Handled with Care

When a scholar’s library outlives its owner, a reverent bibliophile knows just what to do.

By Andrew D. Scrimgeour

handlewithcareI have been here many times before. Not to this particular library but to others like it. Some have been on college campuses, others in private homes. Some have sprawled through many rooms. Others were confined to a single space. One had no windows. Another overlooked a lake. Most were crowded. All were dusty.

Each was the domain of a scholar. Each was the accumulation of a lifetime of intellectual achievement. And each of their owners had died. By declaration of their wills or the discernment of their families, I had been called to consider the bereft books for my university library.

One of the little-known roles of the academic librarian is bereavement counseling: helping families dispose of books when the deceased have not specified a plan for them. On this day I’m standing in the doorway of a distinguished but forlorn library in South Bend, Ind., ready to perform last rites on the extensive collection of James White, a professor emeritus of theology and specialist in the liturgies and worship practices of the Christian tradition at the University of Notre Dame. I always pause before entering these libraries. Even after the family has shown me to the space, I can’t just barge in. I need to be introduced to the books. I need to become acquainted.

Surveying these rooms, I find myself wishing I had a ritual to invoke, for the study I’m about to disrupt is a private, beloved retreat—an inner sanctum for reading, reflection and writing. And since it is here that someone wrestled with ideas, sought integrity of expression and gave expression to fresh-jacketed voices, the book-studded room seems sacred. Is there a prayer I can offer? Sometimes I think I should take off my shoes—a physical act to show my respect.

What first catches my eye on this day is the calendar on Professor White’s desk—a small scenic calendar from Vermont Life. Two volumes of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion hold pride of place in the middle of the desk—one open and face down, undoubtedly the last book that White was reading. Bach’s chorale preludes are in the CD player, and my first act is to fill the library with the music White loved and often played on the spinet piano in the adjacent room. Before disturbing anything, I photograph the room from several angles, ensuring that his desk and books are captured for the archival record.

These libraries have ranged widely on the tidiness scale. A few look ready for a Better Homes and Gardens photo shoot. One was fully cataloged, each volume standing tall in its proper Dewey location, spine perfectly aligned to the edge of the shelf, a regiment ready for inspection. Another was a health hazard—hundreds of books piled on the floor, knee-high canyons to navigate like Gulliver on Lilliput Island.

The placement of individual books and the adjacencies of groups intrigue me. Are they subject categories? Chronological gatherings? A map of intellectual terrain? Or just evidence of the constraints of shelf space? Which books are closest to the desk? Which are consigned to the closet? Books sequestered in the shadows suggest clandestine reading and hidden pleasures.

Sometimes I find books hidden away for a coming event—a birthday, graduation or anniversary—a greeting card, yet unsigned, often their companion.

Did the professor write in the books, dog-ear the pages, underline passages in red? Inscriptions on the title pages reveal personal and professional friendships. Occasionally, something unusual tumbles from the pages—Civil War–era currency or a note from a famous person. I’m particularly fascinated by the well-worn volumes—the indispensable reference works or canonical texts in one’s field.

I prefer to inventory the books by myself. It is a way not only to get to know the library but to commune with the former dweller of the room. Sometimes the utmost diplomacy is required to persuade family members that I don’t need assistance as I sort, box and make notes in solitude.

I place the books in boxes one volume at a time, noting each title, silently calling each by name—a bibliographic benediction for a job well done in this place for this scholar. At times I feel camaraderie with bishops who lay hands on confirmands and unhurriedly bless them by name, one at a time, regardless of how long the line stretches down the center aisle.

What has taken years to create I dismantle in a matter of hours or days, reducing walls of colorful volumes to a cube of brown cartons resting on a pallet. The room becomes stark, the bookcases empty, the sweet autumn musty scent of the older books gone.

For the moment, the collections to which I am called still consist of paper, ink, glue, covers and jackets. I find solace in knowing that these orphaned books—White’s collection in Indiana and many others across the country—have become the companions of a new generation of students and scholars.

A longer version of this essay by Dean of Libraries Andrew D. Scrimgeour appeared in the Dec. 28, 2012, issue of The New York Times Book Review.

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