Libraries, almost by definition, are physical spaces inhabited by books and other readable things. All these things are meant to be used by people, of course. But libraries themselves seem inanimate, not less themselves in the absence of patrons and staff. Not so the Hong Kierkegaard Library in Jack Schwandt’s telling of its story.
In this highly readable account of the library’s origin and growth, Schwandt does inform us of its physical contents: works by and pertaining to the prolific Dane Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855); and he locates it on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn-
esota. He also narrates in engrossing detail the movement of the library’s collection from one space to another in the search for a permanent home. Schwandt’s focus, however—writing from the inside as a retired member of the St. Olaf faculty—is on the people for whom the Hong library has mattered: those who gave it birth and worked to cultivate and sustain it, those whose lives have been shaped by it. His story is about the way the library has, from its beginning, been the commons for this unique community, unimaginable apart from it.
The pivotal figures in the story are the late Howard and Edna Hong, she an accomplished author and speaker, he a legendary philosophy professor at St. Olaf, the two of them together creators of lauded translations of Kierkegaard’s collected works, a project which won them a National Book Award in 1968. Having discovered Kierkegaard via an interest in Ibsen and been stimulated further by philosopher David Swenson at the University of Minnesota, they devoted themselves to passing on their passion for Kierkegaard: teaching, crafting authoritative translations, and working tirelessly to establish a place where Kierkegaard materials—starting with the Hongs’ sprawling personal collection—could be gathered and made available and, crucially, where Kierkegaard scholars could work and come together. From its formal establishment in 1976 after sixteen years of campaigning and negotiating, and then along a winding twenty-year path to its current home on a floor of St. Olaf’s main library, the Hong Kierkegaard Library has become a leading center of Kierkegaard research, hosting dozens of visiting scholars from around the world each year and regularly holding international Kierkegaard conferences. Along the way, it developed into a site of intellectual ferment for St. Olaf students, faculty, alumni, and others from beyond the campus.
One of the marvels in the story is that this renowned library, unlike other major research libraries, is housed on the campus of an undergraduate liberal arts college in the small-town Midwest. That it could happen there is initially surprising: doesn’t this “crown jewel,” as Schwandt calls it, belong in an urban center or at a major university? That it isn’t in such a place helps to explain the local pride which colors Schwandt’s account. On reflection, however, it is hard to imagine this particular library being anywhere else. The influence of a charismatic teacher at a place where teaching matters deeply, the position of Kierkegaard himself in the history of Scandinavian and Lutheran thought, the intensely collegial nature of the library’s life: where else but at a place like St. Olaf College? Even the continuing struggle to build an endowment that will make the library self-sustaining—Schwandt tells this part of the story not just as an interested observer but as a self-confessed partisan—is hard to conceive elsewhere, at least for those familiar with the ethos of church-related liberal arts colleges, where the story of competing priorities in annual budgets and recurring fund drives is an oft-told tale.
The heart of Schwandt’s narrative is his enacting of the roles played by a host of individuals in the library’s life story. The Hongs themselves, of course, and also college presidents, development officers, deans, board members, lawyers, faculty, students, scholars from near and far, dedicated and overworked staff, oversight committee members, and financial supporters. Their varied roles are told in rich detail, with an emphasis mostly on dedication and support but with due recognition to the foot-dragging that had to be overcome.
Among the most important figures in the story are the Kierkegaard scholars who have served as the Hong Library curators. Their work is described as heroically multi-faceted: organizing, administering, hosting, promoting, teaching. All of this work is essential but none more so than the teaching. In its importance lies an intriguing question, for philosophically minded readers especially. One which Schwandt’s account points to but does not address.
An essential feature of the agreement which established the Hong Kierkegaard Library was the stipulation that the library’s curator, in addition to being a prominent Kierkegaard scholar, have an appointment in the philosophy faculty and regularly teach courses on Kierkegaard. One would like to know more about how this arrangement is working out. With the passing of Howard Hong and his era, how valuable has the Kierkegaard Library and its curator continued to be from the perspective of the philosophy department? Has the Kierkegaard influence in the department remained substantial or become peripheral? Here the library’s history and that of recent philosophy come together.
Kierkegaard’s importance in the development of continental European philosophy is indisputable. But in the context of Anglo-American philosophy over the past seventy-five years, he has commonly been located at the edge of philosophy proper, on the borderline with literature or theology rather than in the philosophical heartland. It would be interesting to know how these intellectual currents have been running in St. Olaf’s philosophy department and its library. Even Howard Hong came to his love of Kierkegaard out of his love of literature. He went from St. Olaf to the University of Minnesota to do graduate work in English and, after returning to St. Olaf, achieved much of his fame as an inspiring teacher in a course on “Philosophical Ideas in Literature.” The tensions in the library’s history are intellectual as well as financial.
Another question is posed by Schwandt’s mention of the library’s electronic communication with scholars and his description of the work of creating an online catalogue for its collection. What will be the fate of the Hong Kierkegaard Library in the headlong rush of the Internet age? Google’s ambition to digitize the world’s books and place them in a universal electronic library is the antithesis to this unique scholarly community at home on the St. Olaf campus. However accessible via the Internet the library’s collection might become, the thought of it being absorbed into Google Books produces a cognitive shudder. The speed of the Google express and its global allure are likely to provide a stern test for the Hong Kierkegaard project as it moves ahead.
The final, stirring chapter brings to a climax a celebration of the library’s impact on particular St. Olaf students. In this chapter, one of Kierkegaard’s hallmark conceptual moves is given flesh in an extended story about one of these individuals, a student whose sadly abbreviated life had been drawn into the world of Kierkegaard’s thought and the project of the Hong Kierkegaard Library during his St. Olaf career. Awakened by Kierkegaard’s limning of the tension between the pursuit of objective knowledge and the call to a deepened subjectivity—dispassionate reflection with its impersonal standards versus the existential imperative of choosing a way of life—this young man and his wife, living under the shadow of terminal illness from the inception of their marriage, were inspired to follow a path of moral and spiritual discipline that is movingly recounted by Schwandt.
In the end, the book’s focus on the stories of Kierkegaard devotees turns out to be about Kierkegaard’s thought as well, fittingly mediated by narrating its transformative impact on an individual reader, the audience for whom Kierkegaard professed to write. This provides a striking parallel to Schwandt’s characterizaton of the Hongs’ storied hospitality, from years of aiding World War II refugees to opening their home to all and sundry, hospitality that served as a counterpoint to the claims of the intellect throughout their lives and became a notable trait of the library which bears their name.
A book about the history of a library could be an arid bibliographical exercise. Schwandt’s story is anything but.