Hidden in Plain Sight: Accessing the university’s artifacts

By: and
02/19/2015

“Ignatius of Loyola started out as a soldier, you know.” Father Leon Hooper, S.J., caretaker of the Woodstock Theological Library, located in the rarely-visited lower level of Lauinger Library, recounts the story with a beaming smile. “Well, one day he got hit by a cannonball!”

During his bed-ridden recovery, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, experienced a radical rejuvenation of his faith and developed his Spiritual Exercises, his discernments of the spiritual world and a foundational work of Jesuit faith.

Perhaps as fascinating as St. Ignatius’s metanoia itself is the fact that within the Woodstock Theological Library, one of several impressive and clandestine archives at Georgetown, there survives a 1540 first edition of the Spiritual Exercises, worth over $1 million and safely locked up in a temperature-controlled room.

Indeed, visitors, who could easily become overwhelmed by the ubiquitous sight and smell of old, leather-bound books on all sides of the one-level library, are granted access to a tangible timeline of about 17,500 historical and religious texts from the 13th through the 19th century, all of which detail the stages of the university’s spiritual and physical conception.

“One of the oldest things we have [is from]the 1200s,” Hooper said, delicately holding the fragile text. “They didn’t have the printing press or paper developed, so animal hide is what it’s all hand written on. It’s a holy office, what the faithful would sing, maybe five, six times a day. As you can see, it has been used a lot, the fingerprints are everywhere.”

Georgetown, the oldest Catholic university in the country, provides a home for hundreds of thousands of texts, pieces of art, and artifacts dating from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Jesuit religious order through the founding of Washington, D.C. to modern day. While the stone, neo-Gothic style buildings may seem like the only visible remnants of the past left on campus, several inconspicuous havens throughout the university shelter objects far older than Healy and White Gravenor Halls.

According to Hooper, during the 18th century when Jesuits were suppressed for, among other things, denouncing the immorality of slavery, Jesuit priests who had settled in Maryland worked to preserve important religious texts that were being destroyed in Europe and asked for key books to be sent to the colonies. Tucked away within the depths of the university, these pieces of history live on.

Also in Lauinger Library, the Booth Family Center for Special Collections is the largest collection of historical items on campus. Divided into four groups, manuscripts, art, archives, and rare books, Special Collections contains over 100,000 rare books, 500 paintings, 15,000 prints, and 800 catalogued collections of manuscripts, including the original handwritten manuscript of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, according to university librarian Artemis Kirk.

Despite the availability of this collection of original artifacts to the public, however, the reality is that the majority of students on campus don’t even know such archives exist. In fact, the archives are not widely publicized.

Hooper accredits the lack of visitors and publicity to inadequate or nonexistent cataloguing, lack of courses and faculty who are trained to take advantage of the materials, and the “curious” preference of researchers to access an online copy of a text rather than the physical copy.

“With Google and others doing so much scanning, most rather good collectors find that there is a market mostly for their most unique items,” Hooper said. “And there is then pressure to digitize those unique items, which then removes the need for scholars to visit the originals.”

Library directors found three years ago that demand for hard copies had decreased sharply, and, as a result, they began the process of digitizing many of the university’s rarest texts. Nonetheless, curators recognize that while books can be transformed into an online format, the sensuous experience of some exhibits on campus is something that cannot necessarily be replicated.

In order to improve public and student access to Georgetown’s tremendous collection, Special Collections, directed by John Buchtel, is receiving a major upgrade. Currently, the Special Collections department on the fifth floor of Lau is being renovated, with a grand opening ceremony scheduled for March 23 of this year.

With plans to build a bigger entrance, as well as public waiting and reading spaces, Buchtel hopes that the department will become not only more visible but also more comfortable for visitors. The most important change that the new space will bring, he believes, is better storage for the collection. The new storage space will not only be larger but will also have high-tech climate control capabilities, which will help preserve sensitive materials.

“We recognized for a long time that we were outgrowing our space, and that this [Lauinger] is an aging building, so we realized that we needed to refurbish our environmental controls especially,” Buchtel said. “But also, in 1970, when Lauinger was built, nobody really thought of Special Collections as something that you routinely include in a Georgetown student’s education.”

To that end, the new department will contain a classroom which Buchtel hopes will serve as a way for more courses to engage students directly with historical documents, something that Special Collections has been pushing for over the past several years.

“[We] call up the faculty [and]tell them ‘I see that you’re teaching a course on the French Revolution. Would you like to show your students pamphlets and documents from the 1790s?’” Buchtel said. “And that way we can give students a tangible experience of history.”

Buchtel, whose desk chair in a temporary office on the first floor of Lauinger rests comfortably amid piles of documents and a sea of book-covered carts, pointed out just three of his favorite special items that he thinks deserve greater public attention. All three, adorned with ornate patterning on their bindings, lacked the simplicity of cover titles or even minor descriptions that would give away their identities or the identities of those who once carried them.

