Vartan Gregorian on Libraries

After graduating and serving as a teacher and leader at several major universities, Vartan Gregorian from 1981-1988 was president of the New York Public Library. In Chapter Twelve ("A Rendezvous with the New York Public Library") of his autobiography The Road to Home he quotes a speech he gave at the White House in 2002 about which he says, "I poured all my thoughts, speaking from my heart about my passion for libraries and for books":


Let us now turn to real libraries, which are as old as civilization—the objects of pride, envy, and sometimes senseless destruction. From the clay tablets of Babylon to the computers of a modern library stretch more than five thousand years of man's and woman's insatiable desire to establish written immortality and to ensure the continuity of culture and civilization, to share their memories, their wisdom, their strivings, their fantasies, their longings, and their experiences with mankind and with future generations.

Let us now turn to real libraries, which have always occupied a central role in our culture. They contain our nation's heritage, the heritage of humanity, the record of its triumphs and failures, the record of mankind's intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements. They are the diaries of the human race. They contain humanity's collective memory. They are not repositories of human endeavor alone. They are instruments of civilization. They provide tools for learning, understanding, and progress. They are a source of information, a source of knowledge, a source of wisdom; hence they are a source of action. They are a laboratory of human endeavor. They are a window to the future. They are a source of hope. They are a course of self-renewal. They represent the link between the solitary individual and mankind, which is our community. The library is the university of universities, for it contains the source and the unity of knowledge. The library is the only true and free university. There are no entrance examinations, no subsequent examinations, no diplomas, no graduations, for no one can graduate—or ever needs to!—from a library.

Above all else, libraries represent and embody the spirit of humanity, a spirit that has been extolled throughout history by countless writers, artists, scholars, philosophers, theologians, scientists, teachers, and ordinary men and women in a myriad of tongues and dialects.

The library, in my opinion, is the only tolerant historical institution, for it is the mirror of our society, the record of mankind. It is an institution in which the left and the right, the Devil and God, human achievements, human endeavors, and human failures all are retained and classified in order to teach mankind what not to repeat and what to emulate.

The library also marks an act of faith in the continuity of humanity. The library contains a society's collective but discriminating memory. It is an act of honor to the past, a witness to the future, hence a visible judgment on both.

The existence and the welfare of the library are of a paramount importance in the life of a society, in the life of a community, the life of a university, the life of a school and a college, the life of a city, and the life of a nation.

Indeed, the library is a central part of our society. It is a critical component in the free exchange of information, which is at the heart of our democracy. In both an actual and symbolic sense, the library is the guardian of freedom of thought and freedom of choice; hence it constitutes the best symbol of the First Amendment to our Constitution. For what will be the result of a political system when a majority of the people are ignorant of their past, their legacy, and the ideals, traditions, and purposes of our democracy? "A nation that expects to be ignorant and free," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "expects what never was and never will be."

Through the development and spread of the academic and private libraries, and the central role that our public libraries and school libraries have assumed, we have come to view the library not only as a source of scholarship, knowledge, and learning, but also as a medium for self-education, progress, self-help, autonomy, liberation, empowerment, self-determination, and "moral salvation," as a source of power. That is why the library was dubbed the "People's University" by Emerson and the "True University" or the "House of Intellect" by Carlyle.

Libraries are not ossified institutions or historical relics. Libraries and museums are the DNA of our culture. Cemeteries do not provide earthly immortality to men and women; libraries, museums, universities, and schools do.

(cf. Libraries on the Road to Home (2010-04-08), ...) - ^z - 2010-04-23