Armed With Books

If a monastery without a library is a fort without an armory — a saying popular in medieval Europe — then a college without a library must be an armory without an arsenal.

Indeed, the mind boggles to think of the conversations the stacks of books must have fueled between Sts. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, for example, at the University of Paris in the 13th century.

Just so, if the library walls could talk at today's centers of high-fidelity Catholic learning, they'd doubtless tell similarly inspiring tales of intellectual and spiritual development unfolding in the service of the Gospel.

At Franciscan University of Steubenville's John Paul II Library, a collection of more than 200,000 volumes and 500 journals offers students a chance to drink as deeply as they care to from the well of civilized thought through the ages. As might be expected, the theology, political science, history and psychology sections are especially robust.

And among the nice little “extras” they wouldn't find at a comparable secular facility is a “Franciscan collection” — nearly 300 books dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. “You name it, it's out there on the shelf or soon will be,” says library director William Jakub.

The Pope John Paul II collection is equally impressive. The library attempts to purchase anything written by, or about, the Holy Father.

Jakub points out another fascinating specialty. “We also have a Civil War collection of materials that examines the entire war only from a southern perspective,” he says. “This ties in with the whole idea of the university giving all the information from which students can make educated decisions. You can see where this other side is coming from, and you can then get into an intellectual debate.” Which explains the space given to decidedly anti-Christian works by the likes of Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Students use the library, located next to the chapel, like a home away from dorm. “By midterm,” Jakub notices, “there's not an empty seat in the house.”

Reading is Fundamental

At Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., head librarian Andrew Armstrong points out how the library's theology, philosophy and history sections flex their proverbial muscles. Shelves are chock full of the classics, of course — Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and so on. And, because Pope John Paul II's works are studied throughout the curriculum, including a full course on his thought, the Holy Father's writings and related materials are plentiful.

Today's 55,000 volumes are set for a big buildup when the campus's new St. John the Evangelist Library building opens in October with room for 130,000 volumes. The domed entrance, featuring a stained-glass portrait of St. John showing the way, will encourage students to walk with faith illuminating the way into reason.

“This is a library for Christendom College that we won't need to build again,” Armstrong says.

Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., likewise houses about 50,000 volumes. “We're about the size of a good seminary library,” says library director Sarah Beiting. “We probably have the best theology section in the area.” The library is also big on British literature.

“It's a very patron-centered library,” explains Beiting. “We go out of our way to help people find information and help students with their work.”

Beiting says students also can borrow books from Eastern Michigan University, just blocks away. Such interlibrary loans are commonplace. Christendom, for example, is part of a Virginia state consortium. Franciscan U. belongs to Ohio Private Academic Libraries, which opens the door for students to more than 4 million additional items.

That means today's Catholic colleges easily outstrip the fabled libraries of history, such as the Alexandria Library in Egypt and the library at Oxford University.

“Those libraries believed in total ownership of everything,” Jakub explains. “In today's society, you can't have ownership of everything, but you try to provide maximum access for students.”

Ave Maria University's new library in Naples, Fla., is on its way to becoming a landmark, even though the new permanent campus isn't ready. Bob Verbesey, director of library services, says that, when the permanent campus opens in two years, the new library will hold more than 300,000 books.

Right now? “We already have a top-notch, first-class theology library supporting undergraduate and graduate studies,” Verbesey says.

He notes that even the rare-books section is off to a running start with items like a handwritten journal kept by a priest who accompanied Ignatius Loyola at the beginning of the Jesuit order and a first edition of Cardinal Newman's works.

“Our goal is to be one of the premier liberal arts and theology libraries in the country,” Verbesey says.

Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., began its collection of 400,000 volumes with the merger of the St. Benedict Abbey and Mount St. Scholastica College libraries.

“The biggest eye-catcher is the rare-book room,” says reference librarian Jennifer Nehl. One of the major sets that would make any researcher happy is the Patrologus, the writings of the Church fathers in Latin and Greek.

“Definitely, the religion section is quite substantial,” Nehl notes. The “Benedictina” — works by and about Benedictines — is a natural among the special collections, too, as is an out-of-the-ordinary collection on monastic history.

Great Books

At Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., the new St. Bernardine of Siena Library offers students more than 50,000 volumes — and it has room to add 20,000 more. The works of the greatest thinkers appear in the best translations as well as the original editions.

Almost the entire collection comes from donations. “Somehow, it makes it more meaningful to know you've received these as gifts from people who love the college,” says Dr. Michael McLean, the college's dean.

Opened in 1995, the new Romanesque and Spanish mission-style library is a unique place. Students study under a beautifully restored ceiling with hand-painted “tiles” interlining the intricate beamwork ceiling, originally crafted in 1620 for a convent in Granada, Spain. It was first bought by William Randolph Hearst, who intended to use it at San Simeon.

The Thomas Aquinas library was designed not only with quiet study areas, but also with rooms suitable for group study to support the college's great-books curriculum (which is oriented around student discussions rather than lectures by professors).

The rare-books room includes pages from early manuscripts of the Bible, circa 1120, and a copy of the illustrated Book of Hours, circa 1480.

“We're not really looking to amass a huge collection,” McLean explains. “We want the best works to support our program — original texts in philosophy, theology and natural sciences, including volumes in the original languages, not only in translations, and the best commentaries that support those works.”

It's exactly what you'd expect of a world-class Catholic college library — one in which Bonaventure and Aquinas would feel right at home.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.