Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Meaning and Importance of Libraries - Part IV (August 1907)

The final speaker at the dedicatory exercises in 1907 was Prof. Henry L. Chapman of Bowdoin College. His full remarks weren't printed in the article, but he is quoted as saying, "On this day when you have met for the purpose of dedicating this library, the grateful recipients and the generous giver are equally to be congratulated. A library is wholly benevolent; free and impartial in its ministrations; the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the sad and the light-hearted, the strong and the infirm, adherents of all political and religious faiths, may all enjoy its privileges.

When we enter the library we may well feel a touch of humility and reverence, as when we go into a company of select people. They wait with modest and quiet dignity to hold converse with us. A library is very democratic, and though in life they may have been unapproachable, hedged about my conventions, the authors now stand side by side on the shelves. Plato by Mr. Dooley, John Milton and John Bunyan together and Shakespeare is not supercilious to Mother Goose. They dwell together without question of precedence. Here is gathered a company of the wisest and wittiest of men you could pick out in a thousand years, and the thoughts which they did not uncover to their bosom friends are written out to us, the strangers of another age.

There is no more notable characteristic of community life than the multiplication of libraries.

If we go back to the boyhood of Benjamin Franklin we may compare the poverty of the eighteenth century with the wealth of the twentieth. Such a thing as a circulating library was unknown in the country. Today the most interesting map of Massachusetts is that that exhibits the boundary lines of the cities and with the boundaries pictures of the public libraries, and there is not a city or town in Massachusetts that does not possess a library.

It is not personal caprice, but a deep seated conviction, that has led men to give so generously of their fortunes to build libraries, leaving the maintenance to those who will reap the benefit of them...It is the office of the library to mark as far as possible the line between good literature and that that is not good. It can hardly be doubted, however, that any book, so far as it leads the mind out of its ordinary thought, is of real service to the reader, even if it be not of the highest order. It cannot be doubted that some novels are of real merit, but instead of snatching at the newest novels we should be content to read those which have outlived the clamor of the advertisers. Scott, Hawthorne, Dickens, Jane Austen, Thackeray, George Eliot - no one can ever be ashamed of being found in their company. The will serve as touchstones to test the quality of the lesser ones. He who knows Shakespeare, Motley, Milton - will not be easily be beguiled into accepting that which is not good. In the choice of books to read we may follow that simple rule of selecting the books we like the best. If we are not interested we shall not open our minds, and if we do not open our minds then we shall take in no new ideas. The thing to aim at is to cultivate a taste for the best, and it certainly can be cultivated by those who desire it.

The library which we dedicate today will surely be an object of pride to the community, as well as a minister of good. The books will be friends to you, to enrich and make your lives serene and happy."

The Kennebunk Free Library is as impressive today as it was back then. It is a valuable asset to the entire community. I am very proud to not only claim it as my home town library, but also as the place where I got my start as a librarian. Thank you, Mr. Parsons, for your generous gift and to all those who have come after you to support the library, keeping it strong and vibrant.

The Meaning and Importance of Libraries - Part III (August 1907)

Mr. Henry E. Andrews accepted the keys on behalf of the library trustees and addressed those gathered for the celebration as follows: On behalf of the trustees of the Kennebunk Free Library Association of Kennebunk, I receive these keys - the token of the possession of the building which Mr. George Parsons has generously caused to be erected and now freely gives into their keeping for the use and advantage of this community.

It is a munificent gift, and a gift opportune, enduring, humane. He provides, in the very heart of the township, a new and an adequate habitation for a high enterprise. He advances a project which, in earlier years, public-spirited men, whose memory we honor, conceived and inaugurated for the public welfare. Their hope has been justified, their expectation exceeded. By the timely bestowal of this building, he prospers their project a hundred fold. A structure so substantial not only promotes, it perpetuates, the institution on which, with the church, as on a foundation four-square and firm, rests our common human good. Farther into the future than we can look, this structure will safeguard the treasures of books which we have accumulated and will engage after generations to add to them. Its influence will be as pervasive as it is permanent, as catholic as it is constant. Carlyle only uttered the conviction of mankind at large when he said, 'The founding of a library is one of the quietest things we can do with regard to results. It is one of the greatest things, but there is nothing I know of at bottom more important.' With regard to results, it is no less important to further than to found a library; and sir, the building which Mr. Parsons gives us today, enlarges and enhances the operation of that subtle force issuing from wise books to inspire the individual, and to mould the community. If its adequacy, its order, its perfected equipment, in its dignity and beauty, it offers to every citizen of the town a wider opportunity, a more gracious and suasive invitation, a higher incentive, to seek self-development and civic betterment, than the past has offered. Its very presence is a symbol. It appeals to a higher mood than the mood of every day. It stands apart from our factories and shops in a contrast that suggests the contrast between the literature of all times and the periodical of the hour. It witnesses the deep satisfaction of art. It speaks, even to the hurried passer-by, some words of an unusual languages, such as, in the fine phrase of Thoreau, 'are raised above the trivialness of the street to be perpetual suggestions and provocations.' Thus in itself it is educative, and prepares the mind for the pursuit of culture. In and of itself it points the quiet , withdrawn ways to wisdom and understanding. By the visible example of its own excellence it incites us to walk in those ways.

