As a very 21st century science librarian at O’Neill Library, the content I encounter is most often electronic: journals and increasingly, data. When I was approached to research the collections at the Burns Library to develop a small exhibit on the work of Father Daniel Linehan SJ, I did expect to deal with printed materials; hand-written journals and letters, the odd telegram, newspaper clippings. Maybe some photos. What I hadn’t gotten my head around was the stuff. Things. Items. Objects. Or, to give them their official library name, “realia.”
Not every collection in Burns contains realia, but the Father Linehan collection is a bonanza of materials, religious, scientific, and otherwise, that were part of his life and travels, his research and his ministry.
Daniel Linehan, SJ, BC ‘27 (1904-1987) was born, died, and spent most of his long and distinguished professional career in Massachusetts, as a seismologist and educator; Director of Weston Observatory and Founder of the Boston College Department of Geophysics(now Earth and Environmental Sciences). However, his work took him to the far ends of the earth. While the current exhibit focuses on his work measuring ice thickness in Antarctica and acting as Catholic Chaplain for the US Navy’s Operation Deepfreeze in the mid 1950’s, he also traveled to the far north to determine the location of the magnetic North Pole and to Vatican City to use seismic techniques to locate ancient tombs beneath the Vatican. He is also remembered as first seismologist to describe the T-phase of seismic waves.
Choosing the items of realia to go on exhibit was somewhat more exciting than I had anticipated. Among the possibilities were:
- Three pairs of very heavy duty field mittens, suitable for the nature of polar fieldwork, one with a long, thin piece of cloth attaching them to wear around the neck; charmingly similar to the concept of toddler mittens.
- Some heavy field coats – these are far too big for the small exhibit cases!
- Seismographs, fitted out for sticking one’s hands into for working in extreme cold weather, were likewise ruled out due to size.
- A field pack and a field telephone.
- Also a few smaller items which I was pretty sure would catch the eye and fascinate people – they certainly fascinated me! The first was a pair of small, fake, stuffed penguins. I have not ascertained exactly where Fr. Linehan got these, but they are a physical reminder of the admiration of penguins that Father Linehan and the navy crew had for these birds. There was also the amazing chalice, which commemorates a few extraordinary events in the life of Fr. Linehan: Celebrating the first mass at the North Pole (1958), the first mass at the South Pole (1954), and his work at St. Peter’s Tomb in 1952.
Realia presents certain challenges in handling and exhibiting. Items are very three-dimensional. Some are quite sizable and they have height, which can influence the installation options in an exhibit case. There may be special concerns in their handling and display due to the fragility or vulnerability of their composition. The anxiety of handling these delicate and unique items also cannot be underestimated; more so for bull-in-a-china-shop me! First they go to the Burns Conservator, Barbara Adams Hebard, who uses her expertise to make sure the items will be safely exhibited. Then they come back with instructions for the people installing the exhibit. For instance, I had my heart set on displaying the 2 tiny penguins; everyone loves penguins, right? And Father Linehan’s journals make it clear that he did, too! But they are apparently made of fur and easily degraded by exposure to sunlight. Display needs had to be balanced carefully with preservation needs. However, a compromise was reached, and I was allowed to install the penguins as long as they were in the case facing away from the library entrance and the powerful afternoon sun.
The research was an eye-opening experience for me. Realia brings the subject alive. And finding aids or no finding aids, you never really get the sense of what’s in a box in special collections until you open it. And… there’s nothing quite like penguins.
- Enid Karr, Senior Research Librarian/Bibliographer, O’Neill Library
Devane, J. F., and J. P. McCaffrey. “Memorial to Reverend Daniel Linehan (1904- 1987).” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 78.4 (1988): 1618-20.
Father Daniel Linehan Papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.