Others included Minot C. Adams, William H. Blake, Charles S. Carter, Charles M. Fay, Francis E. Kemp, Irving E. Walker, and possibly John Copeland. There may have been others.

Herbert O. Smith died in the Andersonville Prison of chronic diarrhea on August 27, 28, or 29 (depending on the source) in 1864. He was either 26 or 27 years old at the time. He is not, however, buried in Westborough, but lies instead in a mass burial trench in the Andersonville National Cemetery in Section E, Site 7158, along with William H. Blake, who is in Section H, Site 10753.

Map of the Andersonville National Cemetery.

In 1868, shortly after the war ended, Westborough arranged to erect a monument with the names of “soldiers from this town, who fell in the late war.” All of the names of the soldiers that I list in this article–with the exception of Charles M. Fay (more on him in the next newsletter)–appear on this monument, which to this day stands behind the fountain in the downtown cemetery on West Main Street. Whether or not you are able to attend this year’s Memorial Day ceremonies, take some time over the next week or so to visit the monument, read the soldier’s names, and think about how they willingly sacrificed themselves for our country.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

The Saturday Evening Chronotype, April 25, 1868, p. 3.

Do you have a question about Westborough history? Do you want to experience the thrill of the discovery process as you piece together nuggets of information that reveal the history of a person, place, or thing? Then stop by the Westborough Center or drop me an e-mail just like Janet did at avaver@cwmars.org.  

Suggested Reading:

And keep reading this newsletter to learn even more about the Andersonville Prison . . .

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Ken Gloss

Westborough Historical Society/Westborough Public Library Virtual Presentation by Rare Book Specialist Ken Gloss

Kenneth Gloss, proprietor of the internationally known Brattle Book Shop in Boston’s Downtown Crossing section, will present “The Adventure of Book Collecting” via Zoom on Monday, May 24, 7:00 pm, for the Westborough Historical Society and Westborough Public Library, Westborough, MA. Ken will discuss the value of old and rare books.

Ken, a rare book specialist and appraiser who is frequently seen on national TV, will talk in part about the history of his historic bookshop (www.brattlebookshop.com/about), which goes back to circa 1825. He is a second-generation owner.

Ken will talk about and show some of his favorite finds and describe some of the joys of the “hunt,” as well as explain what makes a book go up in value. He has many fascinating anecdotes to share as well as guidelines for what to look for when starting a collection. There is also a Q&A session at the conclusion of his talk. Following the talk and question-and-answer session, Ken will offer free verbal appraisals of books.

Participants must register in advance at https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUofu2rqzguGNAS0be1515oAklELeV3y5be.

Those who wish to have materials appraised should submit photos with (if available) a brief description of each item plus a mobile contact number before Friday, May 21, to info@brattlebookshop.com.  During the program, Mr. Gloss will select items to appraise that illustrate important characteristics and will appraise all others privately.

This program is co-sponsored by both the Westborough Historical Society and the Westborough Public Library’s Westborough Center for History and Culture.

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Books donated to soldiers, 1941 (Westborough Public Library)

Book Donation Day and Friends Book Sale

Need to make room for the new collection of books you will be inspired to create from attending Ken Gloss’s lecture? The Friends of the Westborough Public Library will be holding a Book Donation Day on Friday, May 21 from 10-2 at the Parkman Street entrance.

Going forward, the Friends will not have “ongoing” book donations but will be holding periodic Donation Days a couple weeks in advance of their book sales.

Upcoming book sales will be on the second Saturday of each month from 10-3 on the lawn in front of the library.

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Detail from: George Carleton, Map of Andersonville, Sumter Co., Georgia (1865).

Found! The Andersonville Prison Map

From the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library:

Retired National Park Service Archeologist Guy Prentice recently discovered the Leventhal Map & Education Center’s copy of George W. Carleton’s 1865 map of the Andersonville prison, a notorious Confederate camp where thousands of Union prisoners of war died. Dr. Prentice has spent multiple field seasons doing archeology at Andersonville National Historic Site, and coauthored numerous reports on the archeology of the site over more than three decades.

In a guest article, Prentice describes how locating this map in our collections helped to unlock a mystery about the trial of one of the most controversial figures in Civil War history. Read the full account of his search for the Civil war map here.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – May 7, 2021

A bridled and blinkered horse standing hitched to its cart, by Henry Walter, 22 January 1822. (Wellcome Library, London, http://wellcomeimages.org)

Thought Experiment

Let’s perform a thought experiment.*

The year is 1570. We meet a delivery man resting on the side of the road and ask him some questions about his job and his life. We discover that he makes his deliveries—maybe some apples grown by a farmer outside a nearby town—using a horse-drawn cart combined with quite a bit of walking. When he cooks his dinner, he does so over a fire. And when he needs to relieve himself, he uses a hole in the ground.

