Astrology in the Early Modern Era

A 1647 edition of William Lilly’s Christian Astrology, located in the Burns library stacks, bears an ominous warning to those who would delve into the practice of reading the stars. The book’s owner cautions that “all those that peruse this book must own that it thou knowledge gives of things unknown.” William Lilly, and those who cautiously read his books, lived in an era when astrology was an established scientific practice. To many in early modern Europe (the period from approximately 1500-1750), astrology could be applied to everything from folk medicine to political fortunes, and so it appeared in a wide variety of literature. Burns Library holds some fascinating examples of the period’s astrological discourses.

Christian astrology modestly treated of in three books, 03-2595 GENERAL, John J. Burns Library

Before Enlightenment thinkers scrapped astrology as a pseudo-science, the study of the stars was an ancient practice that formed the basis of several scientific disciplines. Astronomy especially was fueled by the human desire to understand how the heavens could affect the lives of people on earth. Johannes Kepler, a key figure in discovering the way planets move around the sun, was also a dedicated astrologer who published several influential books on the subject. This interest stemmed from a greater sense that the human anatomy was influenced by their environment in many key ways. To early modern philosophers, the position of the planets had just as much capacity to change one’s bodily functions as the food one ate and the weather one experienced. Almanacs were published with directions on how to order one’s life around the influences of the stars, while extensive astrological treatises showed the interested how to read these influences for themselves2.

Burns Library collections contain various types of literature that contributed to the influence of astrology. William Lilly, whose book inspired so much caution in its purchaser, made his living publishing prophecies and guides to the astrological sciences. Burns Library collections contain his Prophecy of the White King, Lilly’s interpretation of a medieval prophecy about the downfall of a “White King” of England. He published this resurfaced prophecy during the English Civil War, inserting his expert astrological perspective into contemporary debates around the King’s right to rule. Lilly’s book Christian Astrology, besides its fascinating annotations, also contains a wide breadth of approaches to astrology, and is still foundational to astrological practice today.

Astrology’s wide influence did not mean that it was not subject to debate. One book in the Burns Library stacks called Astrologomania, the Madnesse of Astrologers (1624) condemns the field as  anti-christian, with its author writing that “the illusions of judiciary astrology have long beene maintained by the policies of Sathan.” Many Christians were uncomfortable with how astrology fit into established religious doctrine, and astrologers were sometimes portrayed as hacks dealing in illusions. Later in the same century, the playwright John Dryden wrote An Evening’s Love, or the Mock Astrologer (also at Burns Library), playing with these unflattering tropes on the English stage. Though astrology was, at this time, an established field, there was always suspicion about the limits of its applications. 

Christian astrology modestly treated of in three books, 03-2595 GENERAL, John J. Burns Library

In the following centuries, astrology was dismissed as a serious discipline of science, but it has never fully lost its cultural appeal. It has proliferated as a modern pastime, especially alongside interests like witchcraft and spiritualism. Numerous books and apps today help individuals find their birth charts and determine possible planetary influences throughout the year. But at Burns library, one can reflect on when this modern hobby was a major part of the scientific and political discourses of its day. 

If you would like to see these resources, or anything housed in Burns Library, please contact us to make an appointment.

-Kelley Glasgow, Burns Library Reading Room Assistant & PhD student in the English Department.

1  Westman, Robert S.. “Johannes Kepler”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Johannes-Kepler. 
2  Curth, Louise Hill. “Astrology and Popular Culture.” English Almanacs, Astrology and Popular Medicine, 1550–1700, Manchester University Press, 2007, pp. 105–16.

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Flann O’Brien and the Irish Typewriter

Photograph of typewriter
Typewriter and case, Underwood No. 14″/178622, early 1930s, Box 28, Flann O’Brien papers, MS1997-27, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

The turn of the 20th century brought with it the invention of the first “modern” typewriter, produced by the Underwood Typewriter Company in 1900. Prior to the release of the Underwood, typewriters were not as widely used nor easily accessible by people in the working world. However, by the peak of Underwood’s production, its factory in Hartford, Connecticut, churned out a typewriter a minute, and Underwood’s sales eclipsed all other typewriter company sales combined. 

