Tag Archives: libraries

The Library of Congress

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Ceiling of the Great Hall

The Library of Congress, the Thomas Jefferson Building, was a joy to visit, primarily for its architecture and design – which is not what I had anticipated. Before I had left home, when Kate suggested that we go there, I had naturally thought first of books, and exhibits about books.

We heard a story about how it ended up so beautiful: The first two construction attempts failed at the level of the foundation, and a third person was called in to complete the project. His son, who had recently graduated from the University of Beaux-Arts in Paris, took over the design and completion of the interior ornamentation. Or so our tour guide told us 🙂

When I was trying to review these facts online for this post, I discovered another version of the story in a book about “German Achievements in America.” That story does not mention any failure on the part of the original (German) architects, but rather emphasizes that they spent twenty years perfecting the design and were never given adequate credit for it.

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Main Reading Room

This page on the LOC site gives broader detail about the drama of these events — involving “the selection of the proper cement for the foundation” — and eventual completion in 1897 of the main building of the library, which was not named for Jefferson until 1980.

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Thomas Jefferson deserved to be honored this way, because he offered to sell his whole personal library to Congress after their collection of books was destroyed by fire in the War of 1812; at that time the library was stored in the Capitol. He said he would accept whatever price they decided upon. Previously they had owned only law books, but Jefferson persuaded them that “…there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” and they bought his 6,487 books for $23,950. That amount was based on the number and sizes of the books.

Jefferson’s generosity was not because he no longer needed what he named “unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the U.S.” He used the money gained to pay some of his debts, and began right away in a “frenzy” to assemble a replacement library for himself, saying, “I cannot live without books….”

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(A little part of) Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit

Two-thirds of the new Jefferson library was destroyed by another fire in the Capitol, in 1851. In the last decades efforts have been made to restore all the books that were in the original collection bought from Jefferson, and by 2008 replacements had been found for all but 300 of the original books; together with the volumes not destroyed by fire, these all comprise the exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s Library which has been on display since then. Though we wandered through a couple of other exhibits in the building, this one is where Kate and I spent the most time. I had been to Jefferson’s home at Monticello ten years ago, but through this unhurried perusal of his books I felt more connection to him than ever before.

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Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, an appointee of Abraham Lincoln, had wanted the Library of Congress to be not just a resource for legislators but a library for the whole nation, and he was responsible for the copyright law of 1870,  which required every author of any copyrighted map, book, piece of music, etc., to deposit two copies in the Library. This method of acquiring materials worked very well, and soon Spofford was pressuring Congress to approve a separate building dedicated to housing the collection, and to do it quickly, because books “were being piled on the floor” and he could see that his job would soon devolve into “presiding over the greatest chaos in America.” Though it took 25 more years before the new building was ready to store the books in a more orderly fashion, Librarian Spofford stayed on all that time, presumably presiding over chaos with hope.

In order to fully appreciate all of the art and architecture of the Library, someone who knows as little as I of fine arts and literature would need days of viewing and background studies. Many short quotes decorate the walls, without reference to the work quoted, and I was curious about these. I did look up this one that I liked (below), and found that it is from a Shakespeare play. Though it is a statement about what we can learn not from books but from nature, I will close with it, as I myself must leave the Library and go now to explore some other good things.

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Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones,
and good in everything.

-William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

What summer is for.

Do you know how hard it is to pick up just one book at the library? I managed to do it twice this week and I felt my self-control as a great freedom; I didn’t even go into the used bookstore that is off the lobby. But since then everything has changed.d76bf-beefromside

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.” –Saul Bellow

When I was a child we lived ten miles from the nearest public library, and I never visited it until high school. I had lovely hours in the library in Berkeley when in the summers I visited my grandmother, and she would leave my sisters and me there for a while, and come back later when we had picked out a stack to take home. I remember checking out Anna Pavlova and Little Men when I was ten, and lying outdoors on a cot in the afternoons, in the mountains with Grandma at the Berkeley City Camp. When not at Grandma’s, our summers were too hot to manage much activity, so I sat indoors in an easy chair and read a book every day in those carefree days of youth, supplied by the bookmobile.

