ASSOCIATES (2007, November, v. 14, no. 2)


Renaissance Library Calendar 2008


Review by
Jean Turner Weiss

University of California, Riverside

The Renaissance Library Calendar is composed of twelve portraits of the most beautiful old libraries in the world. For the past eight years librarians, information specialists, and book lovers from forty countries have nominated their favorites. Each library is not only architecturally impressive, but also inviting. The outstanding photography captures a quiet studious mood in the Gothic, Baroque, Georgian, Beaux-Arts and even Modern styles. Some libraries are very colorful with brightly cushioned chairs, stained glass windows, and Oriental rugs. In others cases, of books line the walls from floor to ceiling. It is easy to imagine monks pouring over illuminated manuscripts and university students studying Robert Browning or Jonathan Swift in these majestic spaces.

1107ren1.jpgUnder each picture is a brief description of the library’s history and special interests. The opening hours and websites invite us to visit them in the USA, UK, Austria, Australia, Canada, and Poland.

Three of the five ecclesiastical libraries are in Benedictine monasteries. This is not surprising. The website of the New Norcia Library in Australia reminds us that the Benedictines associate books and learning with their spiritual development. A rule of St. Benedict states, “During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library and is to read the whole of it straight through.” The New Norcia Library founded in 1846 concentrates on Roman Catholic theology, but includes important works on Australian Aboriginals, Australia, and art.

The two Austrian monasteries have continued in the tradition of St. Benedict for over 900 years. In the lavish Baroque Melk Abbey Library, walls of books are arranged in carved cases with gilded ornamentation and statuary. (See cover photo.) Melk was once an important intellectual and spiritual center of the country as shown in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose. Its reputation as a center for learning continues to the present day. One photograph on the monastery’s website shows a group of students wearing jeans and backpacks leaning on the display case listening to a tour guide.

The Lambach Monastery Library contains more than 800 handwritten books with many probably produced in its very famous scriptorium during the Middle Ages. The Library houses a Reading-mill, “Lesemühle,” built in 1730 and used as an appliance for reading several books at a time. On the calendar page it looks like a small mill wheel of shelves mounted on a carved cabinet.

Viewing the Vorau Monastery Library feels like being inside a giant Christmas ball. Lavishly gilded book cases and pastel pink walls with white accents are typical of the Austrian Baroque style. The paintings by Gottlieb Kröll depict the major fields of knowledge in the collection, theology, law, and philosophy. The present collection contains about 42,500 volumes. During the Second World War about 5,000 books disappeared and are still gone.

The last ecclesiastical library has also suffered from invasions. York Minster Library, England, founded about 750, lost its entire early collection. The books were either burned by the Danes in the 860s or destroyed by the Normans in 1069. Despite this, it has become the largest Cathedral Library in the UK with 120,000 books, tracts, and pamphlets. The Library also holds an interesting collection of printed music and even the choir repertoire from ca. 1600 to the present day.

The first of four academic libraries is the North Reading Room of Doe Memorial Library, Berkeley, California. It has been called one of the greatest architectural accomplishments of the Beaux-Arts period. Two years ago the reading room was restored to its 1910 grandeur from its bronze gilt and white coffered ceiling and original paint colors, to the sturdy oak chairs and tables with hand cast lamps. The library housing the humanities and social science collection is one of several dozen libraries on the Berkeley campus which together hold over 10 million volumes.

The youngest of the libraries is the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library (1951) at Baylor University, Texas. Dr. Andrew Joseph Armstrong was responsible for fundraising and donating his Robert Browning poetry collection. The Library also focuses on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and includes all the first editions of both poets and 2,800 original letters written by and to the Brownings.

The King James Library, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, is named after King James VI of Scotland and I of England who set aside funds and donated its foundation collection. Originally classes were held in this room. The website describes how early scholars stood on a black granite block in front of the class and were drilled in Latin on their lessons. Today divinity students make use of the theology and biblical texts that make up the collection.

The Jagiellonian University is the oldest university in Poland and the second oldest in Central Europe. Although it was founded by King Casimir the Great in 1364, the library itself was built from 1515 to 1519 in the late Gothic style. Nicolaus Copernicus was one of its famous students. In addition to 29,000 maps, there is a globe showing the newly discovered continent of America for the first time in globe cartography. The Library also contains 35,000 items of printed music and Frédéric Chopin’s papers. An autographed sweet tin the composer used for chocolates is on display.

The Armagh Public Library, Northern Ireland, was founded in 1771 by Archbishop Robinson as part of his plans to establish a university and improve the city of Armagh. His own library formed the nucleus of the collection of 17th and 18th century books on theology, philosophy, classic and modern literature, voyages, history, medicine, and law. The rare books include History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh and a first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels with notations in Swift’s own handwriting.

The Mechanics’ Institute Library was founded in 1854 when the isolated frontier community of San Francisco needed to provide technical education for mechanics and promote local industry. The Library and its entire collection of 200,000 volumes were completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The present building was completed in 1910 and its massive two-story columns and stark geometric lines are reminiscent of Fernand Leger’s paintings of the industrialized world. The collection has reached 175,000 volumes and is growing by 350 items each month. Subjects include applied sciences, business, the fine arts, and even chess for the library’s chess club.

1107ren2.jpgAnother library to define its purpose through history is the Library of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, the first Learned Society in Canada. (See photo.) Its original aim was to rescue “such documents as may be found amid the dust of yet unexplored depositories.” The intimate study area is surrounded by books on Canadian history, early travel narratives, and the British Empire. This private English-language library operates within the French speaking Quebec City which will be celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2008.

The Renaissance Library Calendar is produced by ISIM, Information Strategy & Information Management, a consulting firm and small publishing company based in Sollentuna, a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden.

I highly recommend their Renaissance Library Calendar which is reasonably priced at $13.95 plus shipping and handling. Costs decrease with orders of three or more until they reach $12 a copy for 25 Calendars. Other Renaissance Library products for the bibliophile include greeting cards, prints, and posters. For further details see the web site at

The ISIM people always welcome comments about their Calendar and nominations for next year at:

Torsvagen 7B
192 67 Sollentuna

Telephone:  +46 8754 15 55
Fax:   +46 8754 13 33

Jean is a cataloger at the University Libraries, University of California, Riverside.