About three months ago I wanted to read a big, heavy book. I thought it would be a good time to use my Kindle, since the ebook version would oblige me not to carry a tome. But I decided, in a contrarian spirit, to first go to a local independent bookstore on Carmine Street that I like, just a few blocks from our office in New York City.
The book was not in stock; the owner offered to order it, but I declined. I didn’t want to wait. As I was walking to the F train, I happened to pass a Barnes & Noble. So I went in—intent now on the book, not the vendor. But it wasn’t in stock there either.
I left the store, walked to the F, and got off at Roosevelt Island, where I live. There is a small branch of the New York Public Library there. I went in. I glanced at the shelves with new acquisitions, not really looking for the book I had been searching for because this branch, while vibrant, has limited space for large history books that likely only a few patrons will borrow.
Yet on the top shelf, midway, there was the book, with its fat spine and the unmistakable title. I reached up and took hold. The book had the heft of volume “M” of an encyclopedia set, for those of you to whom such a frame of reference still has meaning. As the book’s weight tugged my arm downward, I had an epiphany.
This was the beauty of a library transaction. This book was mine to borrow for two weeks, and it was, in a certain sense, free. The library would trust me; the library would have faith that I would not damage or steal the book; the library implicitly believed that I would return the book in a timely way so that it could be shared again and again. Moreover, the library only required the barest information in exchange for this entitlement, and there was an explicit guarantee that my privacy would be respected: my reading would remain anonymous.
What a wonderful communal and intellectual transaction. What an invaluable institution. And it exists because the people were taxed and a portion of that treasure was dedicated to the widely codified proposition that it is a civic virtue to maintain a public library.
The modern spirit of haste often blurs fundamental clauses of our social contract like this one, even among librarians. My epiphany was to recapture a sense of just how radical a concept the public library is.
The strength of the public library remains, still, the word (in whatever guise it takes) and the particular public library ethos that animates its distribution and preservation. Holding this big, expensive book in my hand, knowing that it was mine for now to enjoy, well, what other modern institution shows such faith in my honesty, entrusts me unquestioningly with its assets, edifies me but also leaves me alone?
Taking the power of such a resource for granted, as I was doing, presents a peril.
The United States faces burgeoning authoritarianism and chauvinistic militarism at home. However, the warrior is not the only citizen who possesses virtue or ideals, and some ideals—such as freedom of inquiry and the right to dissent—supersede the warrior’s in their ability to best defend the state. Many librarians treasure those ideals and, with little glory or fanfare, nurture them.
“The commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” I read those words not long ago incised in the marble wall of a prestigious library. The placement was apt because libraries are a vehicle of that protecting education.
As I take over as editor in chief of Library Journal, I am not going to attempt the impossible—replacing my admirable predecessor, Francine Fialkoff. But I will endeavor, like Francine, to treat the library world with the respect and seriousness that it not only deserves but must have.
For the record, the book was Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris.
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief