A shelfie of
St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons taken by Amanda Witt
Book trolleys are necessarily sturdy, given the solid give and take they
handle every day. Wheel it over here. Charles Dickens somewhere, perhaps ‘Bleak
House’, describes shelves of leatherbound books, the titles of which are
receding into the binding. Whether this is from overuse or no use, or perhaps
the weather, is something we sometimes ask as we reshelve them after
circulation. Though not for long, unless the spine is falling off, the call
number’s lost its grip, all in need of repair. Pamphlets are the imps of the
shelver, hiding between ranks of the normal, disappearing completely into their
allotted spot, forgotten were it not for a shelf read. They slip out of sight
between tall buildings. Unlike the classics and required reading. Great armfuls
of monographs in number order from fingers to elbow go back into place at the
edge of ledges. Call numbers tease with their decimal points, sometimes going
round the bend. Old authors push out new ones in a reversal of the concept of
succession. Progress is levelled and elevated by terraces, when shelving. The new looks remarkably like the old when
published at the same time; the old is fresh as the morning and the new awaits
its time in the yellowing sun. Shelving strategies vary. One strategy is to
arrange them all on the trolley, for a leisurely stroll in shelf order once all
the books are sorted. Thus church fathers and their heretics are managed
together in one clean sweep. Another strategy is whatever a handspan can stand.
Gaps that were created by a borrower may still be there, with luck, a ready
answer to the conundrums of the call number. “There are those who seek knowledge for the
sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity,” writes Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
“There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity.
There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.” Reading is
not on the to-do list of shelvers. Our reading, mischievously at times, but
also on a needs-to-know basis, is an education in what borrowers are reading.
The person who cannot get enough Thomas Merton, the person captive to the
Inquisition, the mystery reader working her way through Buddhist scriptures,
the devotee of existentialism, all these and dozens more inform the shelver’s
sense of the life of the collection, and influence buying. Syncopated strolling
is the shelver’s habit, two steps forward, three steps back. Continued down
aisle two, round the corner and up the top, slowed by mis-shelved sequences needing
resequencing, the appearance of cram or total bookwall. There is no use trying
to push books into place, it will only make it worse. Continued from aisle 11,
where the collapse of the Roman Empire is almost a weekly occurrence, propped
back up by a legion of returns. Encyclopedias stick together like a committee
that knows its own mind, any volume soon back in line where it belongs. Some
shelvers cannot reach the top (height) or the lower (injury or age) shelf,
haphazardly returning monographs that are their reach, even theirs alone. One
falls from the armful and a bookmark slips out. The art requires less haste. A
rhythm, personal and calm, turns the process into a meditation and in
particular a meditation on the collection and why we read at all, on what is of
interest, why this and not that, of what drives our needs. Picking up the
fallen book the shelver notices all the people who must have made this book:
author and publisher, editor and proofreader, compositor and typesetter,
designer and binder, packer and seller, back in the middle of a war in 1941.
There cannot be very many copies left in the world. It even looks like 1941,
smells like it, thin wartime paper stock. It slides quietly into its accustomed
peace. No time for reading. Buoyed by the letting go of books, shelvers are as
well buoyed by the successive decades that keep their employment going. Well
may we say, so much to read, so little time, as though we had all the time in
the world to read through our libraries. The library assumes we know what we’re
looking at. Emphasis on assumes. “No one who can read,” says Charles Dickens in
‘Our Mutual Friend’, “ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one
who cannot.” Then too, the shelver glances occasionally at a book that has
probably not gone far for some time, a gem if only there were the right reader,
an unmoved mover. But we must continue. It is a dream of stops and starts,
passing thoughts and surprise encounters with olden words. The space between
circulation and breathing, between rare books and rare moments, between the
phone and the loan. Squared corners of the imagined world are taken and tipped
back into their fine resting place. Never final resting place, for who knows
where a book may end that is constantly on the move. Even the unmoved mover
could become seriously overdue, given half a chance. All of this dizzying regimentation,
this decimalised regulation, this dance of reading rotation, devised to hold in
the impossible surge of the world as we know it, our thousand theses that would
contribute explanations of what is yet beyond the aims we ever set ourselves
anyway. The fortunate shelver glances at the arrival point, the shelf with the sermons
of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, only to notice the space left behind when the
returned volume was selected, some weeks previously. So it goes, the necessary
job of keeping the like-minded together, putting the treasure where it may be
found, while also enabling the gracious moment of serendipity.
