Public Libraries: The Soul of a Civilization

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By Gautam Patel

Gautam Patel is a lawyer in Mumai, India. He writes a weekly column for a daily newsletter, the Mumbai Mirror.  This essay is adapted, with permission from Bennet, Coleman & Co, the publishers of Mumbai Mirror, for the ALA newsletter from a smaller column written for the Mumbai Mirror: "Public Library: The Soul of a City" (11 March 2011), about public libraries.

What defines a city? Some suggest the mundane (the state of electrical wiring for utilities and phone lines). Others point to basic needs like the quality of affordable housing and public facilities. But the heart of every city is defined by two things: the state of its public spaces, and the quality and condition of its public libraries. Indeed, a public library defines not only the city in which it sits, but the state of the society that created it.

Great cities in history were known for their libraries: the ancient cities of Ebla (probably the oldest known, around 2500 BCE) and Ugarit in Syria, Nineveh in Iraq, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Takshashila in India all had vast libraries. Alexandria's was said to be one of the largest. The ancient university of Nalanda, now sought to be revived, and said to be one of the first great universities in known history, had a magnificent library.

Libraries and a shared past

Libraries are primarily places of storage. From their earliest beginnings, humans have been collectors. The physical act of possessing, keeping and preserving an object seems to represent something essential to the human condition. Libraries are also tied to mankind's innate sense of history and the importance of the past.

In my city, Mumbai -- or, as I shall always think of it, Bombay -- the past lives in buildings and names and centuries-old communities. But it lives too in some of the city's libraries. None of these is as big or extensive as their sisters overseas. Yet each is special. The KR Cama Oriental Institute near the city's business centre, just off what is still called Rampart Row, has a wonderful collection of Bombay Gazetteers. Under British Rule, the mammoth Bombay Presidency covered over 188,000 square miles of territory -- more than California -- and most of it was under British control. The Bombay Presidency also included Aden, in present day Yemen; and the records of those times are still right here in a basement in the heart of city's business district. Though a gazetteer is supposed to be merely a geographical index, these, in several volumes, are of much wider sweep. In them, we find not only detailed catalogues of the land's geology, geography and botany, but also broad narratives of the social, political, economic and cultural life of the various people in each district. There are sections on history, customs, manners, trade, agriculture, industry, communication, monuments and non-profit voluntary organisations. Nearly four hundred years of minutiae ("by 1725 the number of palms in the island was estimated at 110,000") are preserved here. 

Not far away is the Asiatic Library, a place of refuge and reflection in a tempestuous city. Its collection has some gems: one of only two known copies of Dante's Inferno, a 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare and Firdausi's Shahnama among others. It is also a lending library, a reading room and a venue for lectures and events.

"Literature is fundamental to our cultural heritage and our shared patrimony," Nicholas Basbanes writes in Every Book Its Reader. Basbanes narrates the story of a remarkable man named S. R. Ranganathan who, in 1923, applied for a job as the chief librarian at the University of Madras. Ranganathan was to author over 50 monographs in library science and in one, from 1931, he outlined a set of five principles of library science. The University of Arizona has a digitized copy of the 1931 book. These principles, or rules, are universal and timeless and have become a code for librarians everywhere. Three of these are meant for the library scientists technicians. Two speak to us all, and they are: every reader his book and every book its reader.

A commitment to an ideal

Public libraries represent an ideal, an idea of freedom and a commitment to its continuance. In modern times, perhaps the greatest commitment to public libraries (and, this cannot be coincidence either, university education) has been in America and England. When Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in the 1730's, he also started a movement of public spending on libraries. There are contesting claims to being the oldest or largest free public library in America (or the world), but these hardly matter for each of these does in fact embody a commitment to the public. Consider the extent of this commitment: The Queens Borough Public Library is the largest by circulation; in 2007, it loaned 21 million items. The Library of Congress has over 115 million items; it is followed by the Boston Public Library, Harvard University and the New York Public Library.  All have collections in double-digit millions. And this is not true of American public libraries alone. What used to be the Lenin Library and is not the Russian State Library has nearly 50 million items; its sister in St Petersburg has 35 million items. The British Library is one of the world's largest: it has 150 million items. Its collection of 14 million books makes it second only to the Library of Congress, the world's largest collection of books.

Of all the Federal cultural institutions in America, the Library of Congress is the oldest. That itself should tell us what the earliest architects of the American nation most valued.

As Ranganathan said, books educate, and there's nothing quite like the American university library system. I once wandered into the University of California at Berkeley's music library of all things. With not much to do I browsed the catalogue. They seemed to have every single LP recording of every Hindustani classical music artiste, cross-indexed by artist, genre, every accompanist and other stuff besides. The law library had books in its India section that I haven't seen in the Bombay High Court -- and the High Court Law and Government Law College libraries both have some wonderful treasures of their own, including a set of transcripts from the Nuremberg trials.

University libraries also found ways to expand beyond the limits of their own collections. In the late 1800's, the University of California and Berkeley started the Interlibrary Loan system: one library could borrow a book from another library. At one university on the West Coast you might find yourself needing a book that is only available in the collection of a university five time zones away on the East Coast. The Interlibrary Loan System conflates time, space and reading matter: you make a request to your library, and it gets you the book or material. It is this web of libraries working together that makes possible enormous advances in human thought and evolution.

An assault on liberty

Libraries everywhere are under attack today as never before. They depend on public funding, and a library is the softest target of a budget cut. In 2011, budget cuts threaten the closure of 20 of the 43 public libraries in Oxfordshire. Overall, the cuts of 30% or more threaten 523 libraries. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg's budget cuts for 2010 threatened the closure of 14 of the 51 community branches of the Queens Library network, and to halve its service hours and force the layoff of over a third of the staff. The public libraries of Brooklyn and New York were similarly affected.

This isn't new either: it's been going on in one way or another for the last 20 years, and book buying budgets have been cut. Universities, too, are not immune: Writing in the New York Review of Book in December 2010, Robert Darnton said, "Still, there is no disguising the fact that research libraries are going through hard times -- times so hard that they are inflicting serious damage on the entire world of learning."

Cutting back on public spending on libraries is every bit as catastrophic and dangerous as burning or physical destruction, and far more insidious. Council libraries in UK are slashing their opening hours to as little as three hours a week. World over, people are coming out to protest against these cuts: writers, artists, community leaders have all rallied to demand that spending be restored. There have been read-ins and silent demonstrations ("shh-ins"). The political fallout in England is more embarrassing to those in power than in America, and this is at least partly cultural. The permeation of reading and book borrowing at a small level seems far more prevalent in England.

Changing technology might yet provide an answer in the form of digitization of books and materials. Digitizing is still expensive, and there are serious legal problems, chiefly about copyright, but it has the advantage of very wide reach and low final maintenance costs. Proposals like these are essential to continue the commitment to public learning and education.

But there is a deeper reason why we should all protest against the closures and cutbacks being forced on libraries. The loss of every library is not just the loss of a building or a warehouse of books. It represents a loss of knowledge, an abandonment of a commitment to education, growth, development and freedom. The loss of every library shrinks its society. Jorge Luis Borges imagined paradise to be "a kind of library"; great societies shave great public libraries, for nothing represents a more democratic commitment to the citizen than a public garden and a public library.

The ancient library of Thebes bore an inscription over its door: the medicine chest of the soul. Take away a city's library, and you rob it of its soul. Do this to a nation's public libraries and you threaten the basis of freedom. Libraries are not just humanity's past. They are assurances for our future.