Thursday, December 30, 2010

Water magnets

I GOT A LOOK at the damage in the College Archives from the flood of Dec. 20, and all I can say is, it sure could have been worse. Almost miraculously, our complete run of Harper's Magazine through the Civil War (1861-65) seems to be okay. And, Deo gratias, our most valuable Bibles are safely out of harm's way on exhibit at Santa Clara University.

Still, it's a mess. Here's a photo of a less valuable 19th Century Bible that looks to be a total loss. It's moldy and not worth the expense of restoration. There are several other books in similar condition and facing a similar fate.

Some of the archival records awaiting processing got soaked and are still in their cardboard boxes. I'm hoping they're not moldy as well. Yecch -- won't that be fun! What a way to start the New Year. Well, happy 2011 anyway. Truth be told, many of our rare books show signs of water damage from centuries ago. You can't fight physics.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Deluge No. 3

I TEACH MY graduate students that through an as yet unexplained force in hydrology, rare books attract water.

So once the shock wore off (in about 20 seconds), I was not altogether surprised to hear from a colleague on Monday that parts of the ceiling in the College Archives had collapsed and sent buckets of runoff all over some of the Special Collections stacks and my work table. If drains and downspouts haven't been maintained, you'll find where the leaks are real quick when it rains for nearly a week without stopping.

This is actually the third leak since I've been in the Archives -- an average of one a year. It is by far the biggest, but back in 2008 it didn't take long to figure out that the Spearman Room is the lowest point in the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library. Overflowing toilets, condensation from the A/C and now rain have all had their turn. Rare books are water magnets.

I don't know whether it's long tradition, economics or what that inspires architects to locate rare books in basements. They all do it. In teaching library preservation management, I've seen plenty of blueprints that run all manner of pipes and plumbing directly over the treasures. One of my students just a couple weeks ago got firsthand experience when a clogged drain leaked onto the bound records in the basement of the Orange County Archives. The epic flood in Florence in 1967 swamped thousands of square feet of centuries-old basements, each filled to the joists with medieval books and manuscripts. Forty-three years later, by the way, they're still cleaning up.

I had to sit this disaster out, unfortunately; I'm home on vacation and getting over a sprained knee. My wonderful colleagues Joseph, Cheryl and Lorena moved the wet books to dry ground -- the Porch -- set up a few fans, interleaved with paper towels what pages they could. The stacks shelves are covered with plastic in case there's more water. We're all hoping that the first floor won't bloom forth with a garden of mold, which has happened before. We'll know next week.

I was dreaming of a wet Christmas, but this isn't quite what I had in mind!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Oh! antiphons

I HAVE A SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS who like me are fans of the Liturgy of the Hours, and when Dec. 17 rolls around I can count on a couple of emails anticipating the beginning tonight of the "O Antiphons," the ancient short prayers that precede recitation of the Canticle of Mary, also known as the Magnificat, during the evening office of Vespers.

The O's are very old, dating as far back as the 400s A.D. -- a 1,600-year-old tradition that really speaks to their beauty and power. Each of the O's corresponds to a title of the Messiah bestowed so poetically by the Prophet Isaiah seven centuries before Jesus' birth. The seven O's (see the Wikipedia entry for the list) form a Latin acrostic referring to the Savior's imminent arrival, ERO CRAS, "Tomorrow I will come."

One of the treasures in the Mount's Special Collections is our 18th Century antiphonary (photo above), a big book o' Gregorian chant used by monks for singing the Hours. It's bound in leather and wood and printed on cotton-rag paper in Venice in 1746. Most of the Mount students have at least heard of Gregorian chant, and they are always impressed by this folio-sized tome.

The first of the seven O's begins, "O Sapientia quae exore Altissimi produiisti..."
O Wisdom from the mouth of the Most High, you fill the whole world. With strength and gentleness, you order all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.
Besides the 7-day countdown to Christmas, what I love most about the O's is their 16 centuries of continuity. The translation above is courtesy of Universalis, a free online resource. You can download the O's, and the rest of the Liturgy of the Hours for your smart phone, Kindle, or other e-book reader, or pray the daily office with the rest of the Church via your web browser. Now that's continuity. I wonder what Isaiah would think.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bethlehem rocks

A cave of soft white limestone typical of the Galilee.
AN OLD ENVELOPE turned up in a book donated by Sister St. George Skurla, CSJ, one-time head of the English Department. Dealing with old envelopes is kind of why archives exist, so it made its way to us this morning.