Folding the first book open as carefully as he could, Buchtel revealed a 1482 print edition of Euclid’s Elements in Latin, produced just 43 years after the invention of the printing press and complete with elaborate drawings and diagrams of the foundational theorems of geometry. In addition to historical texts, Georgetown houses a number of scientific works as well. In the Woodstock Theological Library, for instance, there rests a second edition copy of Copernicus’s “On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres” from the mid 16th century, as well as some original prints by Galileo.

Moving on to his second favorite set of the works, Buchtel unveiled a collection of the writings of the stoic philosopher Epictetus, translated to English and printed in London in 1804, interleaved with a 1670 print of the same work in Latin. The owner of the book was clearly a scholar and wanted to read the text very closely, Buchtel said.

The director then revealed the book’s subtle secret: Thomas Jefferson personally owned it. Books of the day were printed in sets of eight sheets, with each set categorized by a letter, A through to Z. The owner of the book had written a T next to the set labelled I, and, likewise, an I next to the set labelled T. Buchtel explained that during the early 19th century I and J were the same letter in the English language, so the mysterious marking “TI” was actually Jefferson’s quirky way of initialing his books with a sort of hidden signature.

Hooper, who has also worked extensively with dense historical texts for years, puts the experience of holding such a priceless artifact into context.

“Just the weight of the volumes is enough,” he said. “It’ll definitely convince you that someone has been doing quite a bit of thinking!”

The final book Buchtel demonstrated was a 1574 edition of the Roman Missal, the Roman Catholic liturgical book for the celebration of Mass, complete with high quality illustrations. While impressive in its own right, the 450 year old book was personally owned by none other than Archbishop John Carroll, Georgetown’s founder.

“To think,” Butchel remarked, “a young John Carroll was walking around the Maryland colony holding onto this Missal.”

Many of Carroll’s other personal possessions are kept in university President John DeGioia’s office. Of particular note is a portrait of Carroll painted by famous American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. Hanging on the wall near the center of DeGioia’s conference room, Carroll’s portrait commands attention while still capturing his piety.

Clifford Chieffo, professor emeritus and former university curator, said that the portrait, given Stuart’s reputation for artistical accuracy, is one of the artist’s greatest works and depicts what Carroll genuinely looked like—“a man like any other,” as Chieffo put it. Other personal effects, such as the crucifix Carroll used throughout his life and held on his deathbed, are kept securely in the office.

Carroll’s writings have generated some of Georgetown’s oldest myths, Chieffo said. During the War of 1812, for example, when much of D.C. was burned to the ground by the British army, Carroll exchanged letters with then-university President John Grassi, informing him that the U.S. Congress could meet in Georgetown’s Old North, if need be. While Congress did not take Carroll up on the offer, Georgetown’s archives still have the original letters.

Other documents are unique for their depiction not of extraordinary or famous chapters and characters in Georgetown’s history, but rather ones which bear a striking resemblance to the realities of today. For instance, the university archives contain a handwritten poem from 1867 decrying the quality of food on campus.

“Come rally round the flag boys
And strike for better grub
We’ve stood it long enough boys
But now we’ll make the rub.”

Some of the texts provided insight into Georgetown’s history of student activism, showing how many early Georgetown protests were far more intense than today’s social media student movement.

University archivist Ann Galloway presented decrees written by the student body following the “student rebellion” of 1833. When a student was expelled for public drunkenness during a class trip to the Capitol, student protests turned to violence and resulted in full-blown fistfights with Jesuit priests, according to Galloway.

Of course, not all of the university’s noteworthy historical items reside in Lauinger. Many religious items remain in use and on full display in Dahlgren Chapel. A large, iron cross, brought over to the Maryland colony by the first Jesuits, rests on the wall directly across from the sacristy, which contains the consecrated Eucharist. The cross was used during the first legal celebration of Mass in Maryland and has been with the Jesuit community ever since, Vice President for Mission and Ministry Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J., said.

Even more fascinating is that underneath Dahlgren chapel rest the final remains of Elizabeth and John Dahlgren, who are buried in a family crypt around the resting place of their infant son Joseph. The Dahlgrens’ donation, made in memory of their son, created the chapel, the first alumni-funded building on campus, O’Brien said.

Far from being a stereotypical tomb, Dahlgren Crypt is a beautiful sanctuary, with light streaming in from windows built into the very walls that surround the three graves. Carpeting and modest furniture give the tomb a comfortable feeling, but the air is tangibly electrifying.

The Crypt, where all three graves rest nearly directly underneath the altar, is one of the holiest places in all of Georgetown, explained O’Brien. Among the many spiritually fundamental aspects of the resting place is an etching of Mark 10:14 on Joseph’s tombstone, which reads “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not. For such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Father Hooper acknowledges how coveted of a collection Georgetown has, and ensures that the university would never give any of the books up to another institution.

“It belongs to the Jesuit provinces,” he said, “and of course, it’s also our patrimony!”

He, just as the other archive curators and directors on campus, affirms that the past is, in many ways, still alive, if one only knows where to look for it.

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