The Library As a Social and Democratic Force
WHEN I think of library statistics, certain ones stand out in my mind more than cold figures on a page--the 45,000,000 people of the United States without local access to a public library. What a waste of library resources, as democratic and social forces, when we stop for a moment to consider that one book in the hands of one person can be a democratic and social force!
Think, for instance, of a man like Isaac Newton, who, gathering ideas from the writing of Copernicus and Galileo, and from the researches of a group of scholars at the University of Prague, wrote a treatise which gave to mankind--in the theory of gravitation--the great synthesis of these intellectual treasures of the past and of his own age. So was introduced into a universe of whim, caprice, and arbitrary will the conception of law and order--carrying over from astronomy into general physics and from physics into politics--through which men realized that in this universe there were great natural laws which God himself had respected. From this conception men began to think that they lived in a society in which there were natural rights of men which kings themselves must respect. From ideas out of such books great movements were let loose in the world.
We might consider the German youth who went to the British Museum Library, gathered the facts of the industrial history of England, and packed them away with their dynamic power into his book, Das Kapital, which became the source of the socialist movement of the nineteenth century and the foundation of the Soviet Republics of this century.
When we think of the agencies and influences which broke down the feudal order, powerful and static as it had become through a thousand years, we may say again that a library of books is a social force. Some ideas were let loose. Those ideas came from the recovery of some old manuscripts and the recovery of those manuscripts led to the discovery of a new world. Close to the center of it all we see a little compass. Where did that compass come from? It came out of the manuscripts of the past, as an idea was taken from the Chinese here, from the Etruscans there, from the Arabs yonder, and from the Finns up there, until in the mind of an Italian soldier boy there came this deposit, this amalgam of ideas that became a mechanism. The mechanism, as it was let loose into the world in the thirteenth century, from the book-instructed brain of Peter Peregrinus, reached its near perfection in the fifteenth century, liberating the ships that had had to hug tyrannical shores, so that they might go to the outer ocean, to uncharted seas; liberating the trade of the world from its interior seas to all the oceans of the world; finding new ways to old continents and new ways to new continents. An idea, which came out of old manuscripts, concerning the sphericity of the earth, and a mechanism from the manuscripts of many people, came together--a composite social force of ideas and mechanisms--and disintegrated medieval society. The little compass needle, as it pivoted on its base, became, in one sense, the pivot on which the medieval world turned to the modern.
As we think of statistics, may we not sometimes, as librarians, think of what precious things we are handling, what potentially powerful social and democratic forces we are letting loose in the world as we pass books over a desk to a boy here, a girl there, a worker yonder, or a philosopher?
The revival of old learning b came the basis for the advancement of new learning. The recovery of old books made way for the making of new books. These new books of the seventeenth century became great social forces as they became the creators of new attitudes, new ideas, and new movements. The revolutionary movements, those great liberal movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, got under way out of these collections of old and new books.
A library combines both; it is the treasure house of old books and the creative center for the making of new ones, out of which have come modern science, modern industrialism, modern democracy. We need this creative center today as we see democracy threatened by dictatorships, by demagogues, and by haphazard social drift--under the impact of mechanisms and economic forces, with their power to destroy or rebuild the world in which we live and pray for the chance to earn our daily bread. The demagogue's power has been stepped up a thousandfold by the mechanisms of our age, and if we do not provide in all places where demagogues flourish library centers in which workers and farmers can check the generalizations and pretensions of these demagogues, democracy will be really threatened.
Not long before the great general strike in England there were false prophets who took to soap boxes through the metropolitan areas, but the workers who had used British libraries, through the Workers' Education Association, checked the mountebank on the soap box or the destructive revolutionist in Hyde Park with quotations out of the best books of the best minds of England. And so England is coming through perilous times, with her great laboring people a buffer group against violence, dictatorships, and demagogues.
May I speak for a moment of our southeastern area here in the United States, with its great need for books and libraries; where there is, in one sense, a race between the boll weevil and the library, between pellagra and the balanced diet, between a balanced economy and social deterioration. Mounting figures of farm tenancy in the cotton kingdom and along the tobacco road are a threat to the culture and the civilization of the south. In those areas are the areas of illiteracy--those areas that look black on any chart of statistics when we see where libraries are and are not. Where farm tenancy is worst, libraries are fewest; where the demagogue is most blatant, library service is least.
So we of the southeast, as we come face to face with the fact that we are making inferior use of our superior agricultural resources and need to make more intelligent use of our less developed industrial resources, need libraries. We need them now. It is a matter of national concern and responsibility when we realize that in this area more children are born in proportion to the population than in any other part of the nation, and that superior adults are drained off, just as wealth is, to great centers. The children are here but the books are not.
INEQUALITIES POINT TO STATE AID
So I return to this point, that in order to have real democracy in America we must take account of unequal library opportunity in the town and on the farm, and the consequent need for county-wide library service. In our American states likewise there is great disparity between this backward county and that forward county, between this poor county in the mountain coves or the pine barrens and this prosperous rich county of the great industrial areas. We need therefore not only county-wide library service for town and country, but also state-aided library service equalizing opportunity between rich and poor county.
And not only this. Because of great regional disparities and inequities, we need, in addition to the county-wide and the state-wide library, a great federal equalization fund for a cooperative federal-state-county library set-up. Children are children wherever they are born and a true philosophy of democracy, a real democratic policy, would be to tax wealth where it is to furnish books and libraries for children where they are. We will not have democracy in America until we have some such nation-wide mutual aid, some such nation-wide cooperation of federal, state, and county governments in this great job, this great democratic responsibility of making libraries locally accessible not only to the privileged millions, but to the 45,000,000, mainly on the farm, without local access to a public library.
Out of the libraries came those great mechanical devices which mastered the physical earth with their productive power, so that America produced and produced goods in ever mounting millions. Out of the libraries in the twentieth century must now come those social devices which will make of what is at present a monstrous production, a democratic production for the nobler intellectual and spiritual life of all people.