Why is it that we always seem to be fighting to save our Libraries when they're importance and place in the community has been evident since the days of the bibliothekai of the Library of Alexandria set up by the Ptolemaic kings at the end of the third century BC?
It’s time to address the history of saving Libraries, in order to try to better understand the fight, and why ultimately we should have confidence that Libraries will endure.
Essentially when the Library of Alexandria was set up as a learning centre, it was to ensure that the teachings of Aristotle were preserved and preserved in a public rather than private collection which was the vogue of previous times.
In 1627 French scholar Gabiel Naude published a modest Advice for Setting Up a Library where he wrote that there is nothing…’“that renders a Library more recommendable, than when every man finds in it that which he is looking for and cannot find anywhere else; therefore the perfect motto is, that there exists no book, however bad or badly reviewed, that my not be sought after in some future time by a certain reader.”‘*
‘After the Nazis began their looting and destruction of the Jewish libraries, the librarian in charge of the Sholem Aleichem Library in biala Podlaska decided to save the books by carting away, day after day, as many as he and a colleague could manage, even though he believed that very soon “there would be no readers lefts.” After tow weeks the holding had been moved to a secret attic, where they were discovered by the historian Tuvia Borzykowski long after the war ended…..it was an act of rescuing memory per se. The universe, the ancient cabbalists believed, is not contingent on our reading it; only on the possibility of our reading it.‘*
Enlightenment and Public Libraries
During the Renaissance Libraries in Europe became officially public (from 1609), but at this time, funding and endowing or building an institution was still the privilege of a benefactor not the community. In 1890 Andrew Carnegie asked rhetorically “What is the best gift which can be given to a community?” He went on to say that a free library is the priority, but sadly not everyone agreed. ‘In Britain, for instance, the truism that “a public library is essential for the welfare of a community” was not officially proclaimed until 1850, when the MP for Dumfries, William Ewart, forced a bill through Parliament establishing the right of every town to have a free public library.’*
Manguel has written that often times a Library will diminish or disappear hardly without anyone noticing. An example he gives is in 2003 when the Anglo-American army stoody by while the National Archives, the Archaeological Museum and the National Library of Baghdad were ransacked and looted. ‘In a few hours, much of the earliest recorded history of humankind was lost to oblivion’.* He concludes that numerous volumes of manuscripts and medieval chronicles vanished despite the fact that they had escaped the pillage of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen.
So then, where there has been such an extraordinary and tremendous effort to build, maintain and fund libraries for a variety of reasons not in the least preservation of the history of humankind, is there now and for at least the last 10 years, a reason for them to be first in the economic splicing line from Government? I think that the likes of William Ewart, and even Thomas Carlyle would not be amused! What is interesting, and should predominantly inspire confidence is that, throughout the struggle and contention for Libraries, it is a fact that since the conception of the Library of Alexandria in the third century BC, Libraries have prevailed!
This is only a brief look at the history of saving Libraries, I will be taking another look into this soon. Part II to follow!
‘thoughts from scarlettlibrarian…’
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*Manguel,Alberto (2008) The Library at Night. Yale University Press, London.