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Friday, January 3, 2014

Austrian Manuscript Library Tour, Part II: Stift Melk

"No central heating here yet (it will be coming, as in some other monasteries), still individual stoves in the monastic cells (their wood supply, pine, is endless). The library, manuscript room and church are never heated. No electric light either in the library and adjacent manuscript room. ... The manuscript collection is large and excellent, 1800 mss., of which about 1200 will fall within our scope."(Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, to Father Benjamin Stein, OSB, in a letter from Melk Abbey dated October 22, 1965)

The main hall of the library at Stift Melk.

Over the past twelve years, I have explained the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) as a mission to preserve manuscripts (which seemed to be self-evident to me at the time) and as a service to scholars around the world. In recent years, we have started to describe HMML as a library of libraries (or "meta-library"); that is, we act as a steward of materials that belong to other libraries. Nowadays I like to look at HMML's role more as a library of relationships with other communities around the world--based on the core Benedictine love of books and the core Benedictine value of respect toward others.

Dr. Christine Glassner (from the Austrian Academy of Science) with her brother, Pater Gottfried Glassner, OSB, the librarian at Melk Abbey--at his office in the library. Note the Macintosh computer on his desk!

One of the more important of these relationships for Saint John's Abbey has been that with the Abbey of Melk in Austria (in the following, "Stift" and "abbey" are used interchangeably). In fact, not only did HMML microfilm their medieval manuscripts in late 1965, but in the following year the two institutions started an exchange program for students at their respective secondary schools. Their common mission of teaching continues today (see: This second level of relationship came to my attention during my visit to Melk on December 14, 2013, when my host and guide (Pater Gottfried Glassner, OSB, and his sister, Dr. Christine Glassner) explained to me that they know Father Mark Thamert, OSB (from St. John's Abbey), who was a student there in the 1960's and that their younger brother had also spent time at the Saint John's Preparatory School as part of the exchange program.They also hosted one student at Christmas in 1967.

Melk Abbey in 1976.
I have actually visited Melk numerous times--this was at least my fourth time there. Already in 1976 (barely a decade after Father Oliver), I came with a group of students from the University of Notre Dame. We stopped at Melk on our way from Salzburg to a weekend in Vienna. At that time, the buildings had lost some of their external lustre, although this has since been thoroughly restored.

I later returned to Melk (in 1980) as part of training for a group of foreign language teaching assistants who were assigned to various secondary schools around Austria. Because we had not received Fulbright scholarships (although the program was also administered through the same office), we were called "half-brighters" (i.e., we had to earn our keep by teaching).

I later visited Melk again when I was riding my bicycle through the Wachau in 1982 (see photo in my previous blog post on Stift G├Âttweig)

Melk Abbey in 1980.

 In coming to Melk this time, I was re-tracing the footsteps of the first field director of HMML, Father Oliver Kapsner, who lived at Melk for over three months (September to December 1965), while overseeing the microfilming of their manuscript collection. During that time, he also played host to the president of Saint John's University, Father Colman Barry, OSB, and to Eugene Power, the representative of University Microfilms, the technological support for the microfilming project in Austria. Father Oliver teased Father Colman:

"To let you get the feel of our project, we may allow you to carry several armfuls of codices up two flights of circular stairways and along a mile corridor to our workroom." (Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, to Father Colman Barry, OSB, dated October 19, 1965)
With the proximity to the feast of Halloween, Father Oliver even invoked a somewhat spooky image for Father Colman:

"You will probably also want to spend several hours in meditation in the frigid church before the tomb of St. Columban, who may rise to the occasion by lifting the lid of his tomb to greet you personally. One can never tell what these humble but foxy and omnipotent saints will do next." (Father Oliver to Father Colman, dated October 19, 1965)
Melk was the fourth library on Father Oliver's schedule, but they were third Austrian abbey to agree to the microfilming (after Kremsm├╝nster and Seitenstetten). Their massive collection doubled the number of manuscripts microfilmed up to that point in the project, and proved a fitting end to the year 1965, the founding year of the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Project (today's "HMML"). In more recent years, the microfilms have been heavily used for cataloging the collection at Melk. Dr. Christine Glassner described how she could undertake the codicological description of the manuscripts on-site at Melk, but needed print resources to catalog the contents of the manuscripts. For this, she could take the microfilms to research centers in Vienna and work there with the Patrologia Latina and other resources.