To establish here in our midst an influence that tends unchangingly to enrich the individual life, unceasingly to refine public taste, unwaveringly to lift up our intellectual ideals, and to guide our communal progress towards that 'wider and wiser humanity' which shone in the vision of Lowell as the goal of Democracy, that is an act in the highest, the truest, sense humane; and for his disinterested act, for his gift, for his abiding benefaction, I beg, sir, that you will carry to Mr. Parsons the heartfelt and lasting gratitude of all his fellow-citizens in this town." (York County Coast Star, August 2, 1907)

Words from a hundred years ago with a very modern context. Although today it's about more than just the books, the public library brings to each and every community a connection to the entire world.

The Meaning and Importance of Libraries - Part II (August 1907)

Following the introduction was the presentation of the keys. The Rev. John Parsons spoke as follows: "A French writer recently said that if the work of some fifty men of distinction in the varied life of the nation were to be removed, the prime moving forces of culture and civilization would be lost. This statement is both just and striking, and its essential truth is applicable to other nations. These men of genius have their power in virtue of their special endowments: some of them have keen intellectual insight; some, delicate sensitiveness of temperament; and others, unusual force of character.

The results of their work are perpetuated in books, and books are gathered into libraries. The mission of a library is manifold. When we enter the doors, we come first, upon the newspaper rack with the daily papers giving a kaleidoscopic view of current events; destruction of property through fire and storm; breaks in the stock market; records of crime; disasters and loss of human life. On the tables we find magazines to keep us in touch with investigations of deeper interest: politics, scientific discovery and invention, and the problems of general social welfare. But when we enter the alcoves we get, as nowhere else, light on the profoundest questions of life, its origin and destiny. From natural history we learn of the epochs of the earth; from political history, of the important changes in governments and dynasties; from biography, of the characters of gifted men. Here also we find the works of literature: drama, delineating the hidden springs of action; romance, charming and kindling the imagination; poetry, purifying and ennobling the soul. Here are volumes on science to reveal to us the secrets of nature; on morals, to show us a safe pathway amid the dangers of life; and on religion, to lighten up the future.

The library is, therefore, an institution of greatest social importance. It joins with church and school, and exercises prominent influence in forming a distinct and elevated social tone.

Individuals pass away, but a library with its social tone endures from generation to generation. At the same time, this continuity is not like that of the recurring historical anniversary, or that of the monument erected on the battlefield; for these simply repeat unchanged the lesson from year to year; whereas the library moves on from year to year receiving contributions from each new generation. Every reader in a library, therefore, stands at focal point. He gathers there all the influences of the past and present. Men in early ages built monuments and established thrones, but time has destroyed them; but the man who put forth a great thought and embodied it in language created that which is imperishable. Plato and Aristotle wrote for Athenians, but their influence has lasted on down to the present. Plato has done his greatest work for Christians; into the most intimate thoughts of some of them he enters today; and the logical method of Aristotle ruled scientific thinking for two thousand years. Homer and Virgil sang for the men of their own time, but the echoes linger still. What a great spiritual heritage has the English people in the dramas of Shakespeare, the epics of Milton, and the songs of Burns! Thus the reader meets the elect souls of the past.

He stands where the great and the good of all lands gather to instruct him. He stands where the limitations of time and space are transcended. He stands where thoughts that have wandered through eternity have been fixed by books for humanity as a part of its permanent treasures. Thus the library will lead the van of the forces of the social environment from period to period to the century's end.

And now hoping that when the residents shall gather a t that centennial gathering and shall take the assets of the social influences that have come down to them, they shall be led back to this hour and shall find that ti has been as a landmark from which important social influences have flowed on like a trail of light through the years, and will flow on beyond the centennial line with increasing light from increasing volumes, summoning the coming generations to keep step with firmer tread in the march of civilization, I give you this deed to that building and this key to open its treasures."
(York County Coast Star, August 2, 1907)

The Reverend Parsons certainly got it when it came to the importance and meaning of libraries. His one-hundred-plus-year-old advice and insight is just as meaningful today as it was back then. Let's hope that others continue to get it through the years. Support your local library. It makes common "cents."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Meaning and Importance of Libraries - Part I (August 1907)

When my local library building, a gift from Kennebunk resident George Parsons, was dedicated back in August of 1907, the local newspaper had the foresight to publish the speeches of the very wise men who spoke at the dedication. In a series of posts, I'd like to share with you what was said about the importance of libraries back then. Much of it is still very true today.

The first to speak was Mr. Walter L. Dane, the president of the Free Library Association of Kennebunk. In his introduction, he said: "A little less than a year ago a few of us assembled at the lot yonder to place the corner stone of the new Library Building with very simple ceremony. We are met here today in accordance with the promise then made to formally accept this beautiful gift, and to dedicate it to the uses for which it has been erected; and to express so far as words are adequate our sense of obligation to the giver.

Every public benefaction, like every public work, depends for its success, for its full fruition, upon the interest and co-operation of the community where it is placed.

I fully believe that your presence in such goodly numbers shows not alone your appreciation of this beautiful gift, but quite as much your intention and desire to co-operate earnestly in all the efforts which will be made to render it a means of great usefulness and benefit to this community.

And so I am privileged to heartily welcome you here both on behalf of the giver and the Association in whose keeping it is at present placed. ..

...The location seems to be a favored one from every standpoint, being ... in the very center of the village...And now friends, I have no hesitation in again welcoming you cordially on behalf of those who have so faithfully worked to this end for I am sure you are and will be ready and glad to respond to your share of this work which must make for the broader culture and larger life of this town and which has received so great an impetus today..." (York County Coast Star, August 2, 1907)

What's nice to be able to say is that this library is very healthy today and a wonderful literary and community center for the town.