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Jan/Feb '00
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Thoreau Survey of Orchard House
Concord Library Scans Thoreau Surveys for Internet Access

By Leslie Perrin Wilson Curator of the Special Collections of the Concord Public Library.

Henry David Thoreau actively took up surveying in the 1840s. He worked for the Town of Concord as well as for private property owners. When he died in 1862, he left a sizeable body of his working papers--field notes and draft surveys--along with the rest of his manuscripts in the care of his sister Sophia.

The 1874/75 report of the Concord Free Public Library Committee (printed as part of Concord's annual report) included a detailed account of an important deposit by Sophia Thoreau: "Miss Sophia E. Thoreau has deposited in the iron safe of the library building the unpublished manuscripts of her brother, Henry D. Thoreau. They fill three trunks or boxes. One contains a complete survey of almost every farm in town, which will be of great value in the future ... especially so when we consider the established accuracy of Mr. Thoreau's surveys and measurements. The other boxes contain between forty and fifty closely written books of memoranda of the natural history of Concord and of the Indians who made this locality their home and hunting ground."

At her death in 1876, Sophia formally bequeathed the trunk containing the surveys to the Concord Free Public Library, which has held, preserved, and provided access to this most important collection since that time. Thoreau's other manuscripts were bequeathed to his Worcester friend Harrison Gray Otis Blake. Today, the manuscripts that Blake inherited are scattered in several institutions around the United States. The Huntington Library, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Houghton Library, the Abernethy Library (Middlebury College), and the Alderman Library (University of Virginia at Charlottesville) all hold Thoreau manuscript material.

Survey of Orchard House for Bronson Alcott by Thoreau The Library's survey collection contains about 190 surveys made between 1846 and 1860, and a volume of Thoreau's field notes made between 1849 and 1861. The property surveyed was mostly in Concord, but the collection includes surveys of property in Acton, Boxborough, Carlisle, Framingham, Haverhill, Lincoln, Littleton, and Stow. There is a well-known survey of the Concord River "from East Sudbury to Billerica Mills," and one of Eagleswood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. A number of properties are represented by multiple draft versions. The final surveys ended up not in the working papers left by Thoreau at his death but with the parties who hired and paid him to undertake the work.

The Library's Thoreau survey collection provides an incredible snapshot of the landscape of Concord during the mid-19th century. Over the years, there has been significant scholarly interest in consulting it. However, the size and fragility of the surveys have limited access to the originals. In 1976, former Curator of Special Collections Marcia Moss prepared a catalog listing of the surveys (published by the Thoreau Society), which helped inform potential users of the contents of the collection. Since 1996, the present Special Collections staff has been laying the groundwork for providing broad access via the Internet through a scanning project now under implementation.

transit In 1996, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners provided grant funding for the preservation microfilming of the entire survey collection at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover. The resulting reel of microfilm is of sufficient quality to permit scanning of each image in the collection. In 1997, a new item-by-item finding aid for the survey collection, including Thoreau's own captions for his work, was prepared as a result of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. This finding aid was mounted on the Special Collections portion of the Library's website in 1999. The Library also purchased a Hewlett Packard scanner and Adobe Photoshop software last year. Technology Associate Bob Hall has since been familiarizing himself with the capabilities of the scanner. The project to scan the surveys formally began at the end of December and is expected to be completed by spring of 2000. The resulting file of images will be available for use in conjunction with the finding aid here.

The Library welcomes comments and questions regarding this project, and urges those interested to contact me at (978) 318-3342.

Text: ©2000 Leslie Perrin Wilson.
Images of Thoreau Survey courtesy of the Concord Free Public Library.
Other Images courtesy of ArtToday

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