Flann O’Brien (whose real name was Brian O’Nolan but was also known as Myles na Gopaleen), the famous Irish novelist and journalist, was one of the people who was very impressed with Underwood typewriters. There is documentation of him possessing the same one for over thirty years of his career and encountering very few issues with it, and this very typewriter is in the Flann O’Brien papers at the John J. Burns Library. O’Brien wrote to Underwood several times, in one case to boldly state that he would not pay for the shoddy repairs made to his typewriter, and that he could have done a better job himself. In another more interesting case, O’Nolan wrote to Underwood to inform them of steps they could take to create an accessible, practical, Irish language typewriter. 

Flann O’Briens angry letter addressed to Underwood, typed on the typewriter.
Letter from Flann O’Brien to Underwood regarding repair work done on his typewriter, Box 1, Folder 27, Flann O’Brien Papers MS1997-027, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

There were several issues to consider when creating an Irish language typewriter, as the language uses a variety of lenited consonants that used to be signified by an overdot (known in Irish as the ponc séimhithe [pronounced punk shay-vih-huh]) as well as vowels with fadas. Current Irish paleography now uses an “h” to show lenition, though it has retained the fada. As someone who was consistently publishing pieces in Irish, such as in his column “Cruiskeen Lawn”, as well as the Irish language novel An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), O’Brien was rather invested in the production of an Irish language typeface. In one letter, he references “atrocious machines known as Gaelic typewriters… which produced copy in the old script.” The typeface was “most difficult to read and generally grotesque,” according to O’Brien. He also notes that the dots were oddly placed, though he does not know exactly how they were placed, and that because of this poor arrangement, the machines “must have been a horror to operate.” In the same letter, O’Brien provides his own suggestions for both how to simplify the number of keys and make it so that the typewriter would be bilingual- that is, one could successfully type in both Irish and English. Though invested in the process, O’Brien claims he has no “personal interest” in the creation of an Irish typewriter, and only wishes to offer a suggestion. This is simply another one of O’Brien’s many contributions to the Irish language. The Flann O’Brien Collection at the Burns Library holds evidence of many of these contributions. What can you find?

-Cassidy Allen, Burns Library Reading Room Assistant & PhD student in the English Department.

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Fields, Rinks, Courts, & Diamonds: Historic Locations of BC’s Athletic Contests from the University Archives

“Early University Heights Hockey,” Athletics at Boston College by Nathaniel John Hasenfus, p.284, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Boston College has opened several new athletic facilities over the last few years, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Margo Connell Recreation Center, the Harrington Athletics Village, the Fish Fieldhouse, and the (soon-to-be) Hoag Basketball Pavillion. 

In the nineteenth century, BC’s first location in Boston’s South End neighborhood included a gym, but little outdoor space. Teams practiced instead at municipal arenas and fields. Even after relocating to its spacious new Chestnut Hill campus in 1913, facilities were scarce. Among the suite of buildings designed for the school’s new setting was a gymnasium building which would have stood to the south of Gasson Hall. It was never built. Even without dedicated spaces in which to train or play, team athletics – baseball, basketball, football, and track – were represented in BC’s first yearbook, 1913. 

Burns Library’s Archives Guide includes a section of recommended sources for researching Boston College athletics. The images and information in this post were found in these sources.

Athletic fields were created in the space now between Gasson Hall and Beacon St. It was the location of football and baseball games, practice for track meets, and – if the field was flooded and frozen – ice hockey. With the addition of stands which could seat 5,000 fans in 1915, it became Alumni Field.

In 1932 the small stadium was enlarged to seat 22,000, however, most “home” athletic contests were still played off campus at larger and better established locations including Braves Field and Fenway Park. In 1957-1958 the first Alumni Stadium was built, along with two adjacent buildings for athletics – McHugh Forum (hockey) and the Roberts Center (basketball). The stadium had a capacity of 25,000 and would be expanded again in 1971 to 32,000.

