Thursday, 15 February 2018

Calligraphic Inscriptions to the Carmelite Library

Photographs of inscriptions by Susan Southall.

Today the Calligraphy Society of Victoria takes down another show of recent work, here in the Carmelite Library. This was a small show, held to coincide with the visit to Australia of Patricia Lovett MBE, one of England’s leading practitioners and historians in calligraphy. Patricia gave a lecture on the subject in the Library in late December. 

A marvellous side benefit of the Library’s collegial friendship with the Society is inscriptions. When, in August 2016, the Society put up its Workshop Works show, the Library was presented with a thankyou gift of ‘Gospels and Acts’, the Saint John’s Bible volume handwritten and illuminated by Donald Jackson. A simple handmade gold-edged bookplate did the job.

This time around the Library received a gift copy of Deirdre and Craig Hassed’s ‘Illuminating Wisdom : words of wisdom, works of art’, published by Exisle Publishing of Wollombi. The title page includes a handwritten message from the Hasseds: “May the words & works in this book be a source of inspiration & enjoyment.”

The orange flyleaf is covered with a dedication to the Library in honour of the event in December.

On the day in question, Patricia Lovett signed copies of her magnificent new book, ‘The Art and History of Calligraphy’, published by the British Library. She used a special broad nib pen and brown ink to write ‘Carmelite Library’, and a black biro to sign off with her name. Another excellent acquisition to add to our collection of calligraphy books.   

Monday, 5 February 2018

Preventing theft in the library

Theologians do not steal books, it is assumed, because theologians are aware of the commandment about theft. This assumption was once challenged by a colleague who said to me, straight-faced, that if a theologian is called by a higher power to have that book, to read, learn, and inwardly digest the book, then rules and regulations will not get in the way of their calling. They will have the book by hook or by crook. This logic needs to be challenged by the knowledge that a light-fingered, not to say light-minded, theologian has other friends and colleagues, people we call neighbour, who also want the same book and may hear the same call.

This facetious dialogue about borrowing and theft in the library came to mind while reading a thread on Atlantis this week. Atlantis is the e-list of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA). I quote the discussion in order, with contributors’ names given at the end to protect the innocent, and even the guilty, for all I know.

A opens up the question thus: “I’d be interested to hear from other ATLA libraries about what you do to prevent theft.  I’m not actually thinking about theft of our books (most have security strips, but I know that does happen as well.)  No what I am thinking of is theft from patrons.  Our students and visitors tend to leave their backpacks, laptops, cellphones, pocketbooks etc. unattended on tables and in carrels around our library.  And then they are shocked and upset when something gets stolen.  

“We’ve tried speaking to them about this at orientation, we have signs on our carrels telling them not to leave items unattended, and we have flyers that the staff put down when we see someone’s items left unattended – and yet, they still do it and stuff still gets stolen.  I’d be interested to hear how other libraries handle this issue.”

B responds, speaking from experience: “In New York, in the early 1990s when the crime rate was higher, I would tell patrons who proposed leaving their items in the reading room, ‘We are in the big city.’ Creating the impression that you will be nice and take care of these patrons, does them a disservice. There are thieves abroad and we can't catch them, at least not all of them. The problem we have is that our patrons create an attractive nuisance by leaving good stuff to steal. No sympathy with ‘em.”

The good stuff could include the library books too, one hastens to observe. It’s one thing to be urbane about the urban environment, but C proffers more practical advice : “Do you have signs posted around the library that you are not responsible if personal items are stolen? I worked at [a library where] signs were posted literally everywhere. There were also lockers in the one of the libraries, which was helpful. You could perhaps try posting signs such as Don’t leave your laptop unattended lest your research might walk away.” 

