Reviving the Spirit of Andrew Carnegie

Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - 12:09
Where is the deep-pocketed library angel of the information age?

Surely, readers old enough to remember Andrew Carnegie may stare in wonderment at this title: Revive the spirit of Andrew Carnegie? Isn’t that like saluting Gordon Gekko?

I am neither prepared nor qualified to untangle the robber-baron fact and fiction regarding Mr. Carnegie, but that isn’t why I am invoking his name. Rather, I hope to invoke his magnanimity to libraries, for which he is rightly famous. As an academic librarian, I can only admire his eleemosynary genius. And here’s why.

When our nation’s libraries were still in their nascence, Mr. Carnegie stepped forward and infused them with financial stability, eventually giving rise to their current ubiquity. I believe it’s safe to say that without his example, libraries and librarianship would never have matured as quickly as they did, or become as strong as they once were. His act of generosity enabled libraries to endure for generations.

That is, until this one.

Today, our nation’s libraries are in great peril. Without a new Carnegie, and soon, we could lose them entirely.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say something as obvious as this. But as the great English essayist Samuel Johnson once said, “What is obvious is not always known and what is known is not always obvious.”

Libraries in our K–12 schools have already all but disappeared. Nationwide, public libraries, when not defending funds in peril of being gutted entirely, are cutting their hours and sometimes, tragically, closing their doors. Academic libraries are shrinking before our very eyes, a prelude to their vanishing altogether.

The web, we are told, makes libraries unnecessary, or so many now think, believing that library materials—books, magazines, newspapers—have all been digitized. With “everything” supposedly online, the very buildings that house these materials are in technology’s crosshairs. The plod of progress and the promise of technology threaten every library of any kind, even New York City’s grandest, where Patience and Fortitude—the New York Public Library lions—sit in appropriate but regal silence, a synecdoche for all libraries. Well, it’s time—maybe past time—to roar on those lions’ behalf.

Google notwithstanding, good, reliable information is only scantily present online. The bulk of trustworthy, reliable information still resides only in aggregated databases, some of which are affordable only to libraries, since access costs literally as much as a compact car. While striving to be green, libraries still depend on the printed word. Moving to an electronic format exclusively (which, by the way, some libraries have tried) has been unsuccessful so far. “Nothing is more common" in experiment, wrote the famed late-18th-century chemist Joseph Priestley, “than the most unexpected revolutions of good and bad success.” Well, we may get to “electronic-only” one day. But so far our digital-only experiments have met with “bad success.” When we lose our physical libraries, where will the great masses of us find reliable information?

Oh, I can hear the clucking of tongues from here. I’m laudator temporis acti, some will say—an adulator of the library past simply because it’s old: in other words, a full-blooded Luddite. But my argument isn’t either/or, as in either libraries or the web. It’s a both-and argument. Of course the web is valuable and its usefulness extensible. But it’s not ready to replace libraries now, and possibly not ever.

The web has only been around for a little over a decade, yet some are ready—even eager—for it to replace libraries. Before the web, libraries were the community centers of creativity in every hamlet in this country, drawing together the rich and the poor, entrepreneurs and literary hopefuls, amateur technicians and would-be rocket scientists—all rubbing shoulders, all learning together. And libraries engaged in such “social networking” for mere millennia. If the web is to replace all libraries, can we at least wait for it to reach adolescence first?

Let’s revive Carnegie’s spirit by calling on today’s technology titans to help us save, for at least one more generation, those buildings that educated young and old, rich and poor, for centuries. Let these digital titans create a 21st-century foundation for our nation with a new set of the three Rs: renovate, repair, and replace. And I’m not looking solely to our high-tech moguls. Many other types of benefactors will be needed if libraries are to endure. But calling first for the support of technology giants would be a beau geste for their eager digital-everythingism, which prematurely pushed our nation’s libraries to the edge of extinction.

A folk singer of my youth, Joni Mitchell, once famously sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” Maybe libraries are démodé, obsolete, or soon will be. But if we can revive the spirit of Carnegie for one more generation, we may find that frequenting libraries is far better than attending the “University of Google” exclusively.

We may discover that “web-only” doesn’t build community but risks alienation and intellectual myopia, not to mention misinformation.

We may learn that crowdsourcing has its place, but is no substitute for looking one another in the eye and sharing, if only briefly, in face-to-face togetherness and collaborative knowing.

Might some believe that libraries are unnecessary today because all our ideas are only 140 characters long? I hope not. If that’s all our culture has become, then it may not deserve something as grand as a library after all. Rather, I believe our culture is more significant than that and too big to fit on a mobile device—nor should it. Culture needs room to spread out because it captures the whole of our civilization and everyone in it. Some say it takes a village to raise a child. If true, then surely it takes more than a text or two, more than a bit or a byte, to preserve a culture.

Someday we may be ready to jettison the Patience and Fortitude of our ancestors, along with the building they guard. When we are ready to do that, let’s choose a worthy equal, not a popular but weak ersatz.

Perhaps it hurts the defenders of our narcissistic web-based age to hear this, but libraries have never been about you or me, or exclusively about books and magazines. What has made libraries last until now—and I hope forever—is that they are about us: the very best of us, when we shine in our shared greatness.

MARK Y. HERRING is library director at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

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