The latest Burns Library exhibit, “Devoted Catholic & Determined Writer: Louise Imogen Guiney in Boston,” opened in February 2020—just a month before the pandemic forced our closure. (See the online exhibit.)
Conservator and exhibit curator Barbara Adams Hebard had been looking forward to showcasing Guiney (1861-1920) because she was a Massachusetts-born author who had strong connections to Boston College Jesuits. Guiney’s life-long devotion to her Catholic faith, family, friends, and mentors all contributed to her writing success. Her published collections of poetry brought her acclaim in American literary circles during the last decades of the 19th century. She is one of just two American women writers memorialized in a stained glass window in Bapst Library.
The exhibit was widely advertised at Boston College and beyond. The Harvard Book History events circular, the Guild of Book Workers newsletter, and international Book Arts list published notices. Reflecting their interest in Guiney’s Irish roots (her father was an officer in the “Fighting Ninth” Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an Irish heritage unit that fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War), The Irish Echo newspaper and Irish America magazine both featured articles about the exhibit.
An evening reception was planned for late March to welcome the BC and surrounding community for guided tours, snacks, and conversation around the exhibit. But no sooner had we sent out invitations than we had to follow them with cancellations.
For the next few months, the exhibit sat in darkness. Burns Library reopened in June, but only for researchers with appointments. When students returned in the fall, protocols were worked out for enabling them to drop into our reading room for reference consultations and for faculty to host in-person instructional sessions, but coronavirus restrictions have continued to prevent us from allowing visitors to browse our exhibit spaces in person.
While we could, and did, point people to the online version of the Guiney exhibit that we had simultaneously launched when it was installed, we wanted to provide a way for those interested to experience it more fully.
One of the groups we had invited to the March reception was the Ticknor Society, a local organization of “book collectors, booksellers, librarians, historians, archivists, conservators, printers, publishers, writers, and all lovers and readers of books,” who are “dedicated to the enjoyment, promotion, and support of books and book culture.” Like other such groups, the Ticknorites, as they sometimes call themselves, turned to Zoom during the pandemic to host their bibliophilic programs and gatherings. As a member of the Society’s board of directors, Burns Librarian Christian Dupont proposed to present a virtual curator’s tour of the Guiney exhibit and discussion of her life and career as a writer.
After a bit of experimentation, Christian and Barbara came up with a plan for the event that involved Zoom connections from three devices: Christian’s smartphone, to video Barbara as she walked and talked through the exhibit layout; Christian’s laptop, to present a PowerPoint showing images of the stained glass window of Guiney and timelines of her publications; and Barbara’s laptop, with a “Ladibug” document camera attached, to show binding decorations and other details of selected books from the exhibit—in separate rooms to preserve social distancing and prevent audio feedback.
We also invited Abigail Stambach, head of special collections and archives at the College of the Holy Cross, to give a PowerPoint overview of the Guiney Family Papers that she manages and recently reprocessed.
It all worked very well, though some had challenges connecting to the meeting because they were not used to encountering the extra login steps required by BC’s Zoom security protocols.. Once we started, Christian followed Barbara at distance as she led the walking tour of the installation, occasionally zooming in (pun intended!) on particular items as Barbara explained their significance to the Guiney story. Abigail and Christian then provided more background on the Guiney family through their slideshows. A lively conversation about Guiney, her family, and friends ensued, with Barbara showing examples of book dedications, inscriptions, and bookplates using her Ladibug camera. Our virtual visitors had many questions: the reason for the exhibit, the connections between 19th century women artists and writers, Guiney’s friendships with key 19th century celebrities such as John Boyle O’Reilly, editor of the Pilot, Annie Adams Fields, Boston poet, and Anne Whitney, Boston artist. Those who hadn’t heard of Guiney expressed interest in learning more. The event, with familiar smiling faces on the screen–the next best thing to being there–had the feel of an in-person Ticknor Society meeting. Attendees included colleagues from the Boston Athenaeum, New England Historic Genealogical Society, and Bromer Booksellers and Gallery.
The success of the Ticknor Society event, held in early October, emboldened us to offer a second virtual tour of the exhibit, this time for a broader audience of Burns Library friends. Held in November, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Guiney’s death, and on Veteran’s Day, to honor her father, the event drew attendees from several states who were as enthusiastic as the Ticknorites. This time, Kate Edrington, Burns Library Administrative Assistant, who created the exhibit graphics and invitations, joined us to manage the Zoom waiting room and help with any login logistics.
We have since taken the exhibit down for conservation reasons, and will leave the cases empty until we can again welcome visitors back into our exhibit spaces. Until then, we will explore opportunities for organizing other types of virtual events.
The online version of the Guiney exhibit can be viewed from the “Exhibits” section of the Burns Library website, along with more than twenty others. A Zoom recording of the virtual tour for the Ticknor Society is available on the Society’s website (ticknor.org).