The Legacy of a Life

When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.

African proverb. Variants include: “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” or “Every time an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

The proverb was popularized by William R. Ferris (1942-2008), a respected professor of English and History with a special focus on African American folklore and culture, co-founder and director of the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis Tennessee, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1997-2001). As chairman, Ferris argued eloquently and passionately for the establishment of oral history projects throughout the country: “We must establish oral history projects in every American community. I often quote an African proverb that says, ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.’ It we tape a single hour of conversation with a grandparent, think what a legacy their voice will be for the grandchildren. We must encourage our students to be writers, historians, and teachers. We must educate students to understand the culture into which they are born and teach them to drink from its rich waters as they educate future generations of Americans.”

For further reading: You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget it All by William Ferris, Anchor Press (1992).

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