The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University needs to be seen, whether in person or in picture, for its beauty and marvel to be believed. The Modernist cuboid is an outlier among the surrounding campus buildings—which typically conform to a neo-Gothic architectural style—and refreshingly reflective of the cultural decade. Stepping through the revolving doors, the eyes adjust to the low lighting of the setting: in place of windows, the library is fitted with translucent marble panels little thicker than an inch, which filter daylight and protect the rare texts encased within the six-story glass tower at the centre of the building. Again, it needs to be seen to be believed.
This summer, I had the fortune of spending a month researching in the Beinecke as a Graduate Research Fellow. A PhD researcher at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, this fellowship granted me access to rare texts and materials that enriched and broadened the scope of my project on Irish American children’s literature immensely. Moreover, it cultivated in me an appreciation for archival research as a form of scholarly inquiry, and a childlike sense of wonder in the pursuit of preserved materials. The archive, I have come to realise, is the scholar’s playground: where we chase and catch, dig and discover, and engage in a never-ending game of hide and seek. Like the real playground, it brings with it thrills and disappointments, and its various challenges are probably character-building to some degree.
Among the many treasures I uncovered during my visit to the Beinecke were holographs, correspondence, manuscript drafts, and a delightful amount of marginalia—a particular speciality of children’s literature. As a student whose research commenced during the latter stages of the pandemic, handling such materials is not something I’m very experienced with, and doing so at the Beinecke brought my project to life in unexpected and exhilarating ways. Whether it was seeing the hand-sketched maps by Ella Young of her home in New Mexico to Mabel Dodge Luhan, or reading Padraic Colum’s petition to Josephine B. Crane to mind his dog while he was in Paris (“he has the brain of a philosopher, and is companionable withal”), the archives at the Beinecke granted me intimate glimpses into the private lives of some authors whose work I’ve become closely familiar with in my research. Not everything I looked at will be of direct relevance to my thesis, of course, but, nonetheless, much of it served to humanise my selected authors and add a valuable interpersonal dimension to my experience reading their work.
Of the many collections I examined, the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature was particularly interesting, not only because it contained materials relevant to my project (an unpublished manuscript of a novel about an Irish American boy from 1868 was a particularly intriguing find), but because of the many unexpected gems buried within it. I was moved by a letter written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, to an unidentified person about her writing process: “When I write a book it is with the hope that I may paint some picture I think is either lovable, amusing, hopeful, or stimulating — and with the determination to write nothing which shall make hard life seem harder or ugliness more hideous.” I was naively hopeful when I discovered a version of ‘Mary’s Little Lamb,’ supposedly written in “Gaelic,” from the 1860s, and wondered how such an item could have come to exist at all, let alone made its way to Yale. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that it was, in fact, a rewriting of the nursery rhyme in absurdly exaggerated Hiberno-English dialect, rather than the Irish language.
In addition to examining the work of Irish American writers in my PhD research, I also look at portrayals of Irish characters in American children’s literature. While they occasionally feature in well-known children’s texts from the nineteenth century, such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, there appears to be a disproportionate amount of them in relatively obscure Sunday School children’s literature. The American Sunday School movement was hugely influential in the mid-nineteenth century, but although millions of copies of texts were distributed across the country during this time, sourcing them today is a challenge—especially outside of the United States. Thus far, I have relied on digital library collections to do so, but working in the Beinecke granted me access to hundreds of physical texts. The texts I examined—from hefty novels to pamphlets no bigger than postage stamps—have benefitted my project by providing invaluable literary context to my analysis of Irish American texts. Whether demonstrating a preoccupation with proselytization of Irish Catholic immigrants to Protestantism, or perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes, they have enabled me to better understand what Irish American writers were often “writing back to” in their work.
Since many of the materials I examined in the Beinecke don’t exist elsewhere in the world, I can’t help marvelling at the potential power that archives wield when it comes to the advancement of academic research generally. The fact that so much of what is encountered in them is the result of luck and chance is both thrilling and unnerving: some useful materials are deliberately sought and summoned in the archive, but many surface serendipitously. I am also mindful of the archive’s gaps—of the countless materials now lost to time because they weren’t preserved. For what reasons are items dismissed or overlooked, and how many voices and experiences are missing from archives as a result? What are the broader implications of this, particularly in relation to the archive’s role in the construction of collective memory?
The realisation that archives are teeming with both possibilities and impossibilities is overwhelming as a PhD student, but also reminds me that so too is my research project. And like the archive, my project is limited—by time, a word count, my own ability as a developing scholar. Like the archive, it will, despite my efforts to leave no stone unturned, ultimately be defined by its gaps as much as its content. My time in the Beinecke provided me with much useful material that has strengthened my research project significantly, but perhaps the greatest result of my fellowship is the understanding that there is still, and always will be, so much yet to discover. The base of knowledge extends far beyond the borders of this project. The glass tower has no ceiling.
Méabh Ní Choileáin is a doctoral candidate at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Her thesis examines the development of Irish American children’s literature (1850-1940). She holds an M.Phil in Children’s Literature with Distinction from TCD, and is a qualified elementary school teacher and published children’s author. Her current research is funded by the Irish Research Council.