I love a reference challenge, but it’s also gratifying to get a question and be able to give the asker the answer almost immediately. Though when we archivists do this it may seem like magic, most of the time it’s just knowing where to look and to what resources to point people. My time in the Cambridge Room is helping me immensely when it comes to performing this parlor trick with Cambridge-related queries.
For example, do you ever walk down a street in Cambridge and wonder for what or for whom it was named? The Cambridge Historical Commission has you covered with their comprehensive list of the origins of Cambridge Street Names. If your wonderings/wanderings take you further and you want to know about a particular address, the myCambridge database about which Alyssa told you in an earlier post and the database of Cambridge Buildings and Architects maintained through Harvard are great resources for delving a bit more deeply into the history of Cambridge addresses from the comfort of your computer or mobile device. And if you’re of an analytical bent, there’s a fun set of maps over on Bostonography based on the latter that provide a visualization of the types of Cambridge street names and where they are in the city.
Streets near the future site of the Main Library of the Cambridge Public Library, from the Atlas of the City of Cambridge, Middlesex Co., Massachusetts, by G.M. Hopkins, 1873
So you’ve found the namesake for your street – where next? If you’re really lucky, your street is named after someone well-known enough to have his or her own Wikipedia page, or has a sufficiently unusual name to be easily Google-able. Though you’ll have to vet the results for yourself, the resources you uncover are a great place to start and can lead you down many fascinating paths. You may also want to check WorldCat, to see what relevant material has been cataloged at libraries around the world, and ArchiveGrid, for material in archival repositories. If your person is a pre-20th century Cambridge celebrity, the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, which the Society has put online, can be really helpful; check the index for references in papers published between 1905 and 1979.
And if you’re stumped, how about contacting your friendly local archivist and giving her or him a shot at it? Like I said, we love a challenge.