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The Public Library as a Reflection of Culture: World and American Traditions


The Role of the Public Library in the Development of Civilization

The public library has a long tradition as a shaper of civilization and culture. It has helped spawn revolutions in both theory and practice. This includes both political and ideological revolutions. On a more modest level, it has served as a source for popular education and community-based activities. It is usually a centerpiece of any city's downtown, ranging from small towns to Megalopolis. This central function has been traced to the ancient world, but is still very much with us today. Unlike major university collections which aid scholars with in-depth research projects toward the end of securing a degree, the metropolitan library takes a lighter approach. It is usually more generic in its friendliness toward mass society and popular culture. This article seeks to trace the evolution of this precious institution as it developed in Europe and America, and to see if it has a future in the modern world.

The Library at Alexandria

The Library at Alexandria was the most famous and perhaps the first large urban collection ever assembled. It was probably started by Alexander the Great and continued by the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt after Alexander's premature death. It lasted for about a thousand years and was a shrine of Hellenistic culture, which was dedicated toward the transportation of Greek intellectual integrity to the ends of the earth. It was part of the Mouseion, a research institution dedicated to the Muses, nine goddesses of the arts. Its mission was to collect every work ever written, and at its peak housed some 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls, which were the ancient equivalent of the bound books crowding today's library shelves. In modern terms, that would equal roughly 100,000 volumes. The fate of the library remains somewhat uncertain. By one account, it was burned by Julius Caesar himself in pursuit of his rival Pompey, who had fled to Egypt. Most of the library was gone by the end of the fifth century of the common era, and what was left of it was utterly destroyed on orders of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the Caliph around the year 642. Islam had penetrated Egypt rapidly in the seventh century, and local zealots had little use for a repository of secular learning. Thus, while no one group was to blame for the library's downfall, a gradual disappearance was underway, and the loss to the world was large in the transition years from the ancient to the medieval era. Fortunately, much was later recovered and passed down to posterity. As Bertrand Russell noted, this at least affords some minor consolation whenever libraries are gutted.

Bibliotheque nationale de France

The Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris is the national library of France. It has an impressive historical pedigree, founded in 1461. It boasts some 41 million items, including many bound volumes and more modern media. It features a staff of about 2300 employees, and is the repository of all that is published in France. However, it is more than merely that. It has mutual agreements with other major European and international libraries to facilitate the free flow of knowledge and information around the world. It serves as an excellent example of a large metropolitan collection and an international resource for researchers. Although of late medieval origin, it currently is housed in a stunning group of glass towers on a concrete base around a central garden, surely one of the outstanding architectural gems of contemporary Paris. Recently, it was rechristened to bear the name of Francois Mitterand, the late president of France. In this respect, it is similar to the Georges Pompidou Centre, also named for a former French president. Clearly, this library has earned its place as a landmark in the advancement of civilization from antiquity to modern times.

The American Tradition

As might be expected, the United States has contributed its own considerable corpus of knowledge and information to world culture, despite its relatively young age. An early example of this is to be found in the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, often called "the wisest Founding Father." It is still in existence today and specializes in rare historical manuscripts and other printed materials. It carries on Franklin's vision of an educated electorate, but with roots in populism. The Library of Congress needs no introduction as the official library of that legislative body but also as the unofficial national library of the United States. It was founded by John Adams, the second president, in April 1800. It was replenished by Thomas Jefferson, the third president, after the British burned it in 1814. Today, it is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, and also ranks as the world's leading library, with over 170 million items available! The New York Public Library system is also noteworthy. Founded in 1895, it greatly benefited from wealthy benefactors such as the Astor family, and also from Samuel J. Tilden, a governor of New York State who was also the defeated candidate for president in the centennial election of 1876--although he won the popular vote. This collection has since grown to be the largest of America's urban library systems, and has spread through the five boroughs that comprise the city. Finally, a word should be mentioned of the Carnegie libraries, some 1600 of which spread across America today. Initiated by Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh steel magnate, they were started to uplift and educate the workforce of Carnegie's time and thereafter. in this effort, Carnegie was obviously inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who had the same notion in his time. In Lansing, Michigan the Capital Area District Library was seeded with Carnegie money even before the patron's death in 1919. The stated mission is "to learn, imagine and connect." The system today houses some 500,000 volumes that includes Ebooks and audiobooks, and offers language learning and training modules. It has a central branch downtown and twelve outlying facilities, as well as bookmobiles for portable access to learning! America has thus emerged as an important contributor to the world library tradition.

The Library in the Future

Libraries are first and foremost reflections of civilization. As a rule, they do much better under democratic regimes than totalitarian ones. In times past, the first thing that dictators did once they seized power was to close or regulate libraries. Hitler once observed that every educated person is a future enemy. Given the uncertain political climate of the world today, it is too soon to forecast with accuracy the long-term survivability of the public library. If they are indeed bulwarks of intellectual freedom, then their preservation is paramount. Another factor to be considered is the literacy rate in individual countries. Some, like the United States, can claim a rate of close to one hundred percent. Less developed societies can only claim rates of less than forty percent, even in today's world! Again, those nations with a good literacy rate will be the best places to nourish free thought and intellectual integrity. An interesting "Twilight Zone" episode from many years ago pitted a librarian (Burgess Meredith) against a totalitarian chancellor (Fritz Weaver) where the librarian was on trial for his life in a bookless society of the future. In this, we see echoes of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and other doomsday scenarios of a frightening future with attempted thought control. In the United States, such a scenario seems rather unlikely, but should not be entirely discounted. In the words of noted children's author J.K. Rowling, "when in doubt, go to the library." Or as they say on a wall of the Capital Area District Library in Lansing, "change your thoughts and you can change your world." Libraries have indeed come a long way from the scrolls of ancient times to the dazzling multimedia environment of today, but it is hoped that they will always be within easy commuting distance of the curious public. Some have held that the printing press was the greatest invention in the history of the world. If so, the public library must come in a close second.

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