Faculty Perspective: Medieval (Re)Collections
Fifteen years ago, as part of an on-campus visit whose aim was
to encourage me to accept a position in the Department
of Romance Languages & Literatures, a soon-to-be colleague suggested
that a visit to O’Neill Library might tip the balance in
favor of Boston College. Anticipating a tour of its enviable
holdings in Spanish literature and Theology, and eager to savor
the antiquarian delicacies of Burns
Library, I was therefore
perplexed as to why my Hispanic Virgil decided instead to forego
these treasure troves in favor of a descent to the first circle
of O’Neill Library, where a lone service desk attendant
bathed in fluorescent light contrasted sharply with the shadowy
figures in an adjacent barely illuminated room. We had arrived,
my guide proudly announced, to the microfilm room.
Although hardly the Holy Grail of medievalists such as myself,
the microfilm room—more properly, if not enticingly, known
Documents and Microforms—contains an astounding
array of materials on every conceivable subject. Since joining
the ranks of those shades I encountered on that first visit,
I have availed myself on numerous occasions of the microfilm
and microfiche readers to examine the Library’s superb
collection of Hispanic literature, Inquisitorial documents, and
Hebrew liturgical texts. In addition, the Library houses tens
of thousands of pages, in microfiche format, of medieval and
renaissance Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan works published
by the Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies. And there are,
of course, those hundreds of thousands of American government
documents, whose value I can appreciate—vicariously.
And for those of us whose technological skills are truly medieval,
the well-informed and courteous staff is always available to
assist. On one memorable occasion, I was frustrated in my efforts
to decipher the microfilm images of a Parisian manuscript so
severely water-damaged that script and splotch were indistinguishable.
Doubtless concerned that my expletives would drive away other
patrons, a Documents Assistant appeared and quickly ushered me
into a large space reminiscent in its starkness and glaring white
light of a hospital operating room. Seated at an oversize microfilm
reader, the specialist examined the blurry film, and then, with
practiced expertise, began to excise the offending stains that
had obscured my manuscript for over three centuries. I do not
pretend to understand this technological wizardry, but I am grateful
that I can now perceive my text through a glass clearly.
An unexpected pleasure of working in this environment is the
opportunity to meet other literary archeologists. I recall, for
example, my chance encounter in 2001 with Patricia Donlon, the
distinguished former Director of the National Library of Ireland.
Although she was spending her tenure as a Burns Scholar that
year working on children’s literature, she revealed to
me that in an earlier incarnation she had completed a PhD on
the Polyphemus myth in Spanish Golden Age poetry at University
College, Dublin, proving that even those condemned to the first
circle can enjoy serendipity.
Professor of Hispanic Studies
Romance Languages & Literatures Dept.