TTFN, Info Lit — See Ya’ in the Rabbit Hole

In 2004, soon after starting a new job at the Boston College Libraries, I was put on an Information Literacy Task Force. I’d been a librarian for 12 years at that point — at the Boston Public Library, the Harvard Business School, and a non-profit organization, among other places — but I’d never heard the term “information literacy.”

It seemed like a buzzword (buzzphrase?). I wasn’t really sure what it meant. 

I took a playful poke at the uncertainty, composing a poem called What is Information Literacy?, comprised of eight anagrams of “information literacy.”(“Formality in creation?”; “Merry citational info?”; “A faintly moronic rite?”; “Non-literary CIA motif?”; and more).

Now, as I get set to retire June 1st as Head of Liaison & Instruction Services at Boston University — 17 years and 14 MBTA stops removed from those early days at Boston College — I’m saying goodbye to a professional connection to “info lit” that ended up occupying much of my career.

But while the profession may be ending, the connection remains. So does the uncertainty — and that’s a good thing.

Rabbit Hole
Down the Rabbit Hole. Abelardo Morell, 1998

I tell undergraduates — and their professors — that research is as much about discovering questions as it is about finding answers. I tell them I call my own method of research “directed stumbling.” I tell them to “Get lost,” to go down the rabbit hole, to find their own path through research. And they get it. They really do.

I’ll miss working with undergrads and with the library staff and faculty partners who’ve become friends and colleagues over the years.  But I’ve still got plenty of rabbit holes to go down. Stay tuned and watch this space for more. 

A Place on the Map

I have a large collection of thematic atlases, about a hundred or so of them, mostly on different historical themes. Now, for the first time, I’m acknowledged in one.

It’s The Atlas of Boston History, edited by Nancy S. Seasholes and published by the University of Chicago Press in 2019.

My contribution is a minor one: on Plate 20, Irish Immigration, 1700s-1855, there an image of Burgess Alley, an Irish tenement in the Fort Hill section of Boston. It’s from an 1849 report on cholera in Boston. The late Ruth-Ann Harris, a professor of Irish Studies at Boston College who contributed that section of the atlas, was looking for a tenement image and I pointed her to this one. (I can’t say exactly when that was, but it was a long time ago; Ruth-Ann died in 2012, the same year I left the BC Libraries.)

Illustration from Report of the Committee of Internal Health on the Asiatic cholera, together with a report of the city physician on the Cholera Hospital, 1849

This atlas, by the way, is a terrific one. The maps are excellent. The text is concise and nicely integrated with the maps. Illustrations are carefully chosen. All elements work together to provide a narrative on Boston themes ranging from exploration to immigration to economy, ethnicity, politics, culture, infrastructure and more.

Here, for example, is what’s covered in just one section of the atlas, with nine of the 57 plates and accompanying text and illustrations.

Page from the table of contents of the Atlas of Boston History

I’ve long been intrigued by thematic maps and atlases. I think of them as an example of what I call “non-verbal narrative,” although they can include verbal elements on the maps themselves, their legends, or accompanying text. (Baseball statistics and baseball cards are another example I have a personal connection to, but that will have to wait for another post.)

The maps, individually and collectively, tell stories of time and place, of people and societies, each with a particular focus.

My collection of historical atlases began with a 1974 printing of the ninth edition of Shepherd’s Historical Atlas, a fairly Eurocentric book first published by William R. Shepherd in 1911. (You can view the maps from both the 1911 and 1923 editions online via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas Libraries.)

And now I have one with my name in it.

Some of my atlases, as shown on LibraryThing

Days of Future Past*

On February 25th I’ll be presenting my talk about Commonwealth Avenue’s Automobile Row for the Brighton-Allston Historical Society at the Brighton Marine Center on Warren Street. It’s a version of a talk I gave last September at WBUR’s CitySpace and again at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum earlier this month.

But while this presentation is a repeat performance of my latest talk it is also a return to my own past, to my origin story (so to speak) as both a librarian and a local historian.

Back in the late 1980s I lived in Allston and had my own small public relations firm, working out of a shabby office on the second floor of this building at the corner of Brighton Avenue and Harvard Street. Riley’s Roast Beef—the owner also owned the building—occupied the storefront at the corner, a former Liggett’s drugstore.

Inspired, perhaps, by this postcard—I can’t remember for sure—I became interested in the history of the retail district that ran north and south on Harvard Street and east and west on Brighton Avenue. I began visiting the microfilm room at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square where they had city directories dating back to the 1860s.

From 1930 to 1981, each year’s directory—they were large volumes bound in red hardcovers—included a reverse directory showing listings street-by-street, address-by-address, in addition to the longer-standing alphabetical listings.

Excerpt from the 1930 Boston city directory

Over several months of visits, I painstakingly copied the information into a notebook. Back in Allston, I typed the info into my computer. When I was done, I put it all on a floppy disk and gave it to Bill Marchione at the Brighton-Allston Historical Society. (Bill was and is an inspiration to me.) BAHS didn’t even have a computer, but Bill graciously accepted the disk.

About a year-and-a-half ago I contacted BAHS to see if, by chance, they still had the floppy disk. They didn’t, but they did find a printout of the database that I gave them, with some notes. Nice to know I was so organized back then.

Part of the printout showing changes in one Allston retail address over the years

Some time later as I was thinking about new career directions, I realized how much I enjoyed working in the library. I started to investigate getting a master’s in library science. I had informational interviews with librarians at historical organizations and newspapers. (I had been a newspaper reporter for a few years after college.)

I got my MLS from Simmons College in 1991. My first job as a librarian was at the Brighton Branch of the Boston Public Library. I joined the board of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, though I had moved to Roslindale in 1990, and stayed on the board until I started a new job in 1993.

A few years later I moved with my family to Brookline where my interest in local history continued to grow. I joined the Brookline Historical Society board in 2006 and became president three years later. I’ve even been working on a Coolidge Corner version of that long-ago Allston retail project that got it all started.

Portion of a spreadsheet showing stores on Harvard Street in the 1920s

So, back to Allston and Brighton it is, and to my days of future past.

* When the phrase “Days of Future Past” popped into my head as the title for this post, I was (showing my age and past musical tastes) thinking of the old Moody Blues album. Little did I know that most people (and Google’s search) associate the phrase with the 2014 X-Men movie.