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New exhibit explores history of Mary Miles Bibb

Alexis Schlesinger / THE GATEPOST

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor

The Special Collections and Archives team at Framingham State works to collect, preserve and present items that are important to the history of the University.

Since September, an exhibit has been on display in the Henry Whittemore Library showcasing artifacts during the time Mary Miles Bibb studied at the school in the 1800’s, when it was previously known as the Lexington Normal School.

These items include letters of recommendation from students who were studying at the same time as Bibb, school bells, and even a notebook that was owned and used by Cyrus Peirce, the school’s first president.

Colleen Previte, archivist and special collections librarian, helped bring this exhibit alive to allow for anyone in the library to stop and learn more about the rich history of the University.

Previte has been working for Framingham State since 2004 as an archivist for the library, and said this exhibit gave her the opportunity to learn more about Mary Miles Bibb.

She said the original idea for the exhibit was for it to coincide with a visit from speaker Irene Moore Davis in September.

Previte explained that the letters in the exhibit were provided by the Independent Association of Framingham State Alumni (IAFSA), who have been holding onto them since Harvard University gave them the letters in 2003.

Some of the items in the exhibit are being shown publicly for the first time. For these items to maintain good condition, extra care has been taken such as having UV film on the display cases to prevent any damage from light.

When talking about creating the exhibit, Previte explained that “you have to work with what you have.” She specifically noted some of the cases being used to store the items are older, and would like to see them all be upgraded to newer ones in the future.

The letters of recommendation on display were a result of the Lexington Normal School requiring students to submit them for entry to the school, Previte said.

“Every letter is in some way connected to Mary Miles whether they were in school while she was there or whether they were classmates,” she said.

The letters required transcription from cursive, and Special Collections Intern Anthony Sims, a senior English major, had a prominent role in that process.

“I remember a lot of cursive from before, and my mom has taught me to sign my name in cursive - I think I had a significant leg up, so I was getting pages done within a few hours,” he said.

Sims, who began interning with special collections this semester, explained the process of transcribing each letter also involved working with Previte to decipher some of the harder to read letters.

“Sometimes we’d tag team them - it was a real process at first,” he said.

Sims also creates content for the FSU archives Instagram page, @fsuarchives, which includes posts of the letters in the exhibit encouraging followers to try deciphering the handwriting for themselves.

He said he also makes posts for the Instagram page with archived photos, showing before-and-after photos of the older buildings on campus like May Hall.

Along with the artifacts on display, the exhibit also features a series of posters containing information about significant figures involved with the Normal School, such as Prudence Crandall and Samuel May.

When looking at the exhibit, viewers will notice that there are no photos of Mary Miles Bibb present. The existence of such a photograph is unknown, but is assumed to be lost, Previte said.

“We figure that she should have a photo, but it’s probably in family records or just not labeled,” she said.

Sims’ favorite part about the exhibit are the documents - and the satisfaction of knowing he had a helping hand in making these letters readable for viewers.

For Previte, she enjoyed being able to build connections with various people during the process of putting the exhibit together.

“It’s always great to be able to meet other historians and professors. … I just enjoy when it all comes together,” she said.

Sims explained the importance of having the exhibit available is to recognize these aspects of history in our country.

“We need to acknowledge how her story is important to the overall narrative of slavery and her accomplishments and involvement with the school,” he said.

When providing these primary sources in environments such as classes, Previte noticed that students responded positively to them when incorporated in their learning.

Previte hopes that when students visit the exhibit, they can take a step back and recognize that the University has a rich history.

“People live so much in the now, so if they can look back and sort of see how difficult it was even with the Normal School itself - they called it an experiment … some people didn’t want it to succeed,” she said.


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