Can you spot the difference? Facsimiles in the Burns Library

The Book of Kells with case, BS2552 .B55 1990 IRISH OVERSIZE, John J. Burns Library

The Book of Kells is one of the best known medieval manuscripts in the world, due in part to its distinctive insular style and its status as an emblem of Irish national history and identity. Created around 800 AD, the Book of Kells can be found at Trinity College Dublin, where it has been held since the 17th century. Any student of medieval art and artifacts will study the Book of Kells at some point, but how do you study something so unique that it may take time, travel, entrance fees, and maybe even special permissions to see? A facsimile.

A facsimile is an exact copy. In the days before photography, copies of medieval manuscripts for study had to be created in much the same way the manuscripts themselves had been made: painstakingly, by hand, and at great expense. These illustrations could then be turned into prints and distributed widely. These copies frequently reproduce works only in part, prioritizing the most interesting or informative pages. In the 20th century, as photography and later color photography became more common and inexpensive, it became possible to reproduce each page of a manuscript at a low cost, allowing full facsimiles for study available for purchase by any library or individual.

In recent years, technology has allowed for even more complete and detailed facsimiles. Not only is it possible to reproduce the content on each page, even page shape and subtleties of color can be recreated in a way that gives a fuller impression of the object itself. For example, our facsimile of the Book of Kells from 1990 allows classes studying medieval manuscripts, like Nancy Netzer’s Introduction to Medieval Irish Manuscripts, to interact with a material version of the Books of Kells. Alongside high resolution digital images from Trinity College Dublin, the facsimile facilitates comparison between the physical and digital object as well as a more holistic understanding of an item that more closely resembles the experience of seeing the Book of Kells in person.

The Books of Kells, and medieval manuscripts in general, are only one area where facsimiles are useful tools. Other facsimiles recreate items that may have been copied and widely disseminated in their time, but are too fragile or have been lost in too great numbers. Ephemera, for example, can be reproduced as facsimiles to compensate for the extent to which the original objects have been destroyed or lost. The first night Gilbert and Sullivan: containing complete librettos of the fourteen operas contains facsimiles of paper ephemera related to premieres of their operettas, including libretti and programs. These performances, and the paper products associated with them, would have been hugely popular and widely distributed. This facsimile from 1950 preserves the look and feel of items you would receive as a nineteenth century theater-goer. Collecting ephemera from public events spanning decades into one volume provides opportunities to understand the items in relation to one another, inviting comparisons between ephemeral objects that may not have been put alongside each other in their original contexts.

These are only a couple of examples of facsimiles in our collections, and a couple of ways they can be useful to us – what can you find?

-Kate Edrington, Multimedia & Administrative Specialist, John J. Burns Library

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Ephemerality and digital dark ages; or, a day in the life of a mayfly

Over the last two years, the Burns Library Archives and Manuscripts team have made clear strides in how our donors and our subject area curators identify, evaluate, and select born digital material for inclusion in the archives. We’ve reimagined our workflows to increase our capacity to acquire born-digital content, and have put in place safeguards to ensure that incoming digital content–whether it is a photographic archive stored in Google Drive or a mysterious floppy disk from 1993–is stabilized at the start of the archival stewardship process. Also, while we’re implementing new tools and workflows, we’re also joyfully busting down those long-held notions that archives are only “old things” on paper.

This work is important. As a society, we are creating more content than ever before, and we’re creating that content using technologies and services that render content more ephemeral than newspapers of a 100 years ago. Technological development moves so quickly that, in a relatively short period of time, it has become almost impossible to access information in what were once common formats.

engraving titled The Holy Family with the Mayfly
Dürer, Albrecht. 1495. The Holy Family with the Mayfly. Engraving on laid paper.

You may have learned about the European Dark Ages in grade school. In historiography, the term “Dark Ages” -first coined by Renaissance humanists- connotes a lack of contemporary written history and material cultural achievements in general. It is something of a pejorative term, a criticism from a place of perceived cultural superiority. Why, you may be asking, am I writing about the Middle Ages? Well, many experts from a variety of fields and professions are warning of a new dark age–the Digital Dark Age–hovering like a stormy cloud on our shared horizon.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage of the word “ephemera” to Middle English. It’s attributed to Aristotle1 who, intrigued by the brief lifespan of the mayfly, considered it to be an exceptional representation of a category of animals that he called the Ephemeroptera2. Like Aristotle before them, both Islamic and Western European philosophers of the Middle Ages hypothesized that the fly’s very brief lifespan was related to the littleness, or exility3, of its soul, an assumption which placed the mayfly very low on the list of Most Important Animals in the Medieval world.

“Ephemera” is first recorded in English in a 14th-century translation of a 13th-century title, Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum. In this work, we see metaphorical meaning taking root:  “Effimera, one dayes feuer is as it were the heete of one day.” Taken literally, the ephemera is a type of fever lasting the lifecycle of one mayfly. Taken figuratively, we also understand that we’re dealing with a relatively unremarkable fever. It is through this process that we can see the word “ephemeral” evolve from a literal meaning referring to types of animals to include an association with measurable units of time and assumptions of value.

