Self Portraits from Isolation: Early Steps Toward Taking Special Collections Instruction Online

When Boston College shut down in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that the rest of the spring semester and all summer classes would be moved online, BC faculty and staff went to immediate planning on how to transfer our favorite parts of in-person teaching to a remote, asynchronous format.  Prof. Caleb Cole, from the Art, Art History, and Film Department, reached out to the Burns Teaching Librarians for a discussion about how to keep the BC Libraries component of an established, in person class (Introduction to Digital Art) in this new teaching format. The assignment—draft two symbolic tarot cards, one a recognizable self portrait, and the other a design of the student’s choosing—remained the same, designed to meet the class goal of using a computer to develop technical, conceptual, and aesthetic images. 

Using the by now ubiquitous Zoom meeting, we met to draft a class plan that would both present the concept of symbolism in art and model visual analysis steps so students could develop their assignment proposals, outlining why/what they mean/how their symbolic images tie into their overall messages.

Nina Bogdanovsky, Senior Research Librarian / Art & Architecture Bibliographer, recorded and narrated a presentation on symbolism in art. Prof. Cole and Burns Teaching Librarians Kathleen Monahan and Katherine Fox captured a short Zoom call in which they modeled how to look at images critically, how to look for symbols within images, how to look symbols up in reference sources, and how to realize that the meanings of symbols can and do change across time and cultures. We also provided a list of diverse symbolism reference titles available through the HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and other digital options on the class platform.

Prof. Cole was pleased with the results, reporting that the students “definitely ‘got it’” and several referenced the videos in their proposals. Even far away from campus, BC students continued to come through with creative and carefully thought-out artwork. We present the student’s output below. How do you think they did?

Cups: Lone figure at table at night, lit by laptop, surrounded by glasses; Hermit: solitary figure walking by dark window, lit by cell phone screen

Sean Ahearn, BC ‘23

The star: portrait with background of stars, eagle, dove, butterfly, and golden bird; The High priestess, praying figure with crown of roses and book, against background of star and moon

Ashley Antico, BC ‘22

Sun: portrait with halo against strong, geometric background, with celestial images; Moon: Phases of the moon with stars, Irish Harp figure, and triskelion

David Bligh

Crosslegged figure, with face in hands, looking at various emojis on floor: Prosperity: Figure in lotus pose atop earth that is being cupped in hands

Jocelina De Pina, BC ‘22

Magician: Portrait of Dr. Strange (as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) with portal, against celestial background with phoenix and lightbulb; Fool: Joker (as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) against background with fireworks, fireball, and

Jose De Romana Palacios, BC ‘22

World: portrait over image of world, with compass rose; cardinal points have butterflies, ordinal points indicated with lotus flowers; Moon: Image of moon weeping/vomiting into water/waves

Sofia Geocadin, BC ‘23

Emperor: Image of seated Buddha, wearing a necktie and holding a blue ball and scales, against background of throne, water, and clouds: Hermit: portrait of artist in a hoodie, against a window, holding

Colin Guan, BC ‘21

Lotus: Skeleton wearing a blue cloak with lotus flowers and carrying a lit lantern, against dark background with crescent moon and 4 stars; Vulnerability: Blindfolded figure above scales, with cup (decorated with a heart) full of eggs and a lion with facial markings and a

Alicia Lam, BC ‘21

Fisherman: figure hanging from hook, holding a fish, with forked lightning against a blue background: Ignore: 2 figures on stone surface, with fiery shadows, with a orb encircling a shamrock

Alexander Ronan, BC ‘21

The Sun (portrait against mountains with sun, chain, and phoenix); The Moon (howling wolf agains mountains, trees, mountains)

Yujia Shi, BC ‘23

Untitled: the bottom half of 8 red balloons, filled with water, float in sky with Buddha figure and clouds background; Death: bottom half of a single while balloon, filled with water and a skeleton torso/head, with a buddha figure imposed over a sun

Grace Yang, BC ‘22

While Prof. Cole believed this necessary approach was no substitute for actually visiting the library in person and working with original format materials, he feels confident that we will be able to work something out for his fall class—either in person or synchronously online—because we managed to make this work so well this summer. 

The Burns Library Instruction program, through collaboration with faculty and other community members, supports intellectual inquiry and scholarship through an active engagement with primary and historical resources, in both original format and digital. We are happy to encourage wider use of Burns Library’s unique materials for teaching and research, and will work enthusiastically and creatively with faculty, subject liaisons and others to develop customized classes, activities, assignments, and out of classroom experinces around syllabus topics, course objectives, and primary source literacy standards

Instructors interested in using special collections materials to enhance the learning outcomes of their courses and/or research assignments should complete the Burns Library Instruction Support Request form as far in advance as possible. 

  • Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services & User Engagement, Burns Library
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Responding to Ongoing Racism: Our Commitment to Our Community

In light of the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans, and amidst ongoing national conversations about systemic racism, Burns Library staff grieves with the families of those who have died and all those who are affected by these deaths, particularly the Black students, faculty, alumni, and staff of Boston College.

We’ve been prioritizing discussions regarding our need to work for equity and inclusion through our roles as librarians and archivists, and want to publicly acknowledge our responsibility and privilege to continue this important work. 

We must examine our conditioning, biases, and awareness of racial issues on a continual basis. Beyond one-on-one interactions with our patrons, this also involves analyzing our policies, procedures, and acquisitions to ask: Do these contribute to systemic injustice? What can we change to make our processes more inclusive?

We are especially aware of our instructional roles, particularly in light of the collections we mediate. Some of the materials in our collections were written by White racists and classists who were creating and upholding systems of oppression. Much of our collection centers around the perspectives and experiences of White men. We need to explicitly acknowledge such bias, and provide the scaffolding to contextualize how to understand the structures in place today. 

We acknowledge the prevalence of racism and stand against it. We strive to understand both the history of and our roles in racist systems, admit the discomfort in doing so, and accept the challenge to continuously educate ourselves, acknowledge the inequalities, and address the injustice through our work and in our personal lives. We invite community feedback to hold ourselves accountable. We commit to making any necessary changes so that all feel welcome in Burns Library.

  • The Staff of John J. Burns Library, Boston College
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The Evolution of “Senior Week” at Boston College: A Toast to the Class of 2020

Communion breakfasts, clambakes, casino nights, parent receptions, and booze cruises are just a few of the traditional events that have marked Boston College seniors’ final days as students.

Student staff are an important part of the work at Burns Library, and it is not uncommon for us to know them throughout their college years – hiring them as first year students and saying farewell at Commencement. This year especially, we’re thinking of our graduating student staff. We know they are missing the opportunity to do what BC students have done for generations.

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Irish Music Archives Visits an After-School Club in Somerville

Guest Musicians Gather at Celtic Fusion Club 

A couple of months ago, in the time before social distancing, music educator Kendall Driscoll invited a few Boston-area musicians to give a live, in-person presentation to East Somerville Community School’s Celtic Fusion Club. Fiddle and bow in hand, I was delighted to be part of this event, along with Tommy Sheridan (button accordion), Tony Keegan (bodhrán and button accordion), club leader Kendall Driscoll (tin whistle), and Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders (guitar and vocals). We shared some of our favorite tunes, described our musical journeys, and answered questions from the students.

Guest Performers at the East Somerville Community School Celtic Fusion Club. From left: Elizabeth Sweeney (fiddle), Kendall Driscoll (tin whistle), Tony Keegan (bodhrán and button accordion), Tommy Sheridan (button accordion), and Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders (guitar and vocals).

Guest Performers at the East Somerville Community School Celtic Fusion Club. From left: Elizabeth Sweeney (fiddle), Kendall Driscoll (tin whistle), Tony Keegan (bodhrán and button accordion), Tommy Sheridan (button accordion), and Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders (guitar and vocals).

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Virtual Reference, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Local Note

One of the best privileges of being a staff member at a special collections library is free access to stacks closed to researchers. This is particularly helpful if, like me, you are terrible at remembering long Latin titles; I tend to remember books based on their cover and location. Need a book on a certain subject? Sure, I saw a great one for your project– it was about halfway down that one aisle and has a red cover.  Browsing is also key for my ability to support classes or research into material study. The old adage may warn to never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes I need to wander the stacks looking for the best example of a manuscript waste binding.

Since Burns Library has temporarily closed, I’ve been relying more than ever on alternative ways to gain that same kind of access and information. Enter the library catalog!

Two long rows of shelves, filled with books, from the stacks of Burns Library

The book you need is right down here!

Before anyone can “discover” one of our books, whether through the library’s catalog or other search engines, a lot of work has to be done. While this labor can seem invisible, it is key to everyone’s research. The Technical Services Team at Burns Library spends its days learning more about the physical characteristics and intellectual content of the book, and then trying to describe both according best practices and in ways that researchers might search for and use.

Whether you, too, are trying to discover as much as you can about the material aspects of books while our doors are closed, or want to refine your search skills as you compile your research list for when you can get back to our reading room, here are some suggestions of description fields I find useful, even when I can wander the stacks myself.

