The hand-painted Dragoness
Glastonbury, a centre of spiritual knowledge since long before the Christians arrived, and said to be the site of the first Christian Church, has been reputed to be a place of worship and pilgrimage since Neolithic times.
With the Middle Ages came the growth of the great Benedictine Abbey of Glastonbury which had one of the finest libraries in England.
James Carley quotes John Leland, Henry VIII's unofficial antiquarian general and an expert on the book collections of England, as writing after a visit to the Glastonbury Abbey library:
“…Scarcely had I crossed the threshold when the mere sight of the ancient books took my mind with an awe or stupor of some kind, and for that reason I stopped in my tracks for a little while. Then having paid my respects to the deity of the place, I examined all the bookcases for some days with the greatest interest.”
A marvellous quotation from a fourteenth century Benedictine Abbot is given in the novel ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco:
“A monastery without books is like a state without power, a fortress without troops, a kitchen without equipment, a meal without food, a garden without plants, a meadow without flowers, a tree without leaves...”
With the dissolution of the monastery, all the books of this great library were destroyed or disbursed.
In the late twentieth century Glastonbury was re-emerging as a centre of pilgrimage and spiritual awareness. There was a feeling that what the Abbey had stood for was trying to re-emerge, but in a totally different form that would be appropriate to the present time. The Abbey was being recreated - but what was an abbey without a spiritual library?
This was the thought that inspired the formation of the Avalon Library.
In the late 1970s, the Arthurian author Geoffrey Ashe and others including Helene Koppejan, had the idea of creating a library of British myth and legend. They each donated a few books and this small collection found a temporary home in the newly-emerging Glastonbury Assembly Rooms around 1980. Nothing much further happened
In 1987 David Taylor called together a number of people interested in the possibility of establishing a "Library of British Legend" to be based around British Myth and Romance. Various meetings were convened and resulted in the decision to form an association.
July 5th 1988 – The Library of Avalon Association was formed. This was an association of members who formally elected trustees to be responsible for running the affairs of the association, at the Annual General meeting. At this meeting the first provisional trustees were appointed, their appointment to be confirmed at the AGM. These trustees were Phillipa Bowers, Terry Walsh, Pete Woodcock, David Taylor and Mo Wilette.
The new association did not yet have premises and only three boxes of books. The trustees met several times but initial support faded and the project looked like it would not succeed with its narrow field of interest.
Barry Taylor and Kathy Jones decided to take on the project, broadening its scope to include such diverse contemporary subjects as Healing; Sacred Geometry; Psychology; Goddess Spirituality; Astrology; the Environment; Sacred Art; Comparative Religion; and Spiritual and Religious Paths as well as the original subject of British Legend.
This expanded focus meant that the Library might become a true successor to the great library of the Abbey. The concept of widening the scope of the Library attracted a number of new potential members and reinvigorated the idea of bringing a real library into being.
November 30th 1988 – The first Annual General Meeting of the Library of Avalon Association was held at which 22 people were present. A majority of those present had not been involved in setting up the association.
At the meeting Geoffrey Ashe was elected as Patron and six new trustees were appointed. These being: Kathy Jones (Chair), Barry Taylor (Treasurer), Dawn Wilson-Singer (Company Secretary), Helen Koppejan, Chris Simpson and Lin Hennessey. It is an indication of the fundamental change of policy that had taken place since the formation of the association that none of the original trustees stood for re-election.
This meeting passed the following interesting resolution
“That this Association resolves to form itself into a company limited by guarantee and to then register itself as a charity known as the Avalon Library Association”
1996 The idea of registering the Library as a charity, or joining forces with the Isle of Avalon Foundation, had been looked at in the previous eight years but no real progress had been made. During 1996 Keith Pickett and Kristen Lindop carried out detailed discussions with the charity commissioners with a view to deciding upon a possible charitable constitution. As a result of these negotiations it was decided to continue with the Library as an association and not to form it as a company limited by guarantee. A new constitution was agreed with the Charity Commission.
18th April 1997 - At this AGM the new constitution was presented to the members and it was resolved that the Library should accept this constitution and be constituted as a charitable unincorporated association.
The Library was registered as a charity later in the year. The first trustees of the charity were Chris Makepeace (Chair), Sue Barnett (Treasurer), Kristen Lindop (Secretary) and Nigel Breen.
