What You Didn’t Know You Needed: Special Collections

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When students start college, there are so many opportunities available it can make their heads spin. Clubs, sports, Greek life and honors societies are just the beginning. The last place anyone is looking for something new and cool is the library. A lot of students don’t know how many libraries there are on campuses, let alone how rare and unique some of them are. The Burns Library at Boston College holds BC’s special collections, and is one of the most important and just plain awesome resources out there. Yet hardly any undergraduates seem to know it exists, and CM wants to spread the word.

1. It teaches you what regular libraries can’t

“Very few BC undergraduates go to the Burns Library. Some faculty who teach History core courses have assignments that require students to visit Burns, so some students learn about the Burns through course work,” said History professor Virginia Reinburg. If a teacher can make an assignment out of it, you know there’s a lot to learn. They could require you find a printed illustration of St. Ignatius, but from a book printed before 1800. Good luck looking for that in the popular fiction section.

2. The stuff is history before your eyes

The Burns is the home of Special Collections or “rare books.” Rare books like the old dictionary in my grandma’s closet? Not quite. “Rare books include early printed books, which are rare either because they are from around the invention of the printing press, or because they are done in a more artistic way,” said Kathleen Williams, the senior reference director at the Burns Library. And the list goes on and on. “Then there are manuscripts: unpublished work, or a play before it was published, literary correspondence, even some manuscripts in Irish Gaelic.”

BC goes through a lot of hoops to get all this rich history for its Eagles. “University Archives has records of the different departments about the history of Boston College, history of the curriculum, history of the buildings and grounds. Provenances for how and where we got stuff, who might have owned it before and even just old BC photos and where they were hung,” Williams said.

3. You have both in-person and online resources

If you really can’t get to the library, some sources have made it into the 21st century. Finding sources for your papers can be a click away. “Search the online catalogue. Use the advanced search, then limit by date and include a key word or subject – that will bring up the online versions as well. Some of them might be in other on campus libraries as well,” said Williams.

Some of the opportunities you could be missing, though, are the most hidden gems. “If they don’t come in they don’t get a chance to talk to the conservator about the physical aspects and binding who can answer book structure questions,” Williams said. They have letters, diaries, drafts of poems and plays and even notes in the margins.

4. Every special collection is unique to your school

“Many of the Burns holdings are one-of-a-kind, which makes the Burns library a real treasure for research and teaching,” Reinburg said. Some libraries at other schools have their own special collections, so no need to be jealous. If you have your own, give it some attention. “Online material is wonderful but it can’t help but be less than the real thing, without smells, texture and subtle changes in color. Each books has unique material than can only be used onsite,” said Amy Braitsch, the Burns Library Archivist. We’re only in college for 4 years, so leaving without ever checking out real ancient manuscripts is one killer opportunity right down the drain.

You don’t have to stare at every piece or get a masters in library studies you could even just take a look at some of the paintings and stain glass windows. If you look hard enough and talk to the right people, there is something for everybody. “Special collection aren’t special unless somebody looks at them,” finished Williams.

A senior at Boston College and an English major with an addiction to fantasy novels and chocolate.

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