Page from the De proprietatibus rerum
Bartholomaeus, Anglicus, and donor DSI Burndy Library. 1275. [De proprietatibus rerum] [manuscript]. [last quarter of 13th century]. http://archive.org/details/deproprietatibu00bart.
Dictionary entry for the word “ephemeral”
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language : in Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers: to Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar. London: Printed by W. Strahan, for J. and P. Knapton … [and 4 others], 1755.

Samuel Johnson is cited as the first recorded user of the term “ephemerae” in a print context (1751) to mean the “papers of the day” in reference to newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, and the like4. By the 20th century, ephemera and ephemeral were interpreted to mean, broadly, something of no lasting significance. More specifically, it came to mean paper items that were meant to be thrown away. When these items are viewed through an archival lens, though, they may actually hold tremendous sentimental, artifactual, and/or research value.

Like traditional publishing platforms such as newspapers and magazines, the internet is a medium used to publish content. However, I’ll ask you to take a moment to consider the similarities and differences between the two following examples:

  1. Paper has an average lifespan of 100-500 years. Highly acidic old newspapers from the early 1900s often grow brittle, and the ink may have run or dried to become unreadable. In 1900, Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory5 estimated that there were about 20,000 different newspapers in the United States, including dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies. 
  2. Websites and uploaded content have an average lifespan of 100 days. Embedded hyperlinks are frequently broken, programming languages and scripts are constantly superseded by new alternatives, and commercial hosting services can easily shut down or erase content at will. At the time of writing this, there were 1,931,072,252 websites in existence.6
identification guide to common digital media carriers
“Know Your Media | A Guide to the Most Common Types of Digital Media Found in Archives.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://lib.utsa.edu/knowyourmedia/

The digital environment has provided an interesting landscape that challenges our perceptions as to what is of ephemeral value and what is not. To do this important work, it takes strategic intent, skilled labor, strong infrastructure, and continuous maintenance to ensure that the lifespan of digital content is extended beyond the here and now. Certainly, content creators are hoping that their work lasts longer than the lifespan of a mayfly! 

  1.  “ephemera, adj. and n.1”. OED Online. December 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63198 (accessed February 14, 2022).
  2. “Ephemeroptera.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/arthropoda/uniramia/ephemeroptera.html.
  3. “Exility Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exility?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld.
  4.  Garner, Anne. “State of the Discipline: Throwaway History: Towards a Historiography of Ephemera.” Book History 24, no. 1 (2021): 244-263. doi:10.1353/bh.2021.0008.
  5.  “Teachinghistory.Org.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/22927.
  6.  “Internet Live Stats – Internet Usage & Social Media Statistics.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.internetlivestats.com/.

-Elizabeth Carron, Senior Accessioning Archivist, John J. Burns Library

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A Visit to Georgetown, May 1840, from the MacNeven Family Collection

Kindly write to me, my dear Jane, describe for me the scenery and the people. Let it be a poem and a picture.

Jane MacNeven (New York City) to her daughter, Jane Mary MacNeven (Georgetown), 10 May 1840
Kalorama, Charles Codman (1800-1842), ca. 1800-1825, The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., RR-1972.0013, https://www.diplomaticrooms.state.gov/objects/kalorama/, accessed April 2, 2022.

Within Burns Library’s MacNeven Family collection (MS2009-002) is an exchange of letters primarily between Jane MacNeven (1782-1868) and her 28-year-old daughter, Jane Mary “Jenny” MacNeven (1811-1856) during Jenny’s six-week visit to the District of Columbia in May, 1840. 

Jenny’s father, William James MacNeven (1763-1841) was a leader of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland by the United Irishmen. He was arrested, jailed, and exiled. He arrived in the United States in 1805 and in 1810 married widow Jane Riker Tom of New York. Their family would include children, ”Jenny,” James, William, Rosa, and Samuel, and Jane’s daughter, Anna Tom. William – a physician – spent the rest of his career in New York City where he received an honorary MD from Columbia College, was appointed professor of obstetrics in the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later taught chemistry and materia medica. At the time of the correspondence, Jenny and her parents were living with Anna (1805-1886) and her husband, Thomas Addis Emmet, Jr. (1797-1863), at their estate in a still-rural section of Manhattan – a short train ride to the heart of the city. Emmet was the son and nephew, respectively, of United Irishmen Thomas Addis Emmet (1764-1827) and Robert Emmet (1778-1803).

My dear Jane, with two backgammon boards going one on each corner of the table I sit down to write….I don’t know whether my letter will be legible or intelligible as we have another couple at another corner of the table but I must stop to tell you who they are as I know you wish to know. Well then fancy the dinner table à l’ordinaire. Edward and John Riker at one corner Jane LeRoy and Tony at another. I am writing about midway as I have learned to take this seat. Mr. LeRoy reading the paper, Herman looking on and Papa walking up and down the entry, dear Mother having gone to uncle’s has not yet returned as it is a fine moon light night. Now I think you can see us all.