This constitution is in force at the time of producing this history
The original vision of the members interested in the broader aspect of the Library was that it would be the focus of a great centre of learning, interested in all aspects of human growth, spirituality and the raising of consciousness. The Library would eventually have its own buildings with space for the books and collection of tapes, films and manuscripts; and with rooms for lectures, research, reading and offices. It would have all the most modern equipment needed to carry out its work.
It would deliver a range of services including lending books, providing a highly professional research facility, organising lectures, seminars and workshops, publication of new books, tapes and videos and printing of key books that were no longer in print.
To enable it to carry out these functions, the Library would need to accept gifts of books. It would also need a clear idea of which books it needed to complete its collections and to actively obtain the missing volumes, either as gifts or by purchase.
To carry out these functions, the Library would need some paid staff but would seek to do as much of the work as possible with the help of suitably qualified volunteers
This bold vision, was never recorded fully in writing, but was the one that inspired the original members. Everyone knew that it would take time to achieve but it was believed to be possible.
November 1989 – At a meeting of the Association, the longer term vision of the Library was discussed by the members. The original vision was reflected in the minutes of the meeting which stated that the vision was for:
A central administration facility equipped with all the latest library collating and storage equipment. The central facility would support a number of specialised libraries, possibly in their own rooms. These specialised rooms would include an Arthur room and one on British Myth and Legend.
The Theme of the Library would be LOVE, LEARNING and EXCELLENCE
We would endeavour to apply this theme to all our activities.
Other key points:
At this meeting, it was agreed that the Library should investigate the costs involved in such a project and possible sources of funding.
4th August 1988 - The Library moved into its first premises - one small room at the back of the first floor of 8a Market Place Glastonbury. This room overlooked the rear courtyard of the Glastonbury Experience complex (GE). This has been accepted as the formal starting date of the Library.
January 12th 1989 - The Library had outgrown this one small room and on this date it moved into the larger front room on the first floor of 8a Market Place which the GE had made available. This was an attractive room overlooking the Market Place which provided space for the expanding book collection and was a room in which to hold symposia. Helene Koppejan installed extensive shelving and the Library was able to settle into a manageable space. The original room was renamed the Sophia Room and was used for talks and symposia.
1990s – Whilst the Library had sufficient room for its then current activities, it would need a lot more space if it was to fulfil the vision for the future. The GE consulted architects in order to explore the possibilities of expanding the Library into the first floor of the next door building at 8 Market Place and constructing an additional floor above both these rooms. Splendid drawings were produced showing a spacious library with rooms for lectures, plenty of loos and a stunning reading room on the top floor with enormous windows. Sadly, at this stage, there was no way in which the revenue of the Library could begin to justify such a grand scheme.
The trustees realised that most great libraries are attached to a University or School of learning which funds the library. The University of Avalon was set up in 1990 originally as means of funding the Library of Avalon. It soon became an educational organisation in its own right (see later).
1st September 1993 - The Library moved from 8a Market Place to the Ark on the first floor of the front courtyard of the GE. This had the advantage of making the Library more visible.
January 2002 The Library moved to the Rear Courtyard of the GE. The GE removed the dividing walls between what had been the Brigit Chapel and private offices and these new premises had the advantage of being on the ground floor whilst still being within the GE. The Library had almost come full circle as it was now directly beneath the small room in which it had been started. This is the room in which the Library is today established.
The book collection was started with the opening of the first Library room by Geoffrey Ashe donating the original box of books that had been held in the Assembly Rooms. The new members started to gift books and gifts were received from a number of publishers including the Lucis Trust.
At the end of the first year in July 1989 the Library had 200 books. New books continued to flow in at the rate of between 600 and 1,300 per year and by the end of 1995 the Library had 5,200 books. This rate has continued steadily and by mid-2007 the Library had 13,000 books.
It is worth repeating that all these books have been donated by the public, by publishers, collectors and by members. No books have been bought.
The subjects covered include
Most of the books may be borrowed by members, but there are also a number of ‘reference only’ sections including the collections of R.I.L.K.O (Research into Lost Knowledge Organisation) and of the Wessex Research Group.
The Library is currently researching its collection to ascertain which sections are incomplete and is starting to seek copies of the missing books.
As far as the books are concerned, the Library has fully materialised the original vision of the founder members.
From the earliest days, the Library has offered a borrowing service. Paid up members are able to borrow up to five books at a time, for three weeks each, and may renew borrowings up to three times. Some collections are limited to reference only.
