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September, 2017


Good News for Scholars of American Catholic History:
A New Web Site Helps Them Discover ‘Hidden’ Treasures

 

By Richard Wilkinson


The Catholic Research Resources Initiative Web site contains detailed information on papers and materials archived by Catholic universities.

Consider the difficulties faced by scholars of American Catholic history. Relevant information on any topic they might be researching — e.g., anti-Catholic literature or Catholic involvement in 20th-century labor movements — is hidden away in the archives of any of several hundred Catholic universities, colleges, seminaries, dioceses and religious orders. All too often, the existence of these resources is documented only in the mind of the archivist or librarian who looks after them; even expert scholars don’t know about many of the collections that bear on what they are researching. “We are all poorer for our collective inability to find the knowledge of our predecessors,” concludes CUA Director of Libraries Michael McLane.


Scholars can, of course, search for the information they seek on Google, “but on Google, they will get what they paid for, which is nothing,” quips McLane. “The hits that come up will not necessarily be scholarly material or even valid material,” he says, and the popular search engine won’t identify most of the archival collections on the requested topic that are housed within Catholic institutions.


Since 2006, however, a solution has emerged that is beginning to connect scholars of American Catholic history with the rare and unique research materials held by Catholic university and seminary archives across North America. CUA and seven other Catholic universities have built a special Web site — http://www.catholicresearch.net — that contains detailed information on 500 collections of papers or other materials archived by those universities. On the site, scholars or students of American Catholic history and intellectual life can type in a topic — e.g., “the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen” — and find out about important archival collections on that topic in universities across the country. In many cases, the actual data —e.g., letters to and from Archbishop Sheen — have been digitized and can also be viewed on the site.


Michael McLane

Tim Meagher

The universities that founded this Catholic Research Resources Initiative have some of the richest archival collections in the United States: Catholic University, the University of Notre Dame (where the Web site’s server is located), Georgetown University, Boston College, Marquette University, Seton Hall University, St. Edward’s University and the University of San Diego. All of the universities except Catholic University have one member each on the initiative’s steering committee. CUA has three: Martha Hale, dean of CUA’s School of Library and Information Science; Tim Meagher, university archivist; and Michael McLane, director of libraries. The reason Catholic University has three steering-committee members is because it is the only one of the eight universities that has all three of the following components: a school of library science, a strong university library and an important archives of Catholic historical documents and materials.

The Web site is already useful and useable, but it is only in its pilot or demonstration stage, says Meagher. Upcoming improvements will include the following:

  • The steering committee will develop a growth plan to add information on the holdings of additional libraries and archives. The Web site could eventually include information on the archival collections of hundreds of colleges, seminaries, dioceses and religious orders.

  • The search function of the Web site will be improved so that scholars or students can search more deeply into the collections in order to get information as specific as the existence of individual letters and documents related to their research. Initial emphasis will be on enabling such in-depth searches on topics related to Catholic social action, an area in which CUA happens to have several collections.

  • A new advisory committee of scholars will give feedback on how to make the Web site more useful for researchers.

The initiative is an ambitious one that could greatly impact both university archives and the future of Catholic scholarship. “This site could become the primary source for researchers on American Catholic history to identify topic-specific collections in libraries and archives and to do online research,” says McLane. “Eventually it could provide virtual access to almost all of the American Catholic archives of historical import. It could make these resources more available and accessible to people from the high school level to the post-grad level.

“Catholic University will continue to be one of the lead institutions providing material from our archives and leadership in shepherding of the project,” he says.




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