The American public library is one of our grandest traditions. No other place offers a width and breadth of wisdom, the archives of the past and the voice of the present - just for the taking. Children find entertainment and answers to questions, young people begin research while delving into life's problems. Older citizens pursue an "extended education" through the programs and resources of the library. Whether citizens are immigrants, rich, poor, living in urban or rural areas, they are assured the third "unalienable" right, the pursuit of happiness through the nation's public libraries.
"When we see people, as various as the community is various," said former New York state Sen. Whitney Seymour Jr., "sitting side by side at library tables, each intent on his own dream and desire, we seem to hear the beating of the vast heart - tolerant, compassionate, appreciative, wildly exciting - of a nation dedicated to liberty and conceived on the principle that all men are created free and equal."This week is being celebrated as National Labrary Week, centered around the theme, "Libraries Change Lives."
Many times throughout world history, however, libraries have not been havens of free speech and open communication. Books have been seized to control what people were allowed to read. The clay tablets, papyrus scrolls and parchment books of ancient Rome and Egypt were not only prizes of war but often destroyed in pillage and plunder, so that the winning conqueror might have total monopoly and limit information. Hitler's Nazi party set bonfires to consume thousands of volumes to keep the Germans from reading them. Similar policies are recorded following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and at the great Byzantine library constructed in Constantinople, ultimately captured in the Crusades.
Ray Bradbury wrote about the burning of books in an anti-intellectual world in "Fahrenheit 451" where free education through new information was forbidden. These chilling examples of totalitarian control are sometimes happily balanced by credos that guarantee a free press. Our Founding Fathers wrote such a guarantee into the Bill of Rights, and it is not just a coincidence that Thomas Jefferson, who held the title of the greatest bibliophile to occupy the White House and the genius behind that document of independence, possessed one of the finest personal libraries in this new nation. (After the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, Congress purchased this library, which became the core of the rebuilding and furnishing of the Library of Congress.)It was from the erratic development of public libraries in Europe between 1500 and 1800 that the Founding Fathers took their model for the "freedom to read." Private book collections played a major role in this development, as would the collections in the Colonies. Colonists who were able to read carried precious copies of books with them to the New World.
The most "bookish" of the settlers were the men of the church, Jesuits and Franciscans. Their private collections, mainly theological, were the backbone of the teaching from the pulpit as well as home values.
The Rev. Thomas Bray set up 70 libraries in early America between 1695 and 1705, 35 of which were developed for laymen. But after his death, the priorities of clearing land and moving westward took all of the attention of the citizens, and the Bray libraries disappeared.
The Rev. William Brewster left a library of more than 400 volumes when he died in 1643, as did Gov. Bradford with his 80 volumes.
Author and minister Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather, owned 4,000 largely theological volumes but with some history, geography and philosophy.
Probably the most important collection of books was that of James Logan of Philadelphia. At the time of his death in 1751 he had 3,000 volumes, including mathematics, astronomy and general science. Logan hoped to share this wealth with others and had erected a building for the collection.
After the Revolution, the Loganian Library was joined with the Philadelphia Library Company, which was Benjamin Franklin's first attempt at a subscription library. His work with a system of book distribution known as the social library where patrons paid for service was credited as the forerunner of the public library system of America. These were sometimes called townhouse collections because they often were housed in churches or municipal buildings. They were known as "Publick and provincial . . . open every day in the week at convenient hours."
Each generation of settlers experienced the same problem with attaining books. Small but poor printing facilities were being built, but books were generally brought from Europe, and itinerant book hawkers visited the small towns carrying few titles but ordering more on demand.
By the early 19th century nearly every region of America had experimented with various forms of these "public" libraries.
The modern American library is an outgrowth of four social conditions: the natural resources of the country, which offered wealth to support cultural institutions; the rapidly increasing population; the industrialization of the country and the need for knowledge; and a democratic notion based on the "informed citizen" caste system.
To social and political figures Edward Everett and George Tick-nor, "Reading ought to be furnished to all, as a matter of public policy and duty, on the same principle that we furnish free education . . . it is of paramount importance that the means of general information should be so diffused that the largest possible number of persons should be induced to read and understand questions . . . which we, as a people, are constantly required to decide, and do decide either ignorantly or wisely."
In the last quarter of the 19th century three developments contributed to the rise of public libraries in America. First was the American Library Association, organized in Philadelphia in 1876, which provided a public forum for all library professionals. Second, in 1876 the "Report on Public Libraries in the United States of America" and the beginning of the "Library Journal" provided standards and became the medium of communication for the libraries throughout the country.
The third influence was the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant whose wealth came from the steel industry. As early as 1881 he encouraged the construction of free libraries, and by 1920 he had provided funds for 2,500 buildings. Carnegie said, "I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they give nothing for nothing. They only help those who help themselves. . . . They reach the aspiring and open to these the chief treasure of the world - those shored up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes."
The value of the library in American culture is to be appreciated more than ever before in any time or in any place. The question still remains: Do cultural advances come as a product of the knowledge preserved under the auspices of libraries, or do the advances merely produce libraries as a by-product? It's a type of "chicken or egg?" question.
While the debate looms for some, what seems apparent is that neither cultural advances nor the library comes before the other.
Each is to a large extent the result of the other. Culture - the western world to this time - is a result of accumulated experience and knowledge. But the preservation of this knowledge is in the form of books and libraries. We, who are optimistic of this philosophy, realize that these records are not automatic but depend on the libraries to organize and advance the knowledge for all. Libraries and cultural progress are interdependent, relying on each other and weakened in both instances when one is undermined.
What is unclear is the direction and nature of library development for the future. Budget cuts limit acquisitions and personnel. Training institutions have closed rapidly in the last 20 years, making it difficult - sometimes impossible - for librarians to be educated in recent methods. The burgeoning increase in technology and the demand for strategies such as connections to "knowledge highways" makes it mandatory for them to stay current and informed.
W.N. Seymore Jr. has asked, "Why does the government regard sending citizens to school . . . and yet allow libraries to languish? . . . If education is . . . an expansion of the mind, elementary schools and high schools and community colleges and four-year colleges and graduate schools are tools of major importance; but at the core are libraries."
Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah.