Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
The Information Store
October 17, 1997
A friend of mine refers to it as the "University of the People." I call
it "My Favorite Information Store." Ogden Nash says, "Here is where
people/One usually finds/ Lower their voices/ And raise their minds."
Officially it is called "The Public Library," locally known as the Mesa
County Public Library. Varian Gregorian, then President of the New York
Public Library said, "Libraries keep the records on behalf of all
humanity . . . the unique and the absurd, the wise and fragments of
There are those who think that books, and therefore libraries, will
become extinct some day. The Internet, they say, is the wave of the
future. If it is, libraries will continue to collect and organize
that information and make it available free of charge to the public.
But what makes us think that the dissemination and preservation of
knowledge must always use the same medium? I don't think the 10
Commandments were written on bond paper and issued between hard covers.
I'd have to disagree with Marshall McLuhan. The medium is not the
message. The message is the message and it has been since the beginning
of time. The urge to preserve knowledge is at least as old as the cave
man with his wall inscriptions.
The first libraries consisted of clay. The library in Ninevah (7th
century B.C.) contained thousands of inscribed clay tablets recording
laws, astronomical data, commercial transactions and royal happenings.
Papyrus was developed in Egypt, and took up a great deal less space and
weighed less. The great library in Alexandria, was established by
Ptolemy in the 3rd century B.C. and held about half a million papyrus
scrolls. It flourished for several centuries. If that library had been
completely destroyed, it would have set Western Civilization back by
In the middle ages libraries were in monasteries. Manuscripts were
copied by hand on parchment pages, and only the monks could read.
Guttenberg's invention of movable type in the 15th century changed the
whole thing. The book was no longer only for the cloistered or for the
rich. It was for everyone. And some establishment had to collect and
keep the books. It was the beginning of the modern library.
As a retired library cataloger I think that the first librarian was the
Persian vizier Abdul Kasem Ismael in the first millennium A.D. He
traveled with 400 camels who carried his 117,000 volume library
everywhere he went. The animals were trained to walk in an order that
ensured the books were alphabetically arranged. Modern shelvers have
it easier, but they still have hidden dangers. I knew one who reached
for a copy of Canterbury Tales and was hit by a flying Chaucer.
We have had clay tablets, papyrus, smoke signals, folk tales passed from
generation to generation, the printed word and now the computer and the
world-wide web. Always the need has been to preserve knowledge for
future generations. That is the function of the library.
If today we somehow managed to destroy ourselves and civilization -- a
distinct possibility -- primitive humans could re-build it if just 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 ethics to rebuild. With one copy of Popular
Mechanics they could build a lawn mower - if they had any grass to mow.
The logo of the Mesa County Public Library represents that progression:
from writing on stone - to writing in books - to writing on computer
disks - to a straight line leading to whatever form of communication the
future holds. Whatever the medium, the message must be preserved, and
that is the basic function of libraries through the ages and all over
In the words of Terry Pickens, Director of the Mesa County Public
Library, "Our public library is of great value to all of us in Mesa
County. It is the one institution that makes knowledge and ideas a
available to all, regardless of age, race, creed, gender or wealth. It
levels the playing field between the richest and the poorest. It
prepares us for the future. It preserves our past."
"My Favorite Information Store" -- still after 4000 years -- for
pennies a day -- the biggest bargain in town.