The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

atkins-bookshelf-booksIn 2007, Leonard Kniffel, a librarian and an executive for the American Library Association (ALA), asked renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to speak at the ALA’s Annual Conference that year. Burns had already created an impressive body of work, including The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Jazz (2001); in 2007 he would be releasing The War about the impact of WWII on American families. Burns’s speech is a thoughtful and eloquent testimony to the importance of libraries and their critical role in promoting reading and lifelong learning. His serendipitous encounter with an impassioned librarian provides one of the finest and most memorable metaphors for a library. Bookshelf presents some of the most compelling excerpts from that speech:

“Today, we’re well aware of how important nutrition is. I think we know that if we eat well, if we exercise, we help stave off the inevitable decay that takes place. I think we also understand that exercising the mind, which is constantly evolving, is probably the healthiest of all of the things we can do for ourselves. The key to that is for people to understand that we’re not just coasting here. We almost have an obligation to keep learning.

Thomas Jefferson said in his famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence that we were entitled to ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,’ and for most people that means a pursuit of material goods. I know that Jefferson, by saying capital-H ‘Happiness,’ meant a kind of lifelong learning, an improving of oneself in the marketplace of ideas, and that any citizen first given life and liberty was then obligated to continue to improve oneself, to work on oneself, for the rest of one’s life. It was the pursuit of happiness—not something that we’d actually achieve—and so it suggests a lifelong quest for self-improvement, which, to my mind, is not just physical, but also mental and emotional.

I don’t think that there has been a film that I’ve done that hasn’t been influenced by libraries and archives, and therefore my whole life is essentially organized and categorized by what they make available. That’s what I do for a living: I’m kind of an emotional archaeologist…

We used to have a joke that there were two kinds of archivists: one who kept her collection in apple-pie order and was thrilled to share it with the rest of the world, and the other who kept his collection in apple-pie order and would prefer it never to be touched. I believe, obviously, that the risk of a slight bit of attrition—the dog-eared corners; the minor rips; the, I’m sure, unfortunate disappearances of some items—is far outweighed by the value of allowing complete and total access by the public to materials.

When I was making a film back in the early 1980s on the Statue of Liberty and its history and symbolism, I had the great good fortune to meet and interview Vartan Gregorian, who was then the president of New York Public Library in Manhattan. After this extremely fascinating interview with an immigrant—Vartan is from Tabriz, Iran—he said ‘Come on’ and took me on a long and fascinating tour of the literally miles and miles of NYPL stacks. I chased this roly-poly man down one corridor after another. “Then he stopped, suddenly, in the middle of all of it, and he looked at me with this beaming smile on his face, like a child in a candy shop, and he said ‘this’—gesturing at his library from its guts—‘this,’ he said, ‘is the DNA of our civilization.’

I have never forgotten that. The thing that I appreciate, the thing that I like to remind people of, the thing that we need to remember as a republic, is that these records are the DNA of who we are. And libraries and archives are where we stow and encode what future generations will interpret about us. I can’t imagine a better pursuit, I can’t imagine a better place to spend a day, I can’t imagine being able to thank those resources enough.”

Read related posts: I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Power of Literature

For further reading: Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries by Leonard Kniffel, Skyhorse Publishing (2011)


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