Reading Room Log: Wandering through the Collections

Entrance to the John J. Burns Library

The entrance to the Burns Library is located on the side of the Bapst building that faces Commonwealth Avenue.

Some years ago I took a seminar on the first seven ecumenical councils. Our professor insisted, unsurprisingly, that we pay close attention to primary sources. She also advised us that the best way to discover new things was to wander the stacks in the library. Online catalogs and reference materials are helpful, she said, but such things only tell you how to find what you already want. It is a deeper scholarly joy to find something unexpected.

Those of us who remember the old card catalog systems can well appreciate the search capabilities of a system like Quest. Likewise, the availability of materials in digital form, accessible at a distance, puts all manner of research within our grasp. Working in the Burns Library Reading Room, though, reminds me of my old professor’s advice. Libraries like this one are full of the unexpected.

Public card catalogue rm. Centr.,  Boston Public Library, Copley Square. Bates Hall catalogue.

Public card catalogue rm. Centr., Boston Public Library, Copley Square. Bates Hall catalogue.

Granted, Burns (like many special collections libraries) is not a place where patrons can wander around the stacks on their own. But that doesn’t mean that researchers at Burns find only what they’re looking for. Books at Burns are listed in Quest and Holmes, but other materials are often cataloged in different ways. Usually, research involves a conversation with staff members about several possibilities.

On one of my first days here, someone came in looking for records from the Union Savings Bank of Boston. This collection includes huge ledgers containing account information – a treasure trove for local genealogists. The researcher in this case did not know what she would find, but was able to spend much of the day browsing some of the books.

The finding aids at Burns provide an even broader way of wandering through the collections. The Burns Library Reading Room has boxes containing paper copies of finding aids, listed by topic or collection, which provide an overview of a collection’s contents, as well as, in many cases, a brief scholarly description. You can also view many finding aids online, for example, take a look at one of the finding aids for the Hilaire Belloc Papers.

The bulk of the Tip O'Neill Congressional Papers are stored in one physical location in fairly uniform boxes. This is what they look like in the stacks.

The bulk of the Tip O’Neill Congressional Papers are stored in one physical location in fairly uniform boxes. This is what they look like in the stacks.

Browsing the Archives and Manuscripts tab on the Burns Library Research Guide can lead to some surprising discoveries before one even visits the library. All Boston College students should, while they are here, do themselves the favor of looking. I had no idea, for example, that Burns has so many manuscripts of British and British Catholic authors (Gerard Manley Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, just to name a few). I was also fascinated to learn that Burns owns the papers of M. Basil Pennington, a recent Cistercian scholar who wrote on Christian spirituality and Thomas Merton. At least that is how he is best known. A glance at the Finding Aid (in the Reading Room) reveals why I know the name: he also devoted quite a few works on a figure from my own research, one William of St. Thierry, a monk-theologian of the 12th century and friend to Bernard of Clairvaux. Nestled among these are dozens of other manuscripts on everything from celibacy to Mary and world religions.

Burns may not have exactly what you’re looking for, but of course we don’t always know what we’re looking for, and that ignorance in search of knowledge can be much more interesting, and, as Thomas Aquinas might say, wonderful:

Now wonder is a kind of desire for knowledge; a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or faculty of understanding. Consequently wonder is a cause of pleasure, in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge which one desires to have. (Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 32, a. 8)

  • Samuel Keyes, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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