Baseball’s new home in 1961 was Commander John Shea Field (between the Fish Fieldhouse and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir). Those without tickets could view the action from “beer can hill.” now the Pine Tree Preserve. 1965 brought improvements to track facilities with the dedication of the Jack Ryder track at Alumni Stadium. A modern recreation center with facilities for swimming and diving opened in the 1970s. Named after BC’s longtime athletic director, William J. Flynn, it included spaces for student recreation in addition to team athletics. Its distinctive architecture graced the lower campus until the completion of the Margot Connell Recreation Center. Connected to an updated Alumni Stadium, a new facility for hockey and basketball, Silvio O. Conte Forum, opened in the late 1980s.

Here’s to the former sites of athletic contests on and off the campus and to the students who endured and enjoyed them. 

If you would like to see these resources, or anything housed in Burns Library, please contact us to make an appointment.

  • Shelley Barber, Outreach & Reference Specialist, John J. Burns Library

List of works consulted:

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Can you spot the difference? Facsimiles in the Burns Library

The Book of Kells with case, BS2552 .B55 1990 IRISH OVERSIZE, John J. Burns Library

The Book of Kells is one of the best known medieval manuscripts in the world, due in part to its distinctive insular style and its status as an emblem of Irish national history and identity. Created around 800 AD, the Book of Kells can be found at Trinity College Dublin, where it has been held since the 17th century. Any student of medieval art and artifacts will study the Book of Kells at some point, but how do you study something so unique that it may take time, travel, entrance fees, and maybe even special permissions to see? A facsimile.

A facsimile is an exact copy. In the days before photography, copies of medieval manuscripts for study had to be created in much the same way the manuscripts themselves had been made: painstakingly, by hand, and at great expense. These illustrations could then be turned into prints and distributed widely. These copies frequently reproduce works only in part, prioritizing the most interesting or informative pages. In the 20th century, as photography and later color photography became more common and inexpensive, it became possible to reproduce each page of a manuscript at a low cost, allowing full facsimiles for study available for purchase by any library or individual.

In recent years, technology has allowed for even more complete and detailed facsimiles. Not only is it possible to reproduce the content on each page, even page shape and subtleties of color can be recreated in a way that gives a fuller impression of the object itself. For example, our facsimile of the Book of Kells from 1990 allows classes studying medieval manuscripts, like Nancy Netzer’s Introduction to Medieval Irish Manuscripts, to interact with a material version of the Books of Kells. Alongside high resolution digital images from Trinity College Dublin, the facsimile facilitates comparison between the physical and digital object as well as a more holistic understanding of an item that more closely resembles the experience of seeing the Book of Kells in person.

The Books of Kells, and medieval manuscripts in general, are only one area where facsimiles are useful tools. Other facsimiles recreate items that may have been copied and widely disseminated in their time, but are too fragile or have been lost in too great numbers. Ephemera, for example, can be reproduced as facsimiles to compensate for the extent to which the original objects have been destroyed or lost. The first night Gilbert and Sullivan: containing complete librettos of the fourteen operas contains facsimiles of paper ephemera related to premieres of their operettas, including libretti and programs. These performances, and the paper products associated with them, would have been hugely popular and widely distributed. This facsimile from 1950 preserves the look and feel of items you would receive as a nineteenth century theater-goer. Collecting ephemera from public events spanning decades into one volume provides opportunities to understand the items in relation to one another, inviting comparisons between ephemeral objects that may not have been put alongside each other in their original contexts.

These are only a couple of examples of facsimiles in our collections, and a couple of ways they can be useful to us – what can you find?

-Kate Edrington, Multimedia & Administrative Specialist, John J. Burns Library

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Ephemerality and digital dark ages; or, a day in the life of a mayfly

Over the last two years, the Burns Library Archives and Manuscripts team have made clear strides in how our donors and our subject area curators identify, evaluate, and select born digital material for inclusion in the archives. We’ve reimagined our workflows to increase our capacity to acquire born-digital content, and have put in place safeguards to ensure that incoming digital content–whether it is a photographic archive stored in Google Drive or a mysterious floppy disk from 1993–is stabilized at the start of the archival stewardship process. Also, while we’re implementing new tools and workflows, we’re also joyfully busting down those long-held notions that archives are only “old things” on paper.

This work is important. As a society, we are creating more content than ever before, and we’re creating that content using technologies and services that render content more ephemeral than newspapers of a 100 years ago. Technological development moves so quickly that, in a relatively short period of time, it has become almost impossible to access information in what were once common formats.

engraving titled The Holy Family with the Mayfly
Dürer, Albrecht. 1495. The Holy Family with the Mayfly. Engraving on laid paper.

