Dom Joly

The traditional library still plays a vital role in the school system

Dom Aidan Bellenger on the importance of libraries

The traditional library still plays a vital role in the school system
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Have school libraries had their day? The printed book’s previously unassailable supremacy as the medium of learning is rapidly being replaced by other more sophisticated electronic means. Books are still popular among the young, often promoted by social networking, but with the internet and much else, is their future (if they have one) merely recreational?

In allocating budgets, school managers often see the library as a place where all forms of information ‘technology’ (including books) can be integrated. It is often a suitable room or area for computers and terminals of all kinds. In some schools the gracious but underused library, the vibrant study place of a past age, is now designated a place of quiet study — tolerated somnolence.

In some educational philosophies reading has a crucial place, and this is true of the Benedictine model. In St Benedict’s Rule a special place is reserved for lectio divina (sacred reading). This is a way of reading which emphasises reflection and contemplation. Books are singularly suitable for this task, and the codex, the origin of the modern book, probably began life as a sacred text. Within this tradition books are perhaps irreplaceable.

If you visit Downside today, it is the great neo-Gothic abbey church which dominates the scene. It signposts the monastic priority of prayer. The largest of modern monastic churches, it also has the claim to be the most beautiful. Its imposing east end is presently under a cover of scaffolding, part of the major restoration intended to coincide with the bicentenary of the abbey and school in 1814. To the south-east of the church is a striking free-standing building, built of concrete, glass and stone, very 1970s modernist in style, in marked contrast to the church. To some visitors it appears, with its octagonal shape and its significant relationship to the church, to be an oversized chapter house. In fact it is the monastery library, perhaps Downside’s greatest hidden treasure, a scholarly Cinderella about to go to the ball.

The architect Francis Pollen, whose influences included Lutyens and who had been a pupil at Downside school, designed the monastery library to house the abbey’s great collection of books, manuscripts and archives on six floors of varying sizes and shapes. The books had previously been stored in the monastery. The exterior has been compared with a rocket launchpad, a giant sundial or even a variation of Umberto Eco’s library in The Name of the Rose.

The building, which like the Doctor’s Tardis seems bigger inside than out, surrounds a central staircase and is beautifully lit and furnished with fine purpose-built bookshelves. The collection is bursting at the seams and every inch of the building seems to be filled with books and papers. It is a collection of rich and quirky diversity. It includes the historic archives of the English Benedictine Congregation, the largest collection of ‘Recusant’ books (that is, Roman Catholic books printed in the ‘Long Reformation’) surviving in England, significant historical, patristic and liturgical holdings, and the richest collection of medieval manuscripts in the south-west of England.

Its character reflects the interests of the monks over the centuries as well as the library’s numerous benefactors. The library at Douai was largely lost at the Revolution, but the collection was built up at Downside from its earliest days. It was given a great impetus by the scholarly circle of Cardinal Aidan Gasquet, who ended his career as Vatican Librarian at the end of the 19th century, and most notably Edmund Bishop, whose great liturgical library forms the core of the special collections. It owes much, too, to its monk librarians, notably Dom Raymund Webster, in the interwar years, who had a great gift for acquiring rare books at bargain prices, and more recently Dom Daniel Rees (who died in 2007) whose enthusiasm and knowledge on things bibliographical was combined with an inability to say no to any donation of books.

The monastery library has always been separate from Downside school library, which is known as the Petre Library and is accommodated in a fine Victorian room in the school quad. It is essentially a scholar’s library, particularly devoted to aiding the learning of the monks, but its contents are so interesting and important that the monastic community has always made them available to external users. The monks have recently decided to make the monastery library more accessible to the public and have made detailed plans to open its collections. This has led to a recent, and very generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £865,000, which will help make the monastery library one of the principal cultural resources of the region.

The plan, which is creative and exciting, and has been much helped by other benefactors, seeks to conserve the collections, digitise the catalogue, organise exhibitions and welcome visitors. The monastic community hope that the monastery library will be a beacon of learning in the West in an age when the book, the codex, Christianity’s characteristic means of communication, is being challenged by other media. The traditional library may seem to have had its day, yet the power of the text, and the beauty of the image, remain compelling and can reach wider audiences through new technology. The Downside Library project, symbolised by the juxtaposition of church and library, hopes to combine the best of old and new. It challenges the adjoining school to think again about the place of the book in its curriculum and the role of the library on its campus.

Dom Aidan Bellenger is Abbot of Downside.