By Sam Burnham
Sometime in the 3rd century B.C., The Macedonians established the legendary Library at Alexandria. This library was one part of the "Seat of the Muses," a major center of learning in the ancient world. But it was more than just books. This center included schools, lecture halls, centers for music and art. It was a center of culture as much as anything. While any other centers of learning and culture had risen by that time, the burning of the Great Library is still seen as a symbolic loss of knowledge and culture. Over 2000 years later, bibliophiles and intellectuals still look upon the destruction with a sense of mourning.
A few centuries later on the same continent, scholars came together to found the great Islamic center of learning and culture of Timbuktu, in modern day Mali. In 2012, the libraries of Timbuktu became a target of al-Qaida backed Islamist militants who believed the manuscripts to be idolatrous. Librarian Abdel Kader Haidara defied the terrorists and hatched a plot and smuggled 350,000 manuscripts out of the city and hid them in safer locations in the region.
In rural Colombia, a grade school teacher saw people with little to no access to books. So Luis Soriano started a travelling library with a collection of 70 books and two burros. He loaded books on the animals and then traveled to the towns in the region and allowed the people to check out books. Soriano has been accosted by bandits and even lost a leg in an accident involving one of his burros but that didn't stop him from carrying out the wok of the Biblioburros.
I've shared these stories because I believe we are finding ourselves in an age that doesn't see them importance of libraries. Librarians are nothing more than the keepers of the books - archaic devices that, like the American industrial worker, have been replaced by technology. The internet and electronic devices have brought us into an enlightened age where little old ladies wearing their hair in buns try their best to keep dust off the stacks of unused books.
Libraries are still centers of our culture. They obviously house our books. But they also hold music, video, audio visual equipment, archived periodicals dating back centuries, even works of art on display for the public. Libraries drive our literacy and provide opportunity for people to research topics and fact check ideas themselves. Our libraries offer computers with web access for people who don't have them at home. Some libraries even offer seeds that can be replaced with seeds from harvested plants.
For over 2000 years, librarians have stayed ahead of the curve, keeping their institutions on the rising trends. Long before schools had librarians who knew every detail about every piece of technology in the building. And if a new way to access information comes along, these are the people who find ways to harness them and make them available to their patrons.
Librarians keep the books and they do that well. But if we diminish them to that alone, we do them a disservice and we risk cheating ourselves out of one of the greatest resources available to us today. Their libraries.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire