burns library boston

The Burns Library is home to much of the nation’s Irish American history

The library, located at Boston College, has the most comprehensive collection of Irish archives, rare books, and special collections in the United States.

by Betsy Parks | July 22, 2022

Bostonians love to learn, as evidenced by the number of colleges and universities in the Hub. Roughly 150,000 college students descend on the city each semester to study at one of the 30-plus colleges and universities, and a lot of them stick around to work in the thriving tech, medical, publishing, and bioscience industries that dominate the city’s economy. And so it’s maybe no surprise that Bostonians really love books, and that the city is home to some of the most beautiful and specialized libraries in the country. 

Librarians run this town — maybe not like the mafia, but there is a real library culture to this city that mainlines complex information to keep the economy moving, and a good reference librarian here is worth a thousand Google searches. The competition is also fierce for the thousands of librarian positions in Beantown thanks to local ALA-accredited library science programs: Salem State University’s master’s of library media specialist degree, and Simmons University’s choices of Ph.D. in library science, a dual degree, graduate certificate, and masters in library science. 

One of the most specialized libraries in the city is the John J. Burns Library on the Newton campus of Boston College. BC’s founding mission was to serve Boston’s predominantly Irish, Catholic immigrant community, and over time the library has gathered many thousands of noteworthy publications and artifacts pertaining to Ireland and the Irish American experience. Tucked inside the Bapst Library, it now boasts the most comprehensive collection of Irish archives, rare books, and special collections in the United States.

burns library boston

The Burns Library building

The Bapst Library, named for the college’s first president John Bapst, was the fourth building built on BC’s Newton campus, and it is often listed as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world thanks to its spectacular gothic-style architecture that was modeled after the chapel of Merton College in Oxford University. It has even been described as a cathedral of books!

What’s in a name?

The special collections library was named for Judge John J. Burns (1901-1957) in 1986. Burns, a BC graduate, was the youngest justice appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court and served as the first counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was also very dedicated to building the school’s catalog of rare books and manuscripts.

The library boasts a truly one-of-a-kind archive of Irish literature and music, as well as an impressive collection of Jesuitica (publications and manuscripts about Jesuit Catholicism) and also the university’s archives. Here you can find books, manuscripts, scores, music recordings, photographs, maps, journals, oral histories, and pamphlets pertaining to Ireland or Irish-Americans, including complete collections of letters and books belonging to Irish authors and Nobel laureates such as Samuel Beckett, ​​Seamus Heaney, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats. They also have primary archival holdings of Gerald Dawe, John F. Deane, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Flann O’Brien, and strong collections of other prominent Irish writers, including Padraic Colum, Monk Gibbon, Ethel Mannin, Thomas Moore, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty, George William Russell (Æ), Francis Stuart, and J. M. Synge.

The library also holds monographs, government documents, newspapers, and other published materials relating to Irish and American Irish politics as far back as the 1700s, such as the Canon Rogers Collection, which traces the history of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland from 1916 through the 1980s. It even once held a restricted collection of recordings given by more than 40 former republican and loyalist paramilitaries who discussed their experiences during the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Often called “the Belfast Project,” the recordings were to be an oral history of the tumultuous time period, and were granted on condition that they be done in secret and not released until after the death of the person interviewed. However, after a legal battle to close the 1972 unsolved murder of a Belfast woman named Jean McConville, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) gained access to some of the tapes and the project’s existence was revealed. The details of the murder investigation and fallout of the Belfast Project recordings were famously detailed in the 2018 book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. Many of those recordings have since been returned to the surviving interviewees.

A list of the scope of the library’s holdings can be found here

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The Rooms

For the full Burns Library experience, enter the building on the north side, by the Commonwealth Avenue gate. You will come in through the Ford Tower, which is named for Margaret Elizabeth Ford — a successful hatmaker from the early 1900s who donated her estate to the college to help complete the library in 1926. 

The uber-photogenic great hall in the Bapst building, Gargan Hall, has several study alcoves, each with its own theme depicted in stained glass designed by Boston artist Earl Edward Sanborn, which depict themes like religion, oratory, poetry and drama, prose, modern language, fine arts, history, and education. Each semester students looking to study head here to fill up the tables and chairs that are the original furniture from when the library opened in the 1920s. 

Next move on to the Irish Room, which houses a portion of the Irish literature and music collections. Some of the special collections books by Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats live in this room. Have a seat at the large reading table in the center of the room and take in the portraits of Irish and Irish-American notables, plus check out the Egan harps from 1820s Dublin, as well as Joe Derrane’s accordion. Derrane was a Boston-born Irish musician who is known for re-popularizing the D/C# system diatonic button accordion.

burns library boston
O’Brien Reading Room

Across the hallway from the Irish Room is the O’Brien Fine Print room, which again houses a small portion of the special collection. This room also holds exhibit cases with shows that change throughout the year. 

A few doors down the hall is the Burns Reading Room, which is where students, faculty, and members of the public go when viewing an item from the collection under supervision. It is not unusual to find a visiting scholar in here digging through some of the archives for a research project!

Next is the Francis Thompson Room, which is named for the late 19th-Century poet and features stained glass depicting scenes from epic poetry. A collection of the poet’s works are housed here, along with portraits of him and writers and publishers Wilfred and Alice Meynell. 

Francis Thompson

On your way out, take a peek at the Board of Trustees Room, which as the name implies is where the college’s board of trustees meet for formal events. This room’s stained-glass windows feature the seals of the Jesuit colleges and universities in the Americas, and also holds a portion of the Burns Library’s extensive Jesuitica collection.

Know Before You Go

Getting to the library by car or public transportation is easy. The library is just a short walk from the Boston College stop on the B Green Line, Cleveland Circle on the C Green Line, or Reservoir on the D. If you’re driving, plan to park in visitor parking and walk about five minutes to the building. Admission to the Burns and Bapst Libraries is free, but appointments for the general public are appreciated. The bulk of the special collections titles are held on the lower floor of the library, which are accessed only by library staff. You can request to see almost any of the materials, and there are many items available to see online. Visit the website for questions or to make an appointment to see the special collections, or call 617-552-4861. The library hours change depending on when the college is in session, so be sure to check here before you leave. All of the buildings are accessible by wheelchair.

John J Burns Library
Getting there
140 Commonwealth Ave, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA
Mon-Fri 9am–5pm
Sat-Sun Closed
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Betsy Parks

Betsy Parks

Betsy Parks is a freelance writer and editor from Boston, Massachusetts. Betsy grew up in southern Vermont and spent 10 years working as an editor for Brew Your Own and WineMaker magazines. She relocated to Boston in 2017 and received a master’s degree from Emerson College in Writing and Publishing in 2021.

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