"I want to work in that building!"

This was the sentiment expressed by a Boston College student who had applied for a job in the Burns Library. It seemed to me that she would do any work as long as she was given the privilege of being in the enchanting Gothic structure known as the Bapst/Burns Library. I hired her and – as I expected from a BC student – she was very intelligent and an excellent worker. Perhaps she was inspired by her surroundings.

The full name of the library tells us what it is: The John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Our rare and fine-printing books date from the early days of printing (from 1453 to 1500) to the twenty-first century. They are in many languages and on many subjects. Many are superb examples of the arts of printing, illustrating, assembling and binding. Others are much less impressive in appearance but equally important for their contents. For the older books an important characteristic is that they have survived.

The term "Special Collections" can be applied to a wide variety of resources. We have many collections that are of world-class quality, including our Irish books and manuscripts. We also have excellent collections of British Catholic authors, Jesuitica (appropriately), Boston and Boston area materials, Catholic life and spirituality especially in the twentieth century, Congressional archives and the extensive archives of Boston College. In addition, the Burns Library includes the holdings of the Irish Music Center, which are comprised of commercial and field recordings, video recordings, sheet music, manuscripts, photographs, memorabilia, and books about music. These archival materials are frequently on exhibit in the Burns and O'Neill libraries and provided much support to the recent celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the founding of BC in 1863 and the 100th anniversary of moving the campus from the South End of Boston to the heights of Chestnut Hill in 1913.

Some people come to see our exhibits, some people come to use our research collections, and some people come to see and enjoy the rich external and internal architecture of the building. All visitors and users are welcome (Burns and other library hours).

When you come to the Burns Library, on the north end (Comm Ave side) of the Bapst/Burns building, pause before you enter to scrutinize the figures over the door. Both serious and playful, they make a delightful archway for the entrance. Passing through the outer lobby, you will enter the high-ceilinged Ford Tower lobby, named for a benefactor. When you see the guard at the security desk, don't be impeded by a guilty conscience if you are a habitual late-returner of library materials! Sign in calmly, follow instructions for disposing of books and bags, and start your visit.

Glancing back toward the entrance you will see vivid stained-glass windows depicting Jesuit explorers in North America, just a small example of similar windows throughout the building. For more information about and maps of the stained-glass windows see Illuminating Stained Glass: A Self-Guided Tour of the Decorative Glass of the Bapst and Burns Libraries.

Walking down a corridor, you will see exhibits in the wall cases on both sides continuing into the adjacent rooms. The room on the left is the Fine Print Room, with shelves and displays of books representing centuries of excellence in the book arts. The room on the right is the Irish Room, with paintings, harps, sculptures and, mostly, books pertaining to Irish culture and especially to the four Irish writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the twentieth century.

Cornerstone Class, Burns Library Cornerstone Class, Burns Library

At the end of the Corridor is the reading Room, where you sign in and, working with one of the staff, decide what book or manuscript collection you want to use. You might be interested in reading a book from the personal library of the English writer Graham Greene. Or, you might consult a manuscript by Samuel Beckett, a book on the ecumenical council Vatican II, a folder of constituent letters in the Tip O'Neill Papers, the first edition of Newton's Principia, or a photograph or drawing from any one of our many collections.

Remember: you do not have to wander through the stacks looking for the materials. Because of the scarceness, frailty, and – sometimes – value of our materials, our stacks are closed. You sit in a nicely-appointed and well-lit Reading Room while a staff member retrieves the item or items you have requested.

Another positive feature of the Burns Library is that we do not allow what librarians call "circulation" (if a book is taken out and then returned, it completes the "circle"). We do not allow anything to be taken from the library. This is good news because it means that whatever you want to use in the Burns Library will always be available. No one has it out – and it has not been subjected to the hazards of coffee spills, mishandling, or being dropped in the mud during Mudstock.

The first printed edition of Vision of Tundal (Photo by Lee Pellegrini) The first printed edition of Vision of Tundal
(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Last, but not least, climb up the Ford Tower stairs to the Francis Thompson Room. This room contains many volumes of our British Catholic Authors collection. It also contains stunning stained-glass windows, depicting the major epics of Western literature. Also in this room, recently added, are sculptures of the four Irish writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the twentieth, century, with texts from each carved into the stands.

Further information about the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections is available here. You may learn more about its resources by subscribing to the Burns Library's Blog and by consulting the Burns Library's Flickr site. You might also wish to check the Burns Library's Facebook page. Many of BC Libraries digital collections have their origin in physical collections in Burns. Perhaps the best starting point for becoming acquainted with the library's resources and services is the Burns Library research guide. In addition, one may contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

David E. Horn
Burns Library