Upon the recent death of the great Italian writer and scholar Umberto Eco, The New Yorker published his wonderful ”How to Write a Thesis, ” which includes this lovely tribute to librarians: “You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian,” he writes, “because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation.”
Today in Barcelona, we discovered one of those neglected–or at least little known–treasures: La Biblioteca Pública Arús, given to the city as a public library in 1895. I read about this place in, of all things, the Vueling Airlines magazine as we were flying from Lisbon. It has all the desirable aspects that we library nerds look for: an eccentric founder, a fantastic building, and a fascinating back story. Rossend Arús i Arderiu (1845-1891) was a writer, playwright, Republican and Catalan nationalist, and, most significantly, a committed Mason in a country where Freemasonry was tantamount to atheism, anti-Catholicism, and radical politics. The library remains in the building where Arús lived; the collection of about 20,000 volumes specializes in ”social movements”, anarchism, labor history, Masonic ideals, and contemporary cultural developments. There is still only a huge card catalog–the librarians say that a digitization process is ”underway”–and the rooms do have WiFi hookup. When we were there, several people arrived to sit at the old-fashioned desks to use their computers.
And yes, that is a REAL Statue of Liberty gracing the entrance! Apparently Arús, in his activities as a Mason, communicated with his fellow Mason Frederic Bartholdi at the time the Frenchman created the original statue, and acquired this smaller version for his own home. But Arús’s collecting of the works of another Masonic acquaintance was of more interest to us.
On display in the vitrines outside the Library’s main Reading Room were myriad versions of Sherlock Holmes as a character in the the French writer Maurice Leblanc’s series with the fictional gentleman thief Arsène Lupin! We had no knowledge of these versions, but, of course, the librarian–who spoke no English–was able to tell us that the Library’s collection of Holmesiana is vast–because Arthur Conan Doyle was another Mason, and friend of Arús. The Library even sells pins of Sherlock Holmes. We bought two of them–one for George’s father, who is a devoted Sherlock Holmes purist.
Needless to say, a library devoted to Freemasonry and anarchism was not at all favored during Franco’s regime. How it survived is a miracle. It was closed in 1939, and wasn’t able to re-open until the 1960s. Now it is considered a Barcelona treasure, and carries out lecture series and other library-related functions. We were so excited to find such an eccentric gem!