Quaker history goes digital

Dec 25, 2018

Centuries of Quaker history, usually confined to a bank vault in New Bedford, are now available for anyone to see on the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society’s website.

The record books kept by the Apponegansett Friends Meeting in Dartmouth from 1699 to 1968 include everything from marriages, births, and deaths, to transgressions and mission work. The books span nearly 6,000 pages.

Anne Lopoulos and Russ Cornell, two members of the Smith Neck Friends Meeting, believe that there are many similarities between meetings today and historical meetings.

“Everybody who is a member of the meeting is a part of making all the decisions,” said Lopoulos. “We have to have complete consensus to agree to whatever we are discussing. If there is dissension, people are not comfortable, we just hold it off until the next month. So we do take a while to make decisions sometimes.”

If someone totally disagrees, and does not want to come into agreement, he or she will say “I will step aside.”

The meetings have always included both men and women, although originally each group met separately before convening to discuss what was decided before worshipping together as a group.

All of these meetings and discussions have been recorded since 1699 in the meeting’s books, which are a remarkably complete record of everything from births, marriages, and deaths to when people could not attend the meeting due to “severity of weather.”

The level of detail in the records provides a depth of knowledge about the meeting members that is very unusual. As many of the present day members are directly related to the members described in the meeting minutes, the wealth of information can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

“I feel badly because there is a section in our Quaker History that if you didn’t follow the correct moral ways, that they were eliminating members,” Lopoulos said. “So it could have been things like your husband died and you married within a year someone new. That at that time must have been unacceptable.”

Some of the misdeeds recorded seem quaint by present-day standards.

“Also just misbehaving, whether its drinking or whatever [would be recorded],” Lopoulos said. “And that did get recorded so that’s unfortunate because I don’t know if you want to really read and see what your ancestors weren’t following the rules.”

Cornell said that the New Bedford Meeting’s records contain a months-long debate about two girls who had worn red dresses. Quakers were careful to be modest, wearing plain, dark clothing and minimal or no jewelry.

“What’s really important is when you can go beyond the dates and find out about people,” Dan Socha, the Historical and Arts Society’s webmaster said. “Who was he as a person? What did he believe in?”

When he decided to digitize the archive, Socha began researching how the experts — libraries, universities, and the government — scanned large historical documents, and built his own version of what those organizations use. His camera is mounted to a contraption that can be moved both up and down and forward and back over a table lit with clamp lights.

“These are my really high-end lights from Home Depot,” joked Socha.

For larger documents, like maps, Socha will take photos of overlapping sections of the document and knit them together on his computer.

All the photos are very high resolution (and very large files), which are transferred immediately to the computer. So Socha manually reduces the file size as much as possible without losing quality.

“Every book is different, and even different sections of the book are different,” Socha said.

The color of the ink and the paper varies across the books, so some pages are easier to read than others. Socha will edit the contrast to make some pages easier to read.

Photographing books can be especially challenging because the pages need to be level for the photo to be clear, so Socha uses wood shims to prop up one side of the book. He also made an aluminum “finger” to hold down pages when necessary.

After photographing all the pages, Socha has to label the files and upload them to the Historical Society’s website. All in all, he said that he spent about 3 months working on the project one to five hours a day, seven days a week. He said he enjoyed the work — especially because it gave him a deeper connection to and knowledge of the history of Dartmouth.

The recorded legacy that Cornell and Lopoulos are most proud of is that of the service and mission work Quakers have done for centuries.

Quakers have been persecuted for their religion and their commitments to justice, both in England and in Massachusetts — leading many to move to Rhode Island in the 17th century.

“George Fox, whos the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, was in jail for awhile because he wouldn’t doff his hat to the king,” said Cornell. “He thought the king wasn’t any better than him, just another human being, so he wouldn’t take off his hat.”

That egalitarian spirit manifested in the service and mission work.

“In the time of the Irish potato famine, the Quakers almost saved that whole country by supporting them,” Cornell said.

Lopoulos and Cornell said that much of the Quaker’s work is done quietly, behind the scenes, and in silent protest.

To read the meeting records, go to the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society website, www.dartmouthhas.org.