Scholars Express Delight in LC's Collections
By Gail Fineberg
Reprinted from The Gazette, May 16, 2003, Volume 14, No. 17
"A mouse turned loose in a cheese factory" is the way the John W. Kluge Center's first Kluge Chair-holder described his year of discovery in the collections of the Library of Congress.
"The match, the fit between resources and curiosity, it seems to me, is the genius of this place," Jaroslav Pelikan said at the May 7 dedication of the center. The Sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale University, Pelikan is the author of more than 30 books, including the forthcoming "Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition" in five volumes.
His study at the Kluge Center, Pelikan said, "was one of the great experiences of my life, enabling me to do all kinds of things I had never done before and to go to a work that I'm still engaged in and will be as long as I have life and breath."
He thanked the center staff. "The way that they could run interference like blocking backs, it was really admirable and enormously useful, doubling the amount of work I was able to do, because I didn't have to do so much of it myself," he said.
After listening to Pelikan's unscheduled remarks, as well as the enthusiastic comments of seven scholars and the poet laureate on a dedicatory panel, John W. Kluge, the center's benefactor and namesake, said he wished he had known the Librarian of Congress 30 years ago.
"The program would have had 30 years of life, and I'm sorry that I will not see it in the next 15 years, but I know that the seed has been planted," Kluge said.
"The Library staff is so terrific, and this place is so terrific. As a matter of fact I have to tell you this, if I weren't married, I'd marry this place."
Inspired by Librarian James H. Billington's dream of making the Library a place where "the world's leading thinkers make greater use of the world's greatest collection of human knowledge," Kluge gave the Library $60 million in 2000, the Library's bicentennial year, for a research center for scholars. The center opened unofficially in renovated quarters of the Jefferson Building in 2002.
The endowment provides for five senior Kluge Chairs that correspond broadly to Library collections relating to study of the cultures and societies of the North and the South; technology's interaction with society; American law and governance; and modern culture.
Three other chairs carrying other endowments are located at the center: the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations, the Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education, and the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History.
Enriching the intellectual ferment at the center are 25 post-doctoral fellows, including Kluge fellowships for, at present, two Library staff members, distinguished visiting scholars, and fellowships endowed by other benefactors.
A Scholars' Council, with several Nobel- and Pulitzer-prize winners, was appointed to assist the Librarian in the selection of chair holders and advise him on the activities of the center. The Librarian has consulted the council as he prepares to select the first recipient of the $1 million Kluge Prize for a lifetime of achievement in the humanities and social sciences, to be awarded this November.
At the center dedication, Billington acknowledged the work of Kluge Center Director Prosser Gifford, who also heads the Office of Scholarly Programs, in organizing the center, building its staff, and supporting the scholars.
The Librarian explained that the idea was to bring together senior scholars with junior post-doctoral scholars to interact with the collections, with one another, and with members of Congress. "It's the very senior and the very junior who seemed to be the missing elements from the mix we have here in Washington, which, of course, is very rich with wonderful think tanks and marvelous people," the Librarian said.
Poet Laureate Billy Collins added his interpretation of the purpose of the Library's program for scholars. "The bridge between the Library of Congress, particularly the John W. Kluge scholars' center, and the Capitol and Houses across the street, is really a link between silent reading and public speech," said Collins, whose last public reading at the Library was later that night.
"What the center can accomplish, in my sense of it, is that public speech and therefore political action may be informed by the quieter, meditative acts of thinking, reading, and reflection," he said. "Change, so the truism goes, comes from within, and I think the work of scholarship in the sciences and humanities offers an alternative to the rush of public noise, and also the possibility that a changed mind will lead to a changed society."
Given two minutes each to describe their Kluge Center experiences, the scholars represented a wide range of interests, from the history of the history of India to the history of the House of Representatives, from the discovery of life in space to chilling American-European relations, from the teaching of the Catholic Church on matters of moral conduct to music.
John Hope Franklin, the center's first distinguished visiting scholar, said he first came to the Library in 1939, to research his doctoral dissertation. He returned in 1945 to work on his seminal "From Slavery to Freedom, a History of African Americans," in 1950 to work on the "Militant South, 1800-1861," and, as a Kluge fellow, to research his autobiography.
