B.C. History On Line

Data base of presidential papers illuminates University's past

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The collected papers of past Boston College presidents feature such unique items as a Mexican War diary, accounts of the Penobscot Indians in Maine, and letters detailing a bitter feud between Boston College and Harvard University.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Burns Library catalogers, records of the holdings have been made available electronically through the Online Computer Library Center, a national library data base. As a result, scholars across the world can use their computers to get an overview of the presidential papers.

The collection includes papers belonging to University founder John McElroy, SJ, and 17 of Boston College's 25 presidents. While much of the collection relates to institutional affairs, Burns Archives and Manuscripts Librarian Ronald Patkus said researchers may be surprised at what they find among the materials, which date to before the University's founding in 1863.

"At first glance, you would think the Papers of the Boston College Presidents would deal exclusively with the administration of Boston College, and a fair amount do," he said. "But other papers relate to issues of local and national interest."

For example, Patkus said, among the materials from Fr. McElroy is a copy of the diary he kept as an Army chaplain during the Mexican War. The papers of Boston College's first president, John Bapst, SJ (1863-69), include materials on the Penobscot Indians of Ellsworth, Maine, the town where as a Jesuit missionary he was tarred and feathered by an anti-Catholic mob.

One of the more unexpected finds in the presidential collections, Patkus said, is a series of letters from a Jesuit archaeologist named Joseph Doherty, SJ, who led a dig in Ksar Akil, Lebanon earlier this century. Boston College had sent students to assist him and Fr. Doherty mailed long, handwritten letters to the University detailing the effort's progress.

When Patkus began the task of cataloging the extensive manuscripts holdings five years ago, the materials - and their potential value - were essentially unknown to scholars. Now that the catalog is available through a computer database, he said, it is likely to attract attention.

"You would not think to find something about an incredible archaeological dig in the Boston College Presidents' Papers, yet that's where it is," said Patkus. "Now, if a scholar types in on his computer that he's looking for information on the Ksar Akil dig, up will come the BC Presidential Papers."

The collection also helps to illuminate a controversy of the 1890s, when Harvard Law School decreed it would not accept Boston College graduates without further academic preparation. Former Boston College President Timothy Brosnahan, SJ (1894-98), and his successor W.G. Read Mullan, SJ (1898-1903), sent letters to Harvard President Charles Eliot protesting the policy, which BC officials noted had not been applied to Georgetown University, another Jesuit institution. The correspondence, which culminated in a public discussion on the merits of Jesuit education, is preserved in the collection.

The presidential papers fill hundreds of boxes at Burns Library, Patkus said, with J. Donald Monan, SJ (1972-96), and W. Seavey Joyce, SJ (1968-72), alone accounting for 105 boxes, and Michael P. Walsh, SJ (1958-68), accounting for another 55. Some of the papers require special permission to view, Patkus said.

On-campus users can browse catalog listings of the Presidential Papers through Quest, the Boston College Libraries' online information system, under both the Boston College (BCAT) and world (WCAT) categories.

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