A good book,” wrote the poet John Milton, “is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
Milton wrote those words in 1644, in an impassioned plea against literary censorship. It is one of several quotes that alternate on the Website of the Robert C. Byrd Learning Resource Center, as the library at West Virginia’s Mountain State University is called.
Another of the alternating quotes comes from Archie Goodwin, fictional amanuensis and legman of the equally fictional detective Nero Wolfe (himself a voracious reader). “There are two kinds of statistics,” Goodwin declares in Rex Stout’s “Death of a Doxy”: “the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”
The two quotes and the name of the library that highlights them are related.
Nearly a millennium and a half ago, Islam dubbed us Jews (and Christians, too) as “People of the Book.” Christianity rejected the designation; we embraced it. We even particularized it. We were “the People of the Book.” After all, our existence was built on a book – the Torah – and our continued vibrance and relevance depended on books (“the Torah” in the broadest sense of the term).
We understand the importance of books and we cherish them. From the earliest days, according (appropriately) to the “books” of the Tanach, the Bible, we had law books (even before the “Book of the Torah of Moses,” there was the “Book of the Covenant” [Exodus 21-23]); history books (the “Book of the Acts of Solomon,” the “Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel” and of “the Kings of Judah,” “the Book of the Records” mentioned in Ezra and Esther, the “Book of Samuel the Seer,” the “Book of Nathan the Prophet,” and “the Book of Gad the Seer”); and even books of high poetry – the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” and the “Book of Yashar” – that doubled as history.
It is our reverence for books that ties this column to Milton, Goodwin, and Byrd.
What we understand most about books is their power to pass on knowledge. The wisdom of the ages is found in books.
This is why “learning resource center” is so much more appropriate a name than “library.” Libraries indeed are the best resource a community can provide its citizens, especially its young. That this is the designation given by Mountain State University to the library it named in honor of Sen. Robert C. Byrd is most appropriate. The senator, who died last week, was an autodidact. He graduated from high school with honors but could not afford college, so he devoured every book he could put his hands on. As a state legislator, he went to college at night. As a U.S. senator, he went to law school at night. At his death, he was the author of several books, including a comprehensive and authoritative multi-volume history of the U.S. Senate. There are schools named after him, libraries named after him, and even scholarships named after him that he helped endow.
That brings us to Archie Goodwin’s quote about statistics. They were used last week to undermine libraries in Chicago. Illinois, like most states (including our own), is running near empty when it comes to the funds needed to provide all the services a state should provide, including libraries.
That set off an “investigation” of sorts by a local Chicago Fox TV News anchor, Anna Davlantes, who began her report by noting that libraries “eat up millions of your hard-earned tax dollars,” thus diverting funds from schools and police pension funds. Besides, she said, libraries as an institution date back 3,900 years, making them out of place in the modern age. “With the Internet and e-books,” she asked, “do we really need millions for libraries?”
Davlantes then reported that her team spent an hour at “one of the nation’s biggest and busiest libraries,” and that most of the 300 people who visited it in that time “were using the free Internet,” not taking out books.
I doubt that the library in question has enough computers to accommodate 300 people in a single hour, but no matter. Here are some real statistics, courtesy of Chicago’s Public Library Commission: Chicago’s public libraries get about 12 million visitors a year. In 2009, those visitors checked out nearly 10 million items – mostly books. Last summer, 50,000 of those visitors were children. They accounted for 1.2 million checked-out books.
In challenging Davlantes, a library spokeswoman quoted the late Walter Cronkite, who once said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”
That brings us back to the late West Virginia senator. He was the embodiment of the truth of Cronkite’s quote. The under-educated Byrd was a Ku Klux Klan leader. The educated Byrd was a champion of civil rights and the U.S. Constitution.
New Jersey faces a more serious attack on its libraries – one that comes not from a Fox News anchor but from the governor’s office in Trenton.
Thanks to the overwhelming response of New Jerseyeans, Gov. Chris Christie did not get his way this time around. Nearly $4.3 million of his proposed cuts to libraries were put back into the state budget before it was passed at the end of June. Other threats loom, however, at both the state and local levels.
My local public library, in Teaneck, is among the busiest in the state. It is open seven days a week. Any cutback in its services would be devastating to our community – the broader one in Teaneck and the Jewish one (as witness the fact that each Friday afternoon as Shabbat approaches, the checkout desk is a very busy place). Here are just a few of the services this library offers: book groups for adults; summer reading programs for children; story-time programs for children of all ages; literacy coaching; tutoring of students in need of help; English-as-a-second-language instruction; weekly lectures for seniors on topical matters; foreign film screenings; Sunday afternoon musical programs; and Internet training. It also has several readily accessible databases for research, grant information, rÃ©sumÃ© writing, and so forth.
Our public libraries are “learning resource centers,” not just book-dispensers. They deserve our support. And our librarians deserve our thanks. Remember that the next time you check out a book (or a music CD or a movie DVD) or ask for research help.