Dr. David Miller is an Assistant Professor
in the English at Mississippi College.
I have followed with interest the saga of Clinton’s public library. For several years now the town has been planning, re-planning, stalling, and, now, finally moving forward to construct a new facility. I have seen the plans and projections for the new space, and it promises to be a place that Clinton can be proud of, a place to utilize for meetings, exhibitions, and study. I am a product of a public library. Many Saturdays, my mother would drop me off at the Green Free Public Library in Wellsboro, PA, where I grew up, and I would spend hours searching for just the right set off books to take home, or leafing through exotic magazines like Life, or just sitting reading the large world atlas that they had. It was a place of refuge and of resource. In fact, in my office, I have a watercolor of that very library building hanging near my desk as a reminder.
So I must confess from the outset, that I am a believer in public libraries. But part of what has interested me in the unfolding story of Clinton’s plan for the new library has been an unstated undercurrent on the part of some that while this library in particular and libraries in general are a good idea, that they are really just flourishes on community life and not critical. As such, they might be easily delayed or even deferred. Such a stance shows only a surface understanding of libraries and their function. I want to offer three things that you may not know about libraries that might change your feelings about their place and status in our town and in towns throughout the United States.
Libraries form essential foundational blocks of democracy. The word “essential” is a strong word. Democracy, however, does depend completely on a well-informed population of voters. The Greeks in Athens and Alexandria seem to have been the first in human civilization to pursue the idea of collecting materials together for study, reading and learning. They saw it as essential for an educated citizenry to make considered and informed choices about governance and behavior. In our own country nearly 2000 years later, Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in starting “The Library Company of Philadelphia” in 1731. The philosophical club he belonged to could not obtain books on their own, and so the subscription library was born “to support the common good” (as their motto suggested). Of course, in the eighteenth century the cost of books was prohibitive, something of which Franklin as a printer was well aware. He saw the library not as competition for printers, but as a resource for debate and discussion. The founding fathers and mothers understood that literacy meant more than simply reading a text; it also meant have access to that text and the ability to see that work in a context. In the twenty-first century, books are relatively inexpensive, but libraries still provide access to obscure and expensive texts, out of town newspapers, electronic retrieval of journal articles. They often provide as well the setting for discussion groups who form to exchange ideas. It is not surprising, then, that schools have libraries to further educational goals. Towns and communities have libraries for the same purpose. We all benefit when everyone has access to information and ideas.
Libraries preserve and promote diversity. It was Demetrius, a student of Aristotle, who apparently suggested to the Greek king of Egypt Ptolemy 1 that the king support the building of the library at Alexandria. Demetrius suggested collecting scrolls from wherever the empire reached and so oversaw the collection of, perhaps, a half million pieces. His goal seems to have been to gain copies of all of the extant important pieces of Persian, Hebrew, Egyptian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Latin works—and translate them into Greek so that they would be accessible. Since Alexandria, libraries have seen the collection of widely diverse works as part of their mission. The monastery libraries in Ireland during Europe’s so-called dark ages preserved not just the expected Christian manuscripts, but many of the “pagan” manuscripts as well, preserving the learning of the Greeks and Romans until human civilization was once again interested. Their work of collecting and preservation eventually made possible the European renaissance. Twenty first century libraries do much of the same work. They work to represent not just the community, but to bring the world into that community. They work to preserve the heritage whether it be literary, genealogical, cultural, journalistic, photographic, or artistic. Modern libraries are doorways into the world—not bound by time or place.
Libraries are actively transforming themselves into living “search engines.” Today, Demetrius’ goal of collecting all the known texts in the world seems overwhelming. Even national libraries such as the Library of Congress or the British Library have difficulty maintaining that objective. The explosion of information and the explosion of the ways we can retrieve that information have caused a seismic shift in how we think and learn. Not long ago, some were predicting the end of libraries as the world became connected in the electronic web. What has happened, instead, is that libraries have become more vital than ever. While access to information is now available nearly everywhere instantaneously, sorting through and evaluating that information has become crucial. If I type the search word “libraries” into google.com, I receive 128,000,000 results. How can I hope to sort through those effectively to find what I need? Libraries are transforming themselves into walk in search engines where real people can assist in that search for what has been gathered and preserved. Trained librarians make informed selections and choices of materials, can direct the searcher toward the better choices, and even more, can educate the searcher on how to evaluate the onslaught of information. Libraries become the place where sources can be handled, manipulated, copied and kept. With Clinton’s commitment to a new library building, I hope the commitment to a trained staff of librarians will also be maintained.
A modern library, then, is much more than a dusty collection of books that “no one reads.” On the contrary, it can be the center of community learning which touches our political, cultural, and personal lives. Our town’s decision to build this library speaks volumes (pun intended) about its investment in making resources available to all its citizens, about its commitment to holding and preserving the best of what is thought, and about its willingness to modernize to keep pace with an every changing environment.