Greetings from St. Louis

Virtual Adventure

This morning, I attended a wonderful conference in Massachusetts. Well, technically, I was in St. Louis working from home (#ArchivesAtHome), and the Digital Commonwealth Conference 2020 was going out virtually from Massachusetts (with a keynote address from North Carolina). The conference faced cancellation due to the global COVID-19 crisis, but instead the program was moved fully online. The organizers generously opened registration to anyone interested.

laptop computer

Morning coffee break at my “home office” while watching the DPLA presentation (photo by M. Rectenwald)

Entitled Contextualizing Conversations: Representation and Digital Practice, the program included an impressive array of speakers. Elaine Westbrooks, University Librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill, gave the keynote, which focused on the needed work to reach true diversity and inclusion in archive collections. Staff from the Digital Public Library of America discussed new projects adding African-American women’s voices to celebrations of the 19th amendment. K. J. Rawson, founder and director of the Digital Transgender Archive, offered real-life examples of how the site makes ethical choices for digitization. And librarians from Boston University detailed their collaborations in African countries as they created the African Ajami Library (AAL).

As with all archive conferences, the day was a blur of information, ideas, inspiration, and (even given the current state of emergency), some hope for the future.

Greetings from…Massachusetts?

If you have some time, I suggest browsing the digitized photographs, documents, and books on Digital Commonwealth from over 180 different Massachusetts libraries, archives, and museums.

While much of the material is about Boston, Cambridge, Wooster, and other Massachusetts communities, there are many threads of St. Louis and Missouri history among the files. This postcard, for instance, is from the Boston Public Library. It is one of many postcards and illustrations from across the United States.

color postcard with large text reading Greetings from St. Louis MO

Boston Public Library, the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Digital Commonwealth

A search of the site for the keyword “St. Louis” provides you with delightful images of the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns on the road in Boston, a map of St. Louis from 1921 (pictured below), a plan for Forest Park in circa 1880 showing the now-buried waterways covering the land, and much, much more.

map of city St. Louis

Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Digital Commonwealth

Digital Connections

Having materials digitized means it is now possible to find letters and correspondence sent out from St. Louis but not otherwise documented locally: for instance, a letter from John Francis McDermott to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1930. At that time McDermott* was an associate professor of English at Washington University. He contacted Du Bois for permission to reprint three poems. This letter was saved by Du Bois and then archived at the Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries (MS 312). The Du Bois Papers are one of the larger collections available on the site, with nearly 100,000 digital images available online. (*McDermott left WashU in 1963 and completed his career at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.)

The digital connections between St. Louis and Boston go in reverse as well.

Civil rights intervews from Blackside Inc.’s documentary “Eyes on the Prize” are archived at the Washington University Libraries (Blackside Inc.’s founder, Henry Hampton, was from St. Louis and went to WashU). Yet when the interviews were recorded, Blackside Inc. was headquartered in Boston. Through the Digital Commonwealth site, these digitized files are reconnected to WGBH and the  American Archive of Public Broadcasting  


You can access more digitized content from archives, libraries, and museums for free through the Digital Public Library of America.  The site expects to roll out a new ebook “bookshelf” soon, so check back for even more content.

The Future

My initial goal of posting something nearly every day has indeed been overly ambitious. My new goal for April is to post once a week (aiming for Wednesday), since virtual remains our main way to communicate.

Follow all the posts in this series at #ArchivesAtHome #QueerArchivesAtHome

If you have a question about this post or other topics related to St. Louis history, I can be reached at or on Twitter @mrectenwald.

Stay safe and healthy everyone.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.