Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Ecumenism and Libraries: A Committment to Lively Ecumenical Research

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Ecumenism and Libraries: A Committment to Lively Ecumenical Research

Article excerpt

It is encouraging that many people around the world today are interested in ecumenism. This is partly due to the activity of the numerous centres and institutes that keep the flame of ecumenical hope burning.

Many of these centres have "burdened" themselves with a library. I use the word deliberately, because experience shows that for many institutions maintaining a library, often with a section of archives, is the cause of great concern. After a promising start, genuine difficulties arise, making it impossible for the library even to survive. Fortunately, other centres have made the costly efforts necessary for the development of any library, ensuring the constant presence of a competent personnel and furnishing them with the indispensable technical instruments. These centres are to be congratulated, and to be thanked on behalf of the users.

Today there are several remarkable ecumenical libraries; and over the years those responsible for them have created a network of collaboration and friendship. However, all these libraries were founded only at the beginning of the 1960s, which should at least awaken interest in their prehistory.

The library of the WCC in Geneva includes valuable ecumenical archives. In looking through them, I have discovered surprising information.

Ecumenical pioneers: the period before the second world war

Before the second world war there was no public ecumenical library anywhere in the world. At that time, no one would even have been able to define such a library! On the other hand, almost all the pioneers of ecumenism had their own libraries and their own archives, obviously indispensable for their work, but -- alas -- strictly for private use. We know, for example, of the existence of the libraries of Lord Halifax, Abbe Portal, Metropolitan Germanos, Adolf Keller, Elie Gounelle, Henry-Louis Henriod, among others. In 1949 Ruth Rouse published an article in The Ecumenical Review presenting the library of the WCC and launching an appeal to trace and gather together all these particular libraries, although she had already concluded that, while some collections had been identified and preserved, others were scattered and irretrievably lost.(1)

In addition to these private libraries, some ecumenical organizations opened libraries and were finding ways to preserve their archives. First, the YMCA and the YWCA, then the World Student Christian Federation, the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work, and others -- all established in Geneva. These libraries no longer exist today, even if these institutions still take seriously their responsibility for their archives, which illustrates the difficulty of maintaining a library, even a valuable one.

Finally, a study by Ruth Rouse, preserved in the WCC archives,(2) shows that before the war the great university libraries had nothing to offer in the ecumenical field. This is the case for Oxford, for Cambridge and everywhere else -- the only exception was Basel.

The birth of the WCC Library in 1946

In May 1946, two years before the founding assembly of the World Council of Churches, W.A. Visser 't Hooft, who would be the first general secretary, set about creating an ecumenical library, which he deemed to be indispensable. He wrote to everyone: to the persons mentioned above and the institutions that had preserved their heritage, to publishers, to friends of the ecumenical movement. He was aware of the need for an authentic research and study centre in order to bring together a rich collection of books and archival documents.(3) Visser 't Hooft continued to devote a great deal of personal effort to this -- going through publishers' catalogues, visiting antiquarians and following the development of the library week after week until he retired in 1966.

In a letter to Floyd W. Tomkins, secretary of Faith and Order in the USA, Visser 't Hooft asked for a complete collection of the "Faith and Order Pamphlets". …

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