“Coins, stamps, sports cards, you name it, I collected it,” he said.
But it wasn’t until Molloy stumbled upon a stack of union contracts in a Hope Valley bookstore that he really found his niche.
“They were contracts from the 1930s and ‘40s, from the predecessors of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. They showed all the different wages that employees were paid during that time,” Molloy, a third generation RIPTA bus driver at the time, said. “That’s what really piqued my interest. I bought the whole stack for $2.”
Today, the University of Rhode Island professor of labor and industrial relations at the Charles T. Schmidt Labor Research Center has amassed a collection of local labor materials so large and so extensive that there is only one place in Rhode Island that can hold all of it.
“It’s all going to the URI library,” Molloy said. “I’m keeping a few personal items at home and in my office. The rest of it is going directly to URI.”
It’s a major donation to the URI Libraries Special Collections and Archives at the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons on the Kingston campus. Earlier this year, Molloy contacted Sarina Rodrigues, associate professor and special collections librarian at URI, and asked her if she’d like a few boxes of artifacts. “She said sure, she’d take them,” he said. “It’s evolved from there. I’m filling up my car a few times a week and bringing stuff over.”
His collection traces the history of Rhode Island labor and unions to the mid-1800s. Much of the material given to URI was gathered during research for his book, Irish Titan, Irish Toilers: Joseph Banigan and Nineteenth Century New England Labor, which was published in 2008 and chronicles the rise of the first Irish Catholic millionaire in Rhode Island. Included are correspondence, articles, and pictures of life as an Irish immigrant in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Some of the documents are from Molloy’s research for his first two books, Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line (1996) and All Aboard: History of Mass Transportation in Rhode Island (2004). The rest are general Rhode Island labor artifacts, such as scrapbooks of Providence Journal clippings and old union buttons.
The more Molloy brought over to URI, the more he began to understand the magnitude of his collection. “I know how expensive it is to catalog these materials. So rather than me dropping everything off there like an atomic bomb, I decided to raise some money.”
The Herman Rose Archive, Document, Display and Disseminate Grant, through the Rhode Island Foundation, offered a three to one match, providing the URI Libraries with $10,555 total to catalog Molloy’s documents. A little more than a third of the amount, $3,800, was raised or given outright by Molloy (Molloy himself gave $1,000 of his own money; the rest was raised from local unions). Another third was matched by URI. “Professor Molloy is the kind of donor we appreciate – he generously gave us his important collection of Rhode Island labor union and transportation history, and was also able to help raise the money to have it preserved and cataloged,” Rodrigues said. “Without him, this wouldn’t have been possible.”
Molloy has a long history as an expert on American labor, both professionally and personally. As a child, Molloy’s father worked as a Providence police officer and his mother as a Providence schoolteacher. Later, while studying for his doctoral degree at Providence College, Molloy worked as a bus driver and union agent for RIPTA. His job was no accident – his grandfather immigrated to Rhode Island from Ireland in 1900 to begin working as a trolley driver in 1909, and Molloy’s uncles worked as bus drivers. Additionally, Molloy founded the Rhode Island Labor History Society in 1987, and was also a key collaborator in the creation of the Irish Famine Memorial in Providence, which was officially dedicated in 2007. Molloy was awarded the URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award in 1995, and the Carnegie Foundation named him Rhode Island Professor of the Year in 2004. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2009.
Molloy’s donation is a generous one, and it’s not uncommon for the West Kingston resident – he has given his collections away before. “I had a friend who worked down at George Washington University, which hosts a consortium with the Teamsters. His yearly budget to acquire new books for the consortium was $5,000 dollars,” said Molloy. “I had probably a dozen full-size bookshelves of labor history books. I told him that for $5,000 dollars he could have them all. They sent a truck up to take them all down to Washington, D.C.; when they weighed everything, I found out that I had 2,500 pounds of history books that had been sitting in my house.”
The Smithsonian also took notice of Molloy’s extensive collection. “In the early ‘80s, I gave them all of my national labor artifacts – I kept the Rhode Island materials, but everything else went. That was the first time I gave away my collection,” Molloy said. “They gave me some money for the materials, and I took it and went crazy buying more things. My second collection, the one I have now, is even bigger than the first.”
But not all of Molloy’s collection has been personally purchased – he attributes many of his artifacts to the generosity of family, friends and even strangers. “For a while, in an attempt to broaden my horizons, I advertised in national newspapers looking for collectable pieces“ he said. “I also went to local unions. You’d be amazed at what’s hanging around in someone’s attic or cellar, or even their junk drawer.”
Ultimately, Molloy’s quest had a ripple effect. “When people find out that you like something, they often send things your way. For me, it was a hurricane of wonderful artifacts handed to me over the years, often for free.”
However, there was one thing that Molloy did not accept for his collection. “Some of the unions tried to give me their minute books,” he said. “To me, those are too unique and too valuable. Instead, I set them up to be cataloged with the Rhode Island Historical Society library.”
It’s hard to imagine a collection that large being on display in someone’s home, but that’s exactly what Molloy has done. “I built a house in West Kingston, and instead of putting in an attic, I built a 35-foot room to house everything,” he said. “The house was finished in 1988 and pieces of my collection have crept downstairs since then. Essentially, I built the house around the collection.”
One may wonder why someone who has spent so much time and money creating a collection like Molloy’s would want to give it away. It’s a question familiar to Molloy.
“I had all these great artifacts and materials that I’d acquired, and I just kept thinking, ‘what happens when people have these collections and they die?’” said Molloy. “I want to see everything I’ve collected go to a proper home. I’m better off letting go of it too soon than a minute too late.
“There’s also a great importance to these artifacts and documents that people didn’t realize during the times that they were written. That’s what makes them unique,” he said. “Having them available makes the history come alive.”
And an even bigger question remains: will Molloy begin a new collection?
“No, absolutely not. Nothing like the one that I’m giving to URI,” he said. “I’m almost to nirvana cleaning out my house. I’m studiously avoiding flea markets and yard sales, and anything that anyone gives me is going right over to Sarina.”
But old habits die hard. “I really do find joy in collecting things,” he said. “Maybe I’ll go back to something small. Like coins.”
This news release was written by Rachel Donilon, a writer in the URI department of Marketing and Communications