Anna Emmet (New York City) to her half-sister, Jane Mary MacNeven (Georgetown), 9 June 1840

In addition to the opportunity to see the nation’s capital, there were two main objects of Jenny’s journey to Washington: to network with people who could advance her 19-year-old brother Sam’s prospect of a military career, and to attend the 13th birthday party of Jane MacNeven’s godchild, Grace Georgiana “Georgy” Tone. 

And Thursday past was my sweet Georgy Tone’s birthday! Thirteen years since her little head first pressed my pillow – eventful years with me and with her, too, dear child. Yet she has had a happy young life. May the future be full of blessings for her and the fond parents whose lives are wrapped up in hers….The Elder Mrs. Emmet came out yesterday to see Tom. She came on the Rail Car, and after passing a pleasant hour returned to town to dinner. I accompanied her to the railroad and saw her safely placed in the very hindmost car from the engine – that fiery dragon. It must have been some such an invention, named thus, the ancients talked of.

Jane MacNeven (New York City) to daughter, Jane Mary MacNeven (Georgetown), 31 May 1840
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Bean na hÉireann (The Woman of Ireland)

We’re a bit late to it, but March was Women’s History Month and, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. As a graduating senior in the history and women’s studies department, this March felt like my month.

Front page of newspaper showing woman holding up banner reading newspaper title with advertisements below and an image of a well dressed woman.
Cover, Bean na hÉireann, HQ1101 .B43 IRISH, John J. Burns Library

With the help of a lot of source material at Burns, I am currently finishing up my scholar of the college thesis on the experiences of mothers during the Gaelic Revival in Ireland, the period of renewed interest in the pre-colonial literature and culture of Ireland in an effort to “de-Anglicize” the island. I assert that women, in their Church and culturally sanctioned place of the home, were proud to make a substantial de-Anglicizing effort in small, but concrete change, as opposed to sweeping changes attempted in the political arena, like the political status of the Irish language or tariffs on non-Irish goods.

Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) was a women’s group, founded by Anglo-Irish nationlist Maud Gonne and 14 other women who met at the Irish Literary Society. They focused on nationalist issues like supporting Irish manufacturing and labor, cultivating Gaelic culture, and voting for Sinn Féin candidates, but in a way that allowed women to remain within the sphere of the home.

newspaper article text
Article, Bean na hÉireann, HQ1101 .B43 IRISH, John J. Burns Library

In 1908, Inghinidhe na hÉireann began printing a monthly magazine entitled Bean na hÉireann (The Woman of Ireland). Though the magazine ran for only a little over two years, it gives us a fascinating glimpse into these nationalist women’s lives and what they deemed worthy of print. Burns Library has a copy of the November 1910 edition of the magazine. Articles in the sixteen-page magazine deal with everything from complaints about “foreign” taxi cabs to poetry celebrating “Mother Ireland” by Susan Mitchell.

An article on Anti-Enlistment in this issue urges women to use their moral position in Irish society to prevent further Irish men from enlisting in the British army. The author writes, “let us try to make every Irishwoman regard an Irish soldier or Naval sailor as something not to be mentioned save with shame and sorrow.” She gives readers the heavy task to “save Irishmen” from “treason,” though she acknowledges that “it is not love for the British Army or lack of patriotism that drives our men into English ranks, but just poverty and want.”

Poem, Bean na hÉireann, HQ1101 .B43 IRISH, John J. Burns Library

Though women could not vote, Bean na hÉireann was not written for or by militant suffragettes, as newspapers like the Irish Citizen were. However, throughout this issue, and others, women’s political power is acknowledged, celebrated, and called upon. From the ads for Irish goods spread throughout the pages, urging women to vote with their purses and protect Irish industries from cheap British fabrics and household items to discussing Fianna Éireann, a scouts organization to cultivate Gaelic culture in young children, from sports like Gaelic football and hurling to dancing.

Organizations like Inghinidhe na hÉireann asked women to “believe in Ireland’s right to a separate existence, and above all, believe in their own power to establish it. Half a decade before “the personal is political” became the rallying cry for the feminist movement,  Bean na hÉireann asked women to de-Anglicize even the smallest aspects of their lives in order to pursue meaningful political change. 

-Erin Sheedy, MCAS ’22, Reading Room Assistant

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The Many Editions of Gulliver’s Travels

Black and white facsimile of the original title page for Gulliver's Travels
Facsimile title page, Gulliver’s Travels, PR3724 G7 1938 IRISH

One of the things that the Burns Library is known for is our extensive Irish collection and Anglo-Irish author, Jonathan Swift is no exception. Though known widely for his satirical essay, A Modest Proposal,” undoubtedly his most famous work is his novel Gulliver’s Travels. Following Lemuel Gulliver in his journey though magical worlds filled with miniature people, giants, talking horses and even elders that live forever, Gulliver’s Travels is a classic story that’s remained relevant through the years even though it was first published in 1726 under the title, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.

