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Her job: protect, share state’s historical treasures

Albie Johnson, the state librarian, spends much of her time surrounded by historic documents.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Albie Johnson, the state librarian, spends much of her time surrounded by historic documents.

Ten years after he got here, William Bradford starting writing about his journey. He wrote about the Pilgrims’ history, their interactions with the native peoples, the first Thanksgiving, and tremendous heartbreak and struggles. He kept composing his narrative in neat cursive through 1650, and then added notes in 1659 about what happened to the other original Mayflower passengers.

“Of Plimoth Plantation” is a key work — arguably the key work — of 17th-century Colonial history. The manuscript is priceless. And the original, ink faded but readable, sits in a box in a climate-controlled secure area in the State House, one of the places where Albie Johnson works.

By the nature of her job as the state librarian of Massachusetts, Johnson is always surrounded by historical treasures.

Boston, MA - 12/18/18 - Detail of a map of Boston by Frenchman Jacques Nicolas Bellin from around 1760. State Librarian Albie Johnson (cq) presides over a fascinating array of documents and artifacts. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Joshua Miller) Topic: (21workspace)
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Detail of a map of Boston by Frenchman Jacques Nicolas Bellin from around 1760.
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Among those with her in the vault: a meticulously drawn 1760 map of Boston in French (“Plan de la ville de Boston et ses Environs”), John James Audubon’s hand-colored “Birds of America” (another early copy fetched $10 million at auction recently), VHS tapes of the Legislature’s debates over gay marriage in the oughts, and a copy of Cicero’s writings printed in the 1550s that Bradford carried with him on the Mayflower.

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Many of the documents kept in the vault have been, or are being, digitized. Many are brought out for public display. Part of her job, Johnson says, is to make sure these treasures are accessible. But it also is her duty to keep them safe and secure for the next generations.

Boston, MA - 12/18/18 - Albie Johnson holds William Bradford's copy of the writings of Cicero, printed in 1546, which he carried with him on the Mayflower. in State Librarian Albie Johnson (cq) presides over a fascinating array of documents and artifacts. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Joshua Miller) Topic: (21workspace)
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Albie Johnson held William Bradford's copy of the writings of Cicero, printed in 1546, which he carried with him on the Mayflower.

“As the steward of all this, I keep it under lock and key,” she said recently while standing in the vault, the exact location of which the Globe agreed not to disclose to help protect the treasures within.

Johnson, who has been state librarian since 2007 and has a staff of 11, spends time in several other spaces, too.

In the State House basement, there is a conservation lab where relics are restored.

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Maps, broadsides, and other big artifacts that have been folded up for decades or centuries are humidified and carefully unfurled. There is a special sink to chemically wash and preserve paper, and unique tools to restore old books.

Boston, MA - 12/18/18 - A custom sink in the conservation room that was designed by Albie Johnson and her staff. State Librarian Albie Johnson (cq) presides over a fascinating array of documents and artifacts. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Joshua Miller) Topic: (21workspace)
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A custom sink in the conservation room that was designed by Albie Johnson and her staff.

One recent day, a roll listing missing men from the Civil War had just been carefully encased in plastic. It read, in part, “Soldiers and brothers . . . if you know what became of any man here named, or have facts of interest to surviving friends, communicate the same to me by letter, as soon as possible . . .”

Johnson also works out of the main library space on the third floor of the State House, which houses some of the institution’s 500,000 physical volumes. They include books of old statutes like “An Act relative to the issuance of search warrants for hypnotic drugs and the arrest of those present,” the 1911 law that made pot possession illegal. There are also books written by Massachusetts politicians who may aspire to new titles of their own (“A Fighting Chance,” by Elizabeth Warren; “Every Day is Extra,” by John Kerry).

The State Library was created by an act of the Legislature in 1826, but its collections were already being gathered as early as 1811 in the State House, a building that opened more than a decade earlier.

In its modern incarnation, Johnson says, her goal is to bring the wonders of the history that the library holds to a wider public audience. Ways to do that include digitizing some items and helping people explore the objects and books that just exist in physical form.

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“When we make these things available and invite people in, it just opens up a world,” she said. “Because they can see themselves in these documents.”

In so many of the library’s artifacts, the history brings new meaning to the present, and in our present circumstance, new meaning to the past.

Boston, MA - 12/18/18 - A 1795 broadside entitled Information for Immigrants to the New-England States. State Librarian Albie Johnson (cq) presides over a fascinating array of documents and artifacts. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (Joshua Miller) Topic: (21workspace)
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A 1795 broadside entitled Information for Immigrants to the New-England States.

There is, for example, the 1795 broadside, “Information for Immigrants to the New-England States,” which offers this introduction: “The principles of religion and humanity require the friendly attention of Americans to these strangers, many of whom arrive in circumstances of such wretchedness as to give pain to every feeling mind.”

Some of that modern meaning is incidental. Some is not.

In the priceless original history of early Plymouth that sits in the secret vault, Bradford explained that he was writing so “that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrastled in going throug these things in their first beginings, and how God brought them along notwithstanding all their weaknesses & infirmities.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.