Monday, July 5, 2010

St. Paul's Cathedral Tour

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On today's tour, we visited the Saint Paul's Cathedral Library and toured the upper floors and library with librarian Joseph Wisdom.

While my current focus in librarianship is academic librarianship, I was an anthropology major as an undergrad, focusing on archaeology, and have taken graduate courses on preservation and the history of the book, so I suppose I am also looking longingly at special collections. As a consequence of my academic background, I often find myself looking at the book as an object--often, its symbolism is just as interesting as the information written inside.

Wisdom introduced us to the Cathedral by pointing to a carving above the entrance depicting a stone book flanked by two cherubs. The book was blank--the symbol of the book, not any written words, were the most important thing to the designer of the carving. While waiting for the tour to begin, I found many other symbols, most of which were symbols of power. The symbols of power were associated primarily with God and Christianity, but also the intellectual, military, or political power of the people memorialized inside. The symbols included durable marble and metalwork, costly gilding, and, incorporated into memorial statues and plaques, books and scrolls.

Almost since its inception, Christianity has been the religion of the book, and similarly, St. Paul's has always had a library. As part of the tour, we visited two upper rooms, one which housed Wren's model of the Cathedral's original design and several architectural drawings of the Cathedral (the Fabric Archive) and the other which housed the Library. Wisdom pointed out carvings of books and quill pens in the scrollwork that showed that the connection between Christianity and books had been made by the builders in these upper rooms as well.

In the Library, Wisdom noted how central an understanding of the depth of time was to his work: one instance of this is keeping the various catalogs that have been created for the Library collection. These document the history of the Library, as well as items that the Library may no longer own--such as the volumes that were lost when the previous St. Paul's burnt down.

Nowhere was this depth of time more evident than in the beautifully illuminated manuscript psalter that Wisdom brought out for us to view. Both its handwritten and hand-decorated pages and deep, distinctive scent seemed to epitomize age. Listening to Wisdom describe his work, I was surprised to learn how much it strayed into curation. Part of Wisdom's job is to measure the heat and relative humidity in both the Fabric Archive and the Library, and his description of discovering the provenance, or history, of the psalter, was almost exactly the same approach as archaeologists take when puzzling out the significance of their findings.

Once I started looking at the library as a place to be curated, I found challenges to this goal everywhere--the collection included not just the manuscript but also printed books, both housed in a historical building. To add to this difficulty, St. Paul's is a functioning cathedral that cannot be dissected or torn apart to seal cracks, put in a new particle filtering ventilation system or close up windows letting in light. In spite of these challenges, Wisdom was enthusiastic about his work and about sharing its unique characteristics with us.

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