11 May 2012

Ave atque Vale!: Libraries, Virtue, and the Sacred

"There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after."
-J.R.R. Tolkien 

After a more chaotic than expected finals week, and completing the last of my MLS coursework, I can now call myself a bona fide librarian! As much as graduations merit at least a little reflection, they are almost always, in my experience, occasions more for chaos than ceremony, and so, after a couple weeks of being whisked along by the momentum of final projects, last days at work, bidding final farewells to friends, paperwork, packing, and moving, I finally have found a few spare moments in which to write. I cannot say that mind all the distraction this time around. My relationship with Bloomington has not, on average, been far from adversarial. I will, however, miss the excellent public library, the huge selection of good Eurasian restaurants, the year-round farmer's market, the university's vast library system, and the walkability of the town. While my home for the past couple years is not my heart's paradise, I cannot say that my time here was time wasted, for my understanding of, and capacity for humility and detachment have grown immensely in this place.

A large state school is, for me, particularly well-suited to purging self-importance, pride, and attachment to success and spiritual comfort. These conditions seem, to me, to mirror the opportunities for humility and detachment provided by libraries and librarianship itself. The immensely diverse and compassionately wrought backgrounds and philosophies of my colleagues is a constant source of humility, gratitude, and challenge. I am very grateful for this, among other things, in my profession. This simple truth, however, would hardly be appreciated in a library school application essay, or in public declarations of the value of librarianship.

In my fledgling career, I have had the luck and privilege to work at some of this country's most prized institutions, if only as a humble page and intern. Their collections, steeped in tradition, history, notoriety, and appraised at astonishing monetary value, are cause for wonder, especially to those setting their eyes on them for the first time. Libraries, for this reason (among others), remain one of the only universally recognized sacred spaces. I still remember vividly the adrenaline-ridden gravitas of my first encounters with ancient Greek papyri and a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, and that rapturous first visit to the British Library's Treasure Room. In my childish delight and awe, I truly felt that these were portals to other worlds and times, and my student-imagination romantically imbued the handling (and viewing) of these items with a sense of sacred ritual.

The individual items are cause for amazement, but are surpassed in a different way by the spectacle of filled shelves lining miles of floors. The sheer volume and scale of library collections is a singular cause of awe. In a world that is often so possessed by the gluttony and idolatry of information, the physicality of libraries and the rich fabric of the profession present the catalysts for regaining our sense of wonder and humility. There is no one who has walked into the main reading room at the Library of Congress (like a pilgrim entering St. Peter's Basilica) and thought it unremarkable. I also was able to wander miles of stacks in these places, which have their own unmistakable effect. These visual encounters show clearly the massive scale of human thought and creative work, and the physical hints at the enormity of the world, and beyond. On both accounts, one realizes just how small he is, and for a moment shrinks back, intimidated, but more so delighted and inspired by the ocean in which he finds himself. It is like the first steps of a new convert, just beginning a lifetime of discovery. He basks in amazement and is humbled by his diminutive stature, yet is encouraged by those that have contributed to the height of the shelves, to go beyond himself.

Main Reading Room, The Library of Congress

Wandering great libraries (or any library, for that matter) can also facilitate detachment. Nothing is more delightful than those first precious times young eyes and hands see and feel an especially old book, or encounter a famous or important manuscript. The young student is gripped by the sudden proximity to great moments of history, creativity, and invention-that intimate feeling of bridging continents, centuries, minds, with just marks of ink and paper. Such wonder is genuine and just-but in its infancy can make minds open to a special form of intellectual idolatry. Exaggerated obsessions with these sentiments are, no doubt, partial motivation for chronic biblio-thievery. Much time in close proximity to these relics of history grants one the special benefit of acknowledging that the most valuable manuscript or book is still, at its essence, just an object, a material thing that will fade away. After the initial honeymoon of being consumed by wonder (which it should always be hoped no one loses), I found myself thinking, with surprisingly deep contentment, that all these precious books, manuscripts, and artifacts, marked with all their wisdom and illumination, were just, well, stuff. They will burn in our fires and disintegrate with the dust. It was a clear reminder of what is, and what is not, truly eternal.

And the best part of all this is the realization that our salvation is not found in the ephemeral words scrawled on ancient pages, but in the Word. As John's gospel tells us, "In the beginning was the Word...And the Word became flesh" (1:1, 14). More staggering, awe-inspiring, and humbling than an encounter with the handwritten notes of our founding fathers or Shakespeare's First Folio is an encounter that I have weekly, and often daily. Like the great manuscripts of the ages, the Eucharist bridges centuries, continents, languages, and hearts, but it is not just a symbol or mark reminding us of the past. Rather, it makes real what the relics of intellectual and cultural history cannot. It is the bridge over that space so small, yet seemingly so vast, between Adam's finger and God's touch in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. My time in some of the great libraries of the world has unmistakably shaped my spiritual life, in that is has provided me with the immense material scale to better understand my nature and the incomprehensibility of God. To put things in perspective, the Library of Congress contains over 150 million items. It is estimated that just tiny little bits of the internet hold many times that amount of digital data. If you've never visited LC to experience what just a fraction of 150 million items looks like, you must-it's like walking into another of the world's great cathedrals. The first time I walked into the Library of Congress, and the subsequent weeks of wandering the enormous stacks of presidential papers, etc., I just remember thinking to myself: "These manuscripts are incredible. This collection is mind-blowing. And God is bigger than all of it."

As I move forward into the infancy of my professional life, I am immensely grateful for the perspective that the world's great libraries have given me, and look forward to assisting others in their discovery of the truly vertical dimension of their libraries.

No comments:

Post a Comment