In the centuries since it’s original publication Gulliver’s Travels has spawned variations throughout the years. Here in the stacks at Burns Library I’ve seen copies of the novel over a hundred years old as well as illustrated versions of the story for younger audiences. In a way the shelves almost appear like a discombobulated timeline which we can read and explore different versions of the same book. 

One of the first editions of the novel that I saw in our collection was a copy published in 1938. What piqued my interest was the fact that even though this version was published over 80 years ago this copy still comes about 200 years after the original. While Gulliver’s Travels has changed throughout the years as books often do, updated for modern syntax as language evolved, what made this specific copy so interesting was that it included a replica of the title page from the original publication. Though so much has changed, the publishers felt it appropriate to keep this relic of the original printing.

The second copy of the book that I wanted to mention caught my eye due to it’s cover. The binding’s red color stands out and the ornate nature of the design on the front make it impossible to miss. This version, published in 1888, also has a quote reading, “May blessings be upon the head of Cadmus, the Phoenicians, or whoever it was that invented books,” from Thomas Carlyle. A fitting quote for the cover of a classic novel.

What else pops out from the cover is, where the title of the novel would usually be, it reads, “Caxton Edition.” Named for William Caxton, who lived during the 15th century, he was one of the first to introduce the printing press to England as well as the first retailer for printed books. Though several centuries separate Caxton and this version, a Caxton edition has come to mean any book presented in a deluxe or embellished edition. Though Caxton died almost 400 years before this book was published his influence on printing and publication still lingers to this day, just like many of the classic novels that have been around for centuries.

The last edition that I wanted to note was an illustrated version, presumably intended for children. Published in 1946, the cover depicts Lemual Gulliver towering over a city and holding a Lilliputian in his hand. The art is done in a manner that would have made this classic novel, not generally intended for children, more appealing through its illustrations. 

The evolution of this singular novel over the course of almost 300 years gives us an interesting view into the background of each edition as it progresses. From its original syntax to the classic novel that we know today. If you would like to see these, or any of the dozens of other editions of Gulliver’s Travels housed in Burns Library, please contact us to make an appointment.

-Joshua Park, MCAS ’25, Burns Reading Room Assistant

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Reshelving the Burns Stacks

Electronically operated compact library shelving at the Burns Library
Before photo of 1990s era Burns Library shelving unit.

You’ve probably been told that the Burns Library is “closed stacks,” meaning that librarians pull all of the materials that a user might want, and provide access to them in our reading room. But you may be surprised to learn what the stacks actually look like, and what kinds of challenges and opportunities are associated with them. The Burns Library stacks actually can, and do, break.

Since we don’t have large numbers of patrons who need to browse the shelves regularly, the Burns Library uses something called compact shelving. This type of shelving system allows for a much higher density of storage then the typical fixed library shelving, like you see at the O’Neill Library, by allowing more shelving units to be housed in the same footprint. The shelving units are moved by library staff to open the desired aisle. As a result, we can store the same amount of material in half the space! Interestingly, the extra weight means that buildings have to be specially rated to contain compact library shelving. Another reason why the Burns Library is unique!

Deconstructed library shelving with electronic additions visible at the Burns Library
Burns Library shelving unit awaiting new electronics and end panels.

We appreciate our compact shelving units to no end, but during the last five years, they started breaking with alarming frequency. The Burns Library had state-of-the-art electronic shelving units installed in the early 1990s so aisles could be opened at the push of a button. Unfortunately, the logic boards that powered our shelving had begun to fail at a prodigious rate. When a logic board failed, we were unable to access the materials trapped inside. These 90s-era logic boards are no longer being manufactured, so we were forced to locate and use salvaged parts from other libraries’ recent shelving replacements. As they became increasingly scarce, we realized we had quite a problem on our hands. Eventually, we would reach the point of obsolescence where we would be unable to fix a broken shelving unit.

Fortunately, we were given funding from the Provost’s Office to implement a clever solution. We selected two subsections of our shelving capacity to replace–one was upgraded to newer, contemporary state of the art electronic shelving, and the other, smaller section was downgraded to a manual, gear-operated solution. This elegant mechanism, while boasting fewer bells and whistles (literally!) than its electronic counterpart, easily moves via a crank and requires very little maintenance. Plus, with no motor or electronic components, we anticipate it will last for generations!

Manual library shelving with cranks at the Burns Library
Completed manual shelving installed.

