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The Meaning of Libraries

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I have always loved libraries. Ever since I was a little kid, I eagerly anticipated visits to the local public library for story time or to check out the latest Hardy Boy novel. Granted, I should have been reading classics at a much earlier age but fiction held my attention much more readily. There was something about entering a library as a young boy and seeing the stacks and stacks of books and wondering how anyone could ever write an entire volume.

As I grew older, my feelings toward libraries matured as well. I'll never forget the first time I set foot in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. A certain feeling of reverence and awe overcame me as I marveled not only at the row after row of catalogue cards, but at the sheer size and splendor of the building. I remember reading these words from Thomas Jefferson, etched in the marble facade of the Madison Memorial Building, a newer facility within the Library of Congress complex: "Knowledge is power, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives." It is no accident that Thomas Jefferson, father of the University of Virginia, made the library the focal point and centerpiece in designing his spectacular campus in Charlottesville. Libraries, to me, represent the power of knowledge. Within them are held the collective wisdom of those who have both shaped and transformed the world in which we live from scientists, to activists, to philosophers, to religionists.

My research and writing as a Middle Eastern historian have taken me to some of the world's great libraries in some vastly different places: from the stateliness of the British Library in London to the ruggedness and simplicity of the David Ben Gurion Archives and Library at Sde Boker in the Negev Desert of Israel. From the magnificence of the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to the down-home "y'all are welcome" feeling of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, I have been privileged to work and read and absorb the texture and feel and atmosphere of all these places and more. But my all-time favorite library has to be the Bodleian in Oxford, England. The first time I set foot in the courtyard of the Bodleian -- a library, by the way, which traces its original founding to 1602 -- was a profound and moving moment.

I'll never forget my second day in Oxford as a somewhat overwhelmed graduate student, standing before a stern and quintessential librarian -- right out of Brideshead Revisited -- and taking on oath with my right hand held to the square, that during my time within the hallowed walls of the Bodleian I would refrain from making any open fires or bringing any sheep into the building. And while this oath, repeated by any reader or user of the Bodeleian, is a vestige of the 17th century, it reinforced in my own mind that I now had the privilege of utilizing something that was far older and far grander than I. Thus began a long and rewarding experience of many afternoons spent in the reading rooms of the Bodleian -- days that I will long remember and always cherish.

I am quite certain that no oaths preventing open fires or live animals are required by any of us in today's libraries. Nonetheless, I believe we should require that each student enter the library and leave with something in return. Perhaps a book or periodical or journal is checked out -- other times students come and go with only their notebooks and backpacks. Our challenge is to ensure that each time students on campuses throughout our nation use our respective facilities, they are enhanced in some small way -- their knowledge is expanded, their perspective is broadened, their minds are enlightened, their understanding is increased.

To place it in today's political and historical context, imagine if countries throughout the world had a benefactor like Andrew Carnegie to build and endow hundreds of libraries in communities throughout their respective nations. Would peoples' perspectives and attitudes be different if they had access to information and knowledge about others' beliefs and ideas? Absolutely. I am not suggesting that a physical library itself is the panacea to all the world's ills, but I am suggesting that knowledge is and what is held within libraries can make all the difference.

We would all do well to reflect on these words from Richard Skinner, the Yale University Librarian, which perfectly summarize my own feelings toward libraries and what they represent. In November 1861, Mr. Skinner said: "A great library cannot be entered by one of refinement in thought and aspiration without a certain feeling of awe. Surrounded by the productions of genius, the elegance of art, the delights of the mind, it is but natural that in the quiet, silent library, reverence should possess the soul."