Pagan librarians rescue books, preserve history

TWH – Michael Smith, acting director of the New Alexandrian Library, became spellbound as he was packing up books and materials recently donated by the Theosophical Society of Washington, D.C., including four decades of bound volumes of Theosophist magazines dating to 1901.

One of Smith’s husbands, Jim Dickinson, became perturbed.

“When we were boxing up the Theosophical Society library, my husband Jim yelled at me – a lot,” Smith said, chuckling at the memory. “He kept saying, ‘Put the book in the box so we can move it.’ It was such an incredible collection of all sorts of esoteric topics that I had never seen before.”

Thanks to two Pagan-centric institutions — the New Alexandrian Library, located near Georgetown, Del., and the Adocentyn Research Library, a similar enterprise located in San Francisco’s East Bay — Pagans and the general public alike now have access to thousands of Pagan, metaphysical, and esoteric books and periodicals, including rare and out-of-print works. Both libraries continue to accept donations of Pagan and Pagan-related books.

Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling by Charles Godfrey Leland [New Alexandrian Library].

About 20 percent of the New Alexandrian Library’s 30,000 books have been cataloged, Smith said,  and plans are being made to scan and digitize the content of as many of those books as possible to make them available online.

At Adocentyn there are currently 12,209 books cataloged in its website’s detailed database, “and many more boxes are waiting for processing,” chuckled Don Frew, a co-founder and the president of Adocentyn Research Library.

Neither library has opened officially, but the holdings of each can currently be perused free onsite by making an appointment. New Alexandrian Library leaders can be contacted through its website, while the Adocentyn Research Library can be contacted via a Facebook page.

Frew noted that Pagan writer, ritualist and storyteller Steven Posch “once said that Pagans are a people of the library.”

On Posch’s website, he writes: “Christians, Jews, and Muslims are known as the people of the book. Pagans, however, have always realized that one book can never be enough. Monotheists are peoples of the book; the Pagans are the people of the library.”

The New Alexandrian Library and the Adocentyn Research Library are built around an echo of Posch’s observation. Although the inspiration behind the creation of each institution differs, both institutions share similar visions.

On the New Alexandrian Library website, it is framed as “a research and lending library . . . dedicated to the preservation of books, periodicals, newsletters, music, media, art works, artifacts, photographs, and digital media focused on the metaphysical aspects of all religions and traditions. There is a special focus on the preservation of materials from the Pagan, Polytheist, and Western Mystery Traditions. … NAL will be one of the cornerstones (of many created by various groups across the globe we hope) of a new magickal renaissance. The benefits of this growing network for future generations will be incalculable.”

According to Frew, “The purpose of the Adocentyn Research Library is to collect, archive, preserve, and make available information related to Paganism, understood as indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, nature-based and earth-centered religions, spiritualities, beliefs, practices, and cultures around the world and throughout human history. This includes a broad range of information . . . for use by researchers, scholars and the general public.”

The Adocentyn Research Library’s criteria for adding a book to its collection can be summed up in a two-part question, Frew said: “Is it something a Pagan would want to study as part of their Paganism, or something that someone studying Pagans would want to have access to? That’s pretty broad, and includes all sorts of things about ancient cultures, comparative religion, anthropology, and folklore.”

Michael Smith at work cataloging books [New Alexandrian Library].

The New Alexandrian Library roots can be traced  to garbage bins, and to Smith, Ivo Dominguez Jr. and other members of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, a Wiccan nonprofit religious organization based in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“We had been noticing over time that when people who were part of the community were passing, their libraries, artifacts, artwork, and ephemera were being lost,” Smith said. “Nobody in their families had any interest in retaining that material, and oftentimes it simply got thrown away because it was considered of no value.

“Books come in and go out of print, and finding a copy becomes very difficult. Then you had newsletters, programs, fliers, and handouts for workshops and rituals and things of that nature. Organizations would come into being and publish a newsletter. Some of it, based on some of the stuff I’ve looked at, is very interesting and very progressive in its ideas of moving magickal, spiritual or religious thought forward, and yet only 20 people ever saw it? This kind of thing was being lost. . . . We had this idea that we need a place where the contemporary Pagan community could hold on to and make available its history to others. Any community that desires to progress, to grow, to have an impact not only on its members but potentially on the broader community, needs to know where it came from, needs to hold on to its history to understand what came before.”

Named after the massive, fabled library in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, the New Alexandrian Library occupies a dome building specifically constructed for the project and completed in December 2014, thanks to the sponsorship of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel.

“We’re still in the process of cataloging and sorting books,” Smith said. “I have a whole wall covered in boxes that need to be processed. Right now I’m doing most of the managing of the library itself on the side. Eventually we’d like to have a real executive director or chief librarian, but now everything relies on volunteers. I schedule volunteer days and groups from the surrounding area who want to come down and help. I teach them how to catalog and clean and sort books.

“According to two of our members who are actual librarians, cataloging is forever,” Smith added, laughing. “We’d like to have things 50 percent or 75 percent or100 percent cataloged before we officially open, but that doesn’t work. We will always be cataloging.”

Plans call for creating a small lending library, and digitizing entire books and making them available online while also respecting copyright laws.

