From Rent Control to Riot Squads: The Photographs of Olive Pierce

olive pierceFrom left: Cambridgeport resident Janet Rose, a Bay Street resident and Byrle Breny of the League of Women Voters attend a 1970 City Council meeting. Photos courtesy of the Cambridge Public Library, copyright Olive Pierce.

Cambridge Public Library archivist Alyssa Pacy knows that 1970s City Council meetings might not be particularly interesting to the average person. And they certainly don’t sound like the most engaging subject for a series of photographs, right?

“But they were,” Pacy insists. “It was such an explosive time. There were hearings on rent control, on police brutality. A 17-year-old boy died in police custody for doing something very, very minor. He smashed a window in Inman Square, and the police picked him up—and then he was dead.”

The death of that student, Larry Largey, in 1972, sparked huge protests throughout the city; Pacy says the high school even shut down. And activist and documentary photographer Olive Pierce was there with her camera throughout it all, photographing police in their riot gear and dramatic, packed-to-the-rafters hearings at City Hall.

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Police block the doors to keep people from a meeting abolishing rent control, December 1971.

Pierce, who passed away at age 90 last May, began shooting photographs while stationed in Poland with the UN during the end of World War II. She later came to Cambridge and started working here, committing to film an especially turbulent time in city history. She would eventually start the photography program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where she taught for a decade. Throughout this tense, post-desegregation era, she took portraits of and collected oral histories from students at the school.

“It’s a side of Cambridge we don’t often see,” Pacy says. “She’s revealing our city to us in a new and touching way.”

Pierce’s photos—from a City Council hearing that was attended by more than 1,200 people following the firing of City Manager James Sullivan to street photography that captured the day-to-day lives of children in the Jefferson Park housing project in North Cambridge—are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Art and the Addison Gallery of American Art. But they’re also available online, thanks to a renewed effort from the CPL to digitize its print collections. And the photographs—while fascinating—are far from the only glimpse into Cambridge history that’s available in the library’s online archives.

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Students and residents of the Roosevelt Towers Housing Project gather in the Rindge Technical School auditorium to protest the death of classmate Larry Largey, who was killed while in police custody.

Pacy and the CPL staff have been working to digitize massive parts of their collection, including decades of news from now-defunct Cambridge newspapers that stretch as far back as 1846. And Pacy says that the initiative has been wildly popular.

“It gets an enormous amount of views every month,” she says, adding that throughout a given month, roughly 10,000 check out the online archives. “Which is quite incredible—10,000 people weren’t coming in every month to look at the microfilm. Once you make something available, and you make it freely available to anybody, people will look at it and use it.”

There’s even a chance for residents to get involved in the archiving. When text moves from microfilm to a digital form, the text can get garbled and often needs to be updated to reflect an accurate reading. Thanks to a sort of crowdsourcing component, Pacy says that to date, 400,000 lines of text in the database corrected by average citizens.

Pacy and co. are currently working to digitally archive city directories and materials from other special collections, and each time a new collection comes in, they’re digitizing what they can. It’s in line with the library’s ongoing goal: to provide people with access to information.

“Specifically in archives and special collections, there’s this idea that we’re hunkered down in the back with our dusty old material, and we never emerge into the sunlight,” Pacy laughs. “We’re really working with emerging technologies … trying to get all the material we can out and accessible. It’s an exciting time in archives and libraries.”