Where could one find a score of books by Archbishop Fulton Sheen? Or the writings of the Fathers of the Church? Or dozens of writings on spirituality? And what of current Catholic magazines?
They are readily available right in the heart of Melbourne, at the Caroline Chisholm Library, together with 25,000 other volumes. Some of the best of Christian literature is housed there, plus secular subjects and some fiction. There are sections on philosophy, religion, social science, language studies, mathematics and natural science, the arts, literature, geography and history.
The library inherited the books of the old Central Catholic Library, which would have been dispersed had it not been for the efforts of a group of people determined to retain them in one collection. Many of the books are now out of print.
In 1924 Archbishop Daniel Mannix had invited influential Catholics to a meeting where the formation of a library was discussed on the motion of Father W. Hackett SJ. The Archbishop donated £100 to the subscription list, and continued to take a keen interest in the project while the efforts of Father Hackett and his helpers led to a thriving library.
As Frank Murphy says in his biography Daniel Mannix, the library 'began to play an ever increasing role in the formation of the mind of the Catholic community. As a meeting- place, as well as a library, with regular lectures and discussions, formal and informal, it became a centre indeed' (p. 119).
On the eventual cessation of the library the books were saved by a dedicated band of people, and the present Caroline Chisholm Library came into being. In particular, Kate Cleary deserves credit for having helped save the books and then devoting many hours per week for many years to running the library. Recently, family responsibilities have prevented her from continuing to do this. John Daly is another who has worked hard for the library.
The library is run entirely by volunteers: people so convinced of the benefits the library offers that they give freely of their time, whether in attending the needs of customers at the desk, answering the phone, shelving books or repairing damaged volumes. As a result, costs are kept to a minimum.
When reading good literature we are in touch with great minds, and hopefully imbibe something of their insights. As G.K. Chesterton said of the great literature of the past, it preserves us from being 'merely modern'; of assuming that the latest ideas must be the best. 'To be merely modern', he said, 'is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one's last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old fashioned' (Chesterton: 'On Reading', in Essays and Poems, Penguin Books, p. 21).
Works of history, philosophy, theology and literature, from ancient times to the present, allow us to engage with the best thought of the ages and to make it our own. Take the Confessions of St Augustine: the saint here describes his early life, his struggles to find the truth, his immoral living and how he finally conquered it, his meditations on God and his soul.
We get an insight not only into the soul of a man who became a great saint and doctor of the Church, but a vivid picture of life in the fourth century. We can compare it with out own time - which it resembles in many ways.
There's a parallel between knowing the past and remembering our own past. A person with amnesia is disoriented, for he has forgotten who he is. And a person who doesn't know much about the past is in a comparable position regarding the significance of current events.
In James Hilton's novel Random Harvest the main character, Charles Rainier, has a void in his life because of a crucial period he can't remember, and his life is disturbed and lacks balance because of that. Something similar can happen if we don't know what has happened in history and what the key thinkers have said. It becomes hard (or impossible) to make a balanced judgment about current events if we lack knowledge of their historical causes and of how similar situations in the past have fared.
The library also runs lunchtime talks, with topics recently covered including the prayer methods of several religious orders (given by members of the orders); Catholics and Muslims; the life of Caroline Chisholm; a critique of private revelations; and transubstantiation.
Between the series of talks there is a weekly discussion group each Wednesday afternoon from one till two, which has dealt with questions such as Judaism and Christianity, the Church's teaching authority, the Eucharist, original sin, and the knowledge Christ had while on earth and moral issues. This can be a very fruitful way of deepening our understanding, as we confront issues and listen to what others think about them.
Anyone may walk into the library and read the books and journals. Books can be borrowed by members, who can take up to four books at a time. Full membership is $50 per year ($35 concession) or $90 for two years.
As the library is entirely supported by donations (tax-deductible) and subscriptions, it is imperative that these be continued - and increased if the library is to be secure. It would be a tragedy if it failed through lack of support.
Come in one day and investigate the library for yourself. Tell your friends about it.
John Young is a Melbourne-based Catholic writer and lecturer.
The Caroline Chisholm Library is open from 11 till 5, Monday to Friday, and on Saturday from 11 till 3. The address is 3rd floor, Mitchell House, 358 Lonsdale St, Melbourne (near Elizabeth St and St Francis' Church). Phone/fax 9670 1815. PO Box 13176, Melbourne 8010.