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Gilbert: Importance of Libraries

The University of Chicago Press recently published a gorgeous book about architecture, with compelling text and spectacular photos. It’s entitled The Library, A World History. It takes us from the ruins of libraries of antiquity through the cloisters of medieval libraries, past the “angels [and] frescoes” of 18th-century Baroque and Rococo libraries, around the iron stacks and gaslights of 19th century libraries, into the “concrete and steel” of 20th century libraries, and finally, through libraries in the emerging “electronic age.”

But the book does even more than survey libraries’ complete architectural history. In the process, it considers the history of books and other writings. It argues that the reports of the death of books and libraries are premature; it notes that sales of physical books are increasing, and that the number of libraries worldwide is also increasing, including in - you guessed it – China. It notes that books have changed format numerous times and that the current need for libraries to change and adapt in the face of changing technology and culture isn’t new, either. (That’s one of history’s frequent humbling lessons – that we in our time are not always quite as special as we think we are.)

Not all the libraries photographed and discussed in the book are extremely old. It includes the Beinecke special collections library at Yale, built in 1963 with its exterior walls of translucent Vermont marble, which change from white to amber as the light outside changes. There’s the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the stately Russian State Library in Moscow. The library closest to Vermont is at Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire, designed by Louis Kahn and built in 1971.

Author James W. P. Campbell points out that libraries have always been built with a socio-political intent. In the case of public libraries, they can be charitable and civic gestures. Some libraries, especially academic libraries, convey, he writes, a “particular intellectual attitude to[ward] knowledge and its place in civilized society...”

For better or worse, one experiences the power and pleasure of the written word differently than one experiences the visual or performing arts. You only have to look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth to appreciate their magnificence, but you have to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Milton’s Paradise Lost to experience their grandeur. I love this book because its inspired photos of extraordinary buildings somehow convey directly, viscerally, the importance and power not only of the books they contain but also the importance of something intangible – knowledge itself. That’s because libraries are nothing less than the repositories of all that is known in the world, the archives of human understanding and human story. Just as magnificent art galleries, cathedrals, and palaces are each intended to celebrate and glorify their referent - art, God, and king - these libraries pay homage to knowledge itself, and honor that most profound of human desires – the yearning to understand. And to that I say, with Beethoven, “Halleluiah!”

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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