ASSOCIATES (2008, November, v. 15, no. 2)


Renaissance Library Calendar 2009


Review by
Jean Turner Weiss
University of California, Riverside

Every year the ISIM organization in Sweden selects the world’s 12 most beautiful libraries to grace the pages of “The Renaissance Library Calendar”. In this stiff competition librarians, information professionals, and book lovers from over 40 countries submit their nominations which must be photogenic and historically interesting. In addition to the Italian and Spanish Renaissance styles represented, splendid examples of the Baroque, Neo-Classical, Victorian, and Modern libraries are included as well. Each unique interior creates an atmosphere for learning. However, these libraries like our own suffer from problem patrons, natural disasters, damaged books, political instability, budget constraints and lack of space.

The earliest library dates from 635 AD to a monastery library on the island of Lindisfarne. The community eventually moved to Durham, UK where a Benedictine priory was founded in 1083. The priory amassed a substantial number of books, many written in its own scriptorium. The collection was eventually housed in the Refectory Library, formerly the dining hall associated with the monastery of Durham Cathedral. Due to security issues, the collection of 300 medieval manuscripts, 20,000 early printed books, the early music collection, prints and drawings is closed to the public.

One unique way a British library has addressed this security issue is simply chaining books to the shelves. In 1598 the Rev. Francis Trigge donated 100 pounds to St. Wulfram’s Parish Church for books for the clergy and people of Grantham, Lincolnshire. For over 400 years the collection has been kept in the same room over the south porch of the church. Over 80 of the 356 volumes are still chained to prevent theft.

The newest library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt, opened in 2003 and welcomes 1 million visitors annually. It was built in commemoration of the old library destroyed in 272 AD when Alexandria was taken by Emperor Aurelian. The new library continues the tradition as a learning center which now reaches the international level bridging the Arab and Western worlds. In a UNESCO competition, the Norwegian architectural firm, Snøhetta, designed the modern library where 2,000 patrons can enjoy the seven-level main reading room which houses 8 million books. Although the clean lines of the furnishings and architecture are of modern Scandinavian design, the forest of gigantic columns suggests a funerary complex of the ancient pharaohs (see photo below).


Those of us living in earthquake zones and polluted cities can identify with problems of libraries in Oaxaca, Mexico and Manchester England. The colorful Francisco de Burgoa Monastery Library in Mexico is a barrel-vaulted hall lined floor to ceiling with red wooden bookshelves. A central arch with paintings of saints supports the ceiling decorated with delicate geometric frescoes. The project was dedicated in 1575, but the lavish scale of the monastery and an earthquake prevented the Dominican friars from moving in for another 35 years. In addition to the wide variety of topics in the collection besides religion, the library offers a paper restoration workshop to anyone wishing to preserve their documents.

The Portico Library & Gallery does not have ecclesiastical roots, but originated when a group of Manchester businessmen created an institution which would function as a newsroom, library and club. The collection is comprised of travel books, including the voyages of Captain Cook and many Victorian women travelers, history, biographies, and novels. Due to the library’s location in central Manchester, there is an ongoing need to restore earlier volumes deteriorating from industrial pollution, gas lighting and smoking patrons.

Activities of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, California have also been influenced by their environment, but in a positive way. The library began as the La Jolla Reading Club and eventually found a new home in the Athenaeum, a 1921 Spanish Renaissance-style structure. It is active in San Diego cultural life and receives over 100,000 visitors annually. The superb climate is favorable for art exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and art classes scheduled throughout the year. A wide range of resources include music and art unique to the region, rare historic items and the latest in video technology. This is one of the 16 membership libraries remaining in the USA.

Three libraries in the Calendar are noted for their specialized collections. The Butler Library, Columbia University, New York was financed by Standard Oil executive and philanthropist Edward S. Harkness and renamed in honor of Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of the university from 1902-1945. One of 25 libraries at Columbia, it houses the 2 million volumes in the general collection of humanities and social sciences prior to 1974. The traditional Italian Renaissance building with its coffered ceiling and wall of stately windows has been featured in the films Ghostbusters and Spider-Man. Extensive renovation of the library has been completed just in time for the 75th anniversary celebration in 2009.

The Stephen B. Luce Library is part of the SUNY Maritime College located in the historic Fort Schuyler on the Throgs Neck peninsula in the Bronx. It is named for the famous admiral who wrote the classic text on seamanship. The library has been in its current location since 1965 and has received the AIA/ALA award of merit for its outstanding design by architect William A. Hall. The massive granite block walls of the interior suggest the sea walls of a harbor that repel the crashing waves while the red brick ceiling brings to mind the warehouses and taverns along the quay constructed from the same material. Models of ships, a globe and the open source online catalog, the sextant, reflect the maritime collection of more than 90,000 volumes on marine engineering, naval architecture, marine transportation and oceanography. The library is also known for its extensive collection documenting maritime history since the 1700s.

Another library founded for professional use is the Lincoln’s Inn Library, London, principally a law library for barristers and law students. There is an excellent collection of English legal treatises as well as a large collection of pamphlets and tracts with over 2000 of them dated before 1700. Although the Library also holds virtually a complete set of all Parliamentary papers from 1801, rare books and manuscripts, these are available only to scholars. The Library was first mentioned in 1471 making it the oldest surviving library in London, however, the current building dates from 1845 and was opened by Queen Victoria. Visitors are not permitted, but from the entrance they may briefly view the walls of seasoned book cases highlighted by the soft light streaming in through the cathedral windows (see photo below).


In the early 19th century the Library of Carmelite Monastery, Germany fell victim to secularization. The collection of 16,000 books was confiscated by the State and its ceiling painted over in lime because the decorations promoted the Carmelite order. Almost 200 years later some of the lime started to flake off and revealed a piece of the painting. Public and private donations paid for restoration and removal of the lime on the ceiling. In 2008 the Library was re-opened and the glorious Baroque fresco revealed. Many of its books were returned including incunabulae from the time of Gutenberg.

“The Renaissance Calendar” invites us to visit these impressive libraries and experience their beauty and history. Below the professional-quality photographs are well-researched descriptions, addresses and opening hours. Months, days and dates are in easy-to-read boldface print with boxes large enough for brief notations. This calendar is reasonably priced at $13.95, less for bulk orders, plus shipping and handling. It would make an ideal gift for personal friends, colleagues, clients and customers. The eight earlier editions are on sale. Renaissance Library greeting cards, prints and posters can also be ordered. These items are published by ISIM, Torsvägen 7B, SE-192 67 Sollentuna, Sweden, tel/fax: +46 8 754 15 55. E-Mail: and details at ISIM is an information strategy and information management consultancy, and a small publishing company based in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden.

The publisher welcomes comments about the Calendar and nominations of favorite old libraries for next year.