Monday, May 18, 2009

A Great Library Retreat

Last week we held our second library volunteers retreat here at the Monastery. It was wonderful. The first was in November and attracted eight volunteers. This one brought three people back from the first retreat plus nine more, for a total of twelve.

I was a little concerned that we wouldn't have enough jobs for everyone, but I needn't have worried.

Holy Cross's library is located on the ground floor of the new monastery building, where it occupies most of the space. It is, next to the Chapel and the Refectory, the biggest area in the monastery. I would say that we have perhaps 15,000 books. The collection is an organic one, as most monastery libraries are that do or did not also serve as school, college or seminary libraries. That is, it has grown in response to the needs and interests of the community over the years. Our library is strong in areas you would expect, in older Anglo-Catholic materials, spirituality, and in religious biography. The older generations loved reading lives of holy people -- Fr. Huntington recommended it in his Rule. The scripture section is not huge but serviceable. The section on the religious life has some interesting strengths, particularly in materials on Anglican religious life. And there are some surprises. For example, in the 70's many of the brethren were involved in addiction ministries, so we have a fair collection of books on that subject. And quite a lot of liturgical materials, dating from Bonnell Spencer's days.

The collection uses the Dewey Decimal system. But not exactly, of course. One of the older fathers, now gone to glory, John Baldwin, tweaked it to fit his ideas. Actually, wrenched is a better word than tweaked. Whole sections were reassigned, including the religious life. When we made plans about the Library a couple of years ago, it was decided to get a computerized system which would allow more or less automatic data retrieval and cataloging. But it was clear that the work involved in switching over to the Library of Congress system was so great that, given the fact that we can't hire staff, it might never get done. So we have retained the Dewey system, and are gradually changing our special categories back to the normal ones. This means a lot of recataloging will be going one for quite a while. It also means that we will have the old card catalog and the new computer system (a creature named ResourceMate) side by side for years to come, if not forever.

One of the projects I started when I become Librarian last October was to move all the books published in 1900 or before into a protected area, which, if not climate controlled exactly, at least has a de-humidifier. We had already moved the Patrologia Latina and its Greek companion set there. There is a surprising number of books from 1900 and before, and looking at that collection gives one a snapshot of the Community's interests at that point, just before we moved from Westminster, MD, to our then-new Henry Vaughn-designed Monastery in West Park. Lots of the sorts of books you would expect from Anglo-Catholic monk types, but some interesting outliers as well. The room needs some new shelving, which will probably cost several thousands of dollars. For the time being it is a hodge-podge of smaller shelves, not quite enough to house them all as they should be.

The volunteers were wonderful. A couple of them started work on the old book room, reading the shelves against the cards, which had been carefully removed by volunteers from the first retreat. We had missed a fair number in our first pass through the shelves as it turned out. Several worked on the oversize books, opening up new shelf space for additions. The growing cd collection needed to be put in order, uncatalogued for the moment. One of the men is a church sexton and was able to clean the enclosed skylights which had grown filthy over the years, letting in more light. His wife is a computer wiz, and started cataloging existing books into the computerized system. She made some good progress. One of the volunteers straightened up the Guest House library and then added about 35 books to it from the proven duplicates in the library office. Three continued reading the shelves against the shelf listing, discovering books that had "walked". An interesting finding was that a whole section of books on Vietnam had disappeared. My guess is that a previous regime decided to de-accession them and had forgotten to take the cards out of that section of the file.

And one brave soul began something close to my heart. She started to check bibliographies of monastic history to see what we might have, and more importantly, what we might not have. Most of our acquisitions come from two sources: gifts of collections by people who are downsizing their libraries, or after death, and books that the brethren have acquired and which filter down the stairs in due course. But we have not had much deliberate acquisition over the years, mostly because we have such a small budget. The first step in improving the collection is to find out what we need.

I have two great dreams for the library. The first is to begin systematically building up our collection in areas important to us, especially in scripture and monastic studies. Since many of the books we will want to fill out the collection are out of print, the best way is to identify the ones we want and then start looking for them, purchasing what we can find and afford (donations anyone?) and beginning a regular list of desired volumes on the website that people might donate. The second dream is to begin welcoming writers and scholars to use the library. It is a small collection and probably never will be a scholarly destination for the holdings. And we don't want the books to circulate outside the monastery. But our library is a very congenial environment for study, reflection and writing. The Community, which has not been intensely focused on the library over the years (for many members, it is just there, as it were), has begun to wake up to the ministry possibilities our collections may hold.

It gives me enormous satisfaction to watch the collection improve. And as it does, it is even more satisfying to watch the brethren and others take a renewed interest in reading and study.