Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter



Faculty Perspective: Medieval (Re)Collections

Ancient Manuscript Photo

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 as Government 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.


Microforms - O'Neill LibraryAnd 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.


Dwayne Carpenter, Professor of Hispanic StudiesDwayne Carpenter
Professor of Hispanic Studies
Romance Languages & Literatures Dept.

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