The Library, Archives, and Museum of the Supreme Council: Preserving the Great Heritage

Albert Pike's Formulas and Rituals book

January-February 2011

By Joan Kleinknecht, Supreme Council Librarian, and Arturo de Hoyos, 33°, Grand Cross, Grand Archivist & Grand Historian

Photo: Bound manuscript of Albert Pike’s Formulas and Rituals, transcribed by Pike in 1854 and 1855. (Archives of the Supreme Council, 33°)

Many Masons who have visited the House of the Temple are aware that the Library of the Supreme Council was started with Albert Pike’s Collection of several thousand volumes, and that it was the first free library open to the public in Washington, D.C. But the story of how the Library grew to a collection of over 200,000 volumes is simply incredible. Ill. C. Fred Kleinknecht, 33°, Past Sovereign Grand Commander, recalled that “people used to drop off truck loads of books; they would pull up to the back of building and unload.” This added many different types of books to the collection, some of which were rare and one of a kind, whether Masonic or non-Masonic.

As the Library grew, it did so in odd fits and starts. Rather than having a well-defined Library and Museum, our collection of artifacts were often haphazardly placed around the Reading Room, and elsewhere in the Library, without rhyme or reason. The higher shelves of the stacks which line the Reading Room were packed with heaps of books, sometimes two rows deep, with other books piled on top horizontally. Large, framed prints hung around the room from the stacks, concealing rows of books. Nobody knew what was behind those frames!

When I (Joan Kleinknecht) began working for the Supreme Council seventeen years ago I realized that this was no way to run a working library. For decades the House of the Temple was heated with coal, and the natural result was an accumulation of fine coal dust on top of the books. Nobody could use a book without walking away with black hands. Each book would have to be cleaned, a process which took many months of daily labor. During this process we removed the extra rows and stacks of books, and began separating collections by subject. A library should be clean and organized. Our collection was magnificent, but neglected. I wanted to make it look like a library.

The Library has gone through an extensive metamorphosis. Because it did not have enough room to house both the “general” and Masonic collections, we decided to restore Albert Pike’s personal library, as far as possible, along the walls of a new Albert Pike Museum. This room also showcases many of his most important artifacts. We “weeded” the general collection, removing most non-Masonic books to an overflow area in the basement. This freed up much valuable space, making the main collection a Masonic library, as it should be.

We made progress but there was still much to be done. Like many older historic buildings we’ve encountered unexpected problems. As we began cataloging and processing our collection, we discovered that many rare and valuable books had simply disappeared. In the mid-1990s Ill. Arturo de Hoyos, now our Grand Archivist and Grand Historian, made several trips from his home in Texas to identify which books should be pulled from the open stacks and be placed in a new “special collections” vault we built within the Library’s overflow area in the basement.

This vault houses rare treasures, Masonic and non-Masonic, including our oldest book, Albertus Magnus, Sermones de tempore et de sanctis (1479). We also have Pike’s personal copy of Samuel Pritchard’s Masonry Dissected (1730), which includes the first printed description of the Master Mason Degree, as well as the only known copy of the 1723 Post-Boy catechism, which was discovered and acquired for us by Ill. S. Brent Morris, 33°, Grand Cross, now managing Editor of the Scottish Rite Journal (Ill. Morris included a reprint and study of this rare document in Heredom, Volume 7).

About three years ago, one of the water pipes burst in the ceiling of the Special Collections vault causing some water damage and possible mold to several of the volumes. Once there is water damage, or even change in temperature or humidity, the possibility of mold growing on these old books is a real threat, which demands immediate action. We installed drainage pans beneath the pipes should this problem arise before the all the old pipes can be removed and replaced (a costly and time-consuming process). Making this vault completely free from failure would be expensive, and we cannot yet afford to do so.

Hazards are not restricted to the basement. Just recently the Library roof leaked one night during a violent storm. In the morning we discovered that the desk of Assistant Librarian Larissa Watkins was soaked where she had been processing books; this damaged at least 20 volumes from the International Masonic Collection. Until the problem can be permanently fixed, she now covers her desk before leaving the building every evening with a large waterproof tarp which she removes each morning.

We can never know how many Masonic treasures have been lost to conflagration and inundation—fire and flood. In the earliest days of the Scottish Rite, our Supreme Council lost property, records, and rituals in a tragic fire on July 6, 1819, in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the documents lost was the oldest known copy of the Secret Constitutions of the 33d Degree, and the ritual which accompanied it. Although we would like to think that we are better prepared to deal with problems like this today, we can never be too careful in trying to preserve our rare collections.