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Stained Glass Windows of Imagination

On a gray, overcast day in early February, the Burns Library Instruction Team hosted Prof. Jane Cassidy’s intermediate Digital Art: Print Based Media class for an active learning session centered on stained glass design and fabrication. A major class assignment of the semester was to create two images, incorporating design principles used in stained glass. The designs were to be printed onto clear plastic that then could be placed over the window panes two give the illusion of real stained glass. Students had the freedom to explore their own themes and content.

photograph of stained glass windows in the Thompson Room, Burns Library

The epic poetry stained glass windows in the Thompson Room, Burns Library

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The Recollections of Edward Hartwell Savage

This week’s blog post is guest written by one of our research fellows, Nicole Breault, who was able to travel to Burns Library and conduct research earlier this year as part of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium

With the generous support of a New England Regional Fellowship, I spent two weeks at John J. Burns Library at Boston College working with the Ellerton J. Brehaut Collection of Edward Hartwell Savage Papers. My first encounter with Edward Hartwell Savage was while conducting preliminary research for my dissertation project, “The Night Watch of Boston: Law and Governance in Eighteenth-Century British America.” Searching for materials on nightly watches, I stumbled on a mid-nineteenth century work: A chronological history of the Boston watch and police, from 1631 to 1865; together with the Recollections of a Boston police office, or, Boston by daylight and gaslight, from the diary of an officer fifteen years in the service. The author, then Deputy Chief of Police, included vivid stories describing the locations of watch houses, dialogues between watchmen and residents, and revealed subtle details of the experience of serving in the watch. Literature on the practice of watch-keeping is quite scarce. While written in the tone and style of an antiquarian, Savage’s history of the Boston watch offered details not found elsewhere. In the hope of locating more materials, I went in search of Mr. Savage and his archive.


Page from Savage’s “Annals from Boston”, Box 7, Ellerton J. Brehaut collection of Edward Hartwell Savage papers (MS.2004.069)

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Florence Nightingale Bicentennial: Year of the Nurse and Midwife

Coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), has designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife “to celebrate the work of nurses and midwives, highlight the challenging conditions they often face, and advocate for increased investments in the nursing and midwifery workforce.” While International Nurses Day commemorates Nightingale’s birthday yearly on May 12, programs and events throughout this bicentennial year aim to further champion the work of nurses and midwives.

Here at Burns Library, we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight our collections focused on nursing history, theory, and practice, as well as some of our materials on Florence Nightingale.

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John Louis Bonn, the Bard, and Boston College Theater in the 1940s

Five actors in costume, including King Lear, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril, and the Fool

Boston College performers in the 1941 production of King Lear, Box 31, John Louis Bonn, SJ papers, BC.1986.014, John J. Burns Library, Boston College


"The Boston College Dramatic Society (1866-1941), December Sixth, Jordan Hall, 8:30 will present a benefit performance for its new workshop in Cardinal O'Connell Hall in memory of Mr. Joseph Willis with Paul Good in Mr. William Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear. From the original text with a powerful cast including: Constantine Pappas, Edward Myers, Barrett Murphy, John McNaught, Robert Lacy and Richard Ward. Directed by John Louis Bonn with production supervised by Eliot Davey."

Playbill for the 1941 Boston College production of King Lear, Box 31, John Louis Bonn, SJ papers, BC.1986.014, John J. Burns Library, Boston College



John Louis Bonn, SJ, who taught theater at Boston College between 1930-1949 and directed the School of Dramatic Arts from 1937-1943, made a lasting impression on Boston College’s theater culture. Bonn directed many student plays and documented these performances in his scrapbooks, which we hold as part of the John Louis Bonn, SJ papers. They include photographs, playbills, and scripts complete with stage directions, edits, and additions.

Bonn directed the December 6, 1941 production of King Lear. He adapted Shakespeare’s play and selected the cast from members of the BC Dramatics Society. At the time, Boston College only admitted men and, in this play in which women play vital roles, the female roles were filled by male actors. (In other plays, women from neighboring colleges and dramatic societies sometimes appeared in the cast.)

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Process of a Poem: Seamus Heaney’s Funeral Rites

Image of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney Portrait bh002411, Bobby Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

A poem greets its reader as a finished project. It resides there on the page, surrounded by blankness, with its line breaks and title. It is as if the poem walked out of the poet’s mind and onto the page in all its completed glory. A glance at the Seamus Heaney Collection in Burns Library shows that this is far from the truth. 

Seamus Heaney, born in County Derry, Ireland in 1939, was one of the most popular and prolific poets of his time. He published 12 individual volumes of poetry, several translations of ancient plays and epics, and a body of critical essays on the craft of poetry. Heaney’s knowledge of and attention to the craft of poetry is always one of the aspects of his mind that surprises me, and that conscientiousness comes across in the manuscript drafts of his poem “Funeral Rites,” which resides in Burns Library. 

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