I think one of the books I read then was Seventeen by Booth Tarkington. When Bellezza wrote recently about Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, I thought that was it, and I bought a used paperback and have been reading it, but it’s not what I remember. So I hopefully borrowed Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen from the library (closed stacks), and it’s waiting for me now. In no time at all I should be getting to it, because the Daly book is hard to put down. How can that be?

The backdrop of the story is the most luscious and lazy summer imaginable, evoked very effectively by the author’s prose. But when I’m reading it at night I don’t fall asleep, and one morning when I was still in recovery mode (She says, wondering if she will ever again not be in recovery mode…) I picked it up from my nightstand and read for an hour before getting out of bed. It is a book that makes me feel something of the leisure of my youth, when there was no need to hurry. Absolutely no need.14110-beeonflowerfrted

The worst way to read, he said, is with the thought that you do not have enough time. The only way to read is in the knowledge that there is an infinite amount of time stretching ahead, and that if one wishes to taste only a few sentences per day one is free to do so. –Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak

Last week on my way home from visiting my children I listened to Mary Norris reading her own Between You and Me, a book that has made me laugh out loud countless times, all by myself in the car. I’m so glad she narrated her own book, and I love her voice and her humor. She reminds me of the women in my father’s family. I could not be content, though, to only listen to it — I must have my own print copy. So I ordered one online. But I could not be content to wait for that to be shipped, and I discovered that the local library had a copy, so that was the first book I picked up.

Two days later Seventeen became available, so I went back for it. Today a dear person sent me a link to a Naomi Shihab Nye poem, “Different Ways to Pray,” and reading it confirmed in me the feeling I’ve had that I need to calm myself and sink into some poetry. I began to read more about Nye and her books. I saw that my local library had a couple of collections by her, and I also ran across this that she said:

There is a Thai saying: ‘Life is so short, we must move very slowly,’ ….Being busy has become our calling card, our sign of success, our obsession—but poetry doesn’t want us to be busy. When you live in a rapidly moving swirl, you can only view your surroundings with a glance. Poetry requires us to slow down, to take time to pause.

So I hurried over to the library and found 4c80e-gjreadhobbitwo27dellcrpthe one children’s book by Nye that I wanted…. and then I found a few more children’s poetry books to take with me; that’s probably the level that I am most likely to access currently.

Then on to the adult non-fiction and another book by Nye… but I could not make myself leave as quickly as I’d come. There I was with shelves of poetry and literature towering on either side of me, and I had to scan some titles, and take a few books down, and notice that a couple of my favorite poets were not even there! The armload I carried to my car included Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin.

Now, will I manage to sink in and let the poetry teach me to move. very. slowly…? I am finding it difficult to quiet down today; it seems that the effort to truly rest is wearing me out. Maybe that’s because I was awake past midnight reading about Angie, whose life before cordless phones and TV served up a flavor of time that we can hardly remember the taste of. Angie speaks of doing “leisurely things like ironing or peeling potatoes for dinner.” (Hinting at an attitude among teens that also may have become extinct soon after this book was written.) If she hadn’t recently fallen in love she’d probably be reading on the porch swing in the warm afternoons, too.

After all this rambling around the subject, I feel I must leave you with at least a little piece of a poem. So here are some lines from Nye’s children’s poetry collection titled Honeybee. They are from the poem “Girls, Girls”:8ec4e-beeinshadowlambsears

When a honeybee is alone–rare, very rare–
It tastes the sweetness
It lives inside all the time.

What pollen are we gathering, anyway?
Bees take naps, too….

Savor the heady dry breath.

I miss spending time in the public library, not that I have had a great deal of that experience. In my youth the city library was not a convenient place to study, being ten miles from our house, and my elementary school had no library.

When I stayed with my grandma she would actually drop my sisters and me off at the branch library in Berkeley while she ran errands and we could roam at liberty for an hour. I’m sure none of us knew what a lavish gift that was, but from this vantage point I can appreciate the sublimity, and the mental picture of the room where I spent the most time is still there.

Back home in the country we depended on the bookmobile that every two weeks provided plenty of the sensory excitement that is the subject of the poem below. The visits were brief and fairly businesslike, as we had to jostle a bit with the other young patrons in that cramped space and there certainly was nowhere to sit and ponder. Mom was waiting outside in the car.