Only at the Library, he said, could he reconstruct so easily the stories and the people of his life---from newspapers, journals, city directories, and manuscripts. "I was struck by the extent to which this place is not only a repository of the great resources of the world, and the knowledge about the world, but it is a repository of the things I have been doing," he said. That is helpful, he added, because he had rarely kept a diary.
Professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law and senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Judge John T. Noonan said he is immersed "in this immense citadel of books," pursuing an interest of his for the past 50 years.
The first holder of the Kluge Chair in American Law and Governance, Noonan is studying the teachings of the Catholic Church on four different kinds of conduct: The lending of money at a profit; the buying, selling, and keeping of human beings as property; the persecution of heretics as the duty of Christian rulers; and the rules on marriage and remarriage.
"Here at the Kluge Center, I have been able to pursue these four topics in conciliar decrees, and papal bulls, and case judgments, and administrative rulings; in letters; in notarial acts; in biographies and histories and theological treatises--as they have developed over a period of almost 2,000 years, from Rome to Jakarta, from St. Paul to John Paul the Second."
Robert Remini, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the "foremost Jacksonian scholar of our time," is the distinguished visiting scholar of American history. He said he is "having a ball" while making use of the Library's collections to write the history of the House of Representatives, an assignment that the Librarian gave him in response to a directive from the House in 1999.
"This place is a paradise for scholars," Remini said, "with all of the papers that they have collected over the years, of congressmen, of presidents, of great men and women who have made this country--and they're all mine. Except I have to give them back."
Klaus Larres, on the faculty of Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the second scholar to hold the Henry Alfred Kissinger chair. The author of "Churchill's Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy," he has identified three turning points at which European-American relations chilled --during the Nixon-Kissinger years of the 1970s; the end of the Cold War in 1990-91; "and, of course, after 9/11."
He ticked off four reasons that his time at the Kluge Center is "very, very stimulating, very exciting, and very helpful to my research": 1) the Library's enormous book, journal and newspaper collections; 2) the primary resources of the Manuscript Division; 3) the prestige of the Library and Kluge Center that "opens doors in political and academic Washington"; and 4) the "very great support of the very friendly staff at the Kluge Center," led by Gifford and including Les Vogel, Robert Saladini, and Peg Christoff.
Romila Thapar, of New Delhi, recognized as the foremost historian of ancient India, is the recent occupant of the Kluge Chair for Countries and Cultures of the South. She said it was "a great excitement" to be able to study the historical consciousness of early India in the Library's large holdings of Indian material, both primary sources in Indian languages and secondary sources. She said she was finding parallels between ancient oral traditions and the earliest textual histories.
Baruch Blumberg, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976 for physiology of medicine (he discovered the hepatitis-B vaccine) and a member of the center's Scholars Council, heads the astrobiology program at NASA. He said the Kluge Center will be a "grand forum" for the discussion of three questions that guide his mission: "How did life start, chemically?" "Are we alone in the universe, or is there life elsewhere, in our own solar system or on the 100 or so planets discovered recently in other nearby solar systems?" "What is the future of humans in space; is there a possibility of life existing beyond the earth?"
Libby Larsen, one of America's most prolific living composers and holder of the Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education and Technology, described 30 years of walking around "listening to the air, which is my instrument." She said she listens, and then makes an order of sound in time and space, and presents that order to a symphony, an opera company, a jazz pianist--someone who has a specific instrument to excite the air with my order of sound in time and space." She said she does that to communicate "what it's like to be alive."
Larsen spoke at length about her work and some of the issues she will explore at the Kluge Center, such as how changing transportation systems "affect how we think about ourselves culturally"; the "confusion between beat and rhythm, and the whole note"; the sound revolution; and her eagerness to create a "global greenroom" by which an individual "can dial up Yo Yo Ma and talk to him about creativity, directly."
Speaking last, Collins said he was reminded of the high school test in which one picks out the word that does not belong: chickadee, robin, sparrow, banana. "I am the banana," he said. "I am not a scholar; I am a poet. I don't spend my time doing difficult research. I spend my time looking out the window, and, along with Libby, I enjoy listening to air, which is another poetic obligation."
But then he summed up the importance of contemplative reading and thinking at a place like the Kluge Center, in the hope that quiet, thoughtful reflection could enhance the work of "the doers" across the street.