Fall 2009 | Gateway to Learning
Touching the soul
|Heinz Baader (History, Emeritus)
By Heinz Baader (History, Emeritus)
The first bombs fell at 1:52 in the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 23, 1945, a few months before the end of World War II. At 2:03 p.m., 11 minutes later, the town of about 50,000 people was destroyed; the last fires burned themselves out 48 hours later.
Few people survived. My high school and its library were smoldering skeletons. Of course, once fully ignited, books burn with great intensity.
By the time the firestorm had subsided those lovely books had been turned into little heaps of grayish-white puffs of ash, to be blown away by the slightest breeze. Gone with the wind.
A few years later, with the war over, I exchanged one crippled town for another; and once again, there were no libraries. The University of Munich had not lost its books; it had followed the interesting pattern of evacuating “art before books; books before machinery; machinery before people.” Much was saved that way, but that also meant that these objects would not be available for years to come. The books students needed were resting in crates in the bowels of a Bavarian salt mine.
As I am sitting here in the comfort of the sun-drenched third floor of the splendid new St. Norbert library, I still recall the sense of deprivation and envy that I experienced decades ago. I am not at all surprised that those feelings would later lead me to make regular pilgrimages to those shrines for books: libraries large and small, public and private, nearby and far away.
I love pilgrimages to begin with. There is something so majestic about cathedrals, that stepping into the inner sanctum. I have the same feelings for libraries. They offer an inner sanctum that just touches the soul.
The world of books and libraries has plenty of heroes and villains, donors and benefactors, destroyers and builders.
I recall my sense of anger when, as a freshman, I discovered that one of the most brutish rulers of antiquity, the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668 B.C.), had amassed a personal library of over 20,000 volumes in his capital of Nineveh, complete with a rather modern cataloguing system. A lover of books, yet also quite capable of bleaching the skulls of his enemies and erecting them in the shape of a pyramid, as a warning to all.
One of the most impressive positive figures is one of the pharaohs of the Ptolemy dynasty who systematically built antiquity’s largest library at the seaport of Alexandria. It would not have a rival until our own 19th century, when national and university libraries were created.
This ruler even instructed his customs officers to demand that ships from foreign countries surrender their books and scrolls on board long enough to be copied by his library scribes.
Yet, several centuries later, as Christianity became a serious contender for Rome’s state religion, the goodly pious bishop of Alexandria torched that splendid edifice, together with its 400,000 “pagan” volumes.
Anyone who cherishes books would have to rank the ancient Romans as heroes. While the versatile and mentally nimble Greeks are usually given the laurels, Rome’s great public and private libraries at one time were the envy of the world. The city of Rome had 28 public libraries two centuries after Christ. When the emperor Caracalla built the gigantic baths named after him, he installed not one but two libraries on the grounds, one for the Greek and one for the Roman classics.
When, slightly later, the emperor Diocletian built his baths – on a scale so large that the grounds today house the national museum, a church by Michelangelo, and the main railroad station – he also added a Greek and a Latin/Roman library. At the same time, his librarians were becoming aware of the fragile nature of paper (papyrus) and switched their writing material to the more durable parchment, and the book form from the scroll-format to that of the codex, or bound book.
The Middle Ages constitute somewhat of an interlude yet, paradoxically, at the end of that period we find some of the world’s most beautiful libraries, created by the monastic orders (with the Benedictines in the vanguard), and by the papacy in Rome. Ask enough people and, chances are, they would rate the Vatican Library the artistically most glorious of them all. Some even suggested that the label “library” is a misnomer; that “Renaissance Palace with Books” would be more accurate, with Raphael’s frescoes a mere additional embellishment.
Closer to us chronologically, the English king Henry VIII (d.1547) “dissolved” the British and Irish monasteries, which led to the abandonment of their once so splendid libraries. No wonder the epic “Beowulf” survived in the form of only one copy.
And then, of course, there are institutions that should have done better. A modern example might be the new British Library (finally separated from its renowned parent, the British Museum). London, with its long tradition and important role in the history of books, probably should have consulted the architects and planners who gave us that glass palace of a library at St. Norbert, a landmark for generations to come. Instead, London got a brownish pile of bricks that, to the uninformed, could easily be mistaken for a tannery.
Upon reflection, the library that I most fondly remember also happens to be the world’s smallest. In war-torn Germany, a few weeks after that firebombing described earlier, an elderly lady discovered that, in one of the bombed-out buildings downtown, a room with a ceiling and three walls had survived. She managed to obtain a tarp (in the form of an abandoned military tent), which became the fourth wall. With four cinder blocks and two wooden boards she constructed a library shelf. Her library holdings were six books.
On the outside of that ruined building she posted this note: “Library open 12-5. No library card needed. Book donations welcome.” It was not only heroic, it was a success. Two weeks later the shelf held 13 volumes.
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