Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One Jewel in the Crown

Entering my library last evening, I encountered a small round table prominently positioned in the entry passage. On it lay some six stacks of stark, white Xeroxed pages. They spelled out the grim facts of our local system’s financial woes. The Grosse Pointe communities in Michigan are unambiguously wealthy, but our library is suffering. Property values have plummeted and with it property taxes; our library gets 91 percent of its revenues from that source. County and state aide to libraries have shrunk 26 percent since 2007. We are now facing a 45 percent cutback on collection purchases and a 50 percent cut in administrative services—never mind all the rest. This leaflet, to be sure, is intended to drum up support for a millage rate increase. The library won’t close anytime soon. But it brought back a recurring thought: libraries are certainly at least one jewel in the crown of higher culture. I watch their health closely as an indicator, only too aware that the higher ranges of human experience depend on helpful institutions, and those, in turn, on a certain order and degree of wealth.

In the small circles of those concerned with books, the words of Ammianus Marcellinus, a sardonic fourth century Roman historian of Greek origin, echo. A gruff rhetorical phrase in his writings, describing his environment, was “libraries closed like tombs.” The time referred to was 380 AD. Now, to be sure, it was just a throw-away remark more intended to convey a flavor than the results of an exhausting census; we hear such comments quite often in our day as well. Careful scholars like George W. Houston (writing in the Library Quarterly in 1988) point out that Ammianus did not mean public libraries; they survived in the West at least until 455 AD. But you get my drift; the death of the Roman Empire did spell the death of such public institutions.

I got to wondering about those Roman public libraries. They existed, sure enough, but had a different character than our lending libraries. Books, meaning scrolls, could be taken out and read—not at tables but in surrounding gardens, standing in the shade or walking about; under the eaves in the shade, as it were. Public readings were a common feature at these places so that even those of the great majority who could not read could gather and hear books read aloud. Books, literature, learning, the intellectual, the spiritual life belong in some ways to the immaterial dimension so that their structures are really relationships between people of like interests. But in this realm we can’t partake of any kind of community without physical underpinnings. These require stalwart votes to pass that temporary millage increase. Failing that, here in Grosse Pointe, one of the jewels in the crown of the Detroit metro area, we will lose one of our three library branches and face 30 percent cutbacks in hours and in staff.

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