Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Library Visit: St. Paul's Cathedral Library

Ascend 142 steps, and you're on the triforium level of St. Paul's Cathedral in central London. This is a level that few people get to see, and it is home to museum-like objects--the ill-fitting lid for the baptismal font on the Cathedral floor, old (and older) lecterns, and stone blocks from the Cathedral's previous incarnations. The triforium is also home to the St. Paul's Cathedral Library.

Faciendi plures libros nulles est finis. "Of making books there is no end," reads an inscription above one of the doors on the triforium level. This floor of the Cathedral was meant for books. In fact, although the library occupies but one room, two chambers were built to hold the Cathedral library. In the second chamber, there are currently no books; just a massive oak model, the Great Model, of Sir Christopher Wren's original design for the Cathedral. Have you ever smelled a room that was so full of an oak-y scent? This model, which commands the whole space of the chamber, was built in 1673-64.

The library itself has its own distinct smell--dust, of course, but also something chemical, probably off-gasing from the pages of the old, old books. The library is made up of 54 shelves on two levels (floor and gallery); there are additional glass-doored cases of books on the library floor; and all the books are arranged by size. Like most rare books libraries and special collections, such organization demands a meticulous and dedicated librarian.

Mr. Joseph Wisdom, Librarian of St. Paul's Cathedral Library, is such a man. He joked a bit and told fascinating history of the place, but he also answered questions about who can access the library (anyone who wants to, although usually such people are scholars of some sort) and in what limited subject areas the library currently acquires new materials (the Cathedral, the Church in London, biographies of those people interred in the Cathedral). He even let us see a 13th-century psalter, beautifully illuminated; that's the oldest book in the library.

While such a library is obviously not within my particular public library or children's/young adult focus, it was fascinating to see. Beautiful and old, ornamented and, in its own way, regal. Quite a good first library visit.

*above photo courtesy of St. Paul's Cathedral

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