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LEARNING: History & Education | June 22, 1993



An Unpublished Letter to Los Angeles Times

In the on-going "budget battles", much has been said in defense of virtually all public services but one -- as vital to our society as health, safety, and welfare: Our public library systems.

As storehouses of knowledge, libraries live up to their age-old reputation as the very "memory of the human race". Where else but in our public libraries can any of us -- regardless of age, race, religion, or economic abilities -- access facts and figures, words and ideas, images and sounds on any conceivable subject, from all corners of the world and all periods of time -- from the most up-to-date to the most ancient?

It is no coincidence that the birth of civilization occurred with the invention of writing: Some of the rightfully proudest glories of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome were their magnificent libraries, housing and organizing the wisdom of the ages on clay, paper, and parchment. It was only to the impoverishment of all -- materially, politically, and spiritually -- that libraries were sacked, their lessons neglected through the indeed Dark Ages: If it were not for the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and scholars cherishing and preserving the works of classic cultures, Western Civilization would have perished; and if it were not for the rediscovery of this knowledge in the Renaissance and its application in the Age of Reason and Industrial Revolution, many if not most of the personal freedoms and technological wonders we all too often take for granted today simply would not exist. Knowledge -- preserved in our public libraries -- is indeed power!

That is why libraries have maintained the good will of such good Americans as Benjamin Franklin (who started America's first lending library); Thomas Jefferson (whose personal collection formed the core of the modern Library of Congress, after the first was burned by the British in the War of 1812); and the ordinary citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire (who taxed themselves to establish the first free public library in the U.S. and the world exactly 160 years ago today). What kind of Americans are we if we gut our public libraries?

As Jefferson himself said: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

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