Burns Acquires 30,000 Books From French Jesuits

(2-4-99) -- The John J. Burns Library has acquired 30,000 rare books from a Jesuit library in France, bringing Boston College what archivists describe as a "gold mine" of hard-to-find books and journals from the 1500s to the modern era.

The volumes recently acquired from the Bibliotheque des Fontaines include centuries-old books on philosophy, theology and history that BC collectors say would be nearly impossible to find elsewhere.

"This acquisition fills in gaps in our collection that would be very difficult and very expensive to collect," said Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill. "Some of these books you couldn't begin to collect. This is a gold mine."

Containing rare early runs of European scholarly journals as well as volume after volume on French and Church history and the classics, the collection is expected to prove a boon to scholars.

"Boston College is establishing itself as a major research university," said O'Neill. "This addition substantially strengthens Boston College's claim in that area."

O'Neill had traveled to the Bibliotheque des Fontaines outside Paris over the summer to acquire 1,500 rare books. An unexpected windfall came when the French Jesuits decided to close the library, and O'Neill was offered boxes upon boxes of books stored in the library's attic.

"I didn't have time to take more than a brief look," O'Neill said, "but what I saw convinced me they were worth taking. I was given the opportunity to take everything, or take nothing. I took everything."

The books are being stored while they undergo processing, O'Neill said, and cataloging the entire consignment is expected to take years.

Poring over the volumes has been a treasure hunt for the rare-book scholars on the library staff, who say they have found in the packing boxes a number of gems. Senior Cataloger Van Edwards, a medieval historian, was particularly enthused by one recent discovery, a 1621 edition of the Old Testament commentaries of 13th-century Dominican Friar Hugh of St. Cher.

"This is an extremely rare book that is very important to scholarship," he said of the delicate leather-bound volume written in Latin. "This is a sight for sore eyes. It makes my day."

Other eclectic items include the entire 225-volume run of the French journal Memoires par l'Histoire des Sciences et des Beaux Arts from the years 1740 to 1750; religious studies by 17th-century monks and an 18th-century libretto from the French Royal Academy of Music, and editions of the French popular magazine L'Illustration featuring striking cover art from the years before the First and Second World Wars.

While inspecting an 18th-century account of the institutions of the Jesuits, O'Neill found a letter dated 1762 and bearing a red wax seal tucked inside the cover.

"There are treasures hidden among these treasures," he said. "We can't begin to know what we'll find."

Boston College had established ties with the Bibliotheque des Fontaines in 1997 when the University acquired more than 5,000 rare Jesuit books from the library. The acquisition doubled the University's holdings in Jesuitana, while giving Boston College one of the largest US collections of Jesuit volumes published prior to the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773.

"Because we are a Jesuit institution, they felt good about entrusting their books to us," O'Neill said. "It's like keeping them in the family."

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