On an evening a few years ago, Frank McSorley was babysitting his grandchildren and scrolling through Facebook when he stumbled across something unexpected: a photo of himself as a young man of about 11 or 12, holding an apple in his teeth.
“OMG that is me! I remember this picture! I think I just won an apple bobbing contest!” he commented.
This photo—and hundreds of others on the Facebook page for the City of Somerville Archives—provides a window into the city’s not-so-distant past. For McSorley, finding the page brought back many happy memories of growing up here in the 1970s, when the lives of young people were centered around the parks where they would hang out.
When one of the page’s 1,400-plus fans like and comment on these photos, it’s archivist Nadia Dixson who sees her phone light up with notifications. Dixson has been working for the city archives since 2008, and she became Somerville’s first full-time archivist in 2012. That year, as she began to digitize part of the collection, she created Facebook and Tumblr profiles. These pages now showcase visual gems of city history that were previously buried among the boxes and files that contain other city administrative records. A presence on social media offered a broader reach, connecting with residents where they were already hanging out: online. Interest grew slowly, until early 2013, when someone posted a photo from the archive’s page in the Somerville “The Good Ole Days” Facebook group during a snowstorm, when people were bored and stuck inside. “It was a huge expansion [of followers],” Dixson laughs.
Stephanie Almeida discovered a photo of herself almost a year after it was initially posted. “That is ME jumping rope at Conway Park, probably 1981 or 1982,” she commented. “Notice the Skating Rink in the back. I have NEVER seen this photo! I was Stephanie O’Donnell then… THANK YOU for sharing it!” While Almeida had many memories of growing up in Somerville, she says the photo was particularly surprising—and special—because she doesn’t have a lot of pictures of herself from that time. (Getting people to help identify the photo subjects has been a challenge, as many were simply stored, unlabeled, in boxes among the hundreds that are now stacked in the center of Dixson’s office.)
Those moments are exactly what Dixson was hoping for as she began sharing the photos, garnering interest among current and former residents of Somerville in the work she does preserving the city’s records.
Many of the photos on the Facebook page come from the Recreation Department. Both McSorley and Almeida remembered being involved in city recreational activities growing up, and there’s a reason why the Recreation Department had so many photos. “They used to have a camera club,” McSorley explains, “run by a man named Jack Hayes. We would take photos all over the city and develop them in a darkroom in the old police station on Bow Street.”
These photos are not only visually interesting; they also highlight the importance of the Recreation Department in the lives of Somerville’s youth at that time. “Recreation was a huge piece of the summer for me every year,” says Almeida. The city employed recreation leaders at all the parks for the summer to engage the kids in programming that ranged from arts and crafts to an all-city park vs. park athletic meet at the end of the summer.
“[Summer recreation] leaders were really instrumental in child development, really powerful, empowering and supportive,” says Almeida, who recalls spending all day with her friends in the park. “They made the parks a safe place to be. And the fun didn’t end in the summer. McSorley remembers fall having its own seasonal activities, including apple-bobbing contests like the one he won. Almeida says she’d spend the whole year in Conway Park, switching to the ice rink when the weather got cold.
For Dixson, these memories carry both emotional and historical weight. After posting the photos, she almost never adds to the comments or discussions on the page. “I like to leave space for people to have their own memories and conversation,” she explains. Information that is provided through social media will also be added to the metadata stored with the photos in the digital collection. This information is more than interesting; it will actually help people search the archives in the future.
As Somerville continues to grow and change, Dixson will be there to make sure it’s documented. “Some people think archivists are only obsessed with the past,” she says, “but we also want to make sure what’s happening now is also preserved for the future.” That includes potentially preserving the social media presence for the archives and other city offices, a strategy that Dixson and the city’s Communications Department are beginning to roll out.
To make sure that residents have easier access to the archives and therefore to Somerville’s history, the department will be moving this summer from the City Hall Annex to an office in the Edgerly School. With windows treated to block UV light and prevent the degradation of the documents, this space will be much more friendly to visitors and open by appointment.
Dixson wants to encourage residents to explore and connect with historical documents, which she says can be surprisingly fascinating.
While it’s the photos of people and houses that usually garner the most interest, old records can be just as compelling. These documents are more than lists and numbers; they’re cross-sections of city life over the last 174 years. Pulling out a book of property tax records, Dixson pores over a list of names, occupations and prior residences of Somervillians circa 1890, a snapshot in time of the city’s shifting demographic from newly arrived immigrants specializing in industries like masonry or fruit selling to an emerging middle class that was taking office jobs.
Many of the people in these recent pictures still live in and around Somerville, but rising property values have made it harder for many to stay in the city, particularly while raising a family. McSorley still lives in Somerville, in the house where his high school sweetheart—now his wife—grew up. Almeida has relocated to North Carolina, but she returns often to see family who still live here.
McSorley and Almeida agree that the city has changed in myriad ways, and they say the fabric of the community seems much more loosely knit than when they were growing up. But as the city continues to change, the archives ensure that residents will always have a well-preserved view of the Somerville that McSorley and Almeida enjoyed as children.
Thanks to the archives’ accessibility on Facebook, the conversation can continue in new tightly-knit communities—albeit, in ones that live online.