You may have learned about the European Dark Ages in grade school. In historiography, the term “Dark Ages” -first coined by Renaissance humanists- connotes a lack of contemporary written history and material cultural achievements in general. It is something of a pejorative term, a criticism from a place of perceived cultural superiority. Why, you may be asking, am I writing about the Middle Ages? Well, many experts from a variety of fields and professions are warning of a new dark age–the Digital Dark Age–hovering like a stormy cloud on our shared horizon.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage of the word “ephemera” to Middle English. It’s attributed to Aristotle1 who, intrigued by the brief lifespan of the mayfly, considered it to be an exceptional representation of a category of animals that he called the Ephemeroptera2. Like Aristotle before them, both Islamic and Western European philosophers of the Middle Ages hypothesized that the fly’s very brief lifespan was related to the littleness, or exility3, of its soul, an assumption which placed the mayfly very low on the list of Most Important Animals in the Medieval world.

“Ephemera” is first recorded in English in a 14th-century translation of a 13th-century title, Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum. In this work, we see metaphorical meaning taking root:  “Effimera, one dayes feuer is as it were the heete of one day.” Taken literally, the ephemera is a type of fever lasting the lifecycle of one mayfly. Taken figuratively, we also understand that we’re dealing with a relatively unremarkable fever. It is through this process that we can see the word “ephemeral” evolve from a literal meaning referring to types of animals to include an association with measurable units of time and assumptions of value.

Page from the De proprietatibus rerum
Bartholomaeus, Anglicus, and donor DSI Burndy Library. 1275. [De proprietatibus rerum] [manuscript]. [last quarter of 13th century]. http://archive.org/details/deproprietatibu00bart.
Dictionary entry for the word “ephemeral”
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language : in Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers: to Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar. London: Printed by W. Strahan, for J. and P. Knapton … [and 4 others], 1755.

Samuel Johnson is cited as the first recorded user of the term “ephemerae” in a print context (1751) to mean the “papers of the day” in reference to newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, and the like4. By the 20th century, ephemera and ephemeral were interpreted to mean, broadly, something of no lasting significance. More specifically, it came to mean paper items that were meant to be thrown away. When these items are viewed through an archival lens, though, they may actually hold tremendous sentimental, artifactual, and/or research value.

Like traditional publishing platforms such as newspapers and magazines, the internet is a medium used to publish content. However, I’ll ask you to take a moment to consider the similarities and differences between the two following examples:

  1. Paper has an average lifespan of 100-500 years. Highly acidic old newspapers from the early 1900s often grow brittle, and the ink may have run or dried to become unreadable. In 1900, Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory5 estimated that there were about 20,000 different newspapers in the United States, including dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies. 
  2. Websites and uploaded content have an average lifespan of 100 days. Embedded hyperlinks are frequently broken, programming languages and scripts are constantly superseded by new alternatives, and commercial hosting services can easily shut down or erase content at will. At the time of writing this, there were 1,931,072,252 websites in existence.6
identification guide to common digital media carriers
“Know Your Media | A Guide to the Most Common Types of Digital Media Found in Archives.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://lib.utsa.edu/knowyourmedia/

The digital environment has provided an interesting landscape that challenges our perceptions as to what is of ephemeral value and what is not. To do this important work, it takes strategic intent, skilled labor, strong infrastructure, and continuous maintenance to ensure that the lifespan of digital content is extended beyond the here and now. Certainly, content creators are hoping that their work lasts longer than the lifespan of a mayfly! 

  1.  “ephemera, adj. and n.1”. OED Online. December 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63198 (accessed February 14, 2022).
  2. “Ephemeroptera.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/arthropoda/uniramia/ephemeroptera.html.
  3. “Exility Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exility?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld.
  4.  Garner, Anne. “State of the Discipline: Throwaway History: Towards a Historiography of Ephemera.” Book History 24, no. 1 (2021): 244-263. doi:10.1353/bh.2021.0008.
  5.  “Teachinghistory.Org.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/22927.
  6.  “Internet Live Stats – Internet Usage & Social Media Statistics.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.internetlivestats.com/.