B starts getting complex and philosophical: “I suppose people are also upset and blame the director of public parks when they leave their laptop on a picnic table in a public park and go away for a couple of hours, finding that the laptop has mysteriously disappeared. But really, our public spaces in libraries are just that, public spaces (even if we are private libraries, with restricted access, they are about as public as we get). Only really invasive access policies and searches could prevent theft, and that would require (for instance) keeping any laptop out of the library that wasn't permanently marked with the identity of the person entering with it and then re-matching laptops and IDs on the way out. That would not only be prohibitively expensive, but would offend most patrons (especially Emeritus Professor McPrivilege, who couldn't be left out of the regimen without it becoming discriminatory).”

Curious how borrower types repeat themselves across national borders and great oceans, but B now gets not only counter-intuitive about how to stop stealing, B enters a theological whirlpool: “My recommendation would be humorous signs, reminding people that they are allowed to not steal other people's materials left out on these public tables, but they shouldn't expect that everyone will adopt this laudable practice.  After all, not all your patrons are Methodists on the path to perfection--in this interreligious environment, some are Calvinists, subject to Original Sin and Total Depravity.”

This Augustinian development is met with an Augustinian paradox, of the kind referred to in the opening of this essay. D steps in: “Yes, but the Calvinist, knowing his justifiably condemned condition, finding himself with his eyes open to see God’s absolutely amazing gift of salvation through faith in the death of Christ, would be so grateful for this indescribable gift, that he should never want to sully his Savior’s name by stealing a lap top. “

Contributors (in alphabetical order by surname):
Philip Harvey: Librarian, The Carmelite Library, Melbourne
Andrew Kadel: resident in Yonkers, New York
Amy Limpitlaw: Head Librarian, Boston University, School of Theology Library
Ruth L. Slagle: Public Services Librarian, Baptist College of Florida, Graceville
Debbie Wright: Cataloger, Turpin Library, Dallas Theological Seminary

Monday, 29 January 2018

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-third : ATTRACTION, COMFORT, SUPPORT

Austerity Britain, that period marked from 1945 into the fifties, some say even the early sixties, has a watchful record of personal writing. When Ruth Burrows, the spiritual writer, entered the Carmelite Order at a young age, she stepped from a family life striving bravely to makes ends meet in an unnamed English industrial city, into a strict enclosed community life where one of the vows was to poverty. It is in about 1947 or 1948, the author has little interest in dates and rarely provides them, that the following account of her newfound reading practices is set.

The novitiate library was very impoverished. The community had not the money to buy many books but there was a keen desire to build up a library and we were told to ask for books when friends or relatives wished to make gifts. There was little that attracted me. I was afraid of books on the spiritual life for they made me feel so hopeless. Abbot Marmion’s ‘Christ the Life of the Soul’ was on the shelves and this appealed to me. It was objective. It did not talk about degrees in the spiritual life, it talked about Christ and our union with him. I found some comfort and support in this book. Likewise our mistress used to read a treatise on the ‘Precautions of St John of the Cross’ by a Spanish Carmelite. This was not a frightening book. It was full of love and gentleness and, at the time, the only book on Carmelite spirituality that I liked. It helped me a great deal and, I would say, set a direction for me in the way of practising virtue. I was still very worried about the attachment to our mistress [of novices] but, on the other hand, this writer spoke with such understanding that I felt less guilty. I learned not to concern myself with other people’s business, to find a kind of construction for their faults, to have a supernatural view of the Superior and other things besides. I am not saying I carried out these teachings but they sank into my mind and established a standard of conduct no matter how far I fell below it. It was a spirituality I could understand and want. It was true and full of love.

Ruth Burrows’ autobiography is recollections of the interior life, starting very openly with the immense and conflicting emotions of growing up. Ruth Burrows is intensely self-conscious of her emotions, before, during, and after joining the Order. Fear of being ‘hopeless’, as she puts it, is an honest admission. We all at some time look upon a new reading challenge with trepidation, with self-doubt, and even more so when it is required reading, required for our future career and well-being. Books on the spiritual life could present fearful challenges when seen as textbooks for the chosen job. The paucity of good reading on offer doesn’t help and we observe how Ruth quickly moves from a report on the library to the only thing that matters, really, the contents of the books on the shelves.

