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O’Neill To Retire From Post As Burns Librarian

Asst. News Editor

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 12, 2013 04:12


Emily Fahey / Heights Staff

In the spring of 1986, the Burns Library reopened to house Boston College’s rare books, following months of renovation that began when the O’Neill Library was opened. As a part of the transition, the position of Burns Librarian was created to direct the University’s special collections. After the first Burns Librarian, Ralph Coffman, was arrested for stealing books and manuscripts from the library in the fall of 1986, BC found its second Burns Librarian, Robert K. O’Neill. After serving 26 years in this position, O’Neill will retire at the end of this semester.

When O’Neill came to BC, one of his goals was to build on BC’s strengths.

“With the creation of the Burns Library, the opportunity was there to make it a preeminent research library in the country,” O’Neill said. “From the very beginning, the idea was to build on strengths, and the University had already established world class collections of Jesuit material, British Catholic authors, Irish liturgy and life, the history of the American Catholic Church between 1925 and 1973, and also had a very good Boston collection. I wanted to build on those strengths as well as open up new opportunities.”

Over the course of his career in the Burns Library, O’Neill was able to add many new works in those categories to the collection and described this collection building as one of his greatest accomplishments. According to O’Neill, when he came to BC, the rare books collection contained approximately 60,000 volumes. Now, the collection has over 200,000 volumes.

“I had the good fortune of meeting Michael Yeats in 1991, the son of the poet William Butler Yeats,” O’Neill said. “He offered Boston College the opportunity to acquire a large cache of his father’s papers. I had to clear that first with the national librarian of Ireland. I got the go-ahead and, thanks to benefactors like Brian Burns and the University, we were able to acquire the second largest collection in the world.”

Not all of his work has been focused on Irish authors, though. Working with Richard Keeley, associate dean of the Carroll School of Management and BC ’72, O’Neill has also been able to acquire the papers of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“He had become friends with her,” O’Neill said. “He set me up to ask her when she was visiting one time if she would consider depositing her papers at the Burns Library. She agreed, so Dick [Keeley] and I went up to her home in Toronto on a couple of occasions to arrange the transfer of her papers to Boston College. That is now one of the two or three most used collections in the library.”

In addition to collection building, O’Neill has been responsible for the community and public relations of the Burns Library. He has been involved with a number of Irish organizations, including the Eire Society of Boston, for which he served as president.

On campus, one of the issues he dealt with involved making people, especially students, feel comfortable visiting the Burns Library.

“We’ve offered a number of programs, exhibits, classes and tours to make student aware,” O’Neill said. “[We do] publicity to let people know that these are not hidden treasures.”

As of now, O’Neill said that a new Burns Librarian has not been found, but that there will be a search committee launched soon. He will not be involved with that search, and plans on relocating to Arizona to enjoy warmer weather and spend more time with his grandchildren.

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