A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 27, 2000
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240; E-mail:Thomas.Voltero@hou.state.ma.us
PUBLIC LIBRARIES KEEP DEMOCRATIC SPIRIT ALIVE IN AMERICA
It has been said that genetically, there are few degrees of separation between human beings and apes. After watching a night of professional wrestling, however, I am led to believe that the human race is moving ever closer to "closing" that gap.
Putting aside the few individuals who make a living by pounding people's heads into a turnbuckle, though, it would be fair to say that we are vastly different than our primate cousins. We might be similar in a physical sense, but when it comes to mental abilities, a human being will always be the "king of the ring." The simple act of speaking, for example, is something that no other species can do, as far as we know. MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky has noted that the very existence of languages attests to the complexity and ingenuity of human beings over other forms of life.
If speaking a basic sentence demonstrates our intelligence and abilities, then reading and writing certainly must place us into an even higher category of cognitive aptitude. Sir Francis Bacon, who once said, "knowledge is power," also remarked, "reading maketh a full man." Literacy, then, is one of the many important human capabilities that separate us from the apes (and also help us fill out those darn state and federal income tax forms!).
While many people may take for granted the fact that they can read and write, we must remember that it was only 500 years ago that the majority of individuals in society were able to do so. Instruction in reading was usually limited to the clergy and nobility until the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s. That incredible feat, along with the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on individual interpretation of the Bible, was instrumental in spreading literacy throughout the Western world.
As a result of this widespread diffusion of knowledge, new (as well as classical Greek and Roman) ideas began to spread across the continent. The concept of an elite class ruling society, for example, lost ground to the Liberal-democratic ideas that "all men are created equal" and every person is the best judge of her own interests. This "Enlightenment" of mass society, in turn, sparked several violent revolutions in which ordinary people sought to topple the aristocracies that had been ