I Love Libraries!

[I wrote this when I was president of the board of McLean's Langley School, the largest independent elementary school in Virginia. Yes, it's part of a fund raising effort...]

I have loved libraries since the fourth grade. The Charleston (South Carolina) Public Library was less than a mile from home. Children could only get four books, but very soon Miss Janie Smith let me take out the adult’s ration of ten. She was as much an institution as the Library itself, and her obvious approval was hazardous to my ego. Letting me take out so many was also hazardous to my health; ten books are a lot harder than four to balance on a bicycle when you are eleven.

So I grew up thinking that libraries are special, which they are. Newton once said “If I have seen so far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” We are all standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. Humans accumulate, record, and store information; that’s what we do best. Libraries are the repositories of human thought and achievement.

So you’ll understand why I consider the destruction of the Library at Alexandria (Egypt) the greatest disaster yet to befall the human race. The fall of the Library really caused the dark ages; mankind did not begin to recover for a thousand years.

The Library was over 600 years old when it was sacked by the Christians, and almost 1000 years old when it was finally destroyed by the Moslems. During its early years every Hellenic conquest brought more scrolls to Alexandria. Mark Anthony captured 200,000 from another library and sent them to Cleopatra as a gift. It was said that the library held a copy of every known literary work in Western civilization. It held complete texts of the pre-Socratic philosophers, of which only scraps survive. Aeschylus is known to have written 28 plays; we know him from three or four. What if we know Shakespeare only from his comedies? As tragic was the loss of most Hellenic science. We know the Greeks invented the steam engine and discovered cybernetic feedback; where could we have been if mankind had built on this base for 1500 years, instead of having to reinvent it 500 years ago?

Alexandria had at least 500,000 volumes at its peak. In the seventh century, according to fable, their burning heated the water in the public baths for six months. By comparison, the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Library today has 1.7 million titles, and its Dolley Madison branch about 60,000. The Library of Congress was started in 1802 with a thousand volumes; in 1814 the British used it for kindling when they burned the Capitol. In 1850 a fire destroyed 35,000 of the Library’s 55,000 volumes. Not until one hundred years ago did the Library of Congress exceed Alexandria in titles. Twelve hundred years later.

The Library of Congress now has 25 million titles, and 83 million items. For years I lived three blocks away; within five minutes I could be seated amidst the world’s largest library. This was before the James Madison building opened, however, and the stacks were so crowded the staff couldn’t find half the books requested.

The explosion of knowledge in the century since the Library of Congress overtook the Library at Alexandria beggars the imagination. Ten items are now added to the Library every minute. No professor and few graduate students can keep abreast of their colleagues without the aid of computer searches. Children now in elementary school will need automated searching to do their college-level work, and today’s infants will be using CompuServe and Dialog in high school — and not for extra credit, either.

Information around the world will be stored and linked electronically. Nexis can find every reference to any person mentioned anywhere in the New York Times during the past 20 years — in minutes. Increasingly, libraries are not where information is stored, but where one can gain access to it. This requires a terminal and a printer, but it also requires expertise. Just as we all learned the Dewey Decimal System, our children will learn to manipulate search strings and descriptors.

At some point, however, there will be too much information to sort through “by hand”. The Japanese are focusing enormous resources on exactly this problem: can  artificial intelligence help us search the world for information we could never find unaided? Their answer is yes; by the mid-1990’s they expect to have a “fifth generation” of computer hardware and software, optimized for searching global data bases. Such a system will know what the student knows (or at least has read), and with minimal instruction will be able to find what the student needs, nosing about with the speed of electricity in files maintained from Stamford to Sydney.

The good news is that it is now impossible to destroy mankind’s accumulated wisdom — it is stored in too many places, available to too many people. The bad news is the accumulation of ever-increasing quantities of information (can you imagine having instant access to every episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”, or to every article printed in America containing “Washington Redskins”?). The problem of too much information rather than too little will still be solved the old way — by asking a librarian for help.

I view librarians as “keepers of the flame,” and I think most people do too. Librarians fill us with awe: they either know or can find out everything. The librarians in my life have all stayed with me. I treasure Miss Janie Smith, forty years ago in Charleston; Miss Anderson at the Choate School — a special friend to all the boys who didn’t quite fit; and of course Pat Bush, a part of Langley’s bedrock. Even Meredith Willson’s treatment of Marian in “The Music Man” pokes only gentle fun at an American institution.

Librarians now stand watch over an enormous, ever-increasing, indestructible, and invaluable resource: human knowledge. Information technology is now linking libraries together, and librarians will soon be helping readers sift through the accumulated wisdom of our species (except for what was lost at Alexandria). Librarians have only one problem: America is running out of readers.

I haven’t the time nor the energy to list the studies cataloging the ills of American education and industry, comparing our students with those in other countries, and anticipating our national decline. The problem is now a given. We have all seen the headlines and watched the talk shows. I’m sure some of us have actually read the studies. Langley parents are very concerned about the education of children; why else are we here?

In the next century America will need leaders (a) who understand the  breadth of human knowledge and human experience, (b) who know how to search, collect, and focus it on the problems then facing society, and (c) who find the searching itself as comfortable as old clothes.

The time to teach these skills and encourage this familiarity is in elementary school. Using a library well is akin to having an “ear” for foreign languages: starting early helps. The place, for our children and those who follow them, is the new Langley library. It is no accident that our first capital campaign is addressing this need.

So far, 117 donors have recognized the importance to our children of access to, familiarity with, and reverence for, the world’s knowledge. This small band has pledged $465,000 to the Library Campaign. There’s still room for you. We need $600,000 in pledges to get underway, and more would be better. Our goal — yours and mine — is to get the pledges in hand by the end of April. There is a lot of work to be done before some lucky future Board President cuts another ribbon, and we need to get on with it.

In the weeks ahead you will be asked by fellow Langley parents to give generously to the new Library. Please take time to listen and give what you can. Langley’s children — to whom so much has been given, and from whom so much will be expected — must above all learn to love libraries.

Good night, Miss Smith — and thank you.

Robert A. Knisely, President of the Board

The Langley School, McLean, VA 22101

January 15th, 1988

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