Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Long Overdue Library Book: a very short review

I've been enjoying reading The Long Overdue Library Book.

This is that book that deserves the cliche: "a labor of love". Written by two professional librarians, reflecting on their decades of experience, drawing on colleagues near and far, the book contains 50 short essays about every aspect of libraries.

My favorite story, for whatever reason, was Number 27, "Walnut Man", with its delightful ending:

"Thank you, all of you," he said, "for your gracious hospitality. We have all appreciated it very much."

My favorite excerpt from the overall book, though, is in Number 50, "Reflections", with its wonderful description of what a library is:

A safe place for the strange, a welcoming refuge warm in winter and cool in summer, the library accepts everybody who wants to come in. Unlike schools, libraries let you come and go as you want. The staff will work hard to answer your questions, and the best of them will help you tell them what you really want to know. They will protect your right to read what you wish, as long as you respect the ultimate Library Law: Return Your Books On Time.

May they survive. We need our libraries more than ever now, to protect the unpopular theories and the forgotten poets, to introduce our children to Mr. Toad and Narnia, and to remind our politicians that there is a need for civility that is as basic as sunlight, as necessary to the human spirit as music or truth or love.

I'm not sure if there will ever be a second edition; I'm sure this book was a monumental effort to produce as it was.

But, should there be, let me offer a (possibly apocryphal) Library Story of my own:

Nearly 75 years ago, the University of Chicago was a very different place. Back then, the school was an athletics powerhouse. Known as "the Monsters of the Midway", they were a founding member of the Big 10 Conference (then known as the Western Conference), and a University of Chicago athlete was the first recipient of the now-famous Heisman Trophy. With their great coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, the University won trophy after trophy.

During the Second World War, the University underwent a monumental shift in focus, perhaps the greatest re-alignment that any human organization has ever undergone. Led by university president Robert Maynard Hutchins, the school undertook a complete re-dedication of purpose toward the life of the mind.

Against vast protest and discord, Hutchins dismantled the athletics program, withdrew the school from the Big Ten Conference, and re-focused the institution on the goals of knowledge and research, creating the world's foremost intellectual institution, a position it still holds today.

Dramatically, during the latter days of World War II, Hutchins gave the command to tear down the football stadium (beside which Enrico Fermi had just demonstrated the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction) and commanded that a library be built in its place.

That library, the Joseph Regenstein Library, remains one of the greatest libraries on the planet, now holding an astonishing 11 million volumes.

At the time, though, Hutchins's decision was met with more than dismay, it provoked controversy, discord, and outright defiance. The alumni, justifiably proud of their heritage, struggled to cope with the transition.

In this, Hutchins was steadfast and sure, and, when questioned about the appropriateness of destroying one of the world's top athletics programs to build (gasp!) a library, responded with one of the greatest sentiments ever delivered by a man of letters:

Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I sit down and read a book until it passes.

There you go.

No comments:

Post a Comment