I knew I had a library problem the first time I stood under the Pantheon-scale dome of the State Library Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. In that impossibly grand temple of books, my heart thumped with a sudden realization: Libraries can capture and hold history in a spectacular way. Ever since that moment, I’ve been a full-blown library lover.
In 2012 my daughter, Thea, was born. By the age of five, she already knew her quartos from her octavos, her Penguins from her Puffins. I wanted, though, to turbocharge her love of libraries. Around the dinner table, my wife, Fiona, and I planned a family trip: a world tour of great collections.
We reeled off our must-sees. The evocative medievalism of the Bodleian, in Oxford, England; the jewel box perfection of New York’s Morgan; the cozy idiosyncrasy of the Folger Shakespeare and the stunning grandeur of the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C.
“But we have to go to the British Museum too,” Thea countered, “to see the mummies from ancient Egypt.”
The British Museum, in London, has only a modest collection of books, and its famous reading room is closed indefinitely as the museum considers how best to use it. But the museum had a right to be on our list, and it was a walkable distance from its uber-bookish sister institution, the British Library. Plus, Thea’s interest in mummies gave me an idea.
“Let’s make a deal,” I said. “If the British Museum is your favorite, we also have to go to my favorite.”
We shook hands and added two destinations to our list: the British Museum and the Swiss valley where an old monastery houses what I think is the most beautiful library in the world, the Abbey Library of St. Gall.
That library’s history began in the Dark Ages when a party of Irish monks traveled deep into Europe. In mountainous country near Lake Constance, one of the monks tripped. Taking this as a sign, he set up a hermit cell. The hermitage soon grew into a monastery where scribes painstakingly copied and illuminated manuscripts, decorating them with gold and silver and lapis lazuli.
In the 10th century, the library survived a Hungarian invasion and a fire. In subsequent centuries the books suffered neglect: Visitors reported seeing them in dusty and moldy condition. In the 1700s, however, St. Gall entered a second golden era. Master craftsmen built an exquisite library hall with elaborate fittings and a trompe l’oeil ceiling that created the illusion of bookcases extending into the heavens.
About an hour’s train ride from Zurich, St. Gallen today is a city of around 70,000 people. We arrived on a sunny day. Snow had fallen the night before, and there were piles of it in the street.
After Thea made and threw her first snowball, we walked through the twisting, cobblestone streets of the Old Town, famous for its half-timbered buildings and their carved wooden figures. Reaching the clearing that surrounds the abbey, we were struck by the building’s scale and its pristine state of preservation. Upstairs in the library wing we donned the felt slippers that visitors must wear over their shoes to protect the patterned pinewood floor. The Greek inscription over the library entrance echoes that from the Great Library of Alexandria: “Sanatorium for the soul.” When we entered the library hall, it was bathed in golden light. Thousands of books in their original bindings stood spine-outward behind protective wire lattice. Pyramid-shaped cases held the principal treasures, such as the oldest known German book in the world and an illustrated “pauper’s bible.”
The hall also has its secrets. Extending along either side are hinged wooden pillars that, when opened, reveal an ingenious catalog system of cards and pins. A hidden staircase leads to a room that houses even more of the library’s rare manuscripts.
Their majestic utility aside, the world’s libraries are under threat. New forms of media are supplanting the physical book, and libraries are being closed, as in Britain, or looted and destroyed, as in Baghdad and Timbuktu. But places like St. Gall show that libraries have always been at risk and that people have always been willing to step forward to protect them.
Near the end of our visit to St. Gall, I led Thea to the surprise I’d been planning for her from the beginning when we’d made our deal. It was also one of the library’s greatest treasures: the mummy Schepenese, a young Egyptian woman from Thebes, beautifully preserved with her ebony skin and immaculate teeth. After that thrilling encounter, I could see that Thea had joined the ranks of bibliophiles for whom libraries shelter much more than books.