As a Boston College student who had participated in the creation of an exhibit in the John J. Burns Library and enjoyed a great many more, I was always baffled when fellow undergraduates were unaware of its presence on campus. “You mean Bapst?” I’d be asked when discussing the location of a class, lecture, or exhibit. I’d reply that it’s the rare books library, a separate entity from Bapst holding a completely different collection of materials. Sometimes I’d receive a confused, “just rare books?” in response to my quick explanation, as I was often on my way out the door while these conversations were taking place. And the answer is yes… and no. I’ve come to discover that these rare books hold more than I expected during my recent summer internship and assistantship with Burns’ Conservator, Barbara Adams Hebard. These rare and wonderful volumes have been protecting and keeping voices from the past, voices from their owners, alive in the stacks of Burns Library.
As Conservation Intern and Assistant, I’ve seen and aided in the conservation of two very different collections. From the leather treatment of pre-suppression Jesuit volumes to protectively covering the library of Graham Greene among other duties, I’ve had the opportunity to handle over one hundred individual rare books. Within the two large collections I’ve mentioned, there are exciting differences from book to book. The leather volumes often have intricate gold designs or individual patterns imprinted in or painted on the binding. The languages of these Jesuits of the past range from French, Italian, Latin, and others I can’t readily identify. The paper and ink used varies, with some still remarkably rich as a result of handmade paper and quality ink.
By comparison, in Graham Greene’s collection, the bindings from his 20th century collection are much less notable than the much older Jesuit books. However, the understanding that some of these books influenced his lauded written creations is exciting in and of itself. Also of note is that some of them came to us with the pages uncut, a sign that those particular books were not the ones impacting the author’s literary or historical pursuits.
As interesting as the cosmetic or typed facet of these collections is, I find myself far more drawn to the human aspects of these individual publications. While treating Jesuit volumes, I’ve stumbled across inserted images made using copper plates, often remarkably detailed despite a small size. Those chosen images heighten my
understanding of the text; as I do not read Italian or Latin, the image of saintly feats or the portrait of a high-ranking member of the Church deliver far more insight. Many of the books bear multiple stamped Jesuit seals and the signatures of past owners on the title page. Within a leather-bound volume dedicated to the life of Cardinal Bellarmin, I discovered a handwritten note dated Wednesday the 17th of September in the year of 1621, naming that very Cardinal and the pope by the French owner of the text.The note itself seems to be the equivalent of a sticky-note today, scrawled hastily in period-typic cursive across thin, almost
translucent paper. Another volume, showing
repeated attempts at repair using cloth tape and an uneven remnant of leather on the boards and spine, bears on the upper pastedown an inscription with a plea “to well conserve the book because no further copies can be found with merchants”. The past owners listed on the upper flyleaf apparently wanted to be sure that this book wouldn’t be lost, taking every Do-It-Yourself measure to ensure its survival. Yet another book, equally marked up by prior ownership identification, held a colorful 19th century prayer card dedicated to the Virgin Mary bookmarked within its pages.
Someone was reading this book centuries after its publication and I found the proof of this use another few centuries later while treating the volume. These kind of recognizable correlations spark my interest like none other. Despite the fact they lived and died in the 17th/18th/19th centuries, I feel a connection to these unknown writers, owners, and readers simply by discovering a forgotten scribble and bookmark.
If you’ve read the recent Burns blog post regarding Graham Greene and his fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, you’ll be familiar with his strange and
organized note-taking system. The edges of pages in the books of his library are littered with small symbols in pen and pencil. These notes correspond to a vertical column of further text, usually found on the inside of the back cover. With the exception of a few titles, it seems like he wanted to avoid marking his library extensively, staying away from highlighters or excessive underlining. Two such exceptions include a note he penned on April 11, 1966 following the death of J. Evelyn Waugh, whom he called “the best living writer and most loyal friend” and a paragraph beginning “Idea for play,” found on the first page and back flap of a dust jacket on their respective books. Many of the books, especially the copies of his own, feature his jotted signature or initials. Many others include notes on or around the dedications page starting “To Graham Greene” and ending with a signature of another author after a clever turn of phrase or heartfelt message.
My assistantship at Burns Library has definitely proven that it’s much more than ”just rare books.” There is nothing minimizing about the collections within the library’s walls. Instead, there is a wealth of both expected and undiscovered information just waiting for curious students to flip a page. If you would like to learn more about any of the collections mentioned in this blog post, feel free to contact the Burns Library Reading Room at email@example.com of call us at 617-552-4861.
- Ingrid Marquardt, Conservation Intern and Assistant, John J. Burns Library