I paid no conscious attention to anything but the book titles, being mainly interested in getting my stash to take home and savor in a more purely intellectual fashion. But now, so long removed, if I think on that county van for only a minute, I can remember the clunking sounds  of books being pulled off shelves and put back, and our tennis shoes scuffling around in the grit that we’d brought in from the gravelly parking lot. The librarian-driver would speak as few quiet words as possible as she stamped our cards. And the scent of the books — it’s still in me.

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by Valerie Worth

No need even
To take out
A book: only
Go inside
And savor
The heady
Dry breath of
Ink and paper,
Or stand and
Listen to the
Silent twitter
Of a billion
Tiny busy
Black words.

From All the Small Poems and Fourteen More

Librarian of Antiquities

Last night Mr. Glad and I traveled with some friends to Berkeley where we heard a lecture by Father Justin Sinaites, who is the librarian for Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Those few words that name his job send me into a realm of thoughts which tumble over each other and in their layering seem too high for me. The history, the theology, the parchments…the prayers in the desert….

St. Catherine’s was founded in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and is the oldest Christian monastery in continual existence in the world. The collection of ancient manuscripts there is surpassed only by that of the Vatican.

Currently Fr. Justin is in charge of the project of digitizing all of these documents and illuminations, including the famous Codex Sinaiticus, written in the 4th Century and considered to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament. The monastery’s goal is to eventually make everything available in very high resolution, using such tools as one we heard about at the lecture, a donated camera that is “the size of a small room.” This kind of sharing will also protect the valuables by minimizing the handling of the originals.

The librarian is a native Texan and the first American to be a resident monk at St. Catherine’s, where he has lived since 1994. Before that he was a monk at a monastery in Massachusetts for 20 years. But in spite of his age, experience and technical modernity, he seemed to have a childlike joy about him when speaking about the history of God’s dealings with men, and on the focus of the talk, the typology of the Bible and the Tabernacle in particular.

During his lecture he showed us slides from the 6th-century work  Christian Topography, which is full of illuminations of the tent that Moses was instructed to build according to strict instructions from God. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a man who had done quite a bit of traveling compared to most people of that time, wrote the book, and he included all these pictures of the tabernacle and its parts and contents because he was trying to conceptualize the world and was convinced that the Tabernacle was the key to understanding the whole universe.

I’ve heard about the symbolism of the Tabernacle in Bible studies and sermons throughout my adult life. Books have been written on all the meanings of the type of wood used, the colors, the candlestick, the carvings and the cherubim, the mercy seat. In the New Testament it is hinted that there is so much to be said about all of it that the apostle in his letter to the faithful doesn’t have the time even to begin. We do know that it speaks to us of God.

Orthodox tradition sees the Virgin Mary as prefigured in the Tabernacle, because she mystically contained the Son of God, “Light of Light, True God of True God…of one essence with the Father.” And Fr. Justin clarified, “The tabernacle did not confine God, but it was the dwelling place of God as an icon.” So, too, we are all “called to be priests and to offer ourselves as vessels and lamp stands.”

The bush at St. Catherine’s

A few years ago there was an article in Parade magazine about Father Justin and the monastery, in which the burning bush is discussed. St. Catherine’s is believed to be the site where Moses beheld the glory of God in what some prefer to call the Unburnt Bush. Last night one of my former fellow gardeners at church took the opportunity to ask the monk what is the binomial, meaning the two-part botanical name, of the bush, of which we have a descendant living on our parish grounds; Fr. Justin said it is rare to have success rooting cuttings from the one at St. Catherine’s.

Below is a photo I took of our burning bush. Its leaves are the larger ones in the picture, and the smaller grayish leaves and hips are of the Nootka rose that grows in a planter with it.

rubus sanctus with Nootka rose

The monks are happy at the potential for more widely sharing the manuscripts with scholars everywhere. And nowadays they welcome numerous tourists and pilgrims to the holy place itself, knowing that the God who has blessed it and them is the spiritual food people need. In fact, in the the last 50 years, as our lecturer put it, “The whole world has come rushing in.” Especially in the winter months the monastery has as many as 1,000 visitors a day. The challenge is “to keep a spiritual tradition that was born in isolation when that isolation has come to an end.”

If I ever journey to Egypt, I hope to join the masses thronging to that place.