Even with our solution identified, though, we still had a significant amount of work to do to plan and prepare. Because our materials are delicate and fragile, we needed to move all of the material that was adjacent to the shelving work. All told, we moved over 1000 linear feet of material! All of it needed to be tracked, kept in order, safely housed and returned to its original location with nothing lost, damaged, or misordered. With shelving space at a premium throughout the library, finding a place to put everything was quite the challenge. Ultimately, we temporarily stored most of the material on carts in the Reading Room while the Burns Library was closed for a few days. Our Collections Maintenance Specialist moved all of the published material onto large, rented wooden carts that had been lined with acid-free paper, then laboriously rolled them upstairs to the Reading Room. Our archivists worked tirelessly to shift the boxed material to other open spots in our shelving area, making sure to track everything so nothing would be lost or misplaced in the move. 

After a week and a half of hard work, our vendor had upgraded the electronics and motors in one shelving unit and removed them from the other, installing a crank and gear system for manual manipulation. As a final step, they repackaged all of the removed parts and returned them to us for an added bonus–we’ll be able to repurpose parts from our own shelving next time something breaks! After all, we are always on the lookout for an opportunity to upcycle at the Burns Library.

-Amy F. Brown, Special Collections Technical Services & Metadata Creation and Management, Head, Boston College Libraries

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Then and Now: Irish Folklore Studies

Walking through the stacks that contain the Williams Ethnological Collection, it is quite easy for one to be distracted by the sheer amount of titles that deal with folklore of different nations and peoples. Yet knowing that often the material in this particular collection is from the perspective of white Europeans, I began to wonder what these brightly colored volumes of folklore would include textually. As a student interested in Irish Studies, one title specifically caught my eye- W. G Wood-Martin’s “Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Folklore Sketch; A Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian Traditions.” Firstly, the phrase “Elder Faiths” coupled with the words “folklore sketch” seemed like something out of a Tolkien novel. I was also curious how this account would stack up next to something more current. I chose Niall Mac Coitir’s “Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends, & Folklore” for my more recent text, mainly attracted to it by its lovely watercolor cover and illustrations. I find folklore an interesting way to examine how a particular culture has been perceived through time- in this case, Ireland- ethnologically. As I paged through each book, the content selection and organizational choices of both texts were indeed telling! 

From the opening, Wood-Martin’s text is organized fairly broadly- split up into sections titled names such as “Ancient Fauna – Their Exterminator”, with the content of each section only loosely tied to it’s subheading. Wood-Martin takes a wide approach to these topics, exploring what things like the extinction of ancient fauna in Ireland possibly say about its people. One interesting take was about deer in Ireland, which Wood-Martin claimed were hunted to extinction by the native Irish in a similar way to buffalo in the Americas (p. 64). This specifically caught my eye as historians have argued that buffalo were not solely hunted to extinction by indigenous peoples, but were in fact slaughtered in great numbers. This slaughter was sanctioned by the US Army at the time, which aided the rapid decline of the buffalo population in the late nineteenth century, as a way to deplete indigenous resources. I was intrigued, then, by what Mac Coitir’s text would have to say about deer in Ireland.

Watercolor painting of a deer with Latin, English, and Irish subheadings for deer.
Deer from Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends, & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir, Burns Library, Boston College.

While Wood-Martin organized his text more broadly and touched on a variety of topics and themes, Mac Coitir’s text was much more to the point. It helps that Mac Coitir’s text was broken up by gorgeous watercolor paintings of each animal he discusses, with the Latin, English, and Irish names of each animal listed above their own image. Each animal’s section is then filled by additional identical subheadings, including things such as “Folk Beliefs and Customs” and “Myths and Legends”. Whereas Wood-Martin often passes judgment on Irish traditions, Mac Coitir instead simply summarizes the ways in which each animal was used by and connected to the Irish, whether through exploring how they were connected to folklore and myth, or how they were viewed within Irish society as a whole. In his section on deer, for example, Mac Coitir notes that there is an absence of folklore about deer, which he attributes to “deer being confined to the last few pockets of woodland in the country, as the Irish forests were cut down over the last few centuries” (p. 41). Mac Coitir explicitly makes sure to tie back to his headings and main themes, which allows the reader to more fully understand the ways in which these animals are present in Irish folklore and Irish communities. Additionally, the inclusion of the Irish language allows a perspective that is lacking within Wood-Martin’s text. 

The cross-examination and comparison of these two texts allow the reader to see how ethnological sorts of studies and the questions we ask about cultures have changed and progressed over time. Each book provides an interesting window into Irish culture and folklore as seen through a certain point in time. If anything, one can at least admire the wonderful watercolor portraits in Mac Coitir’s text and pick up some Irish words for animals along the way!

Watercolor painting of a cow, dog, pig, and sheep in different environments.
Two page spread of watercolor paintings, Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends, & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir, Burns Library, Boston College.

-Cassidy Allen, First year PhD student in English, Reading Room Assistant, John J. Burns Library, Boston College 

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Women’s Troubles: Locating Northern Irish Women in Special Collections and Archives

For far too long, researchers have faced difficulties in locating women in the historical record. While that was often the result of research decisions and collection development that deliberately and/or incidentally privileged men as historical actors. It is important to remember that archival collections nonetheless play a significant role in promoting research on women. With the development of interdisciplinary women’s studies in the 1960s, some libraries and archives sought to improve collections related to women in order to aid researchers of all disciplines. Nevertheless, scholars at all levels–from undergraduates stepping in an archive for the first time to faculty working on their latest manuscript–often find it challenging to locate materials related to women. 

