Books, Education, History

The Love of Libraries

When I first started teaching Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class, we went all the way from ancient Athens through the 20th century. We’ve since decided that that might be two or three too many centuries for one semester, but I do miss the week where we read through three 19th century Christian responses to the problems produced by the Industrial Revolution:

  • Rerum Novarum, the encyclical from Pope Leo XIII that Christians from all traditions now cite as helping shape their understanding of concepts like human rights and “the common good,” though that pope viewed one certain church as the best hope for ameliorating social concerns.
  • In Darkest England, in which William Booth made the Christian case for the establishment of a “Social Lifeboat Institution, a Social Lifeboat Brigade, to snatch from the abyss those who, if left to themselves, will perish as miserably as the crew of a ship that founders in mid-ocean” — i.e., the Salvation Army.
  • And  “Wealth” — the 1889 essay by Scottish-American industrialist and conflicted Presbyterian Andrew Carnegie more commonly known as “The Gospel of Wealth,” because of passages like this one:
Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) – Wikimedia

The highest life is probably to be reached, not by such imitation of the life of Christ as Count Tolstoi gives us, but, while animated by Christ’s spirit, by recognizing the changed conditions of this age, and adopting modes of expressing this spirit suitable to the changed conditions under which we live; still laboring for the good of our fellows,which was the essence of his life and teaching, but laboring in a different manner.

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community–the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

Tempting as it is to engage with Carnegie’s attempt to mount what’s at least ostensibly a Christian apology for capitalism, there happens to be plenty of good material on that very theme circulating right now: e.g.,  John Turner’s post this morning at The Anxious Bench, and Eugene McCarraher’s essay on “Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology” in the May/June issue of Books and Culture (not yet online, but that’s okay, you ought to be subscribing).

No, Carnegie came to mind because earlier this week I took my kids for a visit to my hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota, and brought them to my favorite adolescent haunt, the town’s library: one of sixty-five in the state of Minnesota, almost 1700 in the United States, and over 2500 around the world funded by grants from Andrew Carnegie.

Stillwater Public Library

Not just because I actually enjoy things like cataloguing and alphabetization, I should have been a librarian. So many of my happiest memories from childhood through graduate school and into my adult career take me back to a library:

  • Listening to story time as a child at our little branch library in West St. Paul, MN (though, to be perfectly honest, my clearest memory from this library is spending an afternoon watching a screening of some of the finest work in the comic oeuvres of Don Knotts and Tim Conway)
  • Exploring the library as a 2nd grader at Somerset Elementary and finding a biography of Adolf Hitler (and no doubt alarming teachers and parents and perhaps starting an FBI file…)
  • Claiming my own carrel at the College of William and Mary’s Swem Library (a rare — ? — library named after a librarian), where I read page after page of Parisian and Genevan newspapers for my honors thesis on European integration in the 1920s
  • Sterling Memorial Library

    Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University – Creative Commons (Ragessos)

    Climbing up and down the stairs of Yale’s fifteen-level Sterling Memorial Library (assuredly not named after a librarian) and blowing dust off my fair share of its four million volumes

  • Preparing for my oral exams downstairs from Sterling, in what was then still known as Cross Campus Library — a hideously retro addition where, one magic afternoon ca. 1998, I looked up and saw then-Yale student Claire Danes studying… Our eyes met… Sure, if you ask her, she’ll claim not to remember the spark, but… Perhaps I digress.

There are lots of good reasons to love libraries. I’m sure for some it’s the central role they play in communities — that’s one of my favorite things about Bethel’s library, which hosts a pleasantly buzzing mix of students, faculty, alumni, and guests, seemingly at all hours of the day and night.

But even more so, I love going to libraries for silence and solitude. To read, and learn.

In that sense, I can certainly appreciate Andrew Carnegie’s motives for founding so many libraries — explained in “Gospel of Wealth” by reference to what’s become the New York Public Library. When Carnegie wrote in 1889, the gift from former New York governor and infamously jobbed presidential candidate Samuel Tilden that would found that great library was still held up in the courts, but Carnegie dreamed of the day when “Mr. Tilden’s millions finally become the means of giving to this city a noble public library, where the treasures of the world contained in books will be open to all forever, without money and without price.”

Not to sound ungrateful for largesse like his, but it is telling that Carnegie would use a word like “treasures” to describe the benefits of libraries, even if they were “without money and without price” — surely the most other-worldly vision Carnegie could conjure. Another of my favorite things about libraries is that they’re public goods, rare examples of Americans being content to borrow and share rather than to acquire and consume. Still, I can appreciate Carnegie’s desire that the sum of human knowledge would be available to all.

But still more than this, I love libraries because they allow me to lose myself. As I’ve pulled books off shelves (sometimes, best of all, at random) and read about history and mythology and poetry and math, the world has fallen away and I’ve entered imagination as pure as I’ve known. If Plato was right and our souls are capable of ascending to the heavenly realm through thought, then I’ve primarily had that experience in two places: libraries, and churches. (And my favorite thing about the church I grew up in was checking out books from its small library.)

Swem Library

Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary

Which is probably why my memories of libraries are so sepia-toned. Lost in my reveries, I only dimly registered the truth that most of the libraries I’ve mentioned were overcrowded, understaffed, housed in buildings built with joyless functionalism (or, in Yale’s case, callow imitation of European universities’ Gothic glory), and often left to decay, undersupported by politicians and the reading publics who elect them. I happen to find Bethel Seminary’s Carl H. Lundquist Library (where I go to research — wait for it — Carl H. Lundquist) charming, but others use less kind words to describe a facility in dire need of renovation.

The Stillwater library of my adolescence was in similar shape. That scarcely mattered as I returned there again and again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but when I took my kids from the 4th Street entrance down the old curving staircase to the main library area below, I was overjoyed to see how it had been remade — courtesy of a multi-million dollar facelift completed in 2005-2006. It’s spacious, warm, and inviting, and the children’s area most of all. Lena and Isaiah spent a good hour happily immersed in the multiple spaces customized for children’s play and learning — while my face lit up to stumble across a illustrated survey of ordinary life in the Roman Empire that I had read myself, eons ago, when my passion for history was kindled by encounters with such humble examples of Carnegie’s “treasures of the world.”

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