Noah Sheola '11MS Discusses His Role at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College
Talk about your work at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College as a Senior Special Collections Cataloging Librarian
I'm a rare book cataloger. The Burns Library is a special collections library with rare books and archives. Some of our collection strengths include Irish history, Boston history, and works about the Jesuits, but we have an eclectic array of modern material as well, like a large collection of twentieth-century superhero comics. We're open to all researchers, you don't need to be an affiliate of Boston College to use the library, but these are closed stacks. Guests must sign in and use the resources in the reading room.
One day, I might catalog a rare Latin treatise on the Council of Trent, published in the 1600s, the next day it's Wonder Woman comics from the 1980s. Overall, it is mostly printed material and books, but I also get to work with vinyl records, audio cassettes, CDs, and single-item manuscripts.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
A good day for me is when I get to catalog a resource that is old and rare but has never been cataloged before. This doesn't happen that often since the world of old printed books is a well-explored space, so books that are unknown to the standard bibliographies don't pop up every day. For instance, if the book is in English and published before 1800, I expect to find it listed in the English Short Title Catalogue, but every once in a while, it isn't. It's very exciting when I'm able to identify something that's gone unnoticed by scholars and librarians, sometimes for hundreds of years. The copy I'm cataloging could be the only surviving copy in the world.
I'm also interested in the provenance research part of my work. It is the process of starting with a bit of material evidence, like an inscription or a bookplate, and following that chain of evidence to identify who owned the book. In a few instances, it's been possible to have a book that is 500 years old and identify who owned it and where it was from the time it left the printer's shop until it showed up on my desk.
It's also very gratifying when I hear that someone came in and used a resource that I recently cataloged. Occasionally, I get feedback from the researchers in the reading room that they found the quality of the catalog record very clear and easy to use, which is rewarding to hear.
What made you choose to pursue your master's degree in Library and Information Science?
My first job out of college was as an assistant to an antiquarian book and map dealer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I really enjoyed learning about old and rare books. I've always been interested in history and languages. After about five years, I knew I wanted to pursue a career working with old and rare books, but I was less interested in the business of buying and selling them. While I was working in the bookshop, I would get a lot of queries from potential customers that were more like reference librarian queries. For example, someone might come in and say, "Does this map you have for sale include the name of the tiny village where my ancestors lived?" I was happy to spend time answering those questions, but that didn't always mean they were going to buy anything. As a librarian, finding that information is the whole point, so it was really a natural step from there to consider a path in libraries.
Why did you decide to attend Simmons?
It was strictly just a matter of geography. I knew I was going to be in Boston and Simmons is where you go for a library degree if you're in Boston.
Overall, I was very happy with my Simmons library school experience. Some of my favorite instructors were Candy Schwartz and Kathy Wisser. I also enjoyed Sidney Berger's class in Special Collections Librarianship. For my first semester, my advisor was Michèle Cloonan, who introduced me to the program and gave me some great advice on which electives to pursue. As I was taking classes, I also learned which aspects of librarianship were not for me. I initially had an interest in archives management, but I ultimately found that path wasn't the best fit for me. Eventually, I figured out I wanted to be a book cataloger.
The internships were very useful. At the time, I had several years of experience working with old and rare books in the antiquarian book trade, but not much library experience. The internships that I got to do as part of the archives program were so valuable. Having that experience on my resume helped me get hired in the early part of my career.
How did Simmons prepare you for a career in your field?
Simmons prepared me by giving me the options to learn about several different kinds of librarianship and archives, which helped me learn what was well suited to me and what wasn't. I knew that I wanted to work with special collections or archives. I had an inkling that maybe I wanted to be a preservation librarian or a conservator, but I was always drawn to cataloging and library catalogs and how they work. The coursework at Simmons on metadata and in cataloging is what really spoke with me.
September is National Library Card Sign-Up Month. As a Librarian, why do you think people should sign up for a library card?
I've always loved my local library since I was a kid and I found out that I could borrow Calvin and Hobbes and other comic books from the library. Any little interest that you think you might want to learn more about– for me it's guitar and watercolor painting– but it could be anything, the library has books on these subjects. Sure, you can go online and watch YouTube tutorials on these things but there are also fantastic books on these subjects at the library, and it's free.
The public library is a place to get out of the house and read or just clear your mind. When I was in high school, the public library was the only quiet study for me outside of the house. In my twenties, when I moved to a new city where I didn't know anyone, I used the computers at the public library to find roommates and apply for jobs. I've found public libraries to be an essential resource for me throughout my life.