A Sense of Elsewhere: The President of Carnegie Corporation of New York Pays Tribute to the Power of Libraries as Launching Pads for the Imagination

Article excerpt

The institution that is most representative of our open society is the library. We must, therefore, acknowledge that libraries are indispensable, no matter what form they take. Libraries have and always will contain our nation's heritage, the heritage of humanity the records of its triumphs and failures, of mankind's intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements. They are not repositories of human endeavor alone--they are instruments of civilization. They provide tools for learning, understanding, and progress. They are a source of information, a source of knowledge, a source of wisdom, and hence, they are a source of action. They are a laboratory of human enterprise. They are a window to the future. They are a source of hope. They are a source of self-renewal. They represent the link between the solitary individual and humankind, which is our community.

The library is the university of universities, for it contains the source and the unity of knowledge. It constitutes a commonwealth of learning. Libraries, along with museums, are the DNA of our civilization, the building blocks of our culture.

In both my professional capacity as the former president of the New York Public Library and as an educator and private citizen who is a lifelong user and lover of libraries and books, I take great pride in the fact that what comes immediately to mind when I think of libraries are such words and concepts as enlightenment, education, imagination, integration, inclusion, knowledge, wisdom, learning, progress, and, of course, the joy of reading--and rereading--beloved books.

In 2001, the more than 20 organizations that Andrew Carnegie created in the United States and abroad celebrated the 100th anniversary of his work as a philanthropist. As you know, perhaps Carnegie's greatest philanthropic act was his endowment of libraries, helping to create over 1,600 libraries in the then 48 United States and about 1,000 more in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Fiji. I wish that Andrew Carnegie were around today to see what his legacy and yours have provided to the world. Think about how many individuals--including yours truly--credit libraries with being their childhood refuge as well as their greatest source of education and inspiration.

One example is the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When he was young, Moynihan spent his Saturday afternoons shining shoes near the New York Public Library. Afterward, he would make his way to the library's main reading room. "It was the first time I was taught that I was welcome in a place of education and learning," he said. "I would go into that great marble palace and I would check my shoeshine box. A gentleman in a brown cotton jacket would take it as if I'd passed over an umbrella and a bowler hat."

Over rich or poor, black or white, yellow or red, Christian or Jew, Buddhist or Muslim, nonbeliever or devout followers of dozens of different faiths and adherents and devotees of many ideologies, libraries spread their inclusive umbrella of learning and knowledge, welcoming all who walk in through their open doors.

For a longtime, long before "equal opportunity" became a fashionable slogan and a political platform, American libraries practiced it as a professional obligation. Enlightened librarians believed it was their duty to enable all Americans to have access to information and, hence, knowledge. Today, the advent of technology--especially the internet, which overspreads the globe like an electronic canopy--has meant that each of us, for the first time in history, has the means to access our own virtual Library of Alexandria. It's fantastic that we can search this treasure house, pluck out what we want--or, at least, what we think we want--and, with great satisfaction, plunk what we find into a computer file that we can deposit into an electronic folder. This, we hope, will give us the ability at long last to escape the fearful condition of modern life that T. …