I’ve always thought we needed a memorial day for the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria. On that day, we could mourn all the instances of book burnings over the centuries, from the accidental ones like the Alexandrian library to intentional ones like the recent burnings of Harry Potter books and the Qu’ran by Christian extremists.
I’m not exactly a bibliophile. I know a real bibliophile. He collects rare first edition hardbound books. I buy used paperbacks so I can mark them up with pen. He looks at me like I’ve committed a cardinal sin . . . because books are sacred for him. I love books, but I really love libraries. Not all libraries actually . . . big libraries.
It started in college. If you met me, you’d think I was one of those voracious readers in high school who always has his nose in a book. It was probably because I needed glasses, but I actually only read a few books in high school. (Somehow I still managed to graduate with an A- average. What does that say about our educational system?) But when I got to college, everything changed.
Maybe it was being able to choose what I wanted to learn, by choosing the classes I wanted to take. But I was enchanted by the world of the university. I don’t mean the social aspects. I mean, going to classes, learning, reading. And pretty soon my classes were not enough and I was spending most of my free time in the library researching more. By the time I graduated I had earned myself an unofficial major in Continental Hermeneutics.
When I went to law school, this did not change. But instead of philosophy, I spent my time reading about religion. First my own (Mormonism), and then religious studies and mysticism. I was fortunate to attend law school at Indiana University in Bloomington. I.U. has the 14th largest library in the U.S. When I graduated, we moved to a city that had no large university and I was left with the public library. Ironically, it was there that I discovered Neopaganism — staring with Vivianne Crowley’s essay “Wicca as a Modern-Day Mystery Religion” in Graham Harvey’s Paganism Today.
After a year, we moved to another small town, but one that was in driving distance of the University of Chicago, the 13th largest library in the U.S. It was also close to Notre Dame, which is in the top 100, but also has a good size religious collection due to the school’s religious orientation.
I remember the first time I walked into the University of Chicago library after a year of being “deprived” of big libraries. I had to trek into the city to get there, which made it feel a little like a pilgrimage to begin with. I had to get the community pass to be granted access by security, which heightened the sense that I was entering a special place. But when I walked into the stacks, I had an intense feeling that I was walking to a holy place. I felt like I was entering a temple.
Now, I don’t say that lightly. As you know, if you’ve read this blog much, I used to be Mormon. Mormon Sunday meeting houses are not temples. They are utilitarian and aesthetically boring. But Mormons take pride in their temples, which are not open to the public and where special initiatory rituals are performed. For Mormons, temples are truly sacred spaces. Access is restricted to members who follow the Church’s rules and pass an annual interview. They are ornate and beautiful inside. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. Once inside, there are locker rooms where members change into all white clothes, right down to white socks and white slippers. Walking into a Mormon temple truly feels like you are entering a temple.
And that is how I felt that day when I walked into the University of Chicago library the first time. It probably helped that I was there researching Paganism for my own personal spiritual development. Each time I went back, I felt a degree of that same feeling: awe — religious awe.
Some people are bibliolaters, worshipers of books, or “The Book” (the Bible). I am a “librarialator”. (Say that five times fast.) One day I will make a pilgrimage to the Holy of Holies for librarialators — well, one of the three Holy of Holies for a librarialator:
The New York City Public Library
The Boston Public Library (which I would go to see the Sargent murals alone)
The Library of Congress (assuming it is still open to the public to some extent)
I’ve noticed Pagan libraries in the (Pagan) news recently. The New Alexandrian Library is being built in St. Paul by the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. And the Open Hearth Pagan Library opened in D.C. recently. As someone with an interest in the Neo-Paganism of the 60’s and 70’s, I am excited about the digitizing of Pagan periodicals and newsletters. (For more news along these lines, check out the Pagan Librarian blog.)
I’m not sure about the size of the collections of these Pagan libraries, though. I’m also not sure about the content. The people in the Pagan community who seem to have the most interest in books are the esotericists. I would hope that our “Pagan” libraries would include the writings of ancient pagans, the “aesthetic pagans” and poets of the Romantic movement, and the proto-Pagans and classicists of the 19th century, as well as secondary sources on these texts.