In Praise of the Library
By Fred Gaiser
Original published in the January 2015 issue of 1666 Coffman newsletter
Libraries attract, and Coffman’s is no exception. Libraries draw you into their orbit of mystery and adventure, fact and fiction, poetry and prose like a benign black hole, wanting never to let you go because there is so much there to experience.
We were introduced to the Coffman library on our first visit here, and it played no small part in our instant attraction to the building. Like many other Coffman residents, no doubt, I have spent large chunks of my life in libraries, many of them magnificent.
As a high school student, I was fortunate to be able to use the Library of Congress in Washington to work on term papers, lured from the nearby Virginia suburbs by the library’s grandeur but also by the fact that the words “We don’t have that book” were never heard there.
As a pharmaceutical chemist (a previous life!), I waded through Beilsteins Handbuch der Organischen Chemie to learn how to make exotic compounds. In seminary, I worked in a local library reference room, in part to get away from the then seminary librarian—one of those who regarded the books as her own and the place itself as a book museum where nothing should be touched. She had the German Weimar edition of the works of Martin Luther, which I needed for my master’s thesis, locked in a vault to which only she had the key, because they were “so rare.” They weren’t. By way of revenge we learned how to “check out” books on our own, often in the middle of the night, having discovered a door with an easily jimmied lock, so we could have them to work on a paper due the next morning. (For the record, we always carefully signed our names on the appropriate cards and properly stamped, dated, and filed them, working by flashlight.)
While working on my PhD in Heidelberg, I had to learn to decipher the handwritten German script in the huge leather-bound volumes that had served in centuries past as the only “card catalog” in that formidable building, the books being entered by hand in order of acquisition. Eventually, of course, there had to be an actual card catalog (alphabetical, but by “key word”— often chosen, it seemed, quite at random) to find anything in the large old tomes and then to request them. If you were lucky, you got them the next day.
Closer to home, I have appreciated for forty years the lovely Carnegie library in Saint Anthony Park. Walking around the neighborhood, I frequently passed through the Magrath Library on the Saint Paul Campus, just because “it was there.” I was initially disappointed, however, by the new Roseville Library because it seemed so sterile and “unlibrary-like.” But I have had to change my opinion. They are obviously doing something right, given the difficulty in finding a parking space at almost any time of the day. The more it’s used, the better the library.
The Luther Seminary library was just steps away from my seminary office, so that excellent theological library was like an extension of my own bookshelves. The rare book room at the seminary is an architectural gem, open to the public. Among other things, you can find a death mask of Martin Luther, one of only three remaining anywhere in the world.
As a journal editor, I have appreciated the collection at the university’s Wilson Library, making frequent trips there to check obscure references in articles submitted for publication. Now, at Coffman, we have ourselves become more a part of the university community (well, sort of), and we are happy to find ourselves in a place where books are treasured.
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