Burns Library, The Sacred Heart Review, and Irish Genealogy: A Happy Confluence

Technical Services librarians like myself perform the very bedrock of library service: if our job is done correctly, hundreds of thousands - in some cases, millions - of volumes are easily discoverable and retrievable. Language, format and date of the materials is, as it were, immaterial. The downside to this happy state of affairs, alas, is that rarely is this work remarked on, much less praised, unless something has gone amiss.

So it was particularly rewarding when I received the following message from a user that I had never heard of before. But first, a bit of background information to frame her discovery of a resource now housed and hosted at Boston College.

In 2008 Boston College was in the process of turning the former St. John's Seminary Library into what would become our Theology and Ministry Library. To accomplish this transformation, the materials - especially the rare materials - held by St. John's had to be removed for the ensuing renovations that were to take place in the summer of that year. While picking over the many rare books held in this collection - 15 incunabula alone, and well over 150 16th century volumes - I spotted a set of dusty, folio-sized books that contained what appeared to be a local newspaper: the Sacred Heart Review. Perusing a few of the issues I discovered an interesting Catholic newspaper, published before and during the First World War, filled with articles and advertisements from a long-ago Boston.

"What," I asked, "would become of these volumes if the Burns Library did not take them?" The question was not an idle one; space is limited in the Burns Library and there were many duplicate copies amongst the St. John's collection. "They'll be thrown away," I was told. The more I scanned individual issues of this journal the more a whole world began appearing to me, and so my acquisition of these journals into the Burns Library's collection became a foregone conclusion. That is the short of how the Burns Library acquired this collection.

Years later, and with the hard work of many dedicated Boston College Libraries staff, including Betsy Post, Bill Donovan, Naomi Rubin, and many others, this landmark newspaper is now available in electronic format.

All of which brings me back to the message I received from Ellen Brewin, a Boston College Law School alumna from 1976:

Dear Mr. Richtmyer,

I have been working on family genealogy for a number of years. This week I received a request for more information about one side of my family which led me to go ahead and once more perform a google search for the name of the little townland in Roscommon near Boyle called "Tawnytaskin." My mother's grandmother, Catherine Coleman, emigrated from there in about 1865 ending up in Leominster, Ma.

Through the "magic" of the Internet, I have connected with a variety of people online who are descended from Catherine's grandparents - many of whom have added small pieces to the story of this family that I first heard about from my mother. I even have "met" descendants of her brothers who still live in Ireland as well as her uncles' descendants who also remain there.

Imagine my surprise to find that my search yielded information from several issues of the Sacred Heart Review which posted letters from young children living in Tawnytaskin in 1911-1912. These letters even refer to their American cousin living in Leominster as well as pinpointing the death of a beloved grandfather 2 days before Christmas (he was my great grandmother's uncle).

I know that some of my Irish cousins have been searching for more information about the death of their ancestor in 1911 as he is buried with his brother, Catherine Coleman's father in Estersnow Cemetery. I have sent the links off to Ireland and I know that they will be surprised and happy as well. There was also some mention of an Aunt Winnie in Manchester, NH which should give them some more food for genealogical thought.

Thank you so much for working on this - it gave me goosebumps to feel the years between us just slide away and feel almost as if it were the present.

The work of librarians and archivists everywhere is a hugely important task: the prevention of cultural Alzheimer's. Anyone who has helped a loved one through this horrible disease knows how devastating it is for a person to lose their very soul. So what a greater confirmation of the worth of this task could I have received than Ms. Brewin's message!

David Richtmyer
Rare Books Librarian and Senior Cataloger
Burns Library, Boston College