Automating a Monastic Library
The Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, situated in the Sacramento Valley of northern California, is a 600-acre estate of farmland at the edge of the Sacramento River. Most of our work activity centers on the maintenance of our fruit orchards, by which we earn our living. Our days are spent in a balance of prayer, manual work, and study.
An important part of the life of a monk is his time of study and (what we call) lectio divina, a method of "spiritual reading" that is particular to monks and that is closely connected to reading of Scripture and other important texts for the nourishment of the spiritual life of the monk and the entire community.
It should be easy to understand, therefore, the importance that books play in the life of the monastic community and in the life of individual monks. Three to five hours each day are spent in lectio divina and in study or other reading. If one is a student (and many years are spent as a student when one first becomes a monk) then, of course, even more time is given to the use of books.
The Library at New Clairvaux
When I arrived to join the community in the winter of 1979-80, the library holdings numbered about 29,000 to 30,000, excluding serials, tapes, microfilms, and fiches.
I was appointed librarian in May of 1983, after having made my profession of vows as a monk. When I was appointed by our Father Abbot, he instructed me that my main job was "to catalog the library and make it usable." This was a job that was ideal: I was able to start from scratch. It was also a job that was overwhelming: I had to start from scratch!
My first task was to determine what system we would use for cataloging. I had learned what knowledge I had of cataloging under a librarian who knew only the Dewey decimal system. But I had several friends who were librarians in theological libraries and other special libraries. And so I undertook to write to as many professionally capable people as I could, in order to describe our situation and solicit advice, comments, and direction. This took about three months, and so by late autumn of 1983, I had selected the Library of Congress system, about which I knew absolutely nothing!
The next nine months were dedicated to a self-taught crash course, with the help of a few librarian friends who were able to come to the monastery from time to time to answer general questions, emergency queries, and "urgings" which came to the surface as I plowed through the various descriptions, schedules, and tools for learning this system.
Creating a Catalog
My immediate concern when cataloging began on April 15, 1984, was the form and shape of the catalog. On that day I began life with forty empty drawers. Quite a number of LC cards had been ordered and stored away by a previous librarian, and so it seemed that the logical place to begin was matching the cards that were on hand with the books they represented. At the same time, through helpers and assistants, we began the process of ordering cards for new books from LC, organizing old books on the shelfs, and locating books with LCCN and proceeding to order available cards for them.
Original cataloging was begun for the many foreign language books, principally in Latin, Greek, and French, with some in German, Italian, Syriac, and other less common laguagages. Cataloging these kinds of books at the best of times is not fast; with a cataloger rather wet behind the tracings, as it were, the first six months did not fly by very swiftly.
The work day of a monk in our monastery is ordinarily three hours in the morning (9:00 to noon) and two hours in the afternoon (2:00 to 4:00). This can be extended in extraordinary circumstances for limited periods of time. And during these initial months when I was learning how to catalog, I often would spend up to two hours extra a day, beginning to get the hang of it. …