Dr. Christine Glassner shows the microfilms at Melk Abbey, filmed by HMML in 1965. Dr. Glassner has used the films extensively over the past several years while cataloging the Melk manuscript collection.

Like Father Oliver, I was able to visit Melk Abbey late in the year, in fact, almost exactly 48 years after he finished his work there. It was very cool the day I visited, but overall the day was extremely pleasant and not too chilly. Father Oliver's comments are more foreboding:

"The name of the Gymnasium Direktor at Melk is Koloman. According to sacred tradition they begin to head the individual stoves in the monastic cells "nach Koloman," [i.e., after the feast of St. Koloman] and so they did, on October 15. We had been having light frosts for the whole week previous, and fog, fog, fog. People are busy sawing and splitting wood for the coming winter months. The monastic corridors are lined with piles of wood." (Father Oliver to Father Colman, October 19, 1965)
How I wish I had a photograph of the firewood in the corridors! But for me, photos of the library will have to do. The beautiful main hall is part of every tourist's stop at Melk, and it is certainly worth the effort. Built in the early 18th century, it forms part of the wings next to the abbey church, toward the Danube river.

In the library at Melk Abbey, with Pater Gottfried.
Of course, one of the main reasons to get to know the librarian at any library is for the opportunity to see what other tourists don't! Indeed, the librarian who worked with Father Oliver, Father Burkhard Ellegast, OSB, later became the abbot of Stift Melk (1975-2001)! In my case, however, I was blessed to have the opportunity to see the spaces where the manuscripts are stored, as well as numerous other areas in the serpentine halls of the Melk library where books are stored. I can only say that I could spend years investigating the books on the shelves in all of the rooms that form the other parts of the library!

False books on the shelves at Melk!

There are other aspects to library work besides books, of course. One relates to the overall design or architecture of the space. One notices readily that the books in the main hall are bound in a way to match the architecture of the space, thus lending the whole a uniformity and cohesiveness that goes beyond the text on the pages. In fact, this harmony is supported by "books" with no texts at all!

Pater Gottfried demonstrates some of the pseudo-book bindings from the main library hall.
As it so happens, the shelves at the very top of the main Baroque library hall are too narrow to fit real books. So, to preserve the harmony of the architectural space, the 18th-century designers installed pseudo-books, resembling the spines of books, each with its own title. My suggestion for a dissertation topic might be for a student to collect the "titles" and "authors" in this imaginary library collection and see what kinds of literature was created this way.

Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, at his typewriter, while working at Seitenstetten in 1965.

Of course, Father Oliver was not at Melk to be a tourist, or even a simple worker. He was, in a way, fulfilling the Benedictine motto of "ora et labora" (pray and work). As a fellow Benedictine, he was able to fit into the life pattern at the monastery quite well, and dedicate his time to his special project, even in the chill of late autumn and winter:
"On Benedictine All Saints we had the first snow, and it has been winter ever since, somewhat premature for this part of the world. So, after a long winter last year, well into May, followed by a wet, cold and cloudy summer, then a bit of September, we are started with the new winter. The wood-coal stove in my monastic cell warms the room most of the day (I type four to five hours daily) but I have to let the fire die down in the afternoon so that the ashes can be cleaned about five o'clock and the fire lit again the next morning." (Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, to Father Benjamin Stein, OSB, dated November 21, 1965)

Melk Abbey in December 2013.

Finally, Father Oliver had to move on to his next work site, the Augustinian abbey of Sankt Florian, but before he left, he celebrated Christmas with the monks at Melk:
"Many thanks for forwarding Christmas mail. We finished here today. The Abbot of Melk wants me to stay here for Christmas and be one of the six priests available for their first concelebration at Midnight Mass. Normally there are a total of twelve priests in this massive abbey, two of whom are over 80, the retired abbot, 83 yrs. old, who can only shuffle along, and Father Richard, 81 yrs. old, who is half blind and no longer celebrates Mass." (letter from Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, to Father Benjamin Stein, OSB, dated December 23, 1965)

In conclusion, I wish to thank my hosts for their generous gift of time and attention during my visit to Stift Melk, and beyond that, I wish to thank the community at Melk for their long-term collaboration and friendship with Saint John's!

More pictures from my December 2013 visit to Melk can be seen here.

Next time: Stift Klosterneuburg!