The Archives of the Supreme Council are distinct from the Library and serve a twofold purpose. Unlike the Library, the Archives are not generally open to the public. The Archives are the repository of the official records of the Scottish Rite. They house the original documents dealing with our founding, rituals, and current domestic and international affairs. Three main storage areas comprise the Archives. The General Archives stores the records of Active Members and Deputies, together with correspondence relating to Appendant and foreign Masonic Bodies. Some two million items are stored in archival cases and fireproof file drawers. The second main storage area is the Archives Vault. This is where our most valuable manuscripts and books are preserved, including our collection of rituals, Scottish Rite and otherwise, as well as manuscript copies of books, both published and unpublished. This includes Albert Pike’s original handwritten books.

The items in the Archives are our most valuable collection of records. In many regards, they are comparable, as far as the Scottish Rite is concerned, to the documents in the National Archives and Smithsonian Museums. Because of their age, condition and, in some cases, confidential nature, the Archives are not generally subject to casual review by visitors to the House of the Temple. However, bona fide researchers looking for a bit of historical information not available in print elsewhere are welcome to write to the Grand Archivist, who will investigate the issue. Our emphasis is on preservation and appropriate scholarly not general, use.

The door to the Archives vault is a large steel bank-style vault door, with a combination lock, and armed with a security system. The massive steel door, which weighs hundreds of pounds, has an extremely tight fit, and periodically gets stuck when the weather changes, owing to the vacuum created by the difference in air temperature within and without the vault. Even though the door has been professionally serviced and maintained, it has been sometimes stuck closed for days, and even weeks, because settling in the building adds additional weight and pressure to this basement vault.

The third area is the Photo Archives. Previous to 1999 no attempt had been made to catalogue or properly store our collection of engravings, daguerreotypes, tintypes, photographs and film. Because both the General Archives and Archives vault are full, a small storage area serves as a makeshift Photo Archives. The items are stored in archival boxes, cases, Mylar sleeves, etc., but we lack proper storage conditions, space and equipment to digitize images (which would make them available for ready use).

The Library, Archives, and Museum need to be maintained on a continuous basis to process and store our collections. We require equipment and supplies to repair damaged items and for emergency situations. Sadly, we currently lack the funding we need to repair many of our most valuable items, including the elaborate handmade binding to Albert Pike’s handwritten collection of Scottish Rite rituals (the front board and spine have separated). We don’t yet have either the equipment or a room where we can properly process documents (apply chemicals to remove acids from paper, etc.), or an archival freezer to kill the mold on documents and books. We can only afford a conservator and bookbinder on a very limited basis, which leaves hundreds of items in our collection unprocessed and in damaged condition. The temperature, humidity and lighting require strict standards in each department, vault and storage area. It is extremely difficult to care for delicate items in the environment of 100-year-old building without constant attention and maintenance.

Formerly, library books were loaned and would circulate the world over on a goodwill basis, with nothing but the hope that they would be returned. Many were not. We lost so many books in this manner that we became a non-circulating library. Even then, some people have walked out of the Library with books, without our knowledge. For this reason, we would like to purchase a security system which protects every book, so that we would be alerted if someone tried to remove something without permission.

The Museum of the Supreme Council has many outstanding exhibits, and we are constantly receiving new gifts to be displayed. For the Museum to have interchangeable exhibits, but we need a proper storage facility, which must be stocked with archival supplies, cabinets, cages, etc. At present we are getting by on the minimum possible. The building has rooms which could be outfitted and converted as needed, but we cannot yet afford to make these improvements.

The Library, Archives, and Museum are the repository of the Scottish Rite’s most valuable cultural heritage, as well as our history. We also present the “public face” of Freemasonry to the many visitors of the House of the Temple. We envision improvements which will ensure that our rich, cultural and fraternal heritage can be conveyed to future generations. Won’t you consider investing in the future of the fraternity, by making a contribution to help preserve our treasures for the Masons of today and tomorrow? We believe our heritage is worth preserving, and we’ll continue doing our best with what we have. If it’s been a while since you’ve visited, or plan to be in the Washington, D.C., area, please come for a visit. After all, if you’re a Scottish Rite Mason the House of the Temple is your home too!