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A woman's ideas – open to the world

Library opening this weekend offers scholars and the public new insights on religious leader Mary Baker Eddy

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2002

When several thousand visitors walk through the glass doors of the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity during its official opening this weekend, they will get their first glimpse of one of the largest collections of papers by and about an American woman.

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Among the estimated half-million documents are previously unpublished letters, notes, sermons, and speeches by the author of "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" and founder of The First Church of Christ, Scientist. The collection also includes about 9,000 objects and 9,000 photographs. Library officials say the material offers new insight into Mrs. Eddy's life and her impact as a late-19th-century author and thinker.

"There are so few women of that 19th-century period who have had their papers preserved," explains Lesley Pitts, the library's manager of archives. "So many were lost to history, because they weren't considered important. We're fortunate in having the whole story in one place."

That place, at 200 Massachusetts Ave. in Boston's Back Bay, occupies four stories and 81,000 square feet in the Christian Science Publishing House, also home of The Christian Science Monitor. Stephen Danzansky, chief executive officer, calls the library "a new cultural institution for Boston," offering state-of-the-art exhibits and research facilities.

A dedication ceremony at noon tomorrow will include remarks by Virginia Harris, chairman of the library's board of trustees, followed by the première of "The Time for Thinkers Has Come," a composition for orchestra and choir written for the occasion by Boston composer Walter Robinson. An open house Saturday will feature an outdoor concert, "Boston Rhapsody," with music from a range of cultures. Sunday will mark the debut of a series called Living Ideas, with dramatic re-creations of moments from history.

A response to the public's interest

The library has its roots in three current trends, according to Mr. Danzansky.

First, he says, it comes at a time of great spiritual seeking and an "accelerating demand for spiritual resources." A recent Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Americans feel a need for spiritual growth, up from 58 percent in 1994.

Second, library officials see a growing interest in and curiosity about Eddy. Since 1998, a million and a half people in the US have viewed a traveling exhibit about her life.

Third, the library reflects a greater public demand for openness, he says, adding, "Institutions today cannot be closed if they want to be understood."

One realm where such openness is being called for is copyright law. A 1976 law stipulates that intellectual property created before 1978 and bequeathed to heirs must be published by Jan. 1, 2003. Otherwise it will enter the public domain.

"If you place papers in a library open to the public, with full access and the ability to make a copy, you've published," Danzansky says. The library extends the copyright date for Eddy's writings by 45 years, to 2047.

"Mary Baker Eddy's life as related by biographers has sort of taken two paths," he says. "One is a highly critical, muckraking, sensational path, and the other is a hagiographic, or idealized, version. What the library is saying is, here's the material. Mary Baker Eddy can be judged by her own words and what she said, rather than what somebody else said."

Exhibits also place her in the context of the 19th-century world in which she lived. "This new religious movement, Christian Science, founded by a woman, occurs in a period when women were making headway in a lot of arenas," says Ann Braude, director of the women's studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School and an adviser to the library. Even so, she notes, "It was an extraordinary thing to do what Mary Baker Eddy did at a time when women were expected not to play public roles, particularly in the area of religion."

Design as invitation

Architecturally, the library blends old and new. Ann Beha, head of Ann Beha Architects in Boston, redesigned portions of the 1930s building to respect the character of the public spaces. These include the neoclassical lobby, known as the Hall of Ideas, and the Mapparium, a 30-foot- diameter stained-glass globe.