At Boston College’s John J. Burns Library, the special collections and archives team seeks to provide better access to the wealth of sources on women and women’s organizations. The Burns Library is known for housing the largest collection of Irish materials in North America. In recent years the library expanded its holdings on Northern Ireland that reflect some of the varied experiences of Northern Irish women, particularly during the Troubles. Over the past decade scholarship on women’s experiences of Northern Ireland’s Troubles (1968-1998) and their involvement in the protracted conflict has proliferated. Consequently, the Burns Library endeavors to make sources on Northern Irish women as accessible as possible. 

What follows is a brief history of the Troubles along with suggestions for finding archival materials on Northern Irish women at Burns Library. However, before delving into specifics, one should note that the term “women” holds many meanings. For the purpose of locating women in the Burns collections on The Troubles, the category of women used here reflects the dominant understanding of women in Northern Ireland in the second half of the 20th century. When writing about the women’s movement in Ireland, feminist scholar Gerardine Meany (Sex and Nation: Women in Irish Culture and Politics, 1993) explained that as a previously colonized people, the Irish sought to claim independence and sovereignty through masculine coded conceptions of power. For example, article 41 of the Irish Constitution  (1937) recognizes the family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society and women’s special place in the home. In connection, long after British colonization ended, Irish society continued to impose strict gender roles in order to assert the masculinity and right to power of male citizens. Consequently, Irish women were not only transformed into symbols of the nation, but became a site for the exercise of male power that rendered them second-class citizens. Meany further noted that this applied to nationalist Ireland as well as the Unionist-controlled Northern Ireland. Thus, Northern Irish women–Catholic or Protestant, nationalist or unionist–were also second-class citizens, subject to men’s political, economic, and social power. An understanding of the status of women in Northern Ireland is crucial to any consideration of  their experiences during the Troubles. 

In the 1960s, oppressed people around the world protested for civil rights and justice. In Northern Ireland, working-class people demanded fair access to housing, jobs, and voting. Since partition in 1921, when the six northeastern counties of Ireland opted to remain within the United Kingdom, Unionists held political and economic power in the north, resulting in the allocation of housing and jobs and voting along sectarian divisions. Although all working-class people suffered under decades of unionist rule, the Catholic minority was disproportionately affected by policies that favored unionists, most of whom practiced Protestant faiths. Women of all religious and political affiliations were affected by traditional values that relegated them to the domestic sphere as mothers and wives. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was established in 1967 to coordinate efforts to agitate for reform and in 1968, a year best remembered for the global student protests, university students at Queen’s University, Belfast founded the People’s Democracy (PD). Northern Irish women–Catholic and Protestant–assumed leadership roles and filled the ranks of these organizations, protesting visibly in the streets. Civil rights marches across the province made headlines as peaceful protestors encountered violence at the hands of loyalist counter-protestors as well as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as exemplified by the Long March from Belfast to Derry when demonstrators were brutally attacked at Burntollet Bridge. The Battle of the Bogside later that year would result in the establishment of Free Derry, a nationalist no-go zone. For the next few years, marches, riots, and street violence defined life in Northern Ireland for men, women, and children. However, on January 30, 1972, when British troops open-fired indiscriminately into a crowd of civilians marching against internment in Derry, killing 14 and wounding 17, the struggle for civil rights gave way to a period of civil war.

black and white image of a dozen women in formation on the street, wearing dark skirts, dark stockings, dark sweaters, badges, berets, and sunglasses.
Official IRA members of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary, were highly visible on the streets of Downpatrick on Easter Sunday 1974. Image bh010930Bobbie Hanvey photographic archives, MS.2001.039, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Violence and terror dominated daily life the late 1970s and into the 1980s. The British government, Unionist paramilitary groups, and both factions of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought a protracted, bloody war. The detonation of bombs scarred cities in Northern Ireland and England, and kidnappings, murders, and assasinations frequently made headlines. Nationalist and unionist women were deeply involved in paramilitary organizations on the front lines and running organization efforts? though never considered on equal terms with their male counterparts. Even as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher implemented repressive policies that only entrenched sectarian divisions, the oppressed people of Northern Ireland continued to fight for their rights. Nationalist prisoners–both men and women–carried out a series of hunger strikes to demand their status as political prisoners be reinstated. The women at Armagh Prison also carried out a dirty protest, when they refused to bathe or clean their cells, from 1980-1981. Catholic and Protestant women were at the forefront of the peace movement, calling for an end to the bloodshed that destroyed families and communities. Years of agitation yielded results in the 1990s when peace negotiations began in earnest. Two years later, the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles with all major parties agreeing to end the violence.

