The headline was a shocker.
All Free Library of Philadelphia Branch, Regional and Central Libraries Closed Effective Close of Business October 2, 2009
I read about the possible closing of the Philadelphia Free Library –in the city where Benjamin Franklin helped invent the public library in 1731—with shock, sadness, and dismay. And more than a little anger.
Angry that a nation so dependent upon free expression, learning, technology, information and access pays lip service to these ideals but always looks for ways to deny them to the people who need them most. This is a woefully repetitious story. The library is at the soul of a democracy. Yet we constantly look to snuff out that soul.
The truth of the library’s essential value in our civilization was driven home for me last week when I visited two of New York’s great cultural treasures — both of them libraries. In two grand buildings, only a few blocks apart, I saw a rare Gutenberg Bible, illuminated manuscripts more than 800 years old and the art and poetry of William Blake. In two brief visits, I was treated to some of the greatest treasures of the western world.
Very wealthy men created these libraries. But one was meant for private use. Financier J.P. Morgan built a library (and art collection) in his private study. Fur trader-turned-real estate mogul John Jacob Astor built what became the New York Public Library. (Nowadays, of course, the NYPL is still free; going to the Morgan Library and Museum will cost you 12 bucks; 8 for students.)
The illuminated manuscripts were displayed—coincidentally—in the Morgan Library, part of the treasure trove of European artwork that the “banker’s banker” turned into his private museum of riches. It was not unusual for men of his wealth to cart Europe’s cultural treasures back home to America — very expensive souvenirs.
These manuscripts were created by monks and other clerics, to be seen by a handful of people. Written in Latin, they could be read by even fewer. Whole Bibles, psalms, sacred music, papal decrees – it was information, tightly controlled and available only to the select. The laws, sacred words and rules of a culture were in the hands of a very controlling “elite.”
The Gutenberg Bible, one of a few dozen in the world, stood under glass at the entry to the Public Library’s Main Reading Room. The Gutenberg was open, and its black ink was vibrantly readable after more than 500 years. Admittedly, this book was in Latin too. But Gutenberg’s technological “great leap for mankind” would later turn out Bibles in German and other vernacular languages, opening the way for the Reformation, Enlightenment and a great revolution in literacy and learning.
As a writer, as a lover of books and reading, as a lover of learning, I know that the public library and school libraries in Mt. Vernon, New York where I grew up, shaped me. A trip to the public library was like a visit to a sacred shrine. We cannot afford to take that away.
So why, in a country that professes to value the importance of free education, free information, and free expression do we always look to destroy the best places to nurture those fundamental American necessities? Yes, Necessities. Public libraries, like schools or the fire department, are not luxuries. Politicians, who may have never darkened a library door, do not understand that basic fact of life. The public library is more than just our soul. It is our lifeblood too. And you can see that when you stop in any library where droves of people –more during the Great Recession — are not just checking out bestsellers, but clamoring for information, education, answers and direction.
What commodities, what resources, are more valuable? We can keep information available to all. Or we can let the true “elites” keep it for themselves — locked up in their private studies.