-Elizabeth Carron, Senior Accessioning Archivist, John J. Burns Library

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A Visit to Georgetown, May 1840, from the MacNeven Family Collection

Kindly write to me, my dear Jane, describe for me the scenery and the people. Let it be a poem and a picture.

Jane MacNeven (New York City) to her daughter, Jane Mary MacNeven (Georgetown), 10 May 1840
Kalorama, Charles Codman (1800-1842), ca. 1800-1825, The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., RR-1972.0013, https://www.diplomaticrooms.state.gov/objects/kalorama/, accessed April 2, 2022.

Within Burns Library’s MacNeven Family collection (MS2009-002) is an exchange of letters primarily between Jane MacNeven (1782-1868) and her 28-year-old daughter, Jane Mary “Jenny” MacNeven (1811-1856) during Jenny’s six-week visit to the District of Columbia in May, 1840. 

Jenny’s father, William James MacNeven (1763-1841) was a leader of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland by the United Irishmen. He was arrested, jailed, and exiled. He arrived in the United States in 1805 and in 1810 married widow Jane Riker Tom of New York. Their family would include children, ”Jenny,” James, William, Rosa, and Samuel, and Jane’s daughter, Anna Tom. William – a physician – spent the rest of his career in New York City where he received an honorary MD from Columbia College, was appointed professor of obstetrics in the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later taught chemistry and materia medica. At the time of the correspondence, Jenny and her parents were living with Anna (1805-1886) and her husband, Thomas Addis Emmet, Jr. (1797-1863), at their estate in a still-rural section of Manhattan – a short train ride to the heart of the city. Emmet was the son and nephew, respectively, of United Irishmen Thomas Addis Emmet (1764-1827) and Robert Emmet (1778-1803).

My dear Jane, with two backgammon boards going one on each corner of the table I sit down to write….I don’t know whether my letter will be legible or intelligible as we have another couple at another corner of the table but I must stop to tell you who they are as I know you wish to know. Well then fancy the dinner table à l’ordinaire. Edward and John Riker at one corner Jane LeRoy and Tony at another. I am writing about midway as I have learned to take this seat. Mr. LeRoy reading the paper, Herman looking on and Papa walking up and down the entry, dear Mother having gone to uncle’s has not yet returned as it is a fine moon light night. Now I think you can see us all.

Anna Emmet (New York City) to her half-sister, Jane Mary MacNeven (Georgetown), 9 June 1840

In addition to the opportunity to see the nation’s capital, there were two main objects of Jenny’s journey to Washington: to network with people who could advance her 19-year-old brother Sam’s prospect of a military career, and to attend the 13th birthday party of Jane MacNeven’s godchild, Grace Georgiana “Georgy” Tone. 

And Thursday past was my sweet Georgy Tone’s birthday! Thirteen years since her little head first pressed my pillow – eventful years with me and with her, too, dear child. Yet she has had a happy young life. May the future be full of blessings for her and the fond parents whose lives are wrapped up in hers….The Elder Mrs. Emmet came out yesterday to see Tom. She came on the Rail Car, and after passing a pleasant hour returned to town to dinner. I accompanied her to the railroad and saw her safely placed in the very hindmost car from the engine – that fiery dragon. It must have been some such an invention, named thus, the ancients talked of.

Jane MacNeven (New York City) to daughter, Jane Mary MacNeven (Georgetown), 31 May 1840
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Bean na hÉireann (The Woman of Ireland)

We’re a bit late to it, but March was Women’s History Month and, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. As a graduating senior in the history and women’s studies department, this March felt like my month.

Front page of newspaper showing woman holding up banner reading newspaper title with advertisements below and an image of a well dressed woman.
Cover, Bean na hÉireann, HQ1101 .B43 IRISH, John J. Burns Library

With the help of a lot of source material at Burns, I am currently finishing up my scholar of the college thesis on the experiences of mothers during the Gaelic Revival in Ireland, the period of renewed interest in the pre-colonial literature and culture of Ireland in an effort to “de-Anglicize” the island. I assert that women, in their Church and culturally sanctioned place of the home, were proud to make a substantial de-Anglicizing effort in small, but concrete change, as opposed to sweeping changes attempted in the political arena, like the political status of the Irish language or tariffs on non-Irish goods.

Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) was a women’s group, founded by Anglo-Irish nationlist Maud Gonne and 14 other women who met at the Irish Literary Society. They focused on nationalist issues like supporting Irish manufacturing and labor, cultivating Gaelic culture, and voting for Sinn Féin candidates, but in a way that allowed women to remain within the sphere of the home.

newspaper article text
Article, Bean na hÉireann, HQ1101 .B43 IRISH, John J. Burns Library

In 1908, Inghinidhe na hÉireann began printing a monthly magazine entitled Bean na hÉireann (The Woman of Ireland). Though the magazine ran for only a little over two years, it gives us a fascinating glimpse into these nationalist women’s lives and what they deemed worthy of print. Burns Library has a copy of the November 1910 edition of the magazine. Articles in the sixteen-page magazine deal with everything from complaints about “foreign” taxi cabs to poetry celebrating “Mother Ireland” by Susan Mitchell.

An article on Anti-Enlistment in this issue urges women to use their moral position in Irish society to prevent further Irish men from enlisting in the British army. The author writes, “let us try to make every Irishwoman regard an Irish soldier or Naval sailor as something not to be mentioned save with shame and sorrow.” She gives readers the heavy task to “save Irishmen” from “treason,” though she acknowledges that “it is not love for the British Army or lack of patriotism that drives our men into English ranks, but just poverty and want.”

Poem, Bean na hÉireann, HQ1101 .B43 IRISH, John J. Burns Library

Though women could not vote, Bean na hÉireann was not written for or by militant suffragettes, as newspapers like the Irish Citizen were. However, throughout this issue, and others, women’s political power is acknowledged, celebrated, and called upon. From the ads for Irish goods spread throughout the pages, urging women to vote with their purses and protect Irish industries from cheap British fabrics and household items to discussing Fianna Éireann, a scouts organization to cultivate Gaelic culture in young children, from sports like Gaelic football and hurling to dancing.

Organizations like Inghinidhe na hÉireann asked women to “believe in Ireland’s right to a separate existence, and above all, believe in their own power to establish it. Half a decade before “the personal is political” became the rallying cry for the feminist movement,  Bean na hÉireann asked women to de-Anglicize even the smallest aspects of their lives in order to pursue meaningful political change. 

-Erin Sheedy, MCAS ’22, Reading Room Assistant

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The Many Editions of Gulliver’s Travels

Black and white facsimile of the original title page for Gulliver's Travels
Facsimile title page, Gulliver’s Travels, PR3724 G7 1938 IRISH

One of the things that the Burns Library is known for is our extensive Irish collection and Anglo-Irish author, Jonathan Swift is no exception. Though known widely for his satirical essay, A Modest Proposal,” undoubtedly his most famous work is his novel Gulliver’s Travels. Following Lemuel Gulliver in his journey though magical worlds filled with miniature people, giants, talking horses and even elders that live forever, Gulliver’s Travels is a classic story that’s remained relevant through the years even though it was first published in 1726 under the title, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.

In the centuries since it’s original publication Gulliver’s Travels has spawned variations throughout the years. Here in the stacks at Burns Library I’ve seen copies of the novel over a hundred years old as well as illustrated versions of the story for younger audiences. In a way the shelves almost appear like a discombobulated timeline which we can read and explore different versions of the same book. 

One of the first editions of the novel that I saw in our collection was a copy published in 1938. What piqued my interest was the fact that even though this version was published over 80 years ago this copy still comes about 200 years after the original. While Gulliver’s Travels has changed throughout the years as books often do, updated for modern syntax as language evolved, what made this specific copy so interesting was that it included a replica of the title page from the original publication. Though so much has changed, the publishers felt it appropriate to keep this relic of the original printing.

The second copy of the book that I wanted to mention caught my eye due to it’s cover. The binding’s red color stands out and the ornate nature of the design on the front make it impossible to miss. This version, published in 1888, also has a quote reading, “May blessings be upon the head of Cadmus, the Phoenicians, or whoever it was that invented books,” from Thomas Carlyle. A fitting quote for the cover of a classic novel.