Now, after making so many deliveries, our resting delivery man falls asleep and does not wake up until two hundred years later in 1770. What is his life like now? Well, he still makes his delivery of locally grown apples using a horse-drawn cart and walks a lot. He still cooks his dinner over a fire. And he still relieves himself in a hole in the ground.

Hervey A Gilmore – ca. 1880 (Westborough Public Library)

The same grind ends up with similar results: he falls asleep again for another one hundred years and wakes up in 1870. Now what is his life like? Well, it’s pretty much the same. He still uses a horse-drawn cart to deliver his locally grown apples. He still walks a lot. He continues to cook his meals over a fire. And he still relieves himself in a hole in the ground.

Our delivery man falls asleep once more, but this time, because he has had so much sleep he wakes up in 1940, only seventy years later. Now what is his life like? Well, he no longer makes his deliveries using a horse and cart, but does so with a truck run by an internal combustion engine. He delivers goods from all over the world, and those goods have been brought to him for distribution by airplanes, boats, railroads, and other modes of transportation. His deliveries are probably coordinated by telephone. Both he and the people who buy his goods now cook their food in kitchens equipped with ovens, stoves, and other appliances that make food preparation easier. And houses now include indoor plumbing, so our delivery man no longer has to use a hole in the ground.

And we haven’t even gotten to his trip to New York City where he encounters buildings that are seventy to a hundred stories tall, including the Empire State Building.

The profound changes that I just described all came about from the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are experiencing even more social change and disruption due to digital technology and increased globalization. What happens if our delivery driver fell asleep yet again in 1940 and woke up today?

Our delivery man would most likely wake up to find himself being a UPS or Amazon delivery driver—and he now has female colleagues! His deliveries are governed by complex supply chains, which are created and run by digital technology. And these supply chains are global, which is why I can order a Norwegian scarf from Norway for my wife for Christmas and have it delivered to my door within two days. Whereas dominant work modes were still physical in 1940, now they are mental. Communication is practically seamless, so people can live in different parts of the world and continue to communicate with people at “home.” Even more, think how fast we were able to adapt this communication system to allow us to work from home once the pandemic hit! It turns out that many of us are no longer even necessarily tied to a specific workplace anymore.

And we haven’t even got to how social media and our lives on the Internet have disrupted the way we interact with one another.

Change is all around us and now seems to be a regular part of our lives. Such change affects how we think about ourselves, our place in the world, and our place in history. Will we ever again experience a time when we can fall asleep for hundreds of years, wake up, and immediately recognize the way that people are generally living as similar to when we fell asleep? Or are we facing a world where we must continually evaluate and redefine our identities, in the same way that our delivery man had to when he woke up in 1940?

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

What will our lives look like if, after the twists and turns we have experienced over the last hundred years or so, we ever do find ourselves back on a straight stretch of history? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

*I am paraphrasing this thought experiment from an interview I heard a few years ago with Robert J. Gordon on a Planet Money episode on NPR: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/529178937.

Suggested Reading:

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The Antiques Roadshow is coming to Westborough for book lovers!

Well, close enough. On Monday, May 24, 7:00 – 8:30 p.m., Ken Gloss of the famous Brattle Book Shop in Boston will present, “The Adventure of Book Collecting,” via Zoom. Gloss will discuss book collecting—what makes a book valuable and which authors to look for.  A frequent guest appraiser on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, he will describe the joys of the “hunt,” plus guidelines for starting a collection.

If you would like Gloss to appraise one of your books, please submit a photo and description of the book plus your mobile number before Friday, May 21, to info@brattlebookshop.com. During the program, Mr. Gloss will select books to appraise that illustrate important characteristics and will appraise all others privately.

You must register in advance for this meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUofu2rqzguGNAS0be1515oAklELeV3y5be.

This program is co-sponsored by both the Westborough Historical Society and the Westborough Public Library Center for History and Culture.

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The Westborough Public Library is revising its strategic plan for 2021-2023. Help us out by taking this short survey and giving us your feedback: http://tinyurl.com/wplsurvey2021. Your input will help us plan future services, classes and events.

* * *

Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.