From the Collections: On the subject of the Subject File
subject file n. A collection of documents (a file) relating to some topic.1
In The Mary Baker Eddy Library’s archive, numerous people, organizations, places, and topics are represented within what we call our Subject File. These all relate in some way to Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, or The First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church). When a single donation of material, or a thematic collection of materials, is not large enough to substantiate its own Library Special Collection (LSC), these materials are often added to the Subject File.
Facilitating research, this file has been around for well over half a century. Originally called the Historical File, it functioned as an internal resource for the Archives of The Mother Church, one of the Library’s predecessor departments. In addition to original documents about specific people and historical topics, copies of materials were added to help contextualize a particular subject. Some materials are copies—including documents from different Mother Church departments, other institutions, and portions of published materials.
When the Library opened in 2002, collections such as the Historical File—documents that had previously been restricted—were made partially available to researchers. Over the past 20 years, we have reviewed many folders and made them publicly available according to Library policies. And policies evolve over time, based on the standards and practices of the archival field, as well as the unique nature of our collections.
Program showing the order of services of a Sunday church service held in Boston’s Chickering Hall on April 1, 1888. The names of three of Mary Baker Eddy’s grandchildren—Evelyn, Edward, and Mary Glover—are listed as participants in a special children’s concert. Staff photo.
With this in mind, we began a full-scale reprocessing of the Subject File in 2022. The aim of this project is to review every box within the Subject File, to ensure that each folder contains original materials that are accessible to the public. Materials that we cannot open, based on the Library’s access policy, will be moved to the appropriate place. This also holds true for materials that fit better in other collections.
Reprocessing the Subject File, including the organization and description of historical documents related to Mary Baker Eddy, is not an end in itself. Rather, it is intended to make resources available that will help answer a variety of questions and spark fresh insights into the history of Christian Science, its enduring activities around the globe, and the good that its founder and adherents have done and continue to do.
Photocopied documents, and copies of materials from other institutions, will be kept in an internal research file, designed to help our researchers answer patron questions. Each folder will have a content sheet that aids in the discoverability of relevant materials for research needs. We will also take actions to preserve these materials, such as interleaving newspaper clippings (placing them between archival acid-free paper so the clippings do not discolor surrounding materials), supporting fragile materials, and creating scans and copies of materials that cannot be safely handled.
This reprocessing project will facilitate better access to, and safer housing for, all folders, ensuring the maximum usage of this collection for years to come.
What sorts of things can you find in the Library’s Subject File? If you browse the online finding aid, you’ll see names, titles, and terms, both familiar and unfamiliar. The vast majority of Subject File folders represent a person. But organizations and corporate bodies, as well as various topics, are also present. Within the folders, you can find letters; memorandums; reports; manuscripts; printed materials (including leaflets, advertisements, forms, and certificates); financial documents (including many, many receipts); and various other types of paper documents. Some topics or individuals span a number of boxes, while other folders contain only one or two items. Together, the Subject File makes up an immense record of Christian Science history!
Here are just a few highlights that this reprocessing project has revealed so far:
- You can find prominent historical figures who have interacted with the Christian Science movement in surprising ways. For example, in the Subject File you can find original letters to Christian Scientists from Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill!
- Think of all the things you buy day-to-day for your home and household. While your receipts from the grocery store or for furniture may seem ephemeral, they tell an important story about your daily life. Similarly, the Subject File contains hundreds of receipts that explain the remodeling, stocking, and management of Mary Baker Eddy’s homes. You can find these in folders beginning “Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910) – Finances” and “Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910) – Residences.”
- You can trace the evolution of Christian Science church services in the Subject File, by looking through folders on the Church of 1879 (the very first church organization of Christian Scientists). Folders on this organization include financial and membership records, as well as leaflets detailing the early order of church services. See the Subject File folders beginning “Church of 1879” for these documents.
- In June 1901, Mary Baker Eddy invited Christian Scientists to visit Pleasant View, her home in Concord, New Hampshire. Hundreds who were visiting Boston for The Mother Church’s Annual Meeting answered that invitation, and they left their calling cards behind. You can find these in the Subject File folders, beginning with the title “Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910) – Visitors – Calling Cards – June 25, 1901.”
Receipts showing purchases made in 1897, most likely for goods used in Eddy’s Pleasant View home. Among the items paid for were 25 copies each of The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald daily newspapers, 132 quarts of milk, and—from a Boston pet store—five goldfish. Staff photo.
Work continues on this Subject File reprocessing project. We want to ensure that as many folders and items as possible will be fully open for public research. Feel free to check out the Subject File finding aid online—or to contact us at [email protected] for more information.
- Dictionary of Archives Terminology, s.v. “subject file,” accessed November 2, 2023, https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/subject-file.html