10 October 2012

Quo Vadis: What is the Future of Catholic Libraries?

Whenever I encourage people to make more use out of their local library, there are several commons complaints that I receive. Checking out books from the library takes too much time or energy, the hours aren't ideal, the book I want is always checked out, they never have what I want to read, etc., etc. Quite often the last complaint is the one I hear most often from those who are making valiant efforts to regularly fit some good spiritual reading into their schedule. It is true-you are unlikely to find titles like Boylan's Difficulties in Mental Prayer in your local public library. I was amazed that there were the likes of some classic Chesterton, Fulton Sheen, and St. Josemaria (albeit very old and worn out copies) in the massive stacks of my very secular graduate school library. Despite the size and relative breadth of the collection (over 7 million volumes), I was often disappointed that what I most longed to read could not be found. As Coleridge would say, water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

Catholics and other individuals who want to read good Catholic books faced with this situation today have a few options:
  • Request the desired titles at the local public library. Wait an eternity for them to be ordered and processed if the library does not own the item(s) already and actually decides to purchase them.
  • Exercise their resourcefulness by scouring all the local parish and university/seminary libraries. Even if the desired title is found, access to it is usually restricted by parish membership or university affiliation (which in some cases can be purchased for a fee of $50/semester).
  • Just buy the darned thing, ensuring relatively quick and on-going access for reading and reference.
All three courses of action can, I think, positively contribute to the preservation of Catholic book collections, but I think that the last will be particularly crucial to this task.

I'd especially like to emphasize this because it indeed seems to be the laity, and not just seminaries, religious institutes, and universities that are most needed in the effort to truly revitalize and pass on Catholic libraries that are worth their weight. This summer I read a great paper posted up at the blog of the incomparable Loome Theological Booksellers of Stillwater, MN (a veritable 'pilgrimage' destination of Catholic bibliophiles everywhere). In it, Mr. Loome spoke with passion about his path to the antiquarian book trade, and related the absolutely tragic tale of the fate that befell so many priceless Catholic library collections in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Hordes of books, many from the institutes of religious orders, were divided up and sold to whomever would take them-and God bless Mr. Loome for rescuing so many. My heart aches for all the unique collections that have been nearly lost or scattered in this sudden diaspora. All this, to follow an impulsive theory that placed the future of the Church and religious life in the hands of secular institutional structures. The author also laments the severe attrition of Catholic librarianship, left to wander with the floundering of so many great Catholic libraries.
Thankfully, the 'motherhouse' is still intact, and newly renovated.
Mr. Loome ends his tales of woe with a charge for all the faithful:
"The only other lesson that occurs to me is this: as believing Catholics we have a responsibility to preserve the patrimony of the Church, certainly in so far as it has been entrusted to us as librarians and as professionally interested parties. Much has been destroyed forever. Those who wreaked the damage have mostly passed from the scene (although one would like to think that in the end they acknowledged their wrongdoings and perhaps clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes). And so only we, presiding over the wreckage, are left to tell the tale. 
"What is the lesson for us? To start afresh. Slowly to recreate, in some small measure, what is gone forever. We shall do this, however, only if we are both Catholic and bookish: committed to the Church, passionately devoted to books, and, as a consequence, deeply rooted in the Church's literary and theological tradition. This is the indispensable condition for an even tolerable future for Catholic libraries. Absent this profound commitment to Catholicism and to books, I frankly see virtually no hope at all for Catholic libraries."
What happened to Catholic libraries during the Age of Aquarius makes me sad, angry, frustrated, and confused. Why, in the wake of a renewed call to evangelize the world, would a primary response be to abandon the most precious tools useful to such an endeavor? On this, the eve of the Year of Faith and the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, a renewed commitment to the revitalization of Catholic libraries is needed, if we really desire a new 'springtime of evangelization.' 'Librarians militant' we must indeed be.

Sadly, this revitalization is not happening within the library profession itself. I was, and am still, keenly disappointed to discover in college that many librarians at my dear alma mater (which does indeed still have a decent Catholic flavor) were so completely dispassionate about the mission of the library in which they worked. It seemed that to them, it was just another academic library. They were really more concerned with petty administrative battles than engaging in a rich professional philosophy. And the college me, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about heading to library school and enlivened by the potential of Catholic librarianship, was more than slightly heartbroken to learn that a certain religiously-affiliated professional association really didn't deserve its name, and that many 'Catholic' libraries were filled with librarians who, in some ways, couldn't care less.

While I do not have the distinct pleasure of working in a theological or particularly Catholic library, my nascent passion for Catholic libraries is still kindling. I dearly long for such a revitalization as Mr. Loome hopes for and has not yet seen. Seeing as this is no great revolution to bring this about in many of our universities and religious institutes, the future of Catholic libraries is undoubtedly in the hands of the laity. Monasteries preserved the sparks of culture in the dark ages, but it is doubtful that many modern monasteries could even save their own heritage. In the trenches of the world, we are the ones who will ensure the future of Catholic books. Our household libraries really need to extend beyond one bible and a handful of Reader's Digest condensed books. Start investing and collecting for the future now. Support Catholic authors and publishing houses. Put the words of the saints on your shelves. We cannot all afford to be another Mr. Loome, but for a relatively small amount one can acquire several spiritual classics, works of the Church fathers, council documents, and the catechism. And ensure that those books get taken off the shelf every once in a while. We know this faith of ours involves a lifetime of learning.

And for Mr. Loome, if you are listening, this is one Catholic librarian who is all ears.

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