It's cool, with a light rain starting when we arrive at St. Paul's -- and a welcome site it is indeed, poor weather aside. I'd visited the site the day before for the Sunday service, and the interior of the church, with its high domes and galleries, is totally arresting. There isn't really a turn of phrase appropriate to describe the feeling of standing in such a space, seeing what men have and are capable of making, and anticipating what lies beyond.
Forming a huddle within, we await our tour guide, the cathedral's librarian, Mr. Joseph Wisdom. What little we know of him thus far comes from our first class meeting, where he was described as being very British and very proper -- a very stereotype of a librarian. This is neither to paint an unfair picture of the man, nor to say that conforming to stereotypes is necessarily bad. We must endeavor to give Mr. Wisdom the benefit of the doubt. We must.
While we -- and you, reader, as a result -- wait, here is a little history on the library [via its official site]: After near destruction at the hands of the Great Fire of 1666, St. Paul's Cathedral library underwent a rebuilding process, along with efforts made to restore the structure itself. Architect Christopher Wren was sought out (by the King, no less) to survey the cathedral for repair. The library chamber that Wren designed and built was steadily developed through the work of commissioners and patrons: the collections rooted in theology, but spanning through other related topics such as cosmogeny, civil and canonical law, science and history. Noting as much, however, we must bear in mind that subject distinction was not so firmly drawn, not in a modern sense. To be brief (and regrettably vague): theology in the sixteenth century was a different playing field. And additions to the collection came from bequests of Henry Compton, John Mangey, among others, enlarging not only the amount, but the depth of the library holdings.
And so, with that background in mind, let us return to our tour. Mr. Joseph Wisdom appears, having, we come to discover, narrowly escaped a leaky pen incident, and guides us around the velvet ropes (the very essence of library glamour). He indicates to us a door, above which is a carving of a book -- The Good Book. Which seems appropriate, being attached to a place of worship, and Mr. Wisdom agrees -- and elaborates further in a much more articulate manner. But my attention is already caught by what lies beyond the door, the Dean's staircase.
It is an amazing twist and turn of stone, a feat that I do not truly appreciate until we begin ascending it.
Out of breath, but pretending not to be, I am grateful when Mr. Wisdom takes pity and speaks of the Reformation. The removal of statues and icons are evident when we look to empty spaces where they ought to have been placed. At the top of the staircase, we note the plain finish of the door, the basic carving on the walls as well as the floor. After the previous grandeur of the cathedral, such a humble display is striking. It slowly dawns that the triforium level was never meant for public use. The only thing that comes close to a decorative border is the latin phrase carved above: "Faciendi plures libros nullus est finis." It's from Ecclesiasticus, meaning: There is no end to the production of books.
Walking on the level now, we avoid a slight construction zone. The cathedral is undergoing continuous renovations (what historical site is not?), and as a result we make our way past pieces of a font and several pulpits. Mr. Wisdom stops to quiz us here, asking us what we presume a large stone vat is. Naturally, our minds turn macabre. "A crypt! A tomb!" we cry. Mr. Wisdom shakes his head in polite dismay, "You believe we keep dead bodies up here?" The vat, as it turns out, is a kind of water container that the church used ages ago to collect rainwater. Not quite the build up I was hoping for -- but then again, the lid never was lifted, now was it?
We are lead into a trophy room, with sketches along the walls, carvings etched into the fabric of the walls, and placed center, a gorgeous wooden model of the cathedral. We are so caught up in viewing/fawning over the model, that Mr. Wisdom's second quiz takes us (or me, I should say) by surprise. "Now," he asks, "where are the books?"
The room on first, second, third -- you anticipate the pattern -- inspection, appears empty save the previously described contents. But we look closer. Within the carvings are books, integrated so thoroughly in the design of stone that they at first seem unremarkable. Now that we have seen them, however, they are impossible to ignore, and it feels very apt that books not only support liturgy, but are a part of the structure itself.
The next room, I am sure you can guess, has me simultaneously growing impatient with and dying of curiosity. The library has its secrets, I'm certain, and as we near the foot of its door, we find the first. What could the sign taped on front, "Beware of pigeons!!!" -- what could this mean? Mr. Wisdom sheds some light in a rather sheepish fashion. "Oh, that?" he says. "You wouldn't want to hear my pigeon story." Oh, but we do. And reader, please, pardon my digression.
Being a librarian of little monetary means, Mr. Wisdom is often left with, well, all of the tasks. These include the closing up of rooms, offing lights, and so forth, before ending his workday. On one such occasion, it so happened that a pigeon snuck his way in just as Mr. Wisdom meant to leave. Instead of being cooperative and shushing out as a nice vermin should, the pigeon boldly flew up to the rafters and Mr. Wisdom, so close to going home, spent another few hours covering every possible surface with plastic sheeting.
But once we enter the library, we understand all of the caution. The walls are lined row upon row with books, broken only by a stretch of windows, and then connected again to more books. The room itself is a gorgeous bit of space, with high ceilings and low light and the smell of old books. Heaven. Mr. Wisdom agrees wholeheartedly, but gently brings us back to earth in discussing preservation concerns. Conservation is the term he uses, and close tabs are kept on the materials used to, for instance, re-back books; the environment of the books is also monitored, using a sign-in sheet every time any one leaves or enters the room. Temperature control, exposure to varying elements, these are all looked to when considering the best course of action -- or inaction to take, as may be the case. He makes the distinction that they do not restore, not in the sense that materials "are tarted up simply to look pretty."
As my brain slowly kicks into use (book spells are hard to break), I begin to wonder at the classification scheme. I am not the only one. "Size," Mr. Wisdom informs us, "that is the organization." It seems incredulous to incorporate such cataloging to my American mind, but from what I know of the British, if they are one thing they are economical. What space they have, it is put to use, and libraries are no exception.
I adore the idea that the space each book holds is as important to the collection, as the collection is to the book: every book forming a story, the overarching narrative the collection. Duplicates are treated as individual books, separate stories, and even objects found within books become part of their history. It is amazing to feel, if only for a time, the enormity of hundreds of years of printed word, the connection we have and continue to forge with our past.
St. Paul's Cathedral Library [official site]