Monday, July 4, 2011

St. Paul's Cathedral Library


or those who don't remember, several years ago there was this little fire. It began early in the morning at a little bakery. After four days this little fire had consumed around 70,000 homes of London's 80,000 people. St. Paul's Cathedral fell victim to the fire as well.

The present St. Paul's Cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. I had the pleasure of seeing some behind the scenes action here today, led by the very kind and hilarious librarian, Joseph Wisdom (Isn't that a perfect name for a librarian?).

He led us up the 140 stairs to a private gallery which held a number of unique artifacts including a Viking grave marker. This space has been used as an exhibition space a number of times, however, many of the objects do not have a cohesive history with each other. Showing us this hodgepodge of artefacts (yes, that's how they spell it) Mr. Wisdom pointed out that often when one did not know what to do with something such as an artefact, one brought it to a librarian. In the end, we are cataloguers and archivists as well.

In this potpourri of artefacts were essentially chunks of stone which once belonged on buildings. Mr. Wisdom pointed out that the cataloguing of these items was rather varied. There were chunks catalogued by chronology such as Gothic or Norman, there were chunks catalogued by region such as a specific chancery church, and there was the oh so eloquent category of "various." The good librarian's point was that as librarians, it is our job to establish a consistency in the manner in which we catalogue items. Chronology and region are certainly relevant to the cataloguing of an object, but consistency is the name of the game as it were.

He also impressed upon us the importance of a good accessions policy. Religious institutions are typically viewed as charitable organizations either in need of charity or willing to dispense charity. For the purposes of the library however, it is impotant for the library to maintain a level of professionalism and similar policies to that of thier secualr counterparts. The library cannot possibly take every book which is offered as a donation, nor should the library be willing to loan out its unique materials, just like any other research library. One can't be too "soft round the edges," as Mr. Wisdom put it.

The library itself is housed in southwest side of the building, just behind a grand entryway called the Geometric stairs. For all the HP nerds out there, this stairway was used in the movies as the stairwell which leads to Professor Trelawney's Divination classroom. Walking into the library you are met with a thick aroma of what can only be described as "books." Librarians and ultimate awesome nerds know this aroma quite well. Yet somehow it is concentrated, almost as if you could bottle the smell, ship it across the world, and when opened in China or Australia or Brazil the recipient could open the bottle and the room would be consumed in the must of ye olde England.

The celing is high and there is a gallery stuffed with leather bound books. The shelves are a deep chocolate color which bathes the room in a perpatual semi-darkness. All the better for the books, my dear. Seeing that the great fire was coming towards the cathedral, the clergy packed up the books they had and sent them away for safe keeping. Only 10 books and 3 manuscripts returned to the new St. Paul's. One of these books was a beautiful mideval Psalter. In contrast another book brought back was a secular work containing mideval learning. Another noteworthy book in the library's collection is an original 1526 Tindell New Testament of which there are only 3 in existence.

The current collection in the library contains mostly theological texts, texts relating to the history of St. Paul's and several noteworthy figures who have played a part in the cathedral's history such as Sir Wren and John Donne. Certainly, the library cannot be a comprehensive collection of every work on such historical figures. To acquire books of the library, the church sought solicitations for donations but also bought many of the books. A popular method was to buy the books of a clergyman who had recently died.

So who uses the library? In the 19th century the library ceased functioning as a theological library and currently works as a research library. A novelist writing a book on Jane Wren and the Blitz is using materials. Another researcher on Donne's sermons is there as well.

Farvourite little fact nugget: Above what used to be the librarian's office is inscribed "FACIENDI PLURES LIBROS NULCUS EST FINIS." This prhase is a bit odd and doesn't quite make sense for a librarian. But for a book artist and binder of books, it makes all the sense in the world.

"Of making books there is no end."

*The amazing display cap above is by Jessica Hische, an amazing designer I came across in my perpetual search for awesome design and typography. The letter comes from her Daily Drop Cap project. 

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