Monday, March 13, 2017

Theofanis the Bibliophile

What follows are my remarks given as part of a program at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the afternoon and evening of March 10, 2017 in honor of my special friend and colleague, Professor Theofanis G. Stavrou. I prefaced my prepared remarks by observing that while I was the one speaking, there were many colleagues from the University of Minnesota Libraries (some of whom were present) who also played a role in working with Theofanis to develop the Basil Laourdas Modern Greek Literature Collection in our Special Collections & Rare Books unit of the Archives and Special Collections Department, and in developing the general collections to support Modern Greek studies at the University of Minnesota. I especially called out my predecessor, the late Austin McLean, and Carol Urness, former curator of the James Ford Bell Library. Without Austin, who began this work, and Carol, who kept it going until my arrival, none of this would have happened. I offer these remarks on behalf of those remarkable colleagues and friends.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *
Dear Theo,

Much of what follows comes with the assistance of your dear brother, who also suggested that these remarks be understated. I will do my best to heed his advice, although it may prove difficult. Perhaps a little humor will help.

From the time you were a young boy in Cyprus, until your later teenage years, you exhibited signs of incipient bibliomania. Your family came from a small village. You were born into this family of book lovers and avid readers. This passion for books and reading came through the blood; it is a thing you inherited. It is important to remember this. This malady was not of your own doing; it was a trait given to you. Not surprisingly, you embraced this inheritance with all your soul.

Your feverish love for all things written and published manifested itself in the construction of a library located in a small triangular bedroom. Sometime in the 1940s, extending through the early 1950s, you populated your three-cornered library with school books you were allowed to keep; with Classics Illustrated; with Zane Gray and other cowboy westerns; with Perry Mason cases; with weekly publications of western adventures and detective stories; with Modern Greek and European—especially English—literature. On top of this, you bought and saved all Greek and English newspapers published on Cyprus. One wonders how your shelves bore the strain. Did you double-, or maybe even triple-stack your shelves? It is a trick well known to avid collectors. And, of course, I have to ask: did your collection include any Sherlock Holmes?

This happy, bookish illness revealed itself in other ways. Your hands, apparently, were seldom seen without a book attached to them. It is a condition well known to fellow sufferers—read-us   all-the-time-us. Since I don’t see a book in your hand at the moment, I’ll assume you’ve survived this particular stage of illness.

On your arrival to the United States, it appears you suffered a bibliophilic relapse. You started building another library, this time in your uncle’s house in New York. I can only surmise that things got worse after you received your Ph.D. and were hired by the University of Minnesota. I’m assuming this New York collection, or at least part of it, migrated to Minnesota. I’ve seen the library in your office, so I know you’re still infected with this particular virus. Your home library, by all reports, has reached legendary and epic proportions. 

Oh, dear Theo, I shudder to think what strain those beams and rafters must be under. Do any of your colleagues or family members fear for their safety? I know a good library, and maybe a librarian or two, who might be able to help you out with this particular phase of your sickness.

At this point, it should surprise no one that after your hire by the University in 1961, you returned to Cyprus—your first visit since 1952—with the express plan to compile a bibliography of Cyprus.

I do not know the fate of that project, but I do know a great deal of the rest.
  • You helped establish—indeed, you were the prime mover—in the establishment of the Basil Lourdas Modern Greek collection in the Special Collections unit of the University Library;
  • You secured part of the Efthymios Souloyannis personal library from Athens;
  • You helped acquire special items such as a signed copy of Kazantzakis’ Odyssey;
  • You assisted the Immigration History Research Center Archives with their work; 
  • As a founding member of the University of Cyprus, you were eager to help efforts toward a university library in that place;
    • To that end, you arranged for the University of Cyprus to purchase the approximately fourteen-thousand-title personal library of Tibor Halasi-Kun, a Turkic Scholar at Columbia University, who had died in 1991.  You arranged to have the titles of the books scanned, the books packed, and shipped to Cyprus;
    • Going further, you gathered books for the University of Cyprus donated from the personal library of your mentor, Robert Byrnes, at Indiana University, and by colleagues at the University of Minnesota— Harold Deutsch, George Greene, Tom Kelly, and others.
  • You have always been a supporter of exhibits and other programs promoting books;
  • You have, alas, encouraged, indeed inspired many individuals, especially young people, to collect books;
  • You encouraged not only your students, but also friends young and old, to write and publish on subjects of interest to them;
  • And you collaborated with the University Libraries in connection with two lecture series you helped establish: the Annual Celebration of Greek Letters, and the Annual James W. Cunningham Memorial Lecture on Eastern Orthodox History and Culture.

