David Quammen

David Quammen: 'If you think libraries are expensive, try illiteracy'

"If you think libraries are expensive, try illiteracy."

I used to write a column for Outside Magazine, back in the 1980s into the mid/late 90s. It was a column about Natural Science and once a month I would go up to my local university library, Montana State University,  and I would go  scrambling and rampaging through the stacks of Montana State University's library pulling down bound volumes of journals, books and things, and desperately lookin for a topic to write this natural science column.

One week out of every month I was haunting the corridors of that library and eventually finding something to write about.  It might have been something involving the intelligence of the Octapus or the neurotic behavior of crows,  something usually off beat, but that pointed back toward the center.

And all of that time, all of that research was in the stacks of that wondeful library. 

I can remember being taken to the public library in Cincinnati. I grew up in Cincinnati in the 1950s.  And we would be taken to the public library and pull down books and that was the first. I didn't own many books. We had some books at home, but most of the books I read as kid came from the Cincinnati Public library.

When I was in college, I went to Yale, they had  wonderful, wonderful libraries. They had Sterling Library, which is like the cathedral of library holdings.  I spent alot of time there. 

I'm constantly researching my subjects, which are involved in science. Mostly life sciences: ecology, evolutionary biology.  Putting the ecology and evolutionary biology of microbes, scary viruses, dangerous bacteria. 

I read a lot journal articles.  I read alot of books, too, but in particular journal articles are crucial to me.  And I live in a little town in Montana, but I have Internet access to all of the library's subscription journal articles of Montana State University.  So I'm constantly soaring out through my laptop to access The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or Lancet  or Nature Genetics or some other eminent are somewhat obscure  journal for my research. 

A friend of mine, I don't know where this saying comes from,  but there's the  saying that "If you think education is expensive try ignorance." Likewise,  if you think libraries are expensive, try illiteracy. 

[On censorship] The only good thing about attempts to ban books is that sometimes it makes a really, really difficult, dangerous, important book even more popular.  Apart from that, I think that telling people that they can't or shouldn't or must not read something has been proven over hundreds and hundreds of years to be not only foolhardy but futile.

I leave, I'm just getting to write a proposal for my next book project.  I'm a little bit shy. I can't say exactly what it is yet. But there will be a new book project. In the meantime, I'm doing things for National Geographic magazine.  I'm going to the Russian Arctic for six weeks this summer.

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Library Name: 

Montana State University Library