The Archivist’s Nook: The Provenance and Providence of a Public Historian

This semester, we said goodbye to Dr. Timothy Meagher, University Archivist and Curator of the American Catholic History Collection at The Catholic University of America. In addition to his service as University Archivist, Meagher was Associate Professor with the Catholic University History Department, where he regularly taught Irish-American and immigration history. Though we will miss him at the Archives, we know he will be happily plugging away at his magnum opus in his “retirement”: a comprehensive history of Irish America.

Provenance is a word archivists love. It refers to the origin of a collection of archival materials, yes, but embedded in those origins is identity. For this reason, archivists use provenance as an organizing principle for their records and collections. In other words, we try to maintain and organize materials as faithfully as we can to the intention of the original creator and/or organizer of the collection, in order to preserve the integrity and identity of the collection itself.

Dr. Timothy Meagher at his desk when the University Archives was still in the Mullen Library Building. A generous grant from NCSSS Professor Dorothy Mohler enabled a move to a larger facility in Aquinas Hall, which Meagher and then Assistant Archivist W. J. Shepherd oversaw.

Meagher’s own origins are manifest in his career. Certainly, his own Irish and Catholic ancestry inspired his study of Irish America. But he also occupied a unique position as both an academic historian and a public one.  While completing his Ph.D. in history at Brown University in the early 1980s, he taught history in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. But after four years, that job ended and he found himself unemployed. “There were no historian jobs,” he says of the time. So he improvised. There was a position as Assistant Archivist at the Archdiocese of Boston Archives. “Jim O’Toole was there, a historian himself getting a Ph.D. from Boston College.” The two formed a lasting friendship, with O’Toole becoming a prominent scholar of both archival practice and American Catholicism and who in fact, has served on our archives’ advisory board since its inception in 2002. For Meagher’s part, he saw that there were potentially multiple uses for the skills of a historian.

A 2003 photo of Meagher and Dr. Yuki Yamazaki, a former history student at Catholic University and employee of the Archives, examine an artifact from our collections, a Japanese anti-Christian edict dated from 1682.
Archivist’s favorite: Meagher especially appreciates these vestments worn by Archbishop John Carroll. Ordained in 1790, Carroll was the first bishop and archbishop in the United States. The vestments date to ca. 1750-1800.

In the late 1980s, Meagher made his way from Boston to Washington, D.C., where he had years earlier graduated with his Bachelor’s in History from Georgetown University. His interest in public history was now heightened by both his work in archives and a concurrent rejuvenation in the museum field, especially in the area of exhibition and public programming. He speaks fondly of his work with the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he served as Program Officer until accepting his post at Catholic University. The NEH required those who worked in public history institutions to work directly with relevant scholars in the academy, “we had historians and museum people coming in and evaluating the quality of the exhibits we funded—there were some great conversations.”

Having spent seven years making humanities scholarship accessible to broader audiences, Meagher decided it was time to move on. He was particularly interested in the museum collection at the University Archives when he began working here in 1997. From the start, his primary mission was using the archival materials in our collections to teach history to a variety of audiences. “There was a move within the Catholic Church at that point to save material culture.” At the time, few in the field of Catholic archives knew much about preserving sacred objects, so Meagher organized the Saving Sacred Things conference in 1999 to address the matter.

In 2018, the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives received the American Catholic Historical Association’s (ACHA) Distinguished Service Award. From left, ACHA President Father Richard Gribble, Meagher, Reference Archivist Shane MacDonald, and Education Archivist Maria Mazzenga attend that year’s annual meeting to receive the award.

Drawing from his experiences working with professionals in a range of cultural institutions, Meagher expanded the Archives’ outreach and educational programming dramatically. “I was aware that there were other places doing public outreach in archives. I knew people at NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] and other places who put together educational packets using their archival materials.” So he worked with staff and teachers to put together packets related to a variety of aspects of Catholic history for Catholic high school students with materials from our archive. These formed the basis of the now fully digital American Catholic History Classroom an online education site featuring hundreds of digital documents, photos, and teaching resources. “We were trying to teach young people how historians solve historical problems. To look at source material and figure out what happened. We tried to do it with this material related specifically to Catholic life. No one else was doing it on a broad basis. A whole dimension of American life, we wanted to fill it with good history. Our collections lend themselves to understanding national Catholic history.”

Today, the Archives’ outreach and educational programming is thriving.  Thank you, Professor Meagher!

 

The Archivist’s Nook: Atomic Age Catholics

Rev. William McDonald, Rector, blessing the nuclear reactor in 1957.

“Saturday: Atomic Reactor Demonstration, Tour of National Shrine, Open House Library Science……11:30 & 12:45”

-Homecoming ’58 Schedule, Tower, November 14, 1958

In the fall of 1957, an AGN-201 nuclear training reactor was installed on the Catholic University campus. Originally located in the Nuclear Training Laboratory of the campus Power Plant, this reactor was a compact unit standing nine feet tall and weighing 12 tons. Capable of producing 100 milliwatts of energy – only enough to light a single Christmas tree bulb! – the unit was not intended for powering campus offices but providing a controlled model to train budding nuclear engineers, power plant operators, and faculty researchers. For over 20 years, the reactor was at the heart of a close relationship between the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the University. But why Catholic University and why a nuclear reactor?