·      Last, but not least, you initiated and supervised three publication series that were issued through the Modern Greek Studies Program here at Minnesota: The Nostos books, the Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, and the Minnesota Mediterranean and East European Monographs (MMEEM)—all together, about eighty volumes.

All of you, by the way, are invited to examine these various books on display here in this room following the program.

Finally, allow me to end this segment on a personal note. One of the highlights of my career was to travel to, and study in, Greece—in the company of Lucien and two other of your students over a five week span—and to spend a small portion of that time in monasteries on Mount Athos. The memory of those days, especially my time in the libraries at The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopedi, will remain with me to the end of my days.

I salute you, dear doctor and friend, for the manner in which you let this gentle madness, this bibliophilia, infect us all. We are the better for it.

Books, we know, are but one of your passions. Now, Susannah Smith will tell us about another of your passions: teaching.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Waiting for Repairs...and Glimpsing a Little Hope

It is a windy March afternoon, late winter in Minnesota. I’m hunkered down in the Excelsior Public Library. It’s a beautiful, bright, new open space. Three adults sit reading within my line of sight. One or two more roam the shelves. Indistinct staff banter floats over the shelves. It is a quiet, sheltered space—a good place to think and write.

I spent the morning waiting for my car to be fixed. A routine oil change and tire rotation should have meant a short stay, but my early morning appointment morphed into hours. I had little choice after staff informed me that a brake job was necessary. I acquiesced to the brakes, knowing a long road trip to Colorado was in the works. Peace of mind, especially as it relates to aging automobiles, was worth the extra time.

While waiting in the dealership’s lounge, I had plenty of time to contemplate our current state of affairs. This morning, Republicans trumpeted their new health care legislation. My representative urged his constituents to read the plan, all 123 legalese pages of it. I scratched the surface of this draft bill, read other summaries and reports, and may attempt to tackle the entire bill at a later date. But, for now, I was unimpressed by what I read. 

Meanwhile, Washington reverberates with Russian intrigue as a chorus grows louder to appoint a special prosecutor. Costs continue to mount from presidential trips—including family members on family business—and we shake our heads in disbelief, our cheeks tint with mild disgust. A new executive order on immigration is in the works while my university has now formed an immigration response team to assist foreign students concerned with their status and safety. According to University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler, we attract students from more than 135 nations, not to mention visiting scholars and foreign faculty. That’s a lot of worry and concern to deal with.

Back in my quiet corner, the library has suddenly filled with student chatter. Almost all of my new neighbors appear to be elementary students. The nearby school must have just let out. It’s a delightful sight. Nearly every seat is filled. A young boy politely asks me if I am using the computer next to me. I’m not, and he pleasingly plops down in the chair and begins whatever explorations are ahead of him. Over the next ninety minutes or so these students—sometimes boisterously—engage the library. Are they working on assignments? Doing some required reading? Browsing for pleasure? Whatever their needs, they seem addressed by this after-school oasis.

Before long, I notice the time. Normally, I’d be leaving my office about now. Most of the students have left, no doubt on to their next activity. And yet, two youngsters still sit on the other side of my station, ears muffled by headphones, eyes glued to their computer screens. The looks on their faces are priceless, rapt as they are in whatever they’re watching. It is a special moment, one I savor, and a reminder of how important public libraries are to the social fabric.

How many times have legislators sought to cut library funding, just as they’re now ramping up to strip (or abolish) our national endowments in the arts and humanities? Public radio and television seem to be on the chopping block as well. Have these lawmakers ever taken a quiet moment to sit in a public library on a winter’s afternoon and look—silently look—at the enthralled faces of young students such as these? Or experienced the exuberant joy and thrilled discovery in excited, nattering voices? Nearby, as if on cue, a young boy, picking a book from a bin, exclaims, “This book is awesome!” No one in the library on this blustery afternoon could have missed his exhilaration.

Here, while the adult world wobbles on the brink of something frightful, I see our hope for the future. I see it in their eyes. I hear it in their voices. I feel it in their lively steps. No legislator fully present on such a day would want to steal such hope. Before I pack my own bag and prepare to depart, I’m left with a final plaintive question that drifts to me from across the room: “Mom, can I get one more book?”