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Obit: Former University Librarian Thomas F. O’Connell ’50

Thomas F. O'Connell

By Office of News & Public Affairs |

Published: Jan. 9, 2013

A funeral Mass was held on Jan. 9 at Most Precious Blood Church, Dover, Mass., for former University Librarian Thomas F. O’Connell ’50, who oversaw the most dramatic expansion of Boston College’s library facilities in the school’s history. Mr. O’Connell, who was a resident of Milton, Mass., died Jan. 3.

Mr. O’Connell’s 10-year tenure as head of University libraries included the construction of O’Neill Library, the renovation of Bapst Library and the related creation of the Burns Library.

“Few people contribute to the benefit of an institution as Tom has to Boston College,” said Graduate Arts and Sciences Dean Donald White in presenting the Joseph Coolidge Shaw, SJ, Medal to Mr. O’Connell at the rededication of Bapst Library in April of 1986, shortly before Mr. O’Connell’s retirement.

When then-University President J. Donald Monan, SJ, appointed Mr. O’Connell as University librarian in 1975, there was widespread agreement throughout BC that its library facilities were long overdue for improvement. Bapst, constructed in 1925 as the original University library, was now inadequate for a growing undergraduate population and the scholarly needs of a modern research university. Fr. Monan, who had become president in 1972, identified the construction of a new library as a top priority.

Mr. O’Connell arrived at BC well-prepared for the task, having overseen major construction and expansion of library facilities at York University in Toronto, where he had served as library director since 1963.

He also carried memories of Bapst from his undergraduate days at BC, as he recalled in a 1984 interview with the Boston College Biweekly: “We weren’t allowed to go into the stacks. You told the librarians what you wanted and someone brought it out for you.” His experience had been vastly different as a graduate student at Columbia University, where he had “stared in awe at the eight stories of stacks where I could roam. That is what I wanted to give to BC students, to offer all those books and to encourage students to roam and read.”

Mr. O’Connell’s major role in helping bring about what would be O’Neill Library — named for legendary House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. ’36 — was not simply in its planning and design, but in the way it should serve the University’s needs. When the $28 million library opened in 1984, patrons were able to utilize technology hitherto unavailable, notably a modern computer system that replaced the traditional card catalogues.

Speaking as master of ceremonies at the Oct. 14, 1984, dedication of O’Neill Library, Mr. O’Connell took a long view of the landmark event.

“This library is not the work of any single person or group. Some of its roots, intellectual and physical, are buried in antiquity, and some of its attributes contain computer technology that is incorporated in no other library on this continent. Truly the many who have been involved in this building must have received in full measure the grace to see, as William Butler Yeats has said, ‘In all poor foolish things that live a day, Eternal Beauty wandering on her way.’”

However much he championed the advent of technology in the University’s library resources, Mr. O’Connell was quick to affirm the role of dedicated professionals in ensuring the libraries’ success: “Without the 30 librarians and 70 other library staff members,” he told Biweekly, “you can’t do anything.”

Even as O’Neill Library neared completion, the renovation of Bapst began — involving extensive interior and exterior work — along with the construction of Burns Library to house the University’s special collections. Important as the new library was to BC, Mr. O’Connell felt the Bapst/Burns project was vital to preserving the University’s heritage, and looked forward to its completion.

“My job is unfinished until 18 months from now when Bapst reopens,” he said.

By the time those 18 months had passed, and Bapst and Burns had opened, Mr. O’Connell was set to retire. Some 150 colleagues and friends attended his farewell reception in Gasson Hall, where Fr. Monan presented him with a memory book of photos and letters. The library staff gave him a gift certificate to the Goodspeed’s Antiquarian Bookstore in Boston.

A native of Dorchester, Mr. O’Connell served in the US Army Air Force during World War II. In addition to his degree in economics from BC, he earned a master of science degree in library science from Columbia in 1951. Later that year, he started working at Harvard University’s Widener Library, becoming chief of circulation and stack departments at Harvard College Library. He was appointed acting librarian at Harvard’s Lamont Library in 1961 and served as the Harvard Library coordinator for the first Peace Corps contingent.

Mr. O’Connell is survived by his wife, Margaret; his children, alumni Thomas '88, Margaret Mary '83, MA '85, John '84, and Very Rev. Mark O’Connell, JCD, BC '86,  Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Boston, as well as four grandchildren. He was the brother of the late John P. O’Connell '48. Donations may be made in his memory to the sisters at The Carmelite Monastery, 61 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Roxbury, MA 02119.