What else pops out from the cover is, where the title of the novel would usually be, it reads, “Caxton Edition.” Named for William Caxton, who lived during the 15th century, he was one of the first to introduce the printing press to England as well as the first retailer for printed books. Though several centuries separate Caxton and this version, a Caxton edition has come to mean any book presented in a deluxe or embellished edition. Though Caxton died almost 400 years before this book was published his influence on printing and publication still lingers to this day, just like many of the classic novels that have been around for centuries.

The last edition that I wanted to note was an illustrated version, presumably intended for children. Published in 1946, the cover depicts Lemual Gulliver towering over a city and holding a Lilliputian in his hand. The art is done in a manner that would have made this classic novel, not generally intended for children, more appealing through its illustrations. 

The evolution of this singular novel over the course of almost 300 years gives us an interesting view into the background of each edition as it progresses. From its original syntax to the classic novel that we know today. If you would like to see these, or any of the dozens of other editions of Gulliver’s Travels housed in Burns Library, please contact us to make an appointment.

-Joshua Park, MCAS ’25, Burns Reading Room Assistant

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Reshelving the Burns Stacks

Electronically operated compact library shelving at the Burns Library
Before photo of 1990s era Burns Library shelving unit.

You’ve probably been told that the Burns Library is “closed stacks,” meaning that librarians pull all of the materials that a user might want, and provide access to them in our reading room. But you may be surprised to learn what the stacks actually look like, and what kinds of challenges and opportunities are associated with them. The Burns Library stacks actually can, and do, break.

Since we don’t have large numbers of patrons who need to browse the shelves regularly, the Burns Library uses something called compact shelving. This type of shelving system allows for a much higher density of storage then the typical fixed library shelving, like you see at the O’Neill Library, by allowing more shelving units to be housed in the same footprint. The shelving units are moved by library staff to open the desired aisle. As a result, we can store the same amount of material in half the space! Interestingly, the extra weight means that buildings have to be specially rated to contain compact library shelving. Another reason why the Burns Library is unique!

Deconstructed library shelving with electronic additions visible at the Burns Library
Burns Library shelving unit awaiting new electronics and end panels.

We appreciate our compact shelving units to no end, but during the last five years, they started breaking with alarming frequency. The Burns Library had state-of-the-art electronic shelving units installed in the early 1990s so aisles could be opened at the push of a button. Unfortunately, the logic boards that powered our shelving had begun to fail at a prodigious rate. When a logic board failed, we were unable to access the materials trapped inside. These 90s-era logic boards are no longer being manufactured, so we were forced to locate and use salvaged parts from other libraries’ recent shelving replacements. As they became increasingly scarce, we realized we had quite a problem on our hands. Eventually, we would reach the point of obsolescence where we would be unable to fix a broken shelving unit.

Fortunately, we were given funding from the Provost’s Office to implement a clever solution. We selected two subsections of our shelving capacity to replace–one was upgraded to newer, contemporary state of the art electronic shelving, and the other, smaller section was downgraded to a manual, gear-operated solution. This elegant mechanism, while boasting fewer bells and whistles (literally!) than its electronic counterpart, easily moves via a crank and requires very little maintenance. Plus, with no motor or electronic components, we anticipate it will last for generations!

Manual library shelving with cranks at the Burns Library
Completed manual shelving installed.

Even with our solution identified, though, we still had a significant amount of work to do to plan and prepare. Because our materials are delicate and fragile, we needed to move all of the material that was adjacent to the shelving work. All told, we moved over 1000 linear feet of material! All of it needed to be tracked, kept in order, safely housed and returned to its original location with nothing lost, damaged, or misordered. With shelving space at a premium throughout the library, finding a place to put everything was quite the challenge. Ultimately, we temporarily stored most of the material on carts in the Reading Room while the Burns Library was closed for a few days. Our Collections Maintenance Specialist moved all of the published material onto large, rented wooden carts that had been lined with acid-free paper, then laboriously rolled them upstairs to the Reading Room. Our archivists worked tirelessly to shift the boxed material to other open spots in our shelving area, making sure to track everything so nothing would be lost or misplaced in the move. 