Woman holding a  long gun, with several other women crouched on the street banging trash can covers. Text reads: Internation women's day 1982: THis is not a man's war but a people's war, and very, very much suffering has been borne by the women, be they mothers, wives, political activists or Volunteers, and the men ought to remember that without the sacrifice of women there would be no struggele at all.
This 1982 Sinn Féin poster for International Women’s Day depicts women supporting the republican cause both by taking up arms and signaling the presence of British troops or the police in their neighborhood.
Source: CAIN – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland Archive

The Burns Library collects materials related to the Troubles from the late 1960s through the peace process. Researchers interested in Northern Irish women during this time will find a wealth of sources, but determining where to begin can be a challenge. The following suggestions on research strategies and collections are meant to help students and researchers sort through the Burns Library collections. When searching the BC Libraries catalog, the subject heading Women — Northern Ireland provides various sources on women. It is important to note that there are materials on women that are not categorized as such, and this should be used only as a starting point. 

The Linen Hall Collection includes documents from women’s organizations and political associations such as the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the Socialist Women’s Group, and the Falls Women’s Centre. These sources cover a range of topics from second wave feminism and women’s political participation to women prisoners and victims of the Troubles. Although the Irish Collection contains materials from both Northern Ireland and the Republic from various sources, researchers can narrow search results by filtering for “Northern Ireland.” This will lead researchers to papers produced by Westminster and Stormont, political ephemera created by women’s groups, and books authored by Northern Irish women.

For more sources, databases, and bibliographies, please refer to the BC Libraries research guides on Northern Ireland and The Troubles.

-Tiffany Thompson, Burns Library Collections Assistant

Further Reading

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Mining for Meaning: Gathering and Interpreting Qualitative Student Feedback in Instruction Sessions

How do you know if a class was effective? While we have some baseline measures – gut check: was an ambulance needed for the instructor or students? No? Success! – gathering feedback from students is an essential tool in knowing what worked, what didn’t work, and what we need to change for the next time we teach a class. 

The Burns Library Instruction Program (BLIP) began consistent instruction assessment over 4 years ago as part of a BC Libraries push to get standardized assessment of instruction efforts across the organization. We began with a modified 3-2-1 assessment on a half sheet of paper: 

What is one thing you learned from this session?

What do you wish we had covered more in depth?

What questions do you still have about Burns or BC Libraries?

As time went on, we made slight changes to include additional questions (and expanded to a full sheet of paper):

Would you like us to contact you to follow up on your questions? (Please provide your name and contact information)

Any additional comments on the session?

Are there any diversity, equity or accessibility gaps we should be aware of for future sessions?

We also added some quantitative questions: 

Status (First Year, Sophomore, Junior, Senior, Master’s Student, Doctoral Student, Other)

Number of previous class sessions at Burns (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5+)

Pie Chart: BC Students in BLIP Sessions, Fall 2018-Fall 2021. First Year 41%, Sophomore 20%, Junior 15%, Senior 19%, Master's 5%, Doctoral 0%
Pie Chart: Number of previous BLIP sessions attended, Fall 2018-2021. 0 69%, 1 24%, 2 4%, 3 2%, 4 0%, 5+ 1%
Student Status and Previous BLIP sessions over time

The students may hate taking five minutes at the end of class to reflect and respond to the questions, but it makes a large difference in how we approach teaching. BLIP Teaching Librarians compile the feedback after each session to share it with the instructor, but also review it ourselves after the class, at the end of the semester, and before the next iteration of that class. We jot granular level notes about what worked well, what didn’t work as well, and where class plan changes could or should be made to better meet student needs. The question “What is one thing you learned from the session” can tell us a great deal about whether or not we met our learning objectives, and “What do you still have questions about” reveals even more about areas we should improve. Our informal mantra is “What can we tweak to be better this time?” and the feedback from the students plays a key role in driving these changes.

Printed instruction assessment attached to a clipboard; screen capture of Burns Instruction Assessment Google Form
Old school and high tech BLIP assessment options

Beyond looking at individual class’s assessments, at the end of each academic year we aggregate all the responses to get the wider context. This is when we pause and ask ourselves: What questions and comments do we see consistently?  Patterns do emerge, especially after we developed about six standard categories per question to roughly sort responses. Of course, many comments could be sorted into multiple categories, and there is often overlap between questions, and different Teaching Librarians are sorting and  interpreting this data differently. Qualitative data is tricky, but we have found it helpful for marketing and outreach, and we definitely have changed our instructional approaches to address gaps. This data has also been important to demonstrate success to faculty, instructors, and administrative audiences.

screenshots of spreadsheets with categorized response data for question 1( What is one thing you learned from this session? ) and question 2 (What questions do you still have about Burns or BC Libraries?)

As we reviewed the patterns in feedback, we began strategizing on how to solve the common pain points. Changes to our class plans have included: demonstrating the activity we are asking them to do while including common roadblocks (hello, vellum covers, Roman Numerals and Latin place names) and how to get around them. We also used patterns of questions that were being asked to develop our YouTube playlist about special collections literacies. (On a more technical note, we’ve also learned how important it is to have a margin at the top so the quantitative data isn’t missed/skipped!)

