Henry S. Olcott Memorial Library
The library catalog lists approximately 25,000 titles, including books, pamphlets, periodicals, and audiovisual materials. Library members throughout the United States can borrow items remotely. The library serves the public through participation in the RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois) Library System. The specialized collection is much in demand to university and public library patrons through interlibrary loan.
Information about the library is available on its web page.
Founding of library
The basis for this library was established by L. W. Rogers while the organization, then called the American Theosophical Society (ATS), had its headquarters in Chicago. In 1923, he made a national appeal for donations of books, writing with his usual eloquence:
A National Theosophical Society without a library is an absurdity. Our literature is the tangible expression of our philosophy and a fortress of spiritual strength. The American Theosophical Society should have the most complete library of theosophical and allied literature to be found in the nation. There are perhaps 200 books at headquarters ... Apparently, no systematic effort has ever been made to found a library that contains all the books that should be represented in such a collection.
Many of the Society's local groups had previously established libraries, and circulation of books had been an important activity of the ATS since 1897. That year, four regional committees established for "propaganda work" were asked to take responsibility for circulating "book-boxes" among their branches (lodges). Each collection of texts was packed in a sturdy wooden box for shipping the lending libraries from one lodge to the next:
- Lending Library Box I: Manuals 1-7 — The Ancient Wisdom , Esoteric Buddhism, Birth and Evolution of the Soul, In the Outer Court, Voice of the Silence, Bhagavad Gita, Light on the Path
- Lending Library Box II: Key to Theosophy,— Growth of the Soul, Building of the Kosmos, Self and its Sheaths, Plotinus, Orpheus, Four Great Religions, Upanishads, Path of Discipleship, First Steps in Occultism, Three Paths to Union
- Lending Library Box III: The Secret Doctrine, 3 vols. and index, Isis Unveiled, Pistis Sophia, The Esoteric Writings of T. Subba Rao
When the Society moved to the Wheaton site in 1927, the south end of the building was expressly designed to house the library collection that was growing rapidly. The Society proposed to honor Mr. Rogers in 1932 by naming it the Rogers Library, but he preferred that it should be called the National Theosophical Library. The library went through other changes of name, and was eventually named to honor Henry Steel Olcott. For many years the library served as the location for monthly public open houses and teas, at which the guests were entertained by musical performances and speakers.
In 1962-63, the library was expanded with an eighteen-foot extension. The new portion of the building was designed by a husband-wife team of architects, Lillian and Wilbur Leenhouts, who were members of the Milwaukee Theosophical Society. Their design retained the original decorative stone window by having it moved due south into the new curved end of the building. Construction was supervised by engineer George Linton. The extension included shelving, a meeting room, Rare Books Room, and storage room on the upper level adjoining the balcony. On the ground floor, there was space for a librarians' office and ranges of shelving. A basement was excavated under the entire library, providing space for additional storage and processing areas. For many years a portion of the basement served as a shipping room.
In 1968 Mrs. Seetha Neelakantan, formerly of the Adyar Library and Research Centre, began work at the Olcott Library to expand the collection related to Eastern religions. She supervised conversion of the shelf arrangement of that section to correspond to the modified Dewey Decimal System arrangement of Eastern religions books in Adyar.
As new media became available over the years, the library collected appropriate items, including the output of the Audiovisual Department. Films, slides, audiocassettes, videocassettes, compact discs (CDs), and digital video discs (DVDs) have each, in turn, taken their places in the collection.
The circulating book collections focus on Theosophy, the Theosophical Movement, world religions, philosophy, science, art, healing, and other topics of interest to members. The library has reference works, fiction, biographies, and a children's section. The audiovisual collection includes CDs, DVDs, and audio and video cassettes. Many of the media were recorded by the Audiovisual Department of the Theosophical Society in America, but there are also fine commercially produced works and some from the Great Courses series.
Programs and activities
From its earliest days, the library has been a center of activity in the TSA headquarters. For many years, monthly lectures were offered to the public with tea and entertainment. The staff have used the reading room for Christmas and Halloween parties. It has been the site for many weddings, and some memorial services, including that of Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa in 1953. During summer conventions at the Olcott campus, the library has been a location for discussion groups and meetings. Wheaton lodges, including the current Wheaton Olcott Lodge, have used the library as a comfortable base for meetings.
In recent years, programs have included several webinar series, arts workshops, tea with the President, storytelling for children, a chess club, staff study groups, Sunday meditations, and a spiritual roundtable series.
Library catalog and affiliations
A library union catalog was first established in June, 2000. The Sellon family and the Kern Foundation provided grants to fund a new automated library system that supported a Web-based catalog shared with the Krotona Library and the Emily Sellon Memorial Library. Librarians Elisabeth Trumpler of Olcott, Lakshmi Narayanaswami of the Krotona Institute and Michael Gomes of New York spent a week in training sessions before the system was implemented.
The library is a participant in the RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois) Library System and in the MAGIC (Multitype Automation Group in Cooperation) consortium of public, school, and other libraries. Through MAGIC, the library shares catalog and loan services, with a customized catalog interface that displays a moving stream of new titles and links to many other features of the library web page. The Olcott Library engages actively in interlibrary loans, and its holdings can be viewed through OCLC Worldcat. The Krotona Library and the Emily Sellon Memorial Library are still tightly connected to the Olcott Library through this system.
The library is also affiliated with the American Theological Libraries Association and works closely with the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library, which has a strong collection of Theosophical works.
Members frequently donate books, which are very welcome. Donations are carefully evaluated. Some are added to the circulating collection; some duplicates are stored for future use; and others are sold to raise money that is used for collection development. The library always has a few volumes for sale in the reading room. Many volumes are listed in the library's Amazon store, and selected items go into an AbeBooks store. All donations are tax-deductible.
Video tour and tutorials
Library staff members have produced several videos to provide users with information needed to use library resources:
- Take a Lively Tour Through the Henry S. Olcott Memorial Library
- Tour the Henry S. Olcott Memorial Library Website
- Very Short Tutorial How to Use the Library Catalog
- Advanced Searches in the Library Catalog
- The "Browse" Function of the Library Catalog is a Powerful Tool
- Introducing the Theosophical Society Wiki
Website and online resources
Many resources are available in the Website for the library. A Browse by Subject feature and Reading Lists provide help to patrons who are looking for materials about a specific topic. There are also links to Theosophical periodicals and resources that are available online.
- Joy Mills, 100 Years of Theosophy: A History of the Theosophical Society in America (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987), 88.
- Annie Besant, "Theosophical Work," Mercury 3.12 (August, 1897), 379-380.
- "Addition to Headquarters Estate - Mr. Rogers Honored," The Theosophical Messenger 20.10 (October 1932), 227.
- S.. A. C. [Sidney A. Cook[, "The National Theosophical Library," The American Theosophist 21.1 (January 1933), 21.
- N. Sri Ram, "Presidential Address," The Report of the Theosophical Society, 1968 (Adyar, Chennai, India: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1969), 8.