Dr. Talbott demonstrating the “Atom Smasher,” 1941.

To understand this partnership, one must understand the fears and hopes of the post-war Atomic Age. While there were fears about the destructive potential of nuclear technology, scientific and political leaders also recognized its awesome potential for good. Advancements in nuclear monitoring and reactor development, declassification of technics, and concern over losing scientific ground to the Soviet Union provided the impetus for Congress to pass the Atomic Energy Acts of 1954 and 1955. These Acts authorized the AEC to provide grant monies to engineering schools for nuclear equipment, ranging from reactors for training power plant operators to biomedical equipment to study radiation’s effects on cancer cells. Catholic University, with its centrality in the nation’s capital and having previously established a nuclear science and engineering program under the joint guidance of the Department of Physics and School of Engineering in 1956, was well-placed to apply for a grant.

With a storied history of aviation innovation with the first experimental wind tunnel in the United States, by the early 1940s, the Physics Department was one of only two Catholic institutions in the United States to possess an “atom smasher.” Maintained by Herzfeld and Talbott, this “smasher” was an apparatus that produced high electrical voltage to charge particles.

Sr. Mary Dolores, C.F.M., a PhD candidate in Biology, and M.S. candidate Donald B. Pribor (right), work with AEC-provided equipment to study the effect of ultrasonics and radio-isotopes on retarding the growth of cancer cells in mice. Dr. Braungart (left) supervises. 1960.

Receiving over $123,000 to acquire the reactor, this became the first of many AEC grants the University would receive in the coming decades. Among the many projects funded by this program was a radioactive isotope laboratory, under the auspices of the Department of Biology, specializing in retarding cancer growth cells in mice. Physics was also provided additional funds to continue the neutrino research of Dr. Clyde Cowan, who had co-discovered the neutrino in 1956. Dr. Cowan joined the Department in 1958. Numerous scientific luminaries were associated with the grant program, including: Drs. Francis Leo Talbott, Karl Herzeld and Clyde Cowan of Physics; Dean Donald Marlowe of Engineering; and Dr. Dale C. Braungart of Biology.

The reactor was relocated several times during its tenure, residing in the Power Plant, McGivney Hall (then known as Keane Hall), and Pangborn Hall. McGivney was even originally constructed in 1958 to serve as a center for physics research, with its deep basement levels providing reduced background interference for the experiments to be conducted. But by the late 1970s, some of the initial public optimism of the Atomic Age had waned following the aftermath of the Three Mile nuclear incident and continuing fears of nuclear war. Although the reactor had been inactive for several years at that point, concerns were raised about its continued presence on campus. By the early 1990s, it was fully decommissioned and removed from campus.

Vestiges of the Atomic Age on campus, 2017.

While this partnership with the AEC thankfully resulted in no giant lizards stomping across the Brookland neighborhood, it did inspire a generation of innovative research and budding engineers, a legacy that continues in the sciences on campus today, whether through the Vitreous State Laboratory’s research into safe nuclear storage or partnerships with NASA.

In addition, the Archives holds the papers of Dr. Clyde Cowan: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/cowan.cfm

The Archivist’s Nook: Introduction to American Catholic Archives

Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, MD, 1884
NCE 2334 Baltimore, Councils of. Clarke, Richard H (1827-1911) author. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Entry: Baltimore, Councils of. Caption: Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1884–from Clarke’s ‘History of the Catholic Church in the United States.’ Size: f. Source: Unknown. Permission: Permission already obtained for NCE, PD. Image #: 116714.

Before the 1960s, almost no dioceses had more than part-time archivists, only a few Catholic colleges and universities devoted much attention or resources to the collection and preservation of Catholic documents, and most religious orders had hardly even considered the need to create archives. Professional training among archivists in Catholic institutions was virtually unheard of and standards of professional practice nonexistent.

Since then, increased public interest in history (reflected in the formation of new history museums, the popularity of historic preservation, and the increase in the numbers and professionalism of public history personnel) has been mirrored by the development of archives within the Church.

In 1974, in preparation for the nation’s Bicentennial celebration and after effective lobbying by several historians, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “A Document for Ecclesiastical Archives.” The bishops noted the general neglect of Catholics in the writing of American history and conceded that that neglect had been caused, at least in part, by historians’ lack of “access to the pertinent documents of bishops, dioceses, religious orders.” The document urged all bishops who did not have an archivist to appoint one quickly. More recently, in 1997, the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church contended that “Archives are places of memory which must be preserved, transmitted, renewed, appreciated, because they represent the most direct connection with the heritage of the Church community.” The Commission went on to encourage professional training of archival staffs. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Introduction to American Catholic Archives”