Monday, July 13, 2009

St. Paul's Cathedral Library: "Of the making of books there is no end"

"Faciendi plures libros nullus est finis." --Ecc. 12:12

Very few people are allowed to see the library at St. Paul's, so I felt incredibly privileged to be afforded the opportunity. This picture is courtesy of the St. Paul's Cathedral Library website, as personal photography was not allowed.

Joseph (Joe) Wisdom, the librarian at SPCL, clearly has the best name of all time, and he is wonderful at his job, too. He was gracious enough to show us around the lesser-seen areas of St. Paul's. I enjoyed the Trophy Room, which contained Christopher Wren's (the architect of St. Paul's) Great Model. The 600 lb. piece, which sits in the centre of the room, is vast and intricate. It is vaguely reminiscent of the Vatican, and was rejected as the actual model of St. Paul's, even though it was Wren's favourite. The rest of the room is filled with more Wren sketches in frames, displaying the would-be cathedrals that were never built.

The library itself is small, but beautiful. The ceiling is high, and the room has temperature and dust particle readers to help protect the collection. The vault contains carvings by Christopher Kempster, a master mason from Oxfordshire. The carvings contain books, grapes, skulls, wheat, and flowers, which seemingly do not appear related or cohesive, but are in fact highly symbolic, and would be understood by those in the 18th century. Mr. Wisdom explained that the grapes represented holy communion and the body and blood of Christ, and the skulls and wheat were Christ's triumph over death. The books, of course, indicate that this is a place of learning.

The library was devastated by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was restored largely by generous donations, such as the 2,000 books of Bishop of London Henry Compton. Widows were also asked to donate their late husbands' book collections.

Viewing access to the library is possible by paying extra on a guided tour, but as far as actually utilizing the library's resources, one need be a scholar, either bibliographical or geographical, or an alumni, and the library is used in a mediated way. The collection consists of most subjects and many languages (all of the languages of the Bible, Latin, French, Russian, and even Icelandic), but the sciences are notably lacking. In spite of its many religious texts, the library is not a working theological library, and it was never intended to be a universal library. Overall, the library is meant to be used for interpretation of the Cathedral.

I loved everything about the library, and could see myself caring for a special collection and mediating access to the precious materials. I envied Mr. Wisdom's job, except for the walk up the 94-step stone staircase (as seen in the Harry Potter films) to get to work.

I found the view from the top of the staircase to be both amazing and terrifying, but I loved the experience. And with that, I think I've found the perfect metaphor for this trip.

Staircase Image courtesy of BBC

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