Being called upon to help decipher bad handwriting is an occupational hazard for the staff of the Burns Library, home to hundreds of linear feet of correspondence written by thousands of individuals – political and religious leaders, literary figures, bank clerks, undertakers, criminals, saints, et al. – and used by researchers here at the Heights and around the world.
Sharing these unique resources with our researchers is done in a variety of ways. Some visit the Burns Library, working for days – or even weeks – in our Reading Room, studying material from our manuscript collections. We share items from our collections via digital copies, and both our Reference and Archives & Manuscripts staff regularly scan and email copies of portions of our collections to those who request them. We also refer researchers to a growing repository of already digitized material. A few examples of these are William Butler Yeats’s notebook containing the first draft of his play written in 1884, Love and Death; the abstract of the log book of a voyage of the Frigate United States (1842-1844); and a letter written to King John III of Portugal in 1552 by Saint Francis Xavier.
Primary source material like letters often illustrate events and relationships more profoundly than secondary sources can. Although many of the letters and other documents at the Burns Library are written by well-known people, some of the most compelling letters in our manuscript collections are those written by “ordinary” people, and some of the most interesting of those are written when such people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. The Boston College University Libraries have digitized an entire collection of such documents: The Michael H. Leary Letters (MS.1986.043). Michael H. Leary was an Irish-American from Boston, Massachusetts and soldier in Union Army during the Civil War. This collection is composed of correspondence from Leary to Ellen (Nellie) Desmond, mostly written from Virginia. The collection begins in 1861 while Leary was stationed in Washington D.C. and continues through 1863. The final letters Leary wrote from a hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The letters provide accounts of Leary’s life in the Ninth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War as well as his desire to reunite with Nellie.
The best way to access a digitized collection (Leary Letters included) is to find it through Holmes. Links within a collection’s record will bring the researcher to its catalog record and finding aid. It is via the finding aid for a collection that you will find links to any digital objects which represent its content. A finding aid is a document that describes the materials in context and includes information about their provenance, a biographical or historical note about who created or collected the material, a description of the scope of the material (size, subjects, media), statements about organization and arrangement, and an inventory of the material itself. Finding aids are often linked to the listing in Holmes. Although new ones are added frequently, some finding aids are available only in the Burns Library. To request more information, call the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One key advantage to studying a digital copy of a document is the way in which it allows the researcher to examine closely a physical object. There is often much to be gleaned from the appearance of a letter – the paper itself, the handwriting and spelling, and the way that a document has fared over time. Examining the address leaf or envelope can also add to one’s understanding of the contents of a letter. The Leary letters, for example, are written on Union Army stationery, which, although not unique, is interesting to see. In order to view an example, go to the online finding aid for the Leary Letters; click on the link next to the item you wish to view – in this case, folder 46. Once the page opens, click on the thumbnail of the envelope, then choose “item 17” to see one example of an envelope from the Leary Letters.
At the time the Leary Letters were digitized, only a few details were known about Michael Leary, most of which were gleaned from secondary sources on the subject of his military service. Prior to their digitization I had not taken the opportunity to study the collection, but I suspected that some research might answer several basic questions about Leary and Desmond, including the question of whether they were able to build a life together after the war. In an attempt to see what could be added to the biographical sketch in the collection’s finding aid, I utilized ancestry.com; americanancestors.org; the Historical Boston Globe database; city directories; and the Burns Library’s University Archives.
- American Ancestors is the website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Members have access to databases which include records of Massachusetts births, marriages, and deaths.
- Nine Boston city directories can be accessed via Tufts University’s Digital Collections and Archives resource Boston Streets: Mapping Directory Data
The following resources are available through the Boston College University Libraries:
- Ancestry.com is widely known as a resource for genealogy, but is also an invaluable tool to discover other information about United States citizens, including where they lived and with whom, employment and salary information, and additional detail about immigration and naturalization, military service, etc. Last fall, based on a faculty request, History Bibliographer Elliot Brandow announced that the Boston College University Libraries had acquired an institutional membership to Ancestry.com. When asked for feedback recently, Professor Jim O’Toole assured me that those working in BC’s History Department are enthusiastic (his word was “overjoyed”) users of this resource.
- The Historical Boston Globe database is a good place to find obituaries (another excellent source of personal information). And, if the person whom you are researching ever made it into the news – for reasons good or ill – you may discover it there. For example, after learning the names of the Leary children, it came to light that two of their sons attended Boston College – thus possibly explaining how it is that Burns came to own the letters (a detail either unrecorded by early library staff, or lost to time).
- The University Archives at the Burns Library provided more detail about the lives of the two Leary children who attended Boston College (although the sources I used from it are not yet digitized, they may be used by researchers at the Burns Library).
Based upon research using the above resources, we now know that Michael H. Leary was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 7, 1837 to Dennis and Anne Leary. Ellen A. (Nellie) Desmond, was born in Ireland in 1840 to John and Ellen Desmond. After their courtship through the early 1860s, while Michael was serving with the Union Army, Michael and Nellie married and lived in Boston. They were the parents of six children, five of whom lived to adulthood: Annie G. (1865-1941); John H. (1866-1890); Mary Ellen (aka Mary G.) (1868-1960); Lucy (1869-?); James Francis (1871-1932); and Henry Aloysius (1875-1927). Michael’s occupation in various records is given as printer, laborer, and junk dealer. The family lived at a variety of addresses in Boston proper and South Boston. Nellie died in Boston of pneumonia at age 50 on December 30, 1890. James and Henry attended Boston College and both became Jesuit priests. Annie and Mary did not marry, and lived together in Watertown, Massachusetts. Their father lived with them there after their mother’s death. John, who also did not marry, died just a few months before his mother in Boston at age 24.
Knowing their names and dates is almost meaningless, though, compared to what you will learn about them and their world by reading their mail. And, don’t worry – Michael’s handwriting isn’t all that bad!
Burns staff members look forward to answering questions about our collections and how to access them. Information about the Archives and Manuscript collections at Burns can be found in the Archives & Manuscripts section of the Burns Library Research Guide.
- Shelley Barber
Reference & Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library
Editor of The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland 1840-1850.