For hundreds of years people have spoken of monks and books in the same breath. This is largely due to Saint Benedict, who assumed that each monastery would have to begin a collection of manuscripts from the day of its foundation. For one thing a monastery needed books for the liturgy, and this would include missals, lectionaries, antiphonals and the like. Secondly, monasteries needed books for lectio divina — the sacred reading expected of every monk. At the very least Saint Benedict wanted each monk to read one book during Lent, though most did a little better than that. As a result, however, for centuries the prime spot for the storage of books was the sacristy, until finally some monastic collections grew to the point at which the non-liturgical books began to find a home in a purpose-built room called the library.
It was a long time before monastic collections grew to the size of the library described in Humberto Eco’s great novel, The Name of the Rose. That library seemed massive, or at least it seemed so in the movie. In fact few monasteries had such sizeable collections, and in the year 900 it was the rare monastery that had more than a hundred books. By the end of the Middle Ages, however, it was a different story, and large monastic collections paved the way for a 17th-century scholar-monk named Jean Mabillon. While his fellow French monk, Dom Perignon, stole the limelight for putting the bubbles in champagne, Mabillon cemented the popular image of the monk poring over manuscripts.
That was the legacy that the monks brought with them to central Minnesota in 1856. As they steamed up the Mississippi, they brought with them clothing and vestments and tools for the monastery, but books were equally necesssary. Those few books became the nucleus of the vast collection that students and scholars at Saint John’s page through today. Of course the library developed in directions that those first five monks could scarcely have imagined; but they also would be stunned at the size of the collection today. They would also be startled to behold the home of those books.
For decades the Abbey and University library resided in Wimmer Hall, named for the founding abbot of Saint John’s, Boniface Wimmer. Then during the Christmas break of 1965-66 the books were transferred to the newly-constructed Alcuin Library. Today no one seems entirely sure whether the building was named for Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of Saint John’s Abbey or Alcuin of York, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who headed Emperor Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen. These days most patrons of Alcuin Library seem not to care, though many pause to consider the painting of Abbot Alcuin that greets visitors. Still, I’m happy that the name Alcuin has stuck. It’s a fine yet seldom-used name today. And the name has been on the building for nearly fifty years.
That building seemed to serve student and faculty needs for decades, but at long last it has gone through a major transformation. For nine months it’s been closed, and in January and February it finally reopened after a complete overhaul. Marcel Breuer’s original design for Alcuin Library is intact but enhanced, and the two concrete trees that support the roof are much more prominent than before. The removal of the wall that cordoned off the entrance has opened up a spectacular vista of the abbey church across the plaza. Even better, it has visually sparked a conversation between faith and reason — something that architect Breuer would have appreciated.
This August Alcuin Library will be joined to a new structure — the Brother Dietrich Reinhardt Learning Commons. Together they will provide five high-tech classrooms and a range of rooms to serve individual and group study. Also included will be a new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible and direct access to The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. In sum, it’s a spectacular development, at least in my humble opinion.
And what about the books? Do they still have a place? Happily, the books that the monks brought up the Mississippi now reside in a new special collections department, which includes a dedicated reading room. Meanwhile, the collections that the University has accumulated in the course of 160 years now rest on compact shelving, easily accessible to students.
And is there room for growth? Happily too the electronic book has not nor will ever replace the hard-copy books, and the collections continue to expand. Alumni and friends of Saint John’s feed that growth with the donation of their prized books, and Alcuin Library adds newly-published works to the shelves. And then there are treasures that appear unexpectedly, like the eight hundred books donated recently by the special collections library at Brigham Young University. Over the years that library had grown its own collections through the purchase of entire libraries. Two years ago I spoke at that library’s annual friends’ meeting, and at the end of the day the director approached me with an offer I could not refuse. Among the collections were several items of Catholic interest that did not quite match the interests at BYU. Would Saint John’s be interested in eight hundred books, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries? I did not want to appear to be too eager, but I’m afraid I may bave been. Through the kindness of Brigham Young University those books now share shelves in the special collections department at Saint John’s with the seed collection that arrived in 1856.
No doubt the story of Alcuin Library and its great collection is scarcely over. There’s more to come, and it’s quite likely that ours today is the largest collection in the history of the Benedictine tradition. Would Saint Benedict be proud? Perhaps. But at the very least he would be pleased by the thought that the monks of Saint John’s are still reading.
+On April 18th I spoke to the monastic chapter on the First Generation College Student program at Saint John’s University..
+On April 21st I attended the annual Saint John’s Day gathering, held at the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Fr. Colman Barry, president of Saint John’s University, started an FM radio station at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and since then it has morphed into MPR. No doubt it remains one of the most original and influential initiatives of the University. On the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on MPR the Fr. Colman Barry Award for distinguished contributions to religion and society.
+On April 22nd our Brother Lucian departed for Germany, where he will study German, in preparation for doctoral studies which he will begin at the University of Notre Dame this fall.
+Brother Walter reports that the maple sap harvest netted 272 gallons of syrup this spring.