The Ritman Library in Danger

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, or Ritman Library, a major collection on esoteric subjects in the Netherlands, is being threatened with closure. This would be a major blow to the study of occultism, magic, alchemy, and other such topics.

I’d encourage you to take two actions.  First, sign the petition here to keep the library open.  Second, pass on any feedback you might have on how I can make the letter below more effective.  (Dr. Hanegraaff is a major scholar of Western esotericism trying to keep the institution open.)

Dear Dr. Hanegraaff,

I am writing you to express my deep concern regarding the closing and potential sale of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.  As I have yet to travel to the Continent, I cannot make my appeal as a user of the library.  Nonetheless, as a librarian interested in Western esotericism, I would like to put the Ritman collection into a broader context of librarianship.

It is a common misperception that the major repository libraries across the world will maintain a copy of every publication produced.  Mandatory legal deposit has created quite impressive collections, but a person who walks into the Library of Congress or the British Library and expects to find every book produced in a country will be dismayed.  A number of reasons might exist for this.  A small press or self-published individual might not submit copies of the book, due to lack of awareness or a concern about deposit copies eating into their already marginal profits.  Materials such as theses and dissertations might remain at the institution at which they were written, without being sent on to a repository library.  Others might not see their publication as consequential enough for permanent use.  Especially in the field of esotericism or secret societies, depositing a copy might be tantamount to revealing the organization’s secrets.

Even if a copy of a book is deposited, however, no guarantee exists that it will be retained.  The Library of Congress in this country is not required to hold onto the copies it receives from publishers.  When they are retained, they might not be accessible to the public.  For instance, I have visited the high-security installation, within an old iron mine, in which the Library of Congress keeps many of its deposit copies of DVDs and the like.  How accessible these would be to researchers is a matter for debate, but as the place is nearly as secure as the White House, I think it might be difficult.

These problems would exist even in good economic times, but now libraries are increasingly a target for budgetary reductions and personnel cuts.   I recently learned that the British Library itself will be cutting its acquisition budget by a fifth, meaning that many difficult decisions will have to be made about what they will purchase.  These decisions are being made at every institution of which I know, and many have come under pressure even in boom years to make choices about what they can obtain.  As such, many have fallen back on supporting key constituencies – likely readers for public libraries, current departments at academic institutions – and making staffing and collection decisions based upon these.  For the rest, publications are not purchased “just in case” they are needed, but ordered “just in time” for the reader who might need them.  Still, if everyone is making the same decisions in the name of austerity, sometimes “just in time” is simply not possible.

Yet the production of knowledge does not stop even as markets crash and financial uncertainty looms.  Indeed, we are in a period in which more books, magazines, and scholarly journals are being published than ever before, and on topics that would have been barely imaginable a few decades ago.   The price of publications has likewise risen – a typical journal increases in price by 7% each year. Interdisciplinary work is hailed as an avenue to new vistas of discovery and human experience.   The growth of the Internet has led to millions of websites and other sources of data, much of it revealing of our cultures and ways of life – and much of which has a projected lifespan of only eighteen months.  Truly, the amount of information that we produce has outstripped our efforts to catalogue, acquire, and store it by orders of magnitude.

In the field of Western esotericism, occultism, alchemy, and similar belief systems, these pressures are even more acute.  Few colleges have programs in these areas, let alone budgets allowing them to acquire such materials or librarians adept in selecting them.  Many publishers of such materials eschewed promotion and advertising, making it more difficult for librarians working with our standard acquisition periodicals, such as Library Journal and Choice, or with vendors who acquire books for us, such as Baker & Taylor, to learn of their existence.  Finally, even if such books are selected and placed on the shelf, they are incredibly vulnerable to theft.  One public library of which I know has replaced a particular esoteric title over thirty times.

At the same time, however, such material, once considered ephemeral and unimportant for collection, is now considered important to our understanding of other times and places.  Today’s study of history does not only cover politicians and military leaders, but union workers, women, minorities, mystics, and heretics, showing how they contributed to the world in which we live.   There is a great need, not only to maintain collections of what has been recently published, but also what appeared previously and has been overlooked.

I should add that, for a scholar, there is inestimable value in not only collecting such material, but placing it in a single location for study.  For example, I am currently researching a book of nineteenth-century charms and remedies written only a few hours from my home and made widely available in print.  I have traveled for hundreds of miles simply to find one edition or another, and even the best collections often have only a few variants.  The situation can only be worse for those who would like to study older or less accessible material.

To bring this to the present situation, the Ritman Library should not be viewed as merely a collection of publications.  It is part of a worldwide cultural heritage, a collection of material in an area which has been overlooked for centuries and is now becoming the center of a new scholarly movement.  As such, its value to global scholarship and our ability to understand ourselves better is inestimable.  I beseech you to consider this when making a decision about the collection.


Dan Harms

Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 7:02 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. This is an extremely well thought out piece. I can only add from my 30 years as a Librarian that even when attempts by a discerning staffer to acquire esoteric titles are made they are rejected or questioned by administators. I will never forget the incredible opposition I got from supervisors about a simple classic natural health title I ordered. I stuck to my guns and guess who was the first patron to call directly to my branch to request the title? Our Library Director!

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