Hidden Gems

While working as a student assistant in the conservation lab of the John J. Burns Library was never something I knew I wanted to do, it has become such an informative part of my career at Boston College. Many who work on campus have told me about their work study experiences, and this led me to believe that most work study jobs are a great means to get your homework done while getting paid. Considering all bags and backpacks must be secured before entering the lab, it’s easy to see this is not one of those jobs. These past few weeks have been like stepping into a whole new secret world on BC’s campus; one senior I encountered even went as far as describing the Burns Library as “Boston College’s most hidden gem.” After seeing the rows and rows of rare books and artifacts, getting to go inside private rooms while I collect climate control data, and learning so much about female Irish revolutionaries while working on dozens of artifacts’ exhibit supports, I couldn’t agree more with her analogy.

In a short amount of time, the Burns’ conservator, Barbara Adams Hebard, has taught me so much about the tasks of conservation. There are specific methods for using a board shear, cleaning materials, making a basic exhibit support, and locking stubborn doors after collecting climate control data. Recently, we worked on assembling Irish Women Rising: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Ireland, 1900-1923, an exhibit about the participation of Irish women in revolutionary activities from the turn of the twentieth century through the Irish Civil War. I had little knowledge of Irish history, so exposure to completely new material by means of unique, fascinating artifacts has surpassed any history book I’ve ever read. Reading entries from diaries, Christmas cards mailed from jail, and political cartoons while building the exhibit support for each object sparked questions and conversations with Barbara and other members of the Burns staff who are happy to gush about events that fascinate them.

A few particularly interesting items in Irish Women Rising are several pieces of jewelry which I examined in order to assist with their condition reports. Equipped with white gloves, a magnifying glass, and the internet, I dove in to find out more about Tara Brooches and rare Irish jewelry.  The main purpose of my research was to discover the names of particular jewelry components so the condition reports could be properly completed with any problem areas accurately  described and located.


Brass brooch, early 1900s. [Loretta Clarke Murray Collection (MS2016.016, cat. no. 87), Burns Library, Boston College]

Historically, brooches were not just decorative jewelry, they were also practically employed to secure one’s cloak. Some brooches were lavish and expensive, while others were cheaper and plain, but they all were and remain beautiful representations of Celtic art. The first brooch I examined is similar in style to the Tara Brooch. This style, featuring a long pin attached to a ring with a small gap in it, is known as a pseudo-penannular brooch, and on either end of the gap are two plates known as terminals. (An annular brooch is comprised of a completely circular ring.) While the terminals add to the decorative quality of the jewelry, over time the right terminal of our piece has unfortunately warped, making it slightly misaligned with the other side. This brass piece is engraved with “Inghinidhe na h-Éireann” (Daughters of Ireland), dates from the early 1900s, and a jeweler’s mark on the brooch indicates it was made in Dublin by E. Johnson Ltd. I found these tidbits of information to be some of the most fascinating parts of the brooch because all these years later it’s origin remains traceable.


Cumann na mBan gold badge, [ca. 1916-1921?], in original leather Hopkins & Hopkins Jewellers Case. [Loretta Clarke Murray Collection (MS2016.016, cat. no. 88), Burns Library, Boston College.

The other two artifacts I examined did not have maker’s marks, but were in substantially better condition than the bent Tara style brooch. Stamped on the back of the rifle shaped CnamB badge (an abbreviation for Cumann na mBan, an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers) was the number 14 in a square box, indicating that it was made of 14 karat gold. This piece, dating between 1916 and 1921, is in much finer condition than the Tara style brooch, with only a minor imperfection on the back, probably due to soldering.

The final piece of jewelry I reviewed was a pin made from bog oak wood, which is  wood that was buried in a peat bog for hundreds to thousands of years and preserved by these particular conditions such that it begins to fossilize. This piece, dating from ca. 1860, was easily my favorite due to the fine, Celtic details of the carved harp motif and gold clovers which highlight the exquisite craftsmanship.


Irish bog oak carved pin with central harp motif within a gold-leafed oval band engraved with the words “Erin go Bragh,” embellished by gold-leafed clovers. Ca. 1860. [On loan from Loretta Clarke Murray]

There are so many hidden treasures in the Burns Library and I am excited to see visitors’ reactions to the new Irish Women Rising exhibit. Many people have worked diligently on this project, and the end result is truly something wonderful. Having completed my work with the Irish jewelry,  I will now be creating protective mylar jackets for Graham Greene’s library, learning about leather treatment in order to repair rare Jesuit books, and much, much more. There are gems hiding everywhere among the stacks of books, artifacts, and people at the Burns Library, and throughout my time here I hope to uncover as many as I can.

  • Katherine Oksen, Burns Library Conservation Assistant and Boston College, Class of 2019 

Works consulted:




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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One Response to Hidden Gems

  1. Pingback: Irish Women Rising: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Ireland, 1900-1923 On exhibit at Burns Library through March 25 – Boston College Libraries Newsletter Archives

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