The Faith and John Meem Library is located on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Library’s primary mission is to support the College’s distinctive academic program.
St. John’s College, founded as King William’s School in Annapolis, Maryland in 1696, is the third oldest college in the United States after Harvard and the College of William and Mary. A coeducational liberal arts college with no religious affiliation, St. John’s in 1937 instituted a program of study recognized in the eight decades since for both its radicality and its traditionalism: an all-required curriculum devoted entirely to the reading and discussion of the core foundational texts of Western civilization. This curriculum—four years of twice-weekly seminars (literature, philosophy, political science, economics, and religion), four years of language (Ancient Greek and French), four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, and one year of music—continues essentially unchanged to this day. Due to its singularly demanding reading list and approach (approximately two hundred primary works spanning three thousand years of Western thought), the St. John’s College Program is widely held to be the most rigorous undergraduate education in America.
In 1960, faced with increasing numbers of applications for admission to its Annapolis campus, the College made a second radical decision. Rather than expand the original campus to accommodate greater numbers of students and thereby sacrifice the sense of community this College seeks to foster, it elected instead to open a second campus in a new location, with the very same curriculum. The ensuing search for the most suitable location brought invitations from over thirty different cities and communities around the country. In the end, Santa Fe won out for both its welcoming environment and its long and rich literary, artistic, and cultural tradition.
The Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College opened in the fall of 1964 on land donated primarily by John Gaw Meem and his wife, Faith Bemis Meem. John Meem, a Santa Fe architect revered both then and now for his influential Pueblo Revival and Territorial architectural styles and his work towards preserving the distinctively traditional architectural character of Santa Fe’s Downtown Historic District, was by this time retired and did not himself draw the plans for the St. John’s College campus buildings. However, the architects who were commissioned for this new campus project, Edward Holien and William Buckley, had both worked for many years under Meem, and he exercised considerable influence over the original plans and construction.
While the original campus plans included a designated library building, financial considerations ultimately required deferring its construction, and the Santa Fe campus opened in 1964 with its original library collection sited in what is now the campus bookstore space in Peterson Student Center. Although the intention was always to add the planned library once the necessary funds materialized, it was not until twenty-six years after the opening of the campus that a dedicated campus library building finally came to fruition. During those intervening years, the library holdings began to outgrow their Peterson bookstore space and the “library” eventually became scattered around various locations on campus, including the Evans Science Lab, Calliope House in what was then the women’s dormitory complex, the basement of the newly-built Tower Building (soon to be renamed Weigle Hall), and the Sternberger-Weis Music and Fine Arts Building (commonly known as FAB), completed in 1973 with funds donated by alumnus and Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman.
Over the years a steadily growing collection, the challenges of maintaining multiple library locations simultaneously, the addition of a Graduate Program, and the lack of a quiet and central shared campus study space all drove home the pressing need for a dedicated library building. By the mid-1980s St. John’s College Presidents Edwin Delattre (1980-1986) and Michael Riccards (1986-1989) had set into motion the fundraising essential to this project, while a library steering committee spearheaded by Lisa Carey (86) undertook a detailed survey of the College’s students, staff, faculty, and Board members to determine just what the ideal library for a College and campus like ours should include. Among the foremost requirements was that our library have space for fully half of our student body at any given time, making it a rarity among colleges and universities where the average library is designed to accommodate only 10-15% of a given student population at one time, and a powerful testament to the centrality of books and reading in our own Program.
The groundbreaking for the long-awaited library finally occurred just before Commencement on May 14th, 1989, and a year later a new 24,414 square-foot library in the distinctively southwestern Territorial architectural style of the original campus buildings had begun to take shape. On October 26, 1990, Santa Fe campus President John Agresto cancelled all classes for the day so that the entire campus community could participate in what he termed a “booket brigade” to move all of the College’s 50,000 book and music holdings from their scattered locations into their now-permanent home. Two weeks later, on November 10, 1990, the new building was formally dedicated as the Faith and John Meem Library, in gratitude to the renowned and beloved Santa Fe couple who twenty-six years earlier had donated most of the 280 acres on which this western campus of St. John’s was built.
Now, three decades later, this uniquely beautiful library with its well-stocked shelves of great books stands as elegant testament to both our singular College and to all those visionaries and benefactors who brought it into—and have kept it in—existence for the present generation and for all the generations of serious readers yet to come. The Library’s collection of 70,000 volumes is especially rich in ancient and modern classics of literature, philosophy, politics, science, and mathematics, both in the original language and in translation. Thirty years into its existence, the Faith and John Meem Library remains the vital heart of our uniquely book-centered community and welcomes use by both the College’s alumni and the interested public whenever the College itself is open and in session.