Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Joys of Research

The Joys of Research
by Carter Jefferson

This afternoon I visited the Boston Public Library, where a fifty-ish man with a mop of white hair fit for a Dickens movie helped to make my day.

For some time I've been messing around with stories about an Irish woman, in 1886 one of the first "typewriter girls" in Boston. Some of those fictions were subs for exercises for Practice-w; none has been worked over and submitted for publication.

About a year ago, I read a whole slew of histories of women, and of Boston, all of which strongly implied that my stories had to be fairy tales, because no Irish girl could get such a job in Boston at that time -- the heavily Anglo-Saxon ruling class called the Irish trash, and kept them in the most menial positions. No question, those experts were right about the anti-Irish sentiment, and that women in general got very few decent jobs. That sort of cooled my enthusiasm for Katie.

But she kept coming back to mind. I read somewhere that the public library employed a few women at that time, so one day I asked at the welcome desk if the library had records I could look at. The greeter didn't know, but he gave me the phone number of a man he thought could help. A few weeks later I called the number. No answer, so I left a message asking that he call me back, though I considered that unlikely. But in less than an hour there he was, and he told me to go to the microtext room and ask for city records. That's what I did today.

The bushy-haired man not only had the records, he produced a reel of microfilm in only a few minutes, telling me all the while things I already knew about the history of Boston. I had to look at some excellent photos he'd taken of various gravestones in local cemeteries first, but finally, after scrolling through reports of the activities of the police, accounts of the street department's expenses, and the transcript of a long civil suit, I wound up with what the library had reported in 1885.

Six -- count 'em, six! -- of the library's 146 employees were women with Irish names. One was assistant librarian at the North End branch; others had responsible positions. A Miss -- we can be pretty sure she was a "Miss" -- Mary McGrath had worked there since 1868.

So Katie can get a job, if she has the right credentials, and you can be sure she will, for she has a job to do for me.

Morals: Don't believe everything you hear or read, no matter who tells you. And if you want to know something, there's probably a way to find out.

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