Cambridge Open Archives

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Open Archives, and for over 2 weeks in June, 15 libraries and archives in Cambridge opened their doors to the public to show off selected items from their collections – all for free.

Folks who were unable to attend Open Archives might wonder: what is Open Archives, and what does it mean?

Cambridge Open Archives, sometimes called the Cambridge archives crawl, is a free event in which members of the public are invited behind the scenes at various Cambridge archives, libraries, and collecting institutions. It is a fun way to promote the unique collections of our city’s wonderful archives, while also raising awareness of historic materials, larger historic themes, and preservation.

Open Archives is also based on the belief that archives and collections should be free and open to everyone. The idea that information be free and accessible, that you can find out about a community’s history, or simply explore the holdings of a unique archive, is often still seen as a radical idea. We always hope that after Open Archives is over, attendees go back and make research appointments with some of the sites they visited.

Several cities around the country also participate in similar programs, including much larger events like the Archives Bazaar in Austin, Texas and Los Angeles.

(Above: Previous Open Archives events)

Cambridge Open Archives was started in Cambridge in 2010 by the former Cambridge Historical Society Executive Director, Gavin Kleespies (now Director of Programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society). Here’s what Kleespies has to say about the early days of Open Archives:

When it started, I had just moved back to Cambridge from Chicago and [was] in the process of getting re-acclimated. CHS was an institution that had a low public profile so I was going around the city and introducing myself and the Historical Society to organizations and community leaders. As a part of this, I met with Jim Shea and Anita Israel at the Longfellow House and Bree Harvey and Meg Winslow at Mount Auburn Cemetery. In both cases they invited me into their archives and pulled amazing examples from their collections. I thought, the Cambridge Historical Society has a great collection, but very few people use it and many people aren’t even sure it is available to them. Longfellow House and Mount Auburn have huge visitation numbers and are known across the country, but many people are unaware of the great archival collections they hold. It just struck me that there are these three great collections, that people would be really excited about if they saw them, but they just don’t come in contact with them. Then I thought, well, we’re basically all on the same street [Brattle], let’s just have a tour.

The first year was a lot of fun, so I started reaching out. I think CHC was added in the second year, but that was a little odd, since it was just on its own and was not walking distance to CHS, Longfellow or Mount Auburn. So I worked with Kit [Rawlins] and Charlie [Sullivan] and we came up with a group of city departments that had collections and were close to CHC. After that we put together a group to help plan the tour each year. Working with Alyssa [Pacy], Kit, Charlie and a group of other folks, we reached out to Harvard, MIT, churches and masons etc. I think at its largest, we had 13 institutions participating one year.

After the first year or so, Cambridge Open Archives began to be planned around a specific theme. Some of those themes have included “Adventures in Gastronomy,” which highlighted cooking and food themed collections, such as the Julia Child collection at the Schlesinger Library; “Cambridge in the 1860s”;  “Spaces: Profane and Sacred”; “Living and Dying in Cambridge”; and “New Acquisitions & Old Treasures.”


Asked about one of his favorite past Open Archives themes, Kleespies talked about the MIT Lewis Music Library’s take on “Adventures in Gastronomy.” Kleespies was very interested in seeing how the Music Library would incorporate gastronomy into their collection presentations — food and music? But according to Kleespies, the Music Library’s archivist took the creative route and set up a whole “dinner table” complete with candles, tablecloth, and a full menu featuring different musical compositions, including the German Vegetable Orchestra.


Since 2015, the staff here at the Cambridge Historical Commission have served as the coordinators of Cambridge Open Archives. This year, the Open Archives theme was “Archivists’/Curators’ Choice.” Staff from participating archives were encouraged to choose collections items that they loved or that possessed special meaning; that fit a certain theme within that specific archive or museum; or some of the more unique, bizarre, or interesting materials in their collections.

If you attended any of the Cambridge Open Archives repositories this year, feel free to comment on this blog with your thoughts, or send us any pictures you may have taken.

We hope you enjoyed this quick history of Open Archives, and hope to see you at next year’s event!


New Finding Aids Added to ArchivesSpace

You can now access two more of our finding aids on our ArchivesSpace database!

Cambridge Recreation Department Collection



Images from the Cambridge Recreation Department Collection, CHC011

Squirrel Brand Company Collection

Squirrel Brand adv card IMG_20151222_113527

Image of ephemera from Squirrel Brand Company Collection

Explore other collections and digital materials here.

What is ArchivesSpace?  How is this different than viewing finding aids in the regular PDF format? Check out a previous blog post for answers to these questions.

Let us know what you think of this finding aid format!

Getting to Know Your CHC Staff: Part 3

This month, we are highlighting our fabulous commission staff! We would like you all to learn more about our employees and the wonderful work they do here at the CHC. The third post in this series features Sarah Burks, Preservation Planner.


Sarah and canine friend, Penny.

Where did you grow up?

I’m half Yankee and half Texan having grown up between Williamstown, Mass. and Wichita Falls, Texas.  Everything is bigger in Texas but I am happy to have settled in New England where I have lots of family and you can’t cook an egg on the sidewalk in summer.

Where did you go to school? What was your degree?

I got my undergraduate degree in Art History from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. My graduate studies Historic Preservation Planning were at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

What are your interests or hobbies?

I like old things. That’s what drew me to historic preservation as a career so I could work with old buildings. I enjoy collecting antiques and vintage items for the same reason. I keep a toe in the art history side of things by serving on the board of trustees of the Cyrus Dallin Art Museum in Arlington, Mass. Cyrus Dallin sculpted many famous public sculptures around Boston including Paul Revere (North End), Appeal to the Great Spirit (MFA), and Anne Hutchinson (State House).


The Paul Revere Monument in Boston’s North End. Sculpture by Cyrus E. Dallin.

Name some fun facts about you.

I love dogs.  I play bridge.  I like Spurs basketball.

When did you start working at the CHC?

I started fresh out of grad school in the fall of 1996. I was two.

What do you like best about working at the CHC?

It’s something different every day. A different building, architect, or historical topic to investigate.


This photo of Cambridge Street at Third Street (looking east) shows the Lechmere National Bank on the far left. This building was recently designated a Cambridge Landmark by the City Council.

Give us a glimpse into your daily work or a current project.

I type a lot of minutes and process a lot of permits. But my favorite thing is when I can dive into a research project or assist someone else in finding what they need for their own research. Recently I was documenting the diner cars of Cambridge. You can learn more about this in our blog post: New! Lunch Carts and Dining Cars of Cambridge, Mass.


This picture has it all: a Cambridge diner, vintage automobiles, and eclectic old buildings.

What is your favorite photograph, artifact, or collection at CHC?

Soon after I started at CHC, I was invited to join the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project, an informal group dedicated to documenting Cambridge women, historical events, and women’s organizations. We have a lot of biographical files on women and women’s organizations. I’m currently researching Cambridge suffragists so we can have a good idea of Cambridge’s role in the suffrage movement prior to 2020, the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.


Florence Luscomb of Cambridge sells The Woman’s Journal newspaper and advocates for woman suffrage.


Thank you to Sarah for answering our questions–stay tuned for more staff bios coming soon!