Meem Library Celebrates 30 Years

November 12, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

Meem Little Free Library
A patron visits the Little Free Library maintained by Meem Library staff.

The Meem Library on the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College first opened its doors on November 10, 1990—a full 26 years after the campus was founded. Since then, the library building has been a beloved place of sanctuary, study, insight, gathering, and friendship for hundreds of Johnnies—and will be again. But this year, as with so many organizations whose operations have been uprooted by the coronavirus, the library’s focus has shifted. And its 30th anniversary is being quietly celebrated with the launch of a new blog rather than an in-person event. 

Library History

What may be surprising to many people is that the Santa Fe campus operated without a dedicated library building for its first two and a half decades. A library was, of course, part of the initial campus plans, but its construction was delayed due to financial constraints. During that time, the library collection, such as it was, could be found scattered among several buildings: the Peterson Student Center lower level, Evans Science Laboratory, the Fine Arts Building, the basement of Weigle Hall, and a handful of other locations.

According to Craig Jolly, the Meem Library’s acquisitions and archives librarian, “The challenge of maintaining multiple library locations simultaneously, combined with a steadily growing collection and the lack of a quiet and central study space, drove the construction of Meem.” A survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and board members conducted in the mid-1980s unearthed the unusual requirement that the library have enough space to house half the student body at any given time. Most colleges allot space for 10 to 15 percent of the student population, but the centrality of books and reading to the St. John’s Program necessitated a great deal more room than that for Johnnies.

Moving into Meem Library
“Booket Brigade,” October 26, 1990

The nearly 25,000-square-foot building was designed in the Southwestern Territorial Revival architectural style of the original campus buildings. Construction finished in the fall of 1990; “on October 26, President John Agresto canceled all classes for the day so the entire campus community could join in a ‘booket brigade’ to move all the college’s 50,000 disparate book and music holdings to their new permanent home,” says Jolly, who maintains a historical record of the library.

These days the library stands practically empty, but it is by no means inactive. Library staff have been working on campus throughout the pandemic, shipping books to students around the country and handling borrowing requests from tutors and the tiny on-campus student population. The 24-hour study room outside the library’s main entrance has been temporarily repurposed as a safe, no-contact pickup space. Books—carefully wrapped in brown paper with the requestor’s name handwritten on the outside—are left on a table, alongside an enormous jug of hand sanitizer.

In addition, library staff have improved online resources, and they’ve also taken advantage of the campus shutdown to conduct an inventory of the collection, process several large book donations, and add more shelving upstairs—allowing them to shift the entire upstairs collection and make room for more books. They have also been rethinking building use and procedures to prepare for a library reopening whenever it is safe to do so.

Community Outreach

During normal times, Meem Library is also open to New Mexico-based alumni and the general public, and for a small annual fee, community members may borrow from Meem—and many take advantage of the opportunity. While those programs are suspended for the time being, the library is carefully developing various initiatives designed to keep alive a shared love of books.

For years the college has been committed to strengthening ties to the small community of Santa Fe through such free or inexpensive programs as Music on the Hill, various lecture and concert series, and Summer Classics. Motivated by that same aim, Meem Library staff opened a Little Free Library in September 2018. A book exchange program that began in Wisconsin in 2009 and now operates around the world, Little Free Libraries are small, independently maintained structures with glass doors and a “take a book, leave a book” guiding philosophy. The Meem Little Free Library—located by the parking lot at the St. John’s Trail trailhead—is in arguably one of the most beautiful locations in the country, backed by Atalaya, Sun, and Moon mountains and the St. John’s campus. The book supply is periodically replenished by Meem Library staff, though most contributions now come from trail visitors. The librarians have taken advantage of the fact that thousands of hikers—who may not be familiar with the college that stands just beyond the box—pass by every year. To this end, the librarians stock the Little Free Library with admissions materials in addition to books.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Meem librarians have looked for new ways to stay connected with the far-flung Santa Fe Johnnie community. Soon after the campus closed down in March, the library started an Instagram account, which quickly attracted hundreds of followers eager to see archival and contemporaneous library and campus photos. Now—eight months after the campus first closed—the library has begun its newest endeavor to help connect the community. Called From the Stacks, the Meem Library’s official blog launched on November 10, 2020, the library’s 30th anniversary. The blog’s opening post includes this powerful statement about its aim:

