Have you ever played “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?” If you’ve never heard of this game, the rules are pretty basic: you take any actor and try to connect her or him in some way to Footloose star Kevin Bacon though films and television shows. When playing, it quickly becomes apparent that Bacon is, mystifyingly, the central node by which your favorite movie actors and actresses are connected. Lest you start to believe that Kevin Bacon is, in fact, the center of all things, let me assure you that this phenomenon was observed and investigated long before Mr. Bacon was pledging Omega Theta Pi in Animal House.
In 1967, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment called the “Small World Problem,” wherein 160 random people in Nebraska were given a package, which they were asked to forward to any friends they believed would be able to get it closer to a single individual in Boston. Milgram found that the average number of intermediate senders was about five – or six degrees of separation. Some might say he also succeeded in proving once again that Boston truly is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, the “Hub of the Universe.”
Since June 2012, the archives staff has been hard at work on a processing project to make collections available for researchers. We’ve processed a wide variety of collections, from personal papers to institutional records to subject collections, all covering a multitude of topics. The only common characteristic these records share was that they were, in some way, loosely connected to the city of Boston. Knee deep into our year-long processing project, we started noticing something interesting: the same names, locations, and events kept popping up over and over again in the records of different individuals and institutions. When con artist “Handsome Jack” Hapgood, for example, showed up in both the personal papers of Howard Belding Gill and the records of advertising company John Donnelly & Sons (a connection that, incidentally, would give Gill and Donnelly a “Bacon number” of 2 if either of them were Kevin Bacon) we couldn’t help but think of the “Six Degrees” phenomenon.
So, when brainstorming ideas for an exhibit featuring our newly processed collections, the idea of showcasing the interconnectedness of our Boston creators seemed an obvious choice. In “Six Degrees of Separation: Interconnected archival collections at the John J. Burns Library” now on display in the Ford Tower, you will learn how Queen Elizabeth II connected Boston Public Library Director Philip McNiff and flamboyant restaurateur Bette Arnold, what teacher and community activist Louise Bonar really thought of the Citywide Coordinating Council’s efforts to desegregate Boston Public Schools, and that actor Alec Guinness had more in common with Stanbrook Abbey Press’ head printer Sister Hildelith Cumming than either of them probably realized.
The city of Boston is what best links all of these disparate individuals together: a big city that is, in some ways, like a small town bringing fascinating people from all walks of life together. It serves as our central node, our hub, for this exhibit. “Six Degrees of Separation” will be on display until mid-May 2013. Finding aids for all the featured collections, except for the in process New England Deaconess School of Nursing Records, are now online and are open for research. For more information, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Alexandra Bisio, Archives Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library