Libraries and American Catholic History Online (Update!)


The history of Catholicism in America has never been one of the most prominent subjects in academic history. Not surprisingly then there are likewise very few digital humanities projects that explore the lives of Catholics in the United States. Compared to the American Civil War, a topic that has received more than its fair share of attention online, the history of U.S. Catholicism is almost invisible on the internet.

Historians of Catholic America, Catholic historical organizations, and archdiocesan archives must do more to promote the study and understanding of American Catholic history online.

Fortunately, librarians and archivists at Catholic universities have begun to address this problem. Below, I discuss three such institutions that have made exemplary efforts to digitize their U.S. Catholic history collections. In addition, I will briefly discuss an important recent endeavor to promote greater awareness of and access to rare collections of Catholic historical manuscripts and materials. All of these efforts should be commended and supported. They must also become the basis for future digital projects supported and funded by all those committed to telling the story of Roman Catholics in the United States.

University of Notre Dame Archives

Notre Dame Archives' excellent online item-level Calendar.
Notre Dame Archives’ excellent online item-level Calendar.

The University of Notre Dame Archives has long been a leader among Catholic repositories in promoting its important Catholic history collections online. With manuscript holdings that are particularly strong in the nineteenth-century, anyone researching the church during this period should first consult the archives’ wonderful Calendar. An easily searchable item-level finding aid that highlights the archives’ most important collections, the Calendar is an essential overview of the church’s history during this long century marked by nativism, civil war, industrialization, and large-scale immigration. One can only hope that other important calendars of major Catholic collections, such as the Congregation of Propaganda Fide’s United States records, will also be digitized in the near future.

In addition, the archives regularly blogs about the university’s history and has an excellent and growing number of digitized collections online. Especially useful to Catholic and Civil War historians is the large digitized collection of William T. Sherman Family Papers.

Catholic University of America Archives

CUA's Catholic History Classroom. Consider contributing today!
CUA’s Catholic History Classroom. Consider contributing today!

After Notre Dame, the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at Catholic University of America has done the most to make Catholic history accessible online. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the archives’ Catholic History Classroom project covers a wide array of twentieth-century topics while providing a larger number of primary sources useful to teachers, students, and researchers alike. They are actively looking for contributors to this site, and I encourage any historian who wants to see more quality information about U.S. Catholic history online to consider contributing to this very worthy endeavor.

Additionally, like Notre Dame, CUA’s archives has extensive online collections that are very valuable for studying American Catholic history. I particularly recommend their collection of primary sources related to the Irish Fenian Movement.

Villanova Special Collections

Villanova's excellent online exhibit about the Fenian Brotherhood.
Villanova’s excellent online exhibit about the Fenian Brotherhood.

Villanova University’s Special Collections, like ND and CUA, also hosts a number of important online exhibits of its manuscript collections. Two of the best cover the anti-Catholic riots of 1844 in Philadelphia and the internal divisions after the American Civil War that undermined the Fenian Brotherhood.

Villanova has also partnered with the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center to present a number of its valuable manuscript collections online.

Catholic Research Resources Alliance

CRRA's search engine allows users to discover thousands of rare Catholic primary sources held by Catholic libraries and archives across North America.
CRRA’s search engine allows users to discover thousands of rare Catholic primary sources held by Catholic libraries and archives across North America.

While many cultural institutions have made a push to expand access to their collections online, others, recognizing that serious research is often conducted at multiple large repositories, have tried to simplify the way historians use the internet to discover new materials and resources. These attempts have taken many forms, from JISC’s wonderful Connected Histories website that aggregates British history primary resources, to the Digital Public Library of America‘s combining of thousands of library catalog records and digital objects into a single search platform.

Fortunately, archivists and librarians at over forty Catholic universities across the United States have created a very similar resource for studying Catholic history. Recognizing the need to make discovering rare Catholic manuscripts and materials much easier than before, these libraries have created the Catholic Research Resources Alliance to make this goal a reality. The “Catholic Portal,” as the CRRA’s online catalog and search engine is known, already has over 100,000 catalog records on it, with more constantly being added.

In addition, through the CRRA’s Catholic Newspaper Online initiative, the Portal provides better access to collections of Catholic periodicals online. CRRA’s leadership also hopes one day to undertake a major digitization campaign to make Catholic papers (such as the 19th-century run of the Boston Pilot) more accessible for historical research. I hope that in the future such efforts might be expanded to make manuscript primary resources themselves available on the site too, perhaps in searchable transcription form utilized by the Founders Online website.

Collective efforts to promote greater access to rare Catholic resources such as that of the CRRA should  be supported and expanded. The only question is who will take the initiative to begin the work on and secure the funding necessary for making the richness and complexity of American Catholic life easily available to all online.

Update, August 21, 2015: Catholic University of America will be hosting a conference for teachers, archivists, and digitization specialists about getting primary resources online for use in classrooms and by researchers. You can learn more about this exciting opportunity at the CUA Archives blog.