“We’ve started some of the scanning of this material, but cataloging takes precedent,” Smith said. “It takes specialized skills to do the kind of scanning for a whole book, and many people don’t have that.”

What Smith calls the “museum aspect” of the library — preserving ritual robes, archangel paintings by Dion Fortune, a Bast statuette dating to 1500 B.C.E., and other items — “has expanded more than we had in our original vision,” he said.

Use of the New Alexandrian Library is free for research on site, but the costs of digitizing the collection, facility maintenance, and various monthly expenses may entail a fee for certain library services, especially digital access, once the facility officially opens.

“We want to make it as cheap as possible to access this because we’re a nonprofit religious organization,” Smith said, “but we also need to maintain our facilities and infrastructures. Some things may not be completely free, but we will always be sensitive to the idea that it should not cost people so much that they simply can’t afford to access it. That’s always a delicate tightrope to walk.”

Don Frew and Anna Korn are two of the seven Pagan elders who co-founded the Adocentyn Research Library [courtesy].

The Adocentyn Research Library — named after a city mentioned in the Picatrix, an 11th-century grimoire — has its roots in the overcrowded personal libraries of San Francisco Bay-area Pagans.

Frew and his wife Anna Korn, respectively the high and high priestess of Coven Trismegiston in Berkeley, California, faced a dilemma the last time they decided to move.

“Like many Pagans of our generation, we like books and we have lots and lots of books,” said Frew, who is known for his interfaith work and for serving two terms as president of Covenant of the Goddess. “The books reached a point where they were kind of forcing us out of the house. We were looking at the walls at a place for rent and saying, ‘How many bookcases does this place fit — 25? That won’t be enough.’ It was a choice that the books stay in the house or we do.”

The couple considered putting their books in storage.

“Then we thought, ‘You know, lots of Pagans of our generation have lots of books — I wonder if they are in the same boat and maybe we’ll all put them in storage together,’” Frew said. “There was sort of an ‘a-ha’ moment that maybe we can put them in storage and make them available to the public, so they’re not just sitting there.”

Frew and Korn approached other area Pagans with their idea of “shared storage with access.”

“The more we looked into this, it became more and more elaborate,” Frew said. “We thought ‘We need to create a nonprofit, create an entity unto itself.’ ”

The Adocentyn Library was founded in 2010, and is now in a storefront in a “restaurant row” in Albany, California, very near the library of the Graduate Theological Union, a center for the graduate study of religion in North America.

Along with Frew and Korn, who is treasurer, Adocentyn Research Library’s board of directors includes Gus diZerega, Rowan Fairgrove, Diana Paxson, Glenn Turner, and the late George Hersh. All board members, Frew noted, “contributed a pile of books to the library.”

Like those who started the New Alexandrian Library, the Adocentyn founders are also hoping to rescue the personal libraries of Pagans who have passed away.

“We noticed that so many Pagans die and their books get dispersed or sent to a local garage sale or something,” Frew said. “All of the knowledge they’ve so painstakingly collected just gets spread to the wind. We don’t want that to happen.

“Also, books are disintegrating. The chemicals and papers that books are made from do not last a long time, especially ones from the last century. As books are disintegrating, our kinds of books are lowest priority for getting taken care of. They are the ones most likely to end up in a public library book sale. If we want to make sure our history is preserved, we have to do it ourselves.”

The Adocentyn’s exhaustive, detailed, searchable database lists books by author, title, contributor and numerous subject tags such as history of magic, neopaganism, sex magick, Wicca and modern Witchcraft, Shiva, djinn, Hellfire Club and many others. A click on a subject in a particular book’s tag field will bring up a list of all books with that subject tag.

While the Adocentyn collection includes such rarities as a 1692 text by Philippus van Limborch and a 1936 edition of The Equinox of the Gods by Aleister Crowley (both stored off-site but available to researchers by arrangement), its holdings also include “a very broad range of very pop books — stuff from the ’60s that you would pick up at the grocery store,” Frew said. “You’ll go through one of those and discover there’s an interview with a witch from back then who has passed away. It’s priceless material. Even the most pop, superficial kind of book can still have very useful information, so we’re trying to cover all bases.”

Some donated books “have notes from elders who have passed on,” Frew noted. “It’s very interesting to see what they thought about, what they pointed out.”

The Adocentyn Research Library board members are currently in the midst of complying with city regulations, and they hope to officially open before PantheaCon in February 2019 in nearby San Jose. The goal is to have regular open hours a couple of days each week. Once open, the library will charge a nominal usage fee, perhaps five dollars a day, “just because we have to pay the bills,” Frew said.

Frew, Korn and New Alexandrian Library’s Smith each mentioned the possibility of working with each other to create an inter-library loan program, share multiple copies or otherwise pool resources, all with the goal of making as many Pagan books and materials as possible available to as many people as possible.

“We’ve been trying to tie together, maybe make some sort of meta-organization for Pagan libraries,” Korn said. “There are a number of groups, such as Ardantane in New Mexico, that have book collections and reading rooms.”

“What happens after the founders [of various Pagan groups and traditions] are gone?” Smith said. “That’s always a big concern – ‘Am I building something that outlasts me?’ This idea of having a repository is also attached to this idea that we’re creating something that outlasts us, that long after we’re gone, it will still be there and all of its resources will be available.”

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