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Monday, December 29, 2014

50 Years Ago: "The Austrians are a most congenial and delightful people, everywhere"

The library at Melk Abbey, Austria.

Since his last letter in early November 1964, Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, had been on the road throughout Austria, staying only a few days in each location. By December 23, however, he had returned to the Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, where he had planned to spend the Christmas season. During his time on the road, Saint John's University had (perhaps prematurely?) announced the new project--the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Project--in the press:

"Dear Father Colman [Barry],
Upon returning here [Einsiedeln] yesterday from a six-week journey through Austria, I found your letter of November 9 waiting for me, along with the news release enclosures. I had made Einsiedeln a center for assembling mail, as I was constantly on the move, 2 or 3 days in each place.
Thanks to a highly successful trip, and surprisingly so, through Austria, the news release is now not disturbing, as it might have been, had the Austrian contact been a failure. All the 16 abbeys which I contacted have agreed through signed statements to join our microfilm project, this in spite of an earlier decision, in August, made a a meeting of the Austrian Abbots, not to join. Their decision was based on several objections sent in by librarians. Actually, I have not found a single Abbot who is opposed to the project. The difficulties always came from the librarian or archivist, four that I know of, all of whom I converted except one, at Admont. At Admont the Abbot (and his name is Coloman) through chapter action is overruling the librarian. Abbot Coloman also told me that if it had not been for my personal visit, the project would never have won approval in Austria. The weather was miserable throughout my Austrian journey, but hospitality was grand without exception. The Austrians are a most congenial and delightful people, everywhere."
As a holder of a master's degree in library sciences, I can only say: "those pesky librarians!" Already in this earliest stage of the project that would become the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, it was becoming clear how complex it would be to deal with other communities that have their own internal complexities. Through it all, Father Oliver would work tirelessly to assure everyone that the microfilming project offered benefits to all.

Fragment in the Saint John's Rare Books collection that was used as the backdrop for the announcement of the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Project in the November 1964 Saint John's alumni magazine (the Off-Campus Record).

In his letter, Father Oliver summarizes the results of his trip: agreements with 10 Benedictine abbeys, 3 Cistercian abbeys and 3 abbeys of Augustinian canons. Now he must approach University Microfilms--the technology partner in the project--with a one-year proposal to move forward with the filming. He still has hopes for work in Switzerland (which was not to materialize for another 30 years, until after his death, unfortunately), but he is suspicious of suggestions that the project also use color photography for parts of the collections.

Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB (center), with his replacement, Father Urban Steiner, OSB,
at the Kodak offices in Vienna, Austria (1971).

He closes his letter:

"Frohe Weihnachten und ein Gesegnetes neues Jahr especially in your new important office [i.e., as president of Saint John's University]. Please pray for me too. My survey trip is finished now, but it has been rugged during the fall and winter months and constant change of place and meals. I have grown three years older during the past three months, and am that much closer to that final important resting place up on the hillside. But I am still alive and kicking, and now getting a needed rest here at Einsiedeln, where winter is just as in Minnesota. I will be staying here till Epiphany, after which I have suggested to University Microfilms to meet their representative in Vienna for important business, if agreeable to them."
Indeed, Father Oliver often complained in his letters about advanced age and the physical difficulties of his work, but then he lived another 27 years after starting this project! Perhaps his Austrian work kept him young?

In a follow-up letter from December 27, 1964, Father Oliver expands on his experience at Kremsmuenster Abbey, his feelings about color photography, and the situation at the Swiss abbeys. Also in that letter is a list of the Austrian monasteries that have agreed to join the project (in the order he listed them):
Vienna. Schottenstift
St. Florian
Salzburg. St. Peter
St. Paul in Carinthia (im Lavanttal)
He notes that, "These abbeys are rather conveniently located. The first 14 on the list lie on the 200-mile stretch from Vienna to Salzburg, 6 directly on the main railroad, the other 8 within 10 to 40 mi. off the main drag. Only Admont and St. Paul are out of the way. no wonder they used to say: Oesterreich, klosterreich."

Father Oliver with one of his microfilming team at Seitenstetten in 1965.

When we return to Father Oliver in January 2015, we will learn about the next phase of the project--getting the technology in place to start the actual microfilming.

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