Seshat and Saint Jerome


Image of Seshat, from Son of Groucho on Flickr.

Image of Seshat, from Son of Groucho on Flickr.

Ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and writing, Seshat’s name means she who scrivens or she who is the scribe, and her title is Mistress of the House of Books. Her priests and priestesses oversaw the library which kept the most important knowledge of ancient Egypt; that is, they were also librarians. She also became a goddess of architecture, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, architecture, and surveying, because the practitioners of these fields all relied on her particular gift: writing. Her principal sanctuary was in Heliopolis.

Seshat has no animal’s head, which makes her less visually memorable than her successor, Thoth, or the other more iconic Egyptian deities. However, she does have a few recognizable traits: she wears a cheetah or leopard hide over a dress, or a dress patterned like a cheetah or leopard; she usually holds a palm stem in which she cuts notches to mark the passage of time, or perhaps a knotted cord used to survey land; above her head appears her seven-pointed emblem, though we do not know what this symbol represents.

She and her clergy were responsible for recording the pharaoh’s speeches and for inventorying the captives and goods gained on military ventures. Seshat was also involved in the surveying rituals that began temple construction to ensure that the structures were built according to precise measurements, and she was involved in the surveying of land after the annual Nile floods to re-establish boundary lines; the priestess who stood in for her here was trained in mathematics. These mathematics and the other knowledge which Seshat and her priest-librarians kept was sacred; it was therefore not shared beyond those professionals—architects, for instance, or scribes—who needed it for their duties.

Saint Jerome

Image source: Thomas Hawk on Flick.

Image of Saint Jerome from Thomas Hawk on Flick.

In a number of Christian traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Church, and both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, Saint Jerome is a patron saint of libraries and librarians. His other areas of influence include archivists, archaeologists, students, translators, scholars of the bible, and school children. His symbols include lions, skulls, trumpets, owls, books, and writing materials.

Jerome was born as Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus sometime around 347 CE in the city of Stridon, on the border between Dalmatia and Pannonia. (Jerome is an Anglicization of Hieronymus.) He traveled to Rome in order to study rhetoric and philosophy sometime between 360-366, where he learned Latin and some Greek. It was there that he was baptized into the Christian faith, despite being skeptical of it at first. As a student he would engage in typical wanton escapades, but then he would feel terrible remorse, visiting the sepulchers and catacombs of martyrs in order to imagine hell’s torments.

He travelled many years after studying in Rome, during which he continued secular studies. He often quoted Roman polytheist authors, like Virgil, when describing religious concepts. However, while seriously ill in Antioch, he had a vision that persuaded him to reject the classics and devote himself to Christian scholarship. Eventually he returned to Rome, where he went on to produce the Vulgate Bible, as well as many commentaries, histories, polemics, and widely-read letters, many of which encouraged young women to remain virgins and follow ascetic lifestyles. He also assembled a massive collection of books.

Professional Ethics

Patron gods and saints seem to be somewhat popular among librarians and other library-people. Indeed, in my admittedly limited opinion, people associated with libraries tend to be enthusiastic about anything that celebrates libraries. I would therefore like to consider what is troubling about Seshat and Saint Jerome. None of this will be new to anyone familiar with professional ethics for librarians, but it might be worth going over the way in which certain components of those ethics stand opposed to one another.

Seshat is goddess of libraries; she also seems to be goddess of knowledge silos, intellectual property, and other restricted access to information. Her knowledge was sacred; it was not shared with outsiders. Knowledge or information silos are repositories of information which no one knows to search; it is not necessarily the case that anyone deliberately hid the information, but for whatever reason no one knows it is there. But historically this practice has been more intentional. Libraries have long had histories of restricting access to the books; the idea that a library should be open to anyone is a relatively new idea. Further, copyright issues are making it harder for libraries to share information in an online environment. But as much as the freedom of information might be an important part of a librarian’s professional ethics, so too is patron privacy; it is a matter of professional ethics that libraries do not hand patron records over to the police. This is also a case of restricting access to information. Some libraries are built for particular organizations and these organizations might be very protective of those libraries; in particular, if your library supports lawyers and other legal representatives, it is important to keep its doors closed to the people on the other side of the legal dispute.  Finally, some cultures have rituals or practices which are restricted to particular members of their society; digital libraries and archives now have interesting software in order to help respect these cultural protocols by limiting access to information.

Seshat seems to be a good symbol for this tension in the librarian’s professional ethics: on the one hand, most of the time libraries look to facilitate access to information and make resources more open; on the other hand, there are many cases in which libraries and librarians must restrict access to information in order to protect patron privacy and stakeholders’ interests, respect cultural protocols, and prevent intellectual property suits.

Saint Jerome can symbolize a similar tension. He rejected the Greek and Roman classics he grew up with in favour of strictly Christian scholarship. In this way he stands for distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate resources or information. In one form this is censorship; libraries must often face public calls to ban particular books (on the grounds that they contain or espouse profanity, witchcraft, information about sexuality, or opposing political views). In another form this is representing these resources in ways that reflect a specific culture’s point of view. Both of these violate professional ethics, which insist on unbiased collections and oppose censorship. But libraries must also distinguish between accurate and inaccurate information, and between low and high quality resources. It is unreasonable to expect libraries to keep outdated science texts, for instance, or historical encyclopedia which contain racist and sexist attitudes we have now collectively rejected. In fact, it would be a violation of professional ethics for a reference librarian to knowingly return poor resources for a patron’s information request. The line between bias and discernment is both thin and blurry, however. If Seshat stands for the tension between making information available and restricting it, Saint Jerome stands for the tension between unbiased anti-censorship librarianship and distinguishing appropriate from inappropriate resources for a particular patron or collection.

Seshat and Saint Jerome have both an illuminated side and a shadowy one. This is why I choose them to stand as the patrons of librarianship: they are both model and warning. They stand for all those times when libraries and librarians have been exemplars of high quality work and for principled decisions in the face of government pressure or public convention; they also stand for all those times when libraries and librarians have failed to be unbiased collectors and defenders of public education.

From now on, I will use “Seshat and Saint Jerome” as the category for library-related posts.

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