Feeling Social

Photograph of students at a mailbox

Photograph of students at a mailbox, Newton College of the Sacred Heart records, BC.1988.031, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

It’s summertime. We’re getting together with friends around the backyard grill or nearest swimming hole. This got the archives staff thinking; now that so many of our interactions are virtual rather than analog, face-to-face, or physically represented, what have we gained and what have we lost? Addressing this question was the impetus for Being Social Before Social Media, a Burns Library exhibit looking back at how people dated, networked, partied, and shared their travels before smart phones, apps, or even (gasp) the Internet.


Photograph of students at a formal dance,

Photograph of students at a formal dance, Newton College of the Sacred Heart records, BC.1988.031, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

In order to select materials for the exhibit, we thought about how we use our social media accounts and themes emerged. Some platforms try to do everything (Facebook, we’re looking at you); however, we found that in many cases what was once a single traditional function is now possible through multiple apps. Want to compile things you love and share them with others? Traditional scrapbooking with scissors and paste has been replaced by posting on Facebook, pinning on Pinterest, snapping a digital photo and sharing  on Instagram…the list goes on.

Social media is also used to network; conduct business; create a profile or online persona; meet a mate or find friends; play games; share adventures; journal our daily thoughts; share photos; raise funds; and even (more nefariously) vent a grudge or impersonate someone else. All these activities were done very differently in the past. Since the Burns Library collects the papers of artists, authors, scholars, senators, and students, there are many examples from the pre-digital era. Author Bernard Shaw took selfies (well, almost); journalist Katherine Conway picked up souvenir photographs of sites in North Africa to show mom where she’d been; Boston College librarian Helen Landreth traded recipe cards with friends and family (jello salad anyone?); and a young future-president enrolled in the Charitable Irish Society of Boston to make some good connections. We had so much fun discovering these items and more! Come and visit us this summer to cool off and see how we used to be social.

Photograph of writer and activist Mary Boyle O’Reilly on a camel

Photograph of writer and activist Mary Boyle O’Reilly on a camel, Mary Boyle O’Reilly papers, MS.2003.045, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

  • Lynn Moulton, Burns Library Processing Archivist

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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