Reading Room Log: A Day in the Student Life at Burns

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

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

When I visited the Burns Library for the first time, I was a prospective PhD candidate on a tour of Boston College’s campus. It was a cold day in February and as anxious as I was to get back indoors, the exterior of Burns made me pause and take a moment to appreciate the collegiate Gothic architecture of the Ford Tower and its attendant building. The aesthetics of the building are breathtaking and when I entered the wood-paneled, mullioned-windowed, built-in-book-cased reading room the potential of the space for study and research was overwhelming. The tour provided me with an interest in the work being done in rare books and special collections and when I returned the next fall as a student at BC I also joined the student reading room staff at the Burns Library.

Letters from the Elodie Belloc Correspondence Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letters from the Elodie Belloc Correspondence Collection, MS.2007.005, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Before coming to Boston College I had worked as a student employee at Wake Forest University’s Special Collections. During my time at Wake Forest I worked in processing which is the behind-the-scenes aspect of rare books and special collections. As part of the reading room staff at Burns my job revolves around helping researchers locate the resources they need and retrieving them from the closed stacks. At first I missed processing: the excitement of viewing books or documents that had been stashed away in a trunk for fifty years, the delicacy of unfolding dry, crumbling papers, the manufacturing of protective envelopes for old photographs. Interestingly enough, it was a piece of technology that provided the same excitement in the Burns Reading Room. After working at Burns for a few shifts, a researcher placed a scanning request and I was asked to scan the needed pages. While I do not remember the text I scanned I do remember watching the pages appear on the screen and being manipulated by the program I was using to provide a clearer image. The juxtaposition of a rare book or manuscript, housed in what looks like a Gothic cathedral, on the bed of a state of the art scanner may, at first glance, appear incongruous. But it is these three elements—rare books and manuscripts, scholarly space, and technology—that capture the purpose of the Burns Library Reading Room so well.

A bust of Irish poet, fiction writer and journalist John Boyle O'Reilly (1844 - 1890) surveys the Reading Room at the John J. Burns Library.

A bust of Irish poet, fiction writer and journalist John Boyle O’Reilly (1844 – 1890) surveys the Reading Room at the John J. Burns Library.

My scanning work was enabling a long distance researcher to gain access to the material objects that Burns so carefully houses. Interactions with researchers allow the rare and precious materials of the library to circulate more widely than just the one room in which researchers request and read texts. By providing a place not only for the objects themselves but for researchers and students to view materials, the Reading Room fosters scholarship and discovery through a multi-faceted approach to texts and images. The digital facet of the reading room allows information to become more widespread and accessible without losing the inherent materiality of the object. As I scanned and e-mailed pages to a distant researcher during a typical day at work, I realized that there was nothing typical about the purpose and actions of the Burns library. Rather, it is an intentional community committed to the scholarly potential I was struck by the first day I visited. Whether it is a student’s first time through the doors or a long term researcher with his/her favorite table, the staff dedicatedly meets their needs in an effort to promote scholarship and knowledge. Every day that I walk into the reading room I am privileged to be part of that community.

  • Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.d. Student in the Department of English

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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