Multi-vocal History

This past November, Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (JLPP) Director, Dr. Kyle Roberts, received an e-mail from Carolyn Sharp, a descendent of John Gordon Morrison, the Union soldier who looted a copy of the Lives of the Popes from the house of Rev. James A. Harrold, a Virginia minister went over to the Confederate side during the American Civil War.  The book, one of the original books in St. Ignatius College Library, was written up on this blog last spring and now resides in Loyola University Chicago Special Collections.

The descendent shared with Roberts information about the relatives who found and transcribed Morrison’s diaries and a theory about how the book might have made its way from Morrison to the Jesuits in Chicago:

“It does not surprise me that the book ended up in Jesuit hands.  The family has a history of friendship with priests, including Jesuits.  I suspect the book would have been a gift to one such who was in New York, perhaps in Brooklyn, but maybe also upstate as John G. lived in Troy, NY before moving downstate, and that the gift recipient would have made his way with the book to Chicago.”

She also shared information about other family members who had been educated at Jesuit schools.  This connection provides another invaluable information as we seek to solve the puzzle of the history of this book.

E-mails and correspondences like these highlight an important part of JLPP.  Team members embrace a concept popular in public history circles called “shared authority,” or doing history alongside and with the communities involved. The term shared authority gained ground among oral historians, most notably Michael Frisch, who in his research worked with people and their histories. Thus, shared authority pushes against the “master narratives” or histories about “great men,” as it focuses on the experiences and voices of every day people.

JLPP team members rely on experiences, insights, and narratives  from various communities to best capture the provenance for each book in the original St. Ignatius catalog.  In gathering this information the team hopes to write histories of these books that incorporate the voices of all those who have been touched by them.

As a digital initiative, the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project seeks to reach audiences inside and outside Chicago’s and Loyola’s boundaries, and in so doing, the project enters a dialogue with other digital initiatives throughout the world. Yet, do digital initiatives allow for each potential stakeholder to enter into the conversation? As a project team member, enrolled in Loyola’s Public History graduate program, I often think about the communities excluded from the conversation. For example, does everyone associated with Jesuit communities or the global Catholic mission have access to digital resources? And, how digitally literate are individuals in the aforementioned communities? More simply, what does it mean for the project if users in communities the team wants to reach do not have access to technology, and more importantly, social media? Are there ways for the project to reach people without access to social media or social media literacy?

JLPP functions on a participatory level. It allows students, faculty, public historians, independent scholars, antiquarians, alumni, and the broader public to learn about and discuss these books’ histories. And, more than that the histories related to Jesuit education in Chicago, the global Catholic mission, libraries, the organization of knowledge…the list goes on! The e-mail Roberts received in November reinforces the role participation and shared authority play in the project’s development. No matter the task, it is necessary for team members to think about how to share the histories at hand and make them accessible to our multiple audiences. Moreover, it is equally important to include and highlight user experiences and histories in the project itself, so as to preserve the multi-vocal histories related to the library’s original catalog.

– Samantha Smith, Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project Social Media Coordinator

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