Category: Archive

Lawrence library opens doors to AOH collection

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Smith

SOUTH LAWRENCE, Mass. — David Burke and fellow members of Div. 8 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were presented with a problem last year when their Hibernian Hall in downtown Lawrence was put up for sale: What to do with the 6,000-piece collection of Irish books, magazines, artifacts, videos and memorabilia that was on display in their third-floor cultural center in the old building?

With the doors of the Hibernian Hall about to close, other doors would soon open after Burke, one of six national directors of the AOH, approached administrative staff at the Lawrence Public Library and offered to donate the Irish collection to the library.

The gift was received enthusiastically by the library’s board of trustees, who offered to house the collection in a vacant space at the South Lawrence Branch Library, which had formerly been the site of a local historical society.

"It was a godsend because we didn’t even have a place to store the material and we were offered an opportunity to share it with so many people through the library’s circulation," Burke said. "And that’s always been a main part of our mission — fostering and promoting our heritage and our culture. It was a fantastic opportunity to circulate the material to people in cities and towns across the state."

David Hildt, acting director of the Lawrence Public Library, said that he and Lawrence Mayor Patricia Dowling, who is also the chairperson of the library’s board of trustees, knew that the collection would be beneficial to everyone involved.

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"We had the vacant space and the AOH had valuable material, and nobody benefits from unused space and unused books," he said. "We’re connected to 29 libraries in the Merrimack Valley through our consortium. This is an exciting initiative for the community at large, and it certainly gives the branch library new life."

Hildt said that his special collections librarian and reference librarian will begin cataloguing and bar-coding the materials early this summer. For now, Burke and a band of volunteers are sorting through and organizing stacks of books, periodicals and collectibles with a view toward an official opening of the Irish collection some time this fall.

Lawrence is a multi-ethnic industrial city 30 miles north of Boston. In the mid-19th century it was one of the most Irish cities in the U.S., and it became known as "Immigrant City," where Irish, French, Italians and Germans worked alongside one another in its many mills and factories.

On June 30, 1919, Eamonn de Valera visited Lawrence and declared it the first city in the U.S. to recognize the new Republic of Ireland. A plaque commemorating that event is now on display in the library’s Irish room, along with scores of paintings, prints and lithographs about Ireland and its history.

Burke hopes that the Irish collection will include something of interest for everyone who comes through the door. "Of course we can’t be all things to all people, but let’s say you’re looking to borrow a book or video about golfing in Ireland or trout fishing or bed and breakfasts — there’s a good chance you’ll find it here," he said.

Burke plans to designate one section of the room as a Northern Ireland Resource Center. "We already have everything that’s been published about Bloody Sunday, and we have some books you might not find in other library collections because they’re considered too republican-oriented," he said, quickly adding that the collection will include "a few books about the Orange Order."

With word of the Irish collection now spreading, Burke is receiving calls from people eager to donate material. "I got a call from a woman who’s heading back to Ireland and she’s offering us about 65 books," he said. "And I’m sure we’ll be hearing too from people who want to clean out their cellars and attics."

The job of sorting through the donated material and deciding what to do with it is the responsibility of library director Hildt. "Some of the items will go into the collection and some might go to a book sale by friends of the library," he said. "Our special collections librarian really knows her stuff, and I’m sure we’ll be working closely with Dave Burke about what we want."

Burke plans to donate some of the superfluous and duplicate material to other fledgling libraries. "There are three or four other libraries we’re aware of that are in the talking or developing stages, and we’ll help them out with whatever we can," he said.

Burke is relying upon a number of consultants as he develops the Irish collection, especially Ethna McKiernan, who is the owner of Irish Books and Media Inc. in Minneapolis, the oldest and largest distributor of Irish-interest and Irish-published books in the U.S. "Ethna provides us with a lot of expert advice and keeps us informed abut new books coming out of Ireland," he said.

McKiernan said that she helped Burke place about 150 sets of Famine-related books in schools and libraries across the country. "He’s a powerhouse of energy and ideas, and what he’s doing now in Lawrence is just tremendous for that community," she said.

Among those donating books to the Irish collection is Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein leader and Northern Ireland Education minister, who will be visiting the South Lawrence Branch Library on Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day. McGuinness will read to local school children from a selection of Irish books during his visit to the library.

Earlier this month the library was the site of an Irish Authors Weekend, this year’s largest Irish literary event in the state. Burke hopes to offer similar programs on a regular basis at the South Lawrence Branch.

"Maybe we’ll have an Irish authors series once a month, along with an Irish Book of the Month Club," he said. "There’s a great re-awakening of cultural identity in this city, and we want to contribute to that as much as we can. At the same time, the AOH is strongly committed to the ongoing campaign for human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, and that too is an important part of our mission here."

Among the AOH and LAOH volunteers helping Burke to organize the collection are Irene and Bob Crowley. "It’s both interesting and a lot of fun to be part of this," Mr. Crowley said. "My wife and I try to help out here at least one day a week, and I’m sure we’ll be needing more volunteers as time goes on."

The Crowleys and other volunteers admit that the task of organizing such a plethora of engrossing material is a difficult one because of the temptation to spend time examining the items in the collection.

Anne Marie Doherty, the mother of four teenage Irish stepdancers, said that she and her family are proud to be associated with the project. "This is really great for our community, and we’re all very grateful that the library has opened its doors to us the way it has," she said.

People interested in the collection can call (978) 687-8937.

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