The late Emanuele Boaga,
O.Carm. (1934-2013) was the Archivist of the Carmelite Order. At the meeting of
the Carmelite Librarians’ Association (CLA) held in Rome in January 2011, he
gave this paper on Carmelite libraries and archives, in his native Italian.
This English translation was produced by Mark Attard , O.Carm.
When speaking about our
archives and libraries, which contain a rich “collective memory” of our
spiritual life, our progress and other aspects of our Carmelite life, a
preliminary precision is needed.
The Nature of the Library and
of the Archives
-A library comes
into existence to respond to precise cultural needs (the study of specific
sciences, distribution, reading, etc.). It contains manuscripts, incunabula or
printed material which are classified according to author or to subject matter.
Therefore it has a very easy-to-use structure which gives immediate answers to
the user who is looking for information on a specific subject. Furthermore, the
catalogue card (by author or by subject matter) offers other information, like
its call number, publishers, year of publication, and other typographical data.
into existence as a consequence of the activity of an entity or an institution,
and, in a general sense, represent its organizational and administrative
structure. Therefore its primary function is for the entity or the institution
itself, since it registers all the phases of its activity. So the archives
conserve and catalogue all the documentation produced and received by the
entity in its activity. This is done according to a policy which reflects the
structure of the entity itself in its historical evolution.
collection of documents can never be transformed into an archive. On the other
hand, documents proper to an archive are bound together by a logical and
necessary connection, called an archival connection, which illustrates the
relationship that the documents have had amongst themselves from the beginning.
In fact, a document separated from its original context loses a great part of
its value and is reduced to mere “information”, absolutely insignificant from
the archival point of view and only partially useful for a researcher. Only a
wider perspective offered by the context which has determined the production of
a document and placing it in a proper archival file would allow it to assume
its proper significance.
-Sometimes, for a
variety of practical reasons, archives contain other documents regarding the
entity, but not produced by its activity. However this type of documentation
has lost the information of its original archival connection.
There is a profound and
substantial distinction between archives and libraries:
institutions cannot do without their own archives and libraries.
-But we should not
confuse archives and libraries. Even though they have similar tasks in
conserving memories in their various aspects, nevertheless they have their own
proper and distinct finalities and specific characteristics which are completely
libraries and archives:
by origin: while archives are
necessarily produced by the specific activity of an entity, libraries do not
have this derivation and connection.
by reason of their primary finality:
Archives have the principal finality of being of functional service to the
administration of their entity; while libraries and museums have an eminently
by reason of their development: The
growth of archives is limited proportionately by the greater or lesser activity
of the entity. The expansion of libraries and museums on the other hand is
unlimited and depends on a variety of causes (for example, space availability,
finances, the intentions of those responsible, and researcher requests).
by the way they are arranged:
Archives are arranged according to the structure, nature and activity of the
entity. Libraries on the other hand are arranged according to various systems
and organizational exigencies (for example, various catalogue systems, and
arranging books by size to gain space in stacks).
-Therefore it is
not possible to conceptually approximate archives and libraries. Each has its
own proper and specific methodology and this has to be borne in mind applying
informatics systems to libraries and archives.
libraries and archives complement each other well. In fact they enjoy a common
denominator in as much as they both present the value of memory and witness of
events and of the cultural production of a territory, of an institution, of an
entity, or of a person.
Libraries and Archives in the
History and Life of the Order (cf. the articles “Archivio” and “Biblioteca” in ‘Dizionario
Carmelitano’ (Roma, 2008)):
-The first known
library is that of the convent of Wadi-ein-Siah on Mount Carmel. During the
Middle Ages, to conventual libraries were added the personal libraries of the
doctors of theology. This phenomenon increased with the arrival of printing.
Already from 1680 there was the norm of sending copies of books published by
Carmelites to the library of Traspontina. Today the most functional libraries
are those associated with study r formation institutions (schools, colleges,
student houses, novitiates, etc.) and frequently they contain the books of the
deceased brethren of that community.
-In the Middle
Ages (already in 1281 and 1294) on a local level, and, from the 14th
century on a provincial level, archival documentation, together with money and
with “iocalia” (precious objects)
were conserved in a “three key safe”. On the other hand, documentation on a General
Council level was in the safe-keeping of the Procurator General who lived in
the “conventus romanae curiae” (that
is, in the various cities where the Pope established himself with his court).
The “Liber Ordinis” (which contained
the Acts of the General Chapters) was kept in between General Chapters in the
place where the future one would be held. Furthermore, according to a custom diffused
between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Priors General
kept with them special registers. The custom of having specific place for conventual
and provincial archives goes back to the 15th century. The General
Archive of the Order was born in 1593, as a registration of the activity of the
Generalate community and into it were placed all preceding documentary material
(for example, pontifical bulls).
Archives and Libraries as “Cultural
libraries and archives have to be inserted into the context of cultural goods.
This is an important fact. Libraries and archives are cultural goods not only
because they conserve books and documents, but also because their fruition
allows further production and knowledge, and, in a certain sense, they
constitute the genetic patrimony ofcommunity, in so far as they are “the deposits of the historical memory”
of that same community.
identity. This does not mean to venerate the past, but rather to seek in the
documents and books of the past those values that can enlighten our future
choices. It’s important to understand the connection to our roots which are
precisely “the memory of what we were and therefore the basis and precondition
of what we should be and would like to be. Every day, minute by minute, we move
from our roots to establish our new relationship with the world so that we
become the artisans who are aware of that every day history in which we live.
The knowledge of history is not only a knowledge of our past, but also the
knowledge of our present as well as a projected awareness of our future.” These
words of a famous living historian (F. Renda). We should also remember an
expression of Pope Paul VI: “In ecclesiastical archives are conserved the
traces of the transitus Domini in
-All of this is
applicable to our archives and libraries.
Some Further Considerations
What does this general
scenario suggest to us? I would like to offer the following considerations,
applied especially to archives but without excluding libraries.
1)There has been an increased interest in archives and
libraries in recent years, but a great deal remains to be done and there is a
backlog to catch up with. There are several initiatives here and there to
evaluate archival and library material. But there is also another demonstration
of the great importance of the value that archives have achieved in
ecclesiastical circles, and this is the circular letter sent out by the Pontifical Commission of the Cultural Goods
of the Church, entitled “The Pastoral
Function of Archives”. This manifests the great attention given to archives
in ecclesiastical circles. Archives have a pastoral function! Who would have
ever imagined until a few decades ago that those ancient pieces of paper have a
pastoral value? Why is this? Because the transmission of our documentary patrimony
is a moment of the tradition of the Church; it is a memory of evangelization;
it is the instrument of a pastoral occasion in which those papers constitute a
patrimony for the historical culture of the Church. By recuperating the historical
memory, we truly have a basis, in faithfulness to the past, for what it means
to be Church in the present.
2)Archives and libraries represent a much wider
importance than simple utility; they are centres of cultural production and of
ample possibilities of evaluation.
3)In the light of the above, it is obvious that archives
and libraries are primary cultural goods, which constitute not a “private good”
but a “patrimony” which is received and which must be transmitted also with our
own contribution. Their material protection, their administration and their
appreciation require a true commitment and adequate resources (suitable
locales, personnel, financial subsidies, regulations, etc.)
4)The best knowledge of the past is the reason and
possibility of understanding the present and also because the motive of a
hidden projection of the future. We are responsible for the patrimony which we
have received and which we are obliged to transmit to others in an integral way
and further enriched by our own present experience.