By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Westborough – When the town clerk asked Library Director Maureen Ambrosino if she would be interested in going through some historical documents from the Town Hall vault, she jumped at the chance. The
Town Hall is undergoing renovations and in the process unearthed boxes of documents dating back to the early 1700s.
“When I saw the boxes, I couldn’t believe how many documents there were,” Ambrosino said.
She knew about a program through the Boston Public Library, called “Digital Commonwealth,” which aims to digitize historical documents and put them into a national database. The library will digitize 2,500 documents for free.
A representative from the Boston Library visited Westborough early this year to look at the Town Hall documents.
“They were very interested in helping us,” Ambrosino recalled, “but told us they would need to be organized into collections before they could decide which documents to digitize.”
She hired Westborough writer, archivist and historian Tony Vaver to take over the massive project.
“It was perfect timing,” Vaver said. “The project just fell into my lap.”
He had just finished his second book, “Early American Criminals,” which focuses on crime in Colonial America, and was looking for his next undertaking.
Since he began the project in February, he has organized three collections of military documents from the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.
Most of the documents were found in wooden boxes, folded and tied in bundles. Vaver said there are probably thousands of documents – “too many to count,” he said.
His job is to unfold them, because “folds become tears,” record them and organize them into collections.
“It’s tedious work,” Vaver admitted, adding that is required concentration and patience.
Vaver has a Ph.D. in English Literature and a Masters of Library Service from Rutgers University. He worked as a humanities librarian, in charge of special collections, at Brandeis University, where he learned archival work.
One of the boxes of documents, labeled “Tax Lists 1756-1852,” includes very detailed records of crops, how many acres were planted, how much was produced and how much was sold and for how much.
“They give a detailed look at the people of Westborough from that time, the value of their estates, their standing in town, and the population,” Vaver said.
The documents also include church records.
“Back then, everyone attended a church and paid tithes to the church, so these can give us a good idea of the townspeople as well,” he noted.
Some of the more notable documents discovered so far include a 1774 tax bill signed by Samuel Adams and a proclamation of independence issued by the General Court of Massachusetts in January 1776, six months before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Vaver said he is excited that the Boston Public Library is digitizing historical documents.
“It opens them up to genealogists, historians and schools and gives greater insights into our past,” he said. “The documents are much more valuable as a larger database.”
With Westborough’s 300th anniversary approaching in 2017, “it is the perfect time to be spotlighting these documents,” Vaver said.
According to Ambrosino, the Westborough Public Library plans to have an exhibit of some of the documents ready for the 300th anniversary celebrations.
“We are really excited that we have them and can share them with everybody,” she said.