It is helpful to note the words she uses to define a good library and a good book. She must be attracted to the reading. She likes books that speak to her meaningfully, cf. objective books on spirituality, not those insisting on degrees of spiritual progress. She wants reading that is a comfort and support. In her case, at this time of her training, this most definitely means books that are full of love and gentleness. (That the novice mistress, on whom she had a youthful crush, read this book aloud to the young women would doubtless have increased her appreciation of its contents.) The books need to present a spirituality that she can understand and want. By the end of the paragraph we have not only forgotten about libraries, we have forgotten about reading too. Ruth Burrows finds the books that speak to her own experience, her own desires. She is already on her first steps along the Carmelite way.

Instructive in this paragraph is the author’s move from fear to that which overcomes fear. This is the older woman reflecting on how she overcame her fears, of being ‘hopeless’, of being overwhelmed or feeling not communicated with. The thought process moves from awareness of impoverishment  and books being frightening, to awareness of that which is good, that which speaks with meaning, and that brings the reader into truth and love. The paragraph is a demonstration of the spiritual life it is describing. She places trust on that which is positive and leads her where she needs to go next.

Quote from: ‘Before the Living God’, by Ruth Burrows. New edition. (London, Burns & Oates, 2008), pages 52-53.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-second : TRAMPING AND HAULING

Sarah Ruden

The Internet, on balance, seems to me to have been no friend of scholarship. When you had to tramp to the library for books and articles, you tramped only when well motivated, and you studied and evaluated whatever you hauled home so as not to feel like a total chump. The current capacity to pull up an article a minute on a screen creates an apparently powerful temptation to staple together a nonargument from five hundred sources and to stuff a bibliography with crap.

This head quote is a footnote in Sarah Ruden’s book on Bible translating. She reminds us of a world in which people went through rain, hail, and snow to gather invaluable source materials from libraries; source material that can only be found in libraries. She is deeply aware that her motivation was worth the effort.

Ruden’s trademark humour points up the physical reality of reading and study. It might actually involve you having to exert yourself bodily, having to travel measurable distances, and having to spend measurable amounts of precious time working somewhere other than at your own computer. By placing these kinds of activities in the past tense, Ruden seems to be suggesting it no longer happens, though it does. Such is the force of rhetoric.

The library was, and still is, a great arbiter of time management. It tantalises with stores of knowledge not otherwise procurable. It stands apart from the daily round of home and work: you have to go there to make it happen for you. The library is the only place where you can get the goods. It releases its bounty on reasonable terms, giving its visitors a rightful sense of belonging and self-esteem. At least, these are some of the things we can infer from Ruden’s descriptions of getting physical with libraries. She places a value on libraries that she does not place on the (capital ‘I’) Internet.

Ruden’s healthy objectivity about the academic life is at work here. Her footnote is asterisked to the following sentence, found in the thick of a discussion about Bible commentaries: “Conversely, the exposition may be so dense and technical that its writer’s own expert opinion drowns amid the innumerable citations and intricate qualifications.” Any student of biblical books will recognise this kind of commentary, thankful or overwhelmed depending on the time of the day. Ruden is not being negative about such commentaries, in fact is insisting that such works are a necessary good, even a blessing and inspiration. She knows that such intricate scholarship has a sure foundation, when only the best will do.

The Internet, though, is another matter. In an environment where authority can be whatever you want it, where every crazy view vies for equal attention, and where the quantity rather than the quality of your citations is all that counts, the results will be (obversely from the above) thankless and underwhelming. The implicit meaning of her argument in this paragraph, that scholarship is more than just sitting hourly at your computer and sorting everything into something halfway coherent, goes with it a discernible belief in embodiment. She trusts the feeling, arrived at by her own experience, that tramping to the library, getting all the stuff together, and hauling home what you most urgently need, is an essential part of the scholar’s life. She’s not rejecting the Internet out of hand, she’s simply saying it’s not enough.   

Quote from: ‘The face of water : a translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible’, by Sarah Ruden (New York, Pantheon Books, 2017), page 160.