Libraries and the Writing Life

By Baldwin, Neil | American Libraries, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Libraries and the Writing Life


Baldwin, Neil, American Libraries


First, a semi-flashback: In the summer of 1984, Vartan Gregorian, now president of Brown University, hired me to run the Annual Fund at the New York Public Library at the beginning of its $300-million "Campaign for the Library." The Annual Fund raised $53 million for general operating purposes over the next five years.

During that arduous and heady time, more than any other in my two decades of scholarship and institutional development, I came to appreciate the critical role that libraries play in our culture. I was working from the inside out. It was my responsibility to make the case for the NYPL to the private sector. Why give? Why is the library important?

I always enjoyed Gregorian's phrase (borrowed from Melvil Dewey) to describe the library: "the people's university." It implied that any and all were welcome to matriculate, for free, of course, and to pursue a course of study - intuitive or planned - regardless of prior knowledge or experience. I liked the concept of the library as a kind of campus, where one could stroll through the volumes, dropping in and out of entire fields of knowledge. It's a place where eclecticism is welcome.

Aside from pure research on the premises - which in NYPL's vast Main Reading Room meant that you had merely to look up and across the table to feel a sense of solidarity with other kindred spirits bent in the lamplight over huge tomes - the public-service mission of the library deeply appealed to me, as an author who believes that he should be willing to give back something to the culture that has spawned him.

The library is the one place you can walk into off the street looking for information, and there'll always be someone there to help you, in a nonjudgmental way. In the democratic-pluralistic sense, it does not matter what the nature of your inquiry is. There are no "good" or "bad" questions, no hierarchy to learning. Inquiry by its very identity is accepted.

Avoiding the info speed trap

Just as the curatorial divisions of NYPL's Research Libraries are like academic departments with friendly professors, the Branch Libraries are community outposts - safe havens for kids to come after school and before they go home to dinner. I visited many of them in my five-year tenure. The Branch Libraries are homes away from home. And every year since I came to the National Book Foundation in 1990, we've been sending our extra National Book Award titles to the Branch Libraries as a much-needed contribution to the circulating collections.

The act of borrowing a book is, to me, the ultimate extension of "the people's university." As we drive closer to the information highway, we must caution ourselves more than ever that information is not knowledge. Reading a book - especially in the confines of a library reading room or at a reference table - forces you to slow down mentally. You come across facts and notions you would not otherwise encounter if you "clicked" electronically and instantaneously on your target.

Although some may view this as a quaint or nineteenth-century notion, I believe that the slow and deliberate acquisition of knowledge that the library enforces is a healthy process in today's frenetic world. I find that whenever I go into a library, as urgent as my intellectual hunger might be, I must decelerate, which leads to a greater appreciation for the books therein.

From legal pad to lap top

Aside from raising all that money for the best cause I could possibly find, my other major experience of libraries is, of course, in my own writing life as an author, especially as a biographer. This goes back to my graduate school days in the early 1970s, when I spent most of the four years it took to earn my PhD cataloging William Carlos Williams's papers in the Poetry Collection of the Lockwood Memorial Library at SUNY/Buffalo. …

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