After a week and a half of hard work, our vendor had upgraded the electronics and motors in one shelving unit and removed them from the other, installing a crank and gear system for manual manipulation. As a final step, they repackaged all of the removed parts and returned them to us for an added bonus–we’ll be able to repurpose parts from our own shelving next time something breaks! After all, we are always on the lookout for an opportunity to upcycle at the Burns Library.

-Amy F. Brown, Special Collections Technical Services & Metadata Creation and Management, Head, Boston College Libraries

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Then and Now: Irish Folklore Studies

Walking through the stacks that contain the Williams Ethnological Collection, it is quite easy for one to be distracted by the sheer amount of titles that deal with folklore of different nations and peoples. Yet knowing that often the material in this particular collection is from the perspective of white Europeans, I began to wonder what these brightly colored volumes of folklore would include textually. As a student interested in Irish Studies, one title specifically caught my eye- W. G Wood-Martin’s “Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Folklore Sketch; A Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian Traditions.” Firstly, the phrase “Elder Faiths” coupled with the words “folklore sketch” seemed like something out of a Tolkien novel. I was also curious how this account would stack up next to something more current. I chose Niall Mac Coitir’s “Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends, & Folklore” for my more recent text, mainly attracted to it by its lovely watercolor cover and illustrations. I find folklore an interesting way to examine how a particular culture has been perceived through time- in this case, Ireland- ethnologically. As I paged through each book, the content selection and organizational choices of both texts were indeed telling! 

From the opening, Wood-Martin’s text is organized fairly broadly- split up into sections titled names such as “Ancient Fauna – Their Exterminator”, with the content of each section only loosely tied to it’s subheading. Wood-Martin takes a wide approach to these topics, exploring what things like the extinction of ancient fauna in Ireland possibly say about its people. One interesting take was about deer in Ireland, which Wood-Martin claimed were hunted to extinction by the native Irish in a similar way to buffalo in the Americas (p. 64). This specifically caught my eye as historians have argued that buffalo were not solely hunted to extinction by indigenous peoples, but were in fact slaughtered in great numbers. This slaughter was sanctioned by the US Army at the time, which aided the rapid decline of the buffalo population in the late nineteenth century, as a way to deplete indigenous resources. I was intrigued, then, by what Mac Coitir’s text would have to say about deer in Ireland.

Watercolor painting of a deer with Latin, English, and Irish subheadings for deer.
Deer from Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends, & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir, Burns Library, Boston College.

While Wood-Martin organized his text more broadly and touched on a variety of topics and themes, Mac Coitir’s text was much more to the point. It helps that Mac Coitir’s text was broken up by gorgeous watercolor paintings of each animal he discusses, with the Latin, English, and Irish names of each animal listed above their own image. Each animal’s section is then filled by additional identical subheadings, including things such as “Folk Beliefs and Customs” and “Myths and Legends”. Whereas Wood-Martin often passes judgment on Irish traditions, Mac Coitir instead simply summarizes the ways in which each animal was used by and connected to the Irish, whether through exploring how they were connected to folklore and myth, or how they were viewed within Irish society as a whole. In his section on deer, for example, Mac Coitir notes that there is an absence of folklore about deer, which he attributes to “deer being confined to the last few pockets of woodland in the country, as the Irish forests were cut down over the last few centuries” (p. 41). Mac Coitir explicitly makes sure to tie back to his headings and main themes, which allows the reader to more fully understand the ways in which these animals are present in Irish folklore and Irish communities. Additionally, the inclusion of the Irish language allows a perspective that is lacking within Wood-Martin’s text. 

The cross-examination and comparison of these two texts allow the reader to see how ethnological sorts of studies and the questions we ask about cultures have changed and progressed over time. Each book provides an interesting window into Irish culture and folklore as seen through a certain point in time. If anything, one can at least admire the wonderful watercolor portraits in Mac Coitir’s text and pick up some Irish words for animals along the way!

Watercolor painting of a cow, dog, pig, and sheep in different environments.
Two page spread of watercolor paintings, Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends, & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir, Burns Library, Boston College.

-Cassidy Allen, First year PhD student in English, Reading Room Assistant, John J. Burns Library, Boston College 

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