Even in an archives full of wonderful surprises, it's not every day you see something like this. In the envelope was an original typewritten letter dated June 1, 1964, and signed by the mayor of Bethlehem -- the Bethlehem, not the one in Pennsylvania. It was written on the letterhead of the "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan" and attested to the authenticity of an archaeological dig in late 1963 in the Holy Land, during which some amount of rock was excavated from the site of the 4th Century Basilica of the Nativity, believed by Christians to be the location of the stable where Jesus was born.

Mr. Stanley S. Slotkin, the letter went on, obtained some of the rock with the idea of sending it back to museums and churches in the United States, "with the conviction that these stones will create interest in all faiths." The rocks were shipped, the mayor confirmed, accompanied by a letter of authenticity similar to the one we held.

At the name Slotkin we perked up. We've seen Stanley Slotkin's name elsewhere in the Mount Archives, usually associated with one of our treasures. He was the founder of Abbey Rents and seems to have spent part of his fortune donating rare books, whole collections of books, paintings, and illuminated manuscripts to colleges, universities and museums in the United States. Slotkin, who died in 1997, was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the winter of 1964 when he decided to start giving away Bethlehem stones.

But there was more in the envelope. we pulled out a shiny black card with magenta trim and white lettering, and glued in the center was a tiny white rock labeled "Stone from Bethlehem's Cave of the Nativity, Manger Room."

At that point we confess to goosebumps. Manger Room? The rock -- pebble, really -- is chalky and soft, which is what made digging caves for houses, inns and stables so popular in 1st Century Bethlehem. But this particular little piece of Palestine geology, tradition says, saw the birth of the Son of God. We held in our hand a bit of calcareous rock that is a souvenir of the Incarnation.

It's on our desk, with Mayor Elias B. Bandak's letter. As we work through this third week of Advent, we will have in front of us a piece of the cave to which Mary and Joseph resorted when they were turned away at the inn. Mary gave birth to her divine Son in that cave, and perhaps some of the light of that Holy Child and those choirs of angels and the light of the Star glinted on this little rock.

What to do with it? We suppose we'll add it to the collection of other treasures Slotkin donated -- some sheets from books of hours, a fragment of a 12th Century Quran. Seems strange, though. Maybe that's why Sister St. George tucked it into a book, to be forgotten for the next 46 years. What do you do with a souvenir of Ground Zero in a cosmic shift in the universe?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Water features

STUDENT SURVEYS indicate that the Circle -- the open area at the center of the Chalon Campus -- could be more user friendly. It's a lovely spot and the umbrella tables are often occupied, but on a sunny day the glare is pretty harsh, and it's often more of a pedestrian corridor than a spot to sit and enjoy.

Starting today, the Circle is being transformed into a more inviting space of trees and a central fountain. It's an exciting project. Not only will it add beauty to this already marvelous campus, it will at last fulfill what turns out to be an 80-year-old vision.

Mark Daniels, the original architect of the Chalon Campus, sketched his ideas in 1929, a partial set of which is held by the College Archives. But in some old newspaper clippings and the St. Mary's Academy 1930 annual, I came across a drawing I hadn't seen. This scanned image (click to enlarge) shows the expanse below a much more ornate Mary Chapel, with two fountains splashing away on either side.

Daniels, who was also a landscape architect, knew that the timeless combination of water, gardens and dappled light was essential to inviting the College into the glorious climate he sought to showcase in his vision for the Mount.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Postcards from Chalon - Part II

THE VIEW FROM CHALON is one of the most spectacular in Los Angeles, but in the early days when there were just a couple of buildings, the 270-degree the vista from this remote hilltop must have been absolutely breathtaking.

The addition of St. Joseph Hall (science and administration, 1944), Coe Library (1947), the Carondelet House of Studies (1954), Carondelet Hall (1959), Humanities Building (1964), and Drudis-Biada (1974) each took a piece out of the expanse, although there are still plenty of view sites from balconies, patios, roads and between buildings.

This undated postcard predates the Coe Library and shows the surrounding ridges and coastal plain looking southwest, interrupted only by a straggly redwood. The postcard is titled "Facing the Pacific." There was nothing between the Mount and Santa Monica but bare hills.

I admired the view yesterday as I drove downhill toward Chalon Road. The view across Santa Monica Bay toward Catalina Island was crystal clear thanks to the gusty winds. I slowed the car and wondered for the umpteenth time what prompted Mother Margaret Mary Brady to build the campus a thousand feet in the air. The view reminded me yet again of what a special place the Mount is.

I just wish the students would look up once in awhile from thumbing text into their smart phones to take it all in. I guess it's a student thing: One of the alums on my architecture tour in October, who graduated in the 1990s, was blown away by the view. "I just didn't pay attention to it when I was here," she said.