Saturday, December 29, 2012

Handled With Care


I have been here many times before. Not to this particular library but to others like it. Some have been on college campuses, others in private homes. Some have sprawled through many rooms, including the bathroom; others were confined to a single space. One had no windows; another overlooked a lake. Most were crowded. All were dusty.
Illustration by Jon Krause
Each was the domain of a scholar. Each was the accumulation of a lifetime of intellectual achievement. Each reflected a well-defined precinct of specialization. But what they also had in common was that each of their owners had died. And by declaration of their wills, or by the discernment of their families, I had been called to claim or consider the bereft books for my university library.

One of the little-known roles of the academic librarian is bereavement counseling: assisting families with the disposition of books when the deceased have not specified a plan for them. Most relatives know these books were the lifeblood of their owners and so of intellectual value if not great monetary worth. But they remain clueless about how to handle them responsibly. Some call used-book shops. Some call the Salvation Army. Others call a university library. Many allow friends and relatives to pick over the shelves before bringing in a professional.

On this particular day I’m standing in the doorway of a distinguished but forlorn library in South Bend, Ind., ready to perform last rites on the extensive collection of James White, a noted historian and specialist in the liturgies and worship practices of the Christian tradition. I always pause before entering these libraries. Even after the family has shown me to the space, I can’t just barge in. That seems disrespectful. I need to be introduced to the books. I need to become acquainted.

Surveying these rooms, I find myself wishing I had a ritual to invoke, for the study I’m about to disrupt is a private, beloved retreat — an inner sanctum for reading, reflection and writing. And since it is here that someone wrestled with ideas, sought integrity of expression and gave expression to fresh-jacketed voices, the book-­studded room seems sacred. Is there a prayer I can offer? Sometimes I think I should take off my shoes — a physical act to show my respect. 

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