4. Wisdom in St. Paul’s Cathedral

There is more than one thing to love about St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tucked behind the south-west tower on the triforium level, a chamber was designed for a special purpose: to house the Cathedral’s Library of Dean and Chapter. The chamber holds every bit of antiquated mystery and appeal as one might expect from a library nestled in a lofty corner of a beautiful old cathedral, yet even this is not its only charm.

What I found particularly delightful, in addition to the beautiful library, rich with history and encompassed by floor to ceiling shelves and the smell of leather-bound books, was the librarian himself. As I reflect on our visit, I realize there are several reasons why he stood out to me as a particularly important figure as I develop into my own career.

The name of the librarian, appropriately enough, is Joseph Wisdom. Although he would probably chuckle at my commentary, I found him to be a kind, sophisticated, and well educated gentlemen who by very nature goes against the stereotypical librarian in more ways than one. I mentioned in a previous post that librarians typified in Hollywood movies are indefinitely up-tight females. In my mind, Wisdom, like the Library of Dean and Chapter itself, represents an era before the U.S.-generated Hollywood librarian. I think of him as the “original” librarian, so to speak. Developing and maintaining a collection for a library used to be a man’s job, and it was not until the 20th century that the field was dominated by women.

I highlight Wisdom’s gender not because I think that the “original” male librarian is better than other librarians, but to address the different approach libraries had prior to the 20th century–an approach I hope the library can regain in the 21st century as the gender divide decreases. Passet (1993) explains in Men in a Feminized Profession: Male Librarians, 1887-1921, that “Like office work, librarianship was at mid-nineteenth century practiced almost exclusively by men who had entered the profession by life experience, degrees in other fields, or through a network of other contacts” (p. 386). Passet goes on to explain that the professionalization of librarianship developed during the first feminist movement and therefore might explain why, according to the federal census, “approximately 80 percent of all library workers in 1870 were male, but by 1900 nearly 80 percent of all library workers were female” (p. 386). Without getting lost in debate over the significance of this gender shift, I want to focus back on Joseph Wisdom, namely, who he is and what he taught me as a librarian.

Beyond his gender, Wisdom, like I said, represented another era of librarianship–a sort of “pre-professional” or “pre-industrial” persona–before “such genteel values as benevolence, virtue, and manners increasingly gave way to those of competition and consumption” (p. 385). For example, in addition to his impeccable manners (he was by no means the commonly portrayed thoroughly nettled “shush”-er), Wisdom had a very different approach to library work, specifically cataloging and classification. The books at the Library of Dean and Chapter are organized by size, not subject. To the American, post-industrial librarian, this is next to abominable as it makes finding anything in the collection much more challenging. However, Wisdom shared something to us that will stick in my memory. Before the end of the tour, he referred to the over-classification of libraries and claimed Melvil Dewy and the modern librarian’s Dewy-Decimal classification system as borderline obsessive compulsive extremism. He granted that a balance was needed, but perhaps that balance did not exist in Dewy’s perfect number to the “nth degree.”

As I enter the “profession” of library science, I want to remember Wisdom and his pre-industrial understanding that the library is more than a profession. The library first and foremost is a house of knowledge and existential wonder (whether in analogue or digital form) and is something that cannot possibly be quantified or classified. To be at the heart of librarianship is to be the gatekeeper of wisdom, like Wisdom himself.


Passet, J. E. (1993). Men in a feminized profession: the male librarian, 1887-1921. Libraries & Culture28385-402.

An interesting video on St. Paul’s Cathedral:


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