“Running through the very core of our college is a deep and common thread. We are at root a community made up of readers, individuals of a multitude of tastes and origins and creeds who all share a deep affection and respect for books. We know the pleasure and the power of reading books. We know the pleasure and power of conversing about books. And we know, whenever we enter a library or bookstore and have a little time, the paradoxical pleasure and power of browsing books. Paradoxical, because it is through the act of browsing that we are continually reminded of just how many books we still have yet to read. Browsing fosters both humility and desire, and for those of us who love books and the summoning to thought each one offers, there is something on every shelf that beckons. For so many of us, this is the very summons that has brought us to St. John’s.

In the months ahead we will browse our library’s own collections and in these pages share the fruits of that browsing. While the Program itself will always be our library’s primary focus and raison d’être, our full collection runs to some 70,000 different items, a good many of these rare or otherwise unusual. Our intention in these pages will be to highlight some of these lesser-known gems.”

Here’s to Meem Library: may it continue, for the next 30 years and beyond, to be a place of inquiry, respite, and fellowship.

The Librarians

Meem Library is led by three dedicated, creative, and multi-faceted staff members who have served for a combined total of more than 60 years. Just who are the people behind the books?

Library director since 2002, Jennifer Sprague is from the farm country of Iowa, where she spent much of her time reading outdoors in tree swings and cow pastures. She received her library science master’s degree from the University of Iowa and has worked as a librarian in Minnesota public schools, an international school in Tokyo, Japan, and the Queens Borough Public Library in New York. During her time as library director, Sprague has completed both the college’s Liberal Arts and Eastern Classics master’s degrees, received her TESOL certification, and volunteered her time assisting students with their writing. She also introduced Seymour, a certified assistance dog, to the college community; for years, he served as the official library dog, spreading joy and comfort across the campus until his passing in October 2018. Currently Sprague volunteers as a puppy raiser for Assistance Dogs of the West, and can be found practicing her skills with Mitzi, a dog-in-training, in the library. In addition, she is enrolled in ongoing bookbinding classes at the American Academy of Bookbinding, pursuing her deep interest in the history of bookmaking and paper conservation.

Laura Cooley is the senior technical services and interlibrary loan librarian. She grew up in Maryland and attended St. John’s in Annapolis as a freshman in 1987, transferring to Santa Fe with about half of her class in 1988. Cooley graduated in 1992 after some time off, then went on to the University of Michigan School of Information Science for a master’s in library science. After a year as the humanities liaison librarian at the Colorado College library, she began working at the Meem Library in 1995. Since that time Cooley has worked in acquisitions, circulation, interlibrary loans, and reference, and is currently working in cataloging and book repair (as well as interlibrary loans). She completed the Eastern Classics program part time over three years. Outside the library, she spends time bicycling for transportation, hiking for fun, and practicing Zen Buddhism.

Craig Jolly, the Meem Library’s acquisitions and archives librarian, was raised on a small dairy farm in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains, the same mountain range from which St. John’s Program founder Scott Buchanan hailed. An inveterate reader since childhood, Jolly passed many of the hours of his youth in his own small rural village library. He also had the good fortune to have an uncle who worked in the Library of Congress, giving him access at an early age to the stacks of the largest library in the world. Jolly was later an undergraduate in philosophy at Yale, where he spent most of his free time roaming the stacks of the university’s library system—the third largest research collection in the nation. After a few years he came to St. John’s as a student, taking classes first in the undergraduate Program and then, after a year, in the Graduate Institute, earning a Master’s in Liberal Arts from the college in 2002. Jolly has spent more than a decade on the staff of the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s, where he has worked in the College Bookstore, for the Graduate Institute, and—in two separate stints over the course of 20 years—as the college’s acquisitions and serials librarian, which now includes overseeing the campus’s archives. A lifelong outdoorsman who lives in a 10-by-10-foot log cabin off the grid, Jolly balances his time in the library with his time in the backcountry.