Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Universal Language

Dear Teachers,
I just got back from a wonderful vacation. I know; it's probably unkind to brag that I took the last two weeks of school off while you were still trying to maintain some semblance of order in your classroom - but you will be going to lots of interesting destinations this summer while I am stuck in my office. So things even out. Anyway, part of the vacation might be titled "Libraries Across Europe." What? You don't make it a point to visit libraries on your vacations? It's kind of a thing with me, but this probably doesn't come as a huge surprise to those of you who know me.

We dropped in on the British Library, the National Library of Ireland, and the Chester Beatty Library. We even made it to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. We arrived a little too late to take a tour of the Bodleian, but oh my goodness what a gift store they have there; it's a book nerd paradise. Of all the places we visited, however (and honestly, we did see lots of interesting sites OTHER than libraries), my favorite of any of our stops was the Long Room of the Trinity College Library in Dublin.

Prior to entering the Long Room, visitors are treated to an exhibition about the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four New Testament Gospels, believed to have been created around 800 A.D. The exhibit was fascinating and well worth your time, even though it was difficult to see the actual manuscript due to the crushing crowd. But at the end of the Book of Kells displays, visitors are rewarded with the Long Room.

I can't adequately describe how moving I found this room, but I can say that I gasped audibly and tears came to my eyes when I first walked in; even now, I get goosebumps thinking of the splendor of the room. The recesses of books seem to whisper from the past, and I was struck with the thought of all the people who had been influenced by the books within, and by the room itself.

We were there during the last days of an exhibit titled "Upon the Wild Waves," featuring myths in children's books. I adored seeing that children's literature was seen as a significant part of the library's collection and was given prominent exhibition space.

It was also great fun to see some of my favorite authors and books in the display cases.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The Hunger Games

Harry Potter (Gaelic translation)

In the "once a librarian, always a librarian" category, of course I was interested in the cataloging system used at the Long Room. (I was pretty sure it wasn't the Dewey Decimal system.) One of the curators was kind enough to give me an explanation of how they keep track of the roughly 200,000 books in the collection. 

The books are arranged by size, with the largest books on the bottom shelves, and the smallest books on the top shelves. The docent remarked that of course that made sense, since the weight of the larger books would become problematic if they were placed on higher shelves. These pictures should give you an idea of the graduated-sizes system:

To find a book, one would first locate the letter of the bay, then the letter or letters of the shelf, then the number of the book. The books are numbered starting at the shelf and then increasing toward the windows. So, if I understood correctly, a call number might look something like L-dd-14. The curator noted that the system worked really well, unless someone puts something back in the wrong place - which could probably be said of any library!

The curator went on to explain that the books can not leave the library; they are to be read only in the onsite reading room. But he was proud of his parting words, and they have stuck with me. I typed what he said into my phone so I would remember to get it exactly right: "The Trinity College Library is open to anyone from any walk of life, not just to the chosen few." Think about what a powerful statement that is. That is the lower-case-b beauty of libraries everywhere; they are equalizers; they are often life savers. "Books were my salvation growing up," my husband said to me when I told him what the curator had said, and I know he is not alone in that estimation. The Trinity College Library is a capital-B Beautiful reminder of how libraries can inform and inspire and delight and captivate us all - "not just the chosen few." 

In London a day or two later, we were on the tube seated near a family of five: a boy of about 14 or so, who was doing his best to strike the adolescent pose of indifference and mild irritation; a younger boy of maybe age 7 or 8, and a beautiful little girl of about 10 who was chattering away to her mother in Italian. At one point, the girl queried her mother. "Nein?" I understood her to say, clearly confusing my limited knowledge of European languages. "Nine and three-quarters," her mother replied to her. I smiled at them as I realized we shared a common bond. "Harry Potter," I ventured, and the ice was broken. The mother and the girl both smiled broadly back at me, and we had a nice exchange when it turned out the mom spoke nearly flawless English. As we bid them goodbye when we got off the tube at the next stop, I told them, "Nine and three-quarters is the universal language."

May this summer bring each of you wonderful experiences with books and libraries and the universal bonds that reading so often provides.



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