The specialised nature of the collections of the Library of Avalon meant that it was covering a wide range of subjects the fell into a very limited number of categories in conventional library classification systems. It was felt that a new classification system was required.
In due course the new Library of Avalon Classification system was created, with advice from both a retired Chairman of the Libraries Association and an expert on the "BLISS" system. This Library classification system has been extended as more books have been received and as the subject matter has become more diverse.
The books are listed in a computer database under the appropriate sections. Hard copies are printed as a guide for visitors to the Library – these are in two forms - listing by author and listing by title
These listings are also given on the Library web site which has its own search facility.
The names of the original trustees have been given above. This is not the place to list the names of all those members who have been trustees over the nineteen years since the Library was established but there have always been members who were prepared to carry out the voluntary and sometimes onerous duties of being a trustee.
Perhaps several names should be mentioned. Sue Barnet was one of the original founding members of the Library and was a trustee from the earliest days and, at various times were treasurer, secretary and chair. Sue retired in 2004 after 16 years service and the Library is grateful for her help in keeping the Library running during these early and sometimes difficult formative years. Other trustees who helped maintain the Library through the rocky first years include Barry Taylor and Kathy Jones.
Members of the Library Association are the main body of support. They elect the trustees at the Annual General Meeting; pay their subscriptions, which are a vital part of the revenue; and supply the volunteers who carry out the work on the Library.
In November 1988 the Library was formed with 40 members. Over the next few years the number increased to 120 and the number of fee paying members has remained around this for a number of years. Recently numbers have started to climb to around 200, and are increasing.
In the early days, a lot of support and interest was shown by members, probably helped by the popularity of the Symposia. During the latter years there has been a tendency for a small number of dedicated and hard working people to carry the work of the Library. The other members pay their subscriptions but otherwise do not show much interest. Perhaps this is something that the Library needs to look at.
Many charities and not-for-profit organisations have been set up in Glastonbury over the last twenty years. In almost every case, real progress has only been made when a paid co-ordinator has been appointed. Volunteers do most of the work but it seems to be very difficult for volunteers to look after the regular administrative and promotional work that is needed if an organisation is to grow.
For a short spell in 1992, Lucy Lepchani was employed as paid co-ordinator – this did not last long as the funds were not available to continue with her employment. Other than this short period, the Library has never been able to afford a paid co-ordinator. Throughout its life it has been blessed with dedicated volunteers who have given their time as trustees and workers in the Library. This has meant that the growing number of books have always been looked after, catalogued and placed upon the shelves.
The Library has also been blessed with volunteers who had practical experience of libraries. The first librarian was Nancy Bressey who served from the formation until 1992. Many other dedicated volunteer librarians have followed including Chris Makepeace, Keith Pickett, Kristen Lindop. Izzy Cadbury has maintained this role since 2003 as volunteer and Trustee. Volunteers’ time has also been found for organising the poetry competition, seminars and conferences. But there has not been the time for the development and marketing of new activities that are essential if an organisation is to grow.
The Library was started with modest plans for a collection of books to be financed by subscriptions from members. The vision meeting held in November 1989 produced a much bolder plan that would need funding of an entirely different order. It was decided to research how other specialist libraries were funded and meetings were arranged with the librarians of the libraries of the Lucis Trust, The College of Psychic Studies and the Theosophical society. It emerged from these meetings that the libraries were only able to generate very modest funds from their own activities and in every case they were supported by funds from the income generated by a parent body. The parent body generated funds through giving courses and workshops and book publishing. It looked as if the Library of Avalon needed a parent body!
The idea of setting up an esoteric College of Avalon had been around for some time but nothing concrete had been established. As a result of the needs of the Library, the then trustees decided to set up the University of Avalon and this was done in 1990. The University later changed its name to the present one of the Isle of Avalon Foundation. The University had its own clear purpose, but its ability to generate funds through its courses meant that it was also able to offer some support to the Library.
Initially the University and the Library had the same trustees although they had different members and volunteers. With the annual appointment of trustees, the two boards gradually became made up of different people. In 1994 the Library decided to go entirely its own way and become completely independent of the University. This meant that the direct link with the University was dropped and support from this direction was cut off.
In 1995 the University advised the Library that a new charity, the Isle of Avalon Foundation Ltd was being set up to take over the work of the University and asked if the Library was interested in being a part of the charity. By joining forces, the Library would be able to access sources of funding not previously available and would have other advantages such as relief from rates.
