Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Rare Book Adventure

Throughout my entire childhood my family has always lived in small town America. The world of traffic lights, movie theatres and even McDonald’s restaurants were always something that was reserved for the large ‘cities’. Growing up without video games, cable television or the internet I had to rely on my imagination, and my spirit, to find adventure. Adventure I found at every corner and in a special way in books. Each trip to the library was an opportunity to travel to anywhere in the world and do the unimaginable. The library was and is an adventurer’s paradise.
To this very day I still recall with great joy the excitement that used to accompany my Tuesday trips to the library with my elementary school class. We were met each week at the door by the stern and intimidating librarian Mrs. Buzzell, who was twelve tall, breathed fire and had eyes behind her head, or at least that is how I remember it. Once inside the one room library, formerly the one room schoolhouse, she would share with us amazing tales of adventure, and transport us to a world beyond small town New England. Since that early age I have always had a great love of time spent in the library. Filled with this great love and a spirit of adventure I recently endeavored to explore our own library here at St. Mary’s in order to see what treasures were hidden deep within. This fact either makes me the world’s biggest nerd or a “Renaissance Man”.
Experience tells me that 95% of the people use 5% of the library and never know what they are missing. The good stuff is always hidden deep below the surface and away from first glance. Here at St. Mary’s it is no different, after all let’s be honest most of us frequent the computers and the man eating chairs more than the stacks, the basement or even the John Paul II room. However, with a little curiosity and a few minutes to kill you might be surprised what you can discover.
So with a few hours to kill I began my journey with tens of thousands of my newest friends. I know some of you will laugh and say that I do not have anything better to do with my time. However, who among us has not wasted away an afternoon on the internet, in front the TV, or playing Pacman in Donnelly (sorry Mike). Within five minutes of beginning my treasure hunt I discovered that we have books on the shelf, and in general circulation, from the 1700’s. How crazy is it to think that right this moment there are books in our library which are older than our country. Books which you can bring up to your room, read in the chapel or take on an adventure to Panera bread. The first seminarians ever to be trained in this country used them, and here we sit three hundred years later.
My adventure did not end on the first floor although I considered doing so. Nevertheless I continued on further and made my way to the basement, where before long I was peering in the windows of the rare book room. Filled with courage and a little chutzpah I made my way upstairs and right into Tom, the head librarian’s office to request an appointment and a tour. He gladly dropped everything to help me and by six o’clock that evening Judy, the night librarian, was leading me downstairs and through the padlocked doors of the rare book room.

As she turned the lights on and dusted away a few cobwebs, before my eyes sat thousands of volumes of rare and incredibly old books.

Judy knew her stuff and began explaining to me the differences between the styles of printing, types of books and binding processes surrounding me.

Before long I was holding a small leather bound book with initials carved on the front. Upon further inspection I discover it belonged to a man named Symon Paulu’s and was dated 1577.

As I flipped through its yellowed pages I saw large amounts of margin notes
and underlining

and immediately thought of all my readings for Dr. Miles’ class. Incidentally the amount of readings we have covered in his class this semester is about equivalent to the three thousands volumes in the rare book room, but I digress. Holding Symon Paulu’s prayer book 432 years after he lived I could not help but to pause and feel the breadth of history that separates us both. As exciting as Symon’s prayer book was there were literally thousands of others each with their own unique stories waiting to be told, like the two giant color atlases brought over by the Sulpicians in the 1700’s which detailed nearly every corner of the globe. Also who can forget the volumes of religious works smuggled out of England after its split with the Church and subsequent persecutions. Each volume meticulously kept minus one thing, a small cut on each of the opening pages. The cut had removed the name of the publisher and patron, as the tides of history had turned against the Church and her people in Great Britain.
After spending a good thirty minutes in the rare book room I came across a gigantic choir book from the 1400’s. It easily was the size of the desktop in my room and weighed forty to fifty pounds. When I carefully pried open its wooden cover and pushed aside its metal lock, I discovered hundreds of pages of carefully drawn choir texts with classic musical notations. The pages, made mainly from animal skins, were filled with the words of hymns written large enough so that an entire monastic community could share it all at once. Occasionally the texts were brilliantly illuminated with incredible detail, artistic design and gold lettering. Overwhelmed, I stood there in shock for several minutes, overcome by what I had seen. Just earlier that day I had been listening to Father Kulbicki discuss the Church of the late Middle Ages, and here I stood with part of its history before my eyes and in my hands.

Judy simply looked on with an amused smile, sharing in the wonder and excitement that accompanied my visit. Not wanting to keep her from her work I quickly concluded my visit and made my way back to my room to file this story.
In the end my adventure allowed me to discover many treasures at the St. Mary’s Library, including the prayers of Symon Paulu, a choir book from the 1400’s and a librarian with a passion for books and an incredible ability to bring them alive for a wandering adventurer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would not have expected to see maps in color!

What a wonderful journey.


Important Blog News:

Please note this blog will begin being regularly updated after August 21st (when I arrive in Baltimore).