Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Librarians: Saving The Past, Saving The Future

This week in Timbuktu terrorists fleeing French forces torched an ancient library, destroying invaluable manuscripts. The good news is that some locals managed to save some of the manuscripts, and others have preserved them digitally.  Not all is lost.

But sadly, much is lost. Some of my academic friends, upon hearing this news, denounced the terrorists as worse than murderers.  I won’t go so far as to say that the destruction of these antiquities is the equivalent of murder, but it seems to arise from a similar intent: the desire to dominate others. 

People who burn books are trying to limit the thoughts of those who are alive.  Book-burning is an attempt to silence authors, to eliminate their voices.  At its best it is insultingly paternalistic; at its worst it is bullying and even tyrannical. 

Which suggests that the work of librarians, and of all who preserve books, is the opposite of tyranny.  To save books, and to make them available to others, is to nourish democracy.  It is to preserve the voices of the past, the Cadmean souls of long-lost authors, for the sake of what we may yet learn from them.

We sometimes depict librarians as pale denizens of musty stacks, lurking behind counters in drab frocks and silencing those who dare to speak too loudly in their bookish caverns. But the function of the librarian is quite the opposite of this; on the rare occasion that they ask us to be quiet it is only so that the voices of authors may speak loudly across space and time.  It is not just uniformed warriors who defend liberty; the librarian is also an essential servant of freedom.  We mustn’t forget that.

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