AS A CHILD, James Baldwin sought to escape from a harsh stepfather and the miseries of Manhattan's black ghetto. He did not have to go far. His sanctuary, a Harlem public library, was located down the block. By the age of 13 the young refugee had determined to become a writer. There was no stopping him after that.
Variations of Baldwin's biography are familiar to just about every librarian in the country. Generation after generation, children - some privileged, some middle-class, some barely literate - have been changed forever by the simple act of reading. Once inside a book, they found a world as wide as their imaginations. "Getting my library card," recalls Oprah Winfrey, "was like American citizenship." Columnist Liz Smith concurs: "The day I discovered that one could go to the public library and take out books was one of the happiest of my life." Light versifier Richard Armour put it this way:
Here is where people,
One frequently finds,
Lower their voices
And raise their minds.
And Dr. Suess added:
The more that you read,
The more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
The more places you'll go.
But that was before the age of Google and DVDs. Have you been in your local library lately? My branch in Westchester, New York, like most such institutions, remains a fine repository of books. But computers now sit on its desks, awaiting users who want a free gateway to the Internet. As for those shelves near the front, the ones that formerly held scores of encyclopedias - they are currently offering hundreds of movies on discs. According to a librarian there, this is as it should be. "Bear in mind," she says, "that libraries are, first and foremost, centers of information. Books are only one of many conveyances, and all are equally important."
Maybe. In my view, though, books remain first among equals. The word library, remember, comes from the Latin librarium - bookcase. Indeed, until recently libraries held only books. The immense library in Alexandria, Egypt, was a classic example; so were the smaller ones in Greece, most of them privately owned and maintained. Wealthy Romans, avid admirers of the Hellenic style, acquired their own books, laboriously and expensively copied in Latin. The stoic Seneca sneered at the ostentatious book collectors of his time, men who showed off their acquisitions but never read them: "Like bathrooms and hot water," he observed, "a library is got up as standard equipment for a fine house."
Despite such criticism, Julius Caesar frequently spoke of establishing a public library in his empire. He was assassinated before it could be built, but the historian Asinius Pollio convinced his fellow Romans to build a grand structure divided into two sections, one for books in Greek, the other for those in Latin. By 14 CE. Rome had three public libraries, housing some 20,000 volumes. Although these were allegedly for every Roman, they were really confined to scholars with the proper credentials. Themasses would have to buy their own books, at prohibitive prices.
That situation prevailed throughout England, the Continent, the Middle East, and Asia until Gutenberg invented movable type and permanently altered civilization. Printed and bound books quickly replaced the scrolls and handwritten volumes usually done by monks, who could take years to produce a single copy. A golden age of reading began. France established the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Italy had libraries in Milan, Florence and the Vatican. There was a German State Library in Berlin, and a Russian one in St. Petersburg. Perhaps the greatest of them all, the British Museum Library in London, was opened in 1759.
The libraries ofthe New World took a little longer to get going. The oldest one in America was created in 1 638, when a Massachusetts clergyman named John Harvard bequeathed his 400-book collection to a new university. …