Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Lower Your Voice and Raise Your Mind
April 9, 1999
One sunshiny day in Manhattan, many, many years ago, I was sitting on
the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, reading
between the lions. I was reading about libraries and how and why they
have existed through the centuries. Obviously human beings from the
beginning of time have wanted to record their thoughts and activities
Cave drawings represent the first libraries. When the cavemen scratched
their messages onto the walls either they were the world's first
doodlers, or they were leaving a record of their existence.
The first formal libraries consisted of clay. The library in Ninevah
(7th century B.C.) consisted of thousands of clay tablets recording
laws, astronomical data, commercial transactions, narrative poems and
royal happenings, and probably a bit of gossip.
The great library in Alexandria, Egypt, was established by Ptolemy in
the 3rd century B.C. and held half a million papyrus scrolls. A great
deal of it was burned by the Romans, but fortunately not all. If it had
it been completely destroyed it would have set western civilization back
by 2000 years.
We have come a long way. Or have we? If today we somehow managed to
destroy civilization and ourselves - a distinct possibility -- it could
be re-built it if just one human and one library were left standing,
preferably the Library of Congress. But our library right here in Mesa
County contains the basic math, physics, chemistry, physiology and yes,
culture and ethics, to re-build. One copy of Popular Mechanics and they
could build a lawn mower - if there were any grass.
We have had clay tablets, papyrus, smoke signals, folk tales passed from
generation to generation by word of mouth and the printed word. Now
we have added another means of preserving and disseminating knowledge,
the computer. Librarians use every means at their disposal to be sure
that knowledge is preserved and made available to everyone. The modern
library my favorite information store.
The concept of the free public library today is a far cry from a
collection of clay tablets, and much easier on the shelvers.
Libraries protect and defend the principle of intellectual freedom, the
freedom of thought - everybody's thought. They are based on the thesis
that dialog is always possible -- political, social, religious -- dialog
between past and present, old and young, sophisticated and ingenue,
professional and amateur.
Libraries make democracy work. They provide the information that
promotes civil debate and fosters good citizenship. The public library
is the only institution in American society whose purpose is to guard
against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity. Without libraries,
true democracy cannot exist.
We live in an age of divisiveness. Because libraries have information
on just about everything, including both sides of controversial
subjects, it sometimes looks as thought they are taking sides on an
issue. It is this inclusive approach that can get them in trouble with
people who don't understand that a library does not take sides. A
library is neutral. A library is for everyone. U. S. Poet Laureate
Rita Dove recently said, speaking to the American Library Association,
"You are meant to be the gatekeepers of possibility, not the watchdogs
of the status quo."
Next week is National Library Week -- the week to stop in at your local
library, say "hello" to the friendly staff and have a cup of coffee
with them. It is the week to think especially of what a fine public
library means to all of us.
The logo of the Mesa County Library portrays that history of recorded
thought -- from a buffalo scratched on a cave wall -- to the printed
page --to the computer. Whatever the medium the message must be
preserved, and that is the basic function of libraries through the ages
and all over the world.
In the words of Terry Pickens, Director of Mesa County Public Library,
"Our public library is the one institution that makes knowledge and
ideas available to all regardless of age, race, creed, gender or
wealth. It levels the playing field between the richest and poorest.
It prepares us for our future. It preserves our past."
Richard Armour said it somewhat more flippantly some years ago:
"Here is where people
My favorite Information Store, still after 4000 years the biggest
bargain in town.
One usually finds
Lower their voices
And raise their minds."