- Katharine Barrette
Whenever a friend or acquaintance of mine mentions a trip they’ve recently returned from, the first question I ask is: “what was the best thing you ate” or “what was the food like?”. However, when that friend or acquaintance is a “library person”, someone who works in a library or simply adores libraries, the first question becomes “which libraries did you see?” I know that when I travel, I typically seek out libraries, particularly famous or historic libraries, and make visits to them as much a part of my travel itinerary as restaurants I must try or markets I must visit. I suspect I am not alone in this, not only because other “library people” have confessed to similar travel priorities but because of the many blog postings, lists and webpages that give folks like us the low-down on the “world’s most beautiful libraries” or the “top ten libraries you must see”.
This summer, I was lucky enough to spend some time traveling, and to visit two incredible library spaces. Both were the grand, ornate kind that I would put in the “epic library” category – libraries with the sort of visual and atmospheric impact that photographer-of-stunning-libraries Candida Höfer is able to capture so well.
The first, the library of the Stift Melk, or Abbey of Melk, was located in the lush Austrian countryside in the town of Melk. Historically, Melk was a spiritual and cultural center in the countryside of Austria as home of the Badenbergs, and later a fortified Benedictine monastery after it was transferred to the brothers in 1089 by Leopold II. The abbey served as the center of the medieval community. In the early 18th century, the grand Baroque buildings that can be toured today were built, ongoing restoration work since the late 1970’s ensures that visitors are able to view many of the most famous and beautiful rooms in the abbey, including the library.
It is said (in multilingual signage, and from the mouths of tour guides) that the library’s place in the abbey, is second only in importance to the abbey church. Not some dusty, underground book repository, the main hall of this library was a beautiful sunlit ode to the four faculties of knowledge: Theology, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence as depicted by four wooden statues that flank the doors at each end of the room. Rising high above the second floor mezzanine, the ceiling fresco, a symbolic depiction of Faith surrounded by angels representing the four Cardinal Virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance was painted by Paul Troger in 1731/32. A smaller, adjoining room contains another Troger ceiling fresco, an allegorical portrayal of Scientia or Science. The main hall is dominated by two enormous globes, one terrestrial, one astronomical.
Melk’s library holds approximately 100 000 volumes, including 1888 manuscripts, 750 incunabula (works printed before 1500) and 80000 16th, 17th and 18th century works. Among them are approximately 1200 hand-lettered books created by the brothers from the 9th to the 15th centuries, some of which took an entire lifetime or the lifetimes of several monks to create. Of the twelve rooms that make up the library, only the main hall and one smaller adjoining room are open to the public; an incredible spiral staircase with a Roccoco gate leads up to rooms not open to the public and down to the abbey church below.
The rooms were quiet and relatively empty on the morning that I was there, giving me lots of time to try to photograph as much of the library as I could without either touching anything or worrying the young woman working there, who seemed to think it odd that I didn’t move quickly through the library and on to the church in time for midday prayers. I tried to imagine what this library as museum-like space must have felt like at a time when it was used by the abbey’s inhabitants for reading, study and the preservation of important writings and documents.
There’s something awe-inspiring yet familiar about library spaces, be they tiny neighbourhood public library branches, historic, national libraries or monastery libraries like this one. The Melk Abbey library with its tall beautiful shelves, gilded woodwork, and row upon row of rare and ancient tomes arranged in neat sections beginning with the Bible, followed by Theology, Jurisprudence, Geography and Astronomy, History and Baroque lexica make this library a beautiful and inspiring treasure, a place for quiet contemplation and marvel. For me, as a modern-day visitor, the grandeur and the “library-ness” of this historic library lies not only in its collections and appearance, which are magnificent, but in the importance and reverence it was accorded as a repository of knowledge and information, at the center of its community.