Levels of feedback vary, our transcription skills are often challenged, and we are exposed to the current slang as we read the feedback, but we do get quite a few good nuggets, even when the row of N/As make it obvious that they just want to get out of there a scootch early and go to their next class. 

Each class is encouraged to be honest with their feedback, but our students are so darn polite they often fall back on BC Nice. We giggle a bit when their questions make it obvious they haven’t done the pre-work we’ve assigned (BUSTED! But we’re adapting to this knowledge soon.). If somebody really lets rip, we don’t get insulted, we just laugh and take the criticism in stride. 

Take Stdent feedback with a sense of humor. Some favorite excerpts from student comments: The green carpet, I think, is in poor taste to the value of the collection --also the white lights could be warmer, more inviting. Always keep the rock. Class was much better than in the classroom. I had much lower expectations. [I learned] How dapper the librarians and books are. Kinda annoying. Where does all this come from? Is it here indefinitely or a rental? Thank you for your encouragement and excitement about the books. It got me even more excited.

We also realized that there was a gap in getting feedback from the faculty we partner with to create instructional sessions, and launched a faculty assessment form in the Fall 2022 semester. Our completion rate wasn’t great, but maybe we should send it to the faculty to complete in the class session as their students are working on their feedback? We get it, it’s crazy out there during the semester. 

Faculty are nice (but we know we can do better). Some excerpts from faculty comments: [The librarians] covered so much in one single class session! I was blown away by their ability.... I could see that the session influenced their research homework. It definitely helped them with their analysis. I appreciate the efficiency and compactness of the lesson plan! EXTREMELY lively and effective session. Lots of clear communication before the class made for an especially good experience. The students seemed to really enjoy it and the time was filled very well. I like how the goal wasn't to finish everything but rather to just think through what they are noticing... The librarians were once again patient and enthusiastic when answering questions.

BLIP is committed to continuing to build assessment into the majority of class plans, and to using that data – and our instincts – to make incremental improvements to our instruction offerings. Instructors interested in using special collections materials to enhance the learning outcomes of their courses should inquire as early as possible. While there are limitations—capacity, space, and available hours—we are willing to creatively work with faculty to develop sessions and help design activities and assignments that require students to apply and demonstrate what they have learned.

Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services & Engagement

Resources Consulted: Too many obsessive spreadsheets to count

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Dear Ones at Home: The Hattie M. and Merritt Morse Papers

I found a bit of Cotton with the seeds in it just as it grew. It is dirty, but i will put it in you can if you wish plant them & see how it grows. when growing it is very tender. When it first comes up has two broad leaves after a time a third will start out. light “Sandy loam”is best adapted to its growth.

Cotton sent within a letter, Box 2, Folder 26, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

In the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, recently married Merritt (1832-1913) and Hattie Morse (1838-1892) lived in West Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both were from northern New England, Merritt from New Hampshire and Hattie from Vermont. By the time of his Army enlistment in August, 1862, they had relocated to the village of Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire near Merritt’s family. Hattie would give birth to their first child there, one month after Merritt’s departure with Company I of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. Merritt would serve nearly three years – until the close of the war. He transferred to the U.S. Signal Corps in 1863, and later to the X Corps and the XXIV Corps of the Union Army of the James in Virginia before returning home in June, 1865. Letters in the collection cover the entire period of his service.

Congress created the U.S. Signal Corps in1860 and the Army adopted it in early 1863. Enlisted men like Morse worked as flagmen and used a line-of-sight communication system of flags, lanterns, and codes to send and receive information from vantage points on the tops of buildings, trees, and towers.

Detail of an envelope printed with the image of a torch between two crossed flags, the symbol for the U.S. Signal Corps, Box 1, Folder 39, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

Communicating with Hattie by more conventional means, Merritt sent frequent, long, affectionate letters to New Hampshire filled with observations on military matters and humanitarian efforts, food, health, social life, finances, family, spirituality, etc.

Printed patriotic stationery envelope with letter, Merritt Morse, Box 1, Folder 11, Hattie M. and Merritt Morse papers (MS2020-020), John J. Burns Library.

The Sea Islands were an area of strategic importance under control of the Union Army beginning in November, 1861. To support the Union Army presence there, the U.S. government embarked on a project to salvage the islands’ cotton crop while also sending aid in the form of teachers, missionaries, and supplies. Merritt describes and assesses these efforts in his letters.

White plantation owners and their families had fled the area, while many enslaved people remained. Merritt’s service placed him near communities of “contrabands,” enslaved people whose legal status would remain uncertain until emancipation.

Owing to the relative isolation of the Sea Islands and surrounding areas, enslaved people there more strongly retained an African language and cultural influences more than those in other areas of the country. The people, their creole language, and the culture are called Gullah, and continue to have a presence on these lands to this day.

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