On March 31st 1995 the Library held an EGM with the proposal:
“That the Avalon Library Association should become a division of the Isle of Avalon Foundation, a charitable company limited by guarantee, as soon as said Foundation come into being”
The proposal was passed unanimously with a few minor provisos.
This proposal was never put into effect and in 1997 the Library set itself up as a charitable association.
This effort to find a way of giving the Library an income to support its future growth had come to nothing. This question of reliable and sustainable funding for the growth of the Library has still not been resolved.
The income generated by the Library from its own activities has substantially reduced over the last ten years. If one takes inflation into account, the income in January 2005 was half what it had been ten years earlier. The symposia ran their course and the poetry and short-story competitions likewise ceased by 2000; therefore alternative forms of income had to be found.
So, today, the Library is not viable without the donation from the Glastonbury Trust and has not yet begun to generate the level of income that would be needed to bring into being the original vision.
From the earliest days the Library has arranged symposia. These are evenings where a glass of wine and snack is offered and a modest entry fee charged. The evening usually starts with a half hour presentation by two individuals followed by a general exchange of views on the subject concerned In the early days these symposia were popular, given at least six times a year and attended by twenty to thirty people. They made a modest but useful contribution to the income of the Library and helped generate a feeling of community and support for the Library. In recent years there have been fewer of these events possibly because there are nowadays so many similar events being staged by other organisations in Glastonbury
A wide range of subjects were covered .which included, amongst many others:
The Library has been the venue for many meetings, talks and study groups. Themes have included Sacred Geometry, Star Trek/Science Fiction, Tarot and Astrology. The most recent study group to meet at the Library was the Glastonbury Earth Mysteries Group. A modest charge is made for the use of the Library. In addition to useful income these meetings help to broaden the awareness of the Library in the town.
In 1990 an annual Short Story Competition was initiated by Kathy Jones, firstly locally in the South West, then expanded nationally with the help of Chris Makepeace and Tessa Warburg. These competitions proved to be a great success, and were given annually, reaching a peak year in1996 when 1200 entries were received. The income generated in that year was £3,364 and expenses £1,822.
These competitions generated a lot of interest and provided a useful income but needed a great deal of detailed administrative work and the time of volunteer judges. A team of volunteers was set up to manage the administration and computers were donated to handle the work.
The competitions were continued in the following years but the lack of volunteer time in die course lead to a fall off in interest and the last competition was held in 2000.
The Library staged a two day Spiritual Conference in 2006 on the theme of Spirituality in the third millennium. Various guest speakers including Geoffrey Ashe and William Bloom were invited, talks were given in the upstairs function room of the George and Pilgrim hotel, and the Library reading room was open throughout the conference with some workshops taking place over the weekend. This was a successful event and a further conference, with the subject Parables and miracles, took place in 2007, with Geoffrey Ashe once again opening the proceedings.
Like any organisation wholly dependent upon volunteers, the Library has varied considerably in its level of activity. It was started, nineteen years ago, with a great deal of enthusiasm, creative ideas and work by volunteers. Inevitable the initial energy faded and whilst, during the following years, there were periods of keen activity there were also long periods when the Library simply coasted along. By 2004, due to illness and other reasons, the number of active trustees had fallen to only one and an appeal was made to all the members. This resulted in a resurgence of energy and a completely new team of Trustees was elected at the AGM. The new team had a remit to bring the Library into the 21st century. A lively discussion, with the title "Visions and Practicalities", resulted in many ideas being pooled for action in the coming months.
The Library has a collection of more than 14,000 books covering a wide rage of subjects on every aspect of historic and contemporary spirituality. The books are well cared for and clearly displayed.
The Library has a group of dedicated volunteer librarians and is open every day of the week except Sundays.
It offers a comfortable reading room available for those researching, writing, or just curious about esoteric subjects, Books may be read on the premises by non-members and there is a membership so that books may be borrowed for a fee.
The library organises an annual conference on Spirituality and is exploring other initiatives
There is still a long way to go in order to realise the original vision but it is a considerable achievement to have built and cared for this unique collection of books over a period of nearly twenty years – and to have done this with only voluntary help and freely donated books.
The Library is alive and well, has a collection of books that continues to grow and has a group of active and imaginative volunteers keen to take the Library forward.
It's almost 500 years since the destruction of the Abbey library but the recreation of the once greatest spiritual library in England has definitely started.
Library of Avalon