Thoughts while thinking about Edward Swanson

The library world lost a friend when Edward Swanson died earlier this month. Everyone who knew Edward seems to have experienced a different facet of a complex man. Each of us has a personal memory. My most poignant memory is of Edward, the consummate believer in the power and purpose of libraries and librarians, who worked without stint to create Quatrefoil, a unique library by and about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender writers and readers. My keen memory is rooted, no doubt, in the controversy generated by the mere suggestion that Quatrefoil be welcomed into membership in the library network I was managing in the mid-1980’s. It’s painful, but instructive, to recall those times – inspiring to honor the memory of the vision Quatrefoil represents. In honor of Edward Swanson, some thoughts on Quatrefoil, an organization that embodies the spirit, the professional skills and the beliefs that permeated Edward’s very existence.

Begun in the 1980’s as a dream of a few committed individuals, the Quatrefoil Library is today a stable, yet nimble, institution in a world that has changed dramatically. The mission is “to collect, maintain, document and circulate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer materials and information in a safe and accessible space, in order to promote understanding, an appreciation of diversity and history, and the value of communities.” The lofty vision shapes a community that lives by the stated mission.

In 2009 Adam Keim wrote a remarkable history of Quatrefoil Library, published by the Friends of the Bill of Rights Foundation. A revelatory feature of this momentous story is that the entire book, History of the Quatrefoil Library, is available online for anyone to read, download and print! This is SO Quatrefoil! It’s a captivating story of an organization, the people involved, and societal change.

In his introduction to the book Keim, who did not experience the pains of an earlier time, observes that “the Quatrefoil Library has opened my eyes to these things. Before now, I took all these events and people for granted. I gaze over the shelves of books in the Quatrefoil Library and I feel overwhelmed. There is so much history buried in there and it is all important, especially for the younger generations of gay people to realize why they have the freedom they have. And what a monumental feat the Quatrefoil is doing by collecting and preserving all of this. They do it for people such as me, who didn’t even know who the founders of the gay liberation movement were until now.”

Though today’s Quatrefoil Library is accessible through a range of social media the basic principles of the collection, its organization and structure, will forever reflect the underlying principles and labors of Edward Swanson and other visionaries.

My favorite reflection on libraries and their role is an essay by Archibald MacLeish entitled “The Premise of Meaning.” In words that echo an earlier time, MacLeish affirms that “a library, considered not as a collection of objects that happen to be books that have been chosen to constitute a library, is an extraordinary thing. It is not all what it is commonly supposed to be, even by men who describe themselves as intellectuals – perhaps I should say particularly by men who describe themselves as intellectuals. It is not a sort of scholarly filling station where students of all ages can repair to get themselves supplied with a tankful of titles…On the contrary it is an achievement in and of itself – one of the greatest of human achievements because it combines and justifies so many others. That its card catalogues and bibliographical machinery are useful no one doubts…That its housing and safekeeping arrangements are vital, essential, necessary goes without saying. But what is more important in a library than anything else – that everything else – is the fact that it exists. For the existence of a library, the fact of its existence, is, in itself and of itself, an assertion – a proposition nailed like Luther’s to the door of time. By standing where it does….at the e center of our intellectual lives – with its books in a certain order on its shelves and its cards in a certain structure in their cases, the true library asserts that there is indeed a ‘mystery of things.’ Or, more precisely, it asserts that the reason why the ‘things’ compose a mystery is that they seem to mean, that they fall, when gathered together, into a kind of relationship, of wholeness, as though all these different and dissimilar reports, these bits and pieces of experience, manuscripts in bottles, messages from long before, from deep within, from miles beyond, belonged together and might, if understood together, spell out the meaning which the mystery implies.” (quoted in Reading Rooms, edited by Susan Allen Toth and John Coughlan, pp 482-83,

Quatrefoil asserts just that premise of meaning. And that’s why thinking of Edward Swanson and his life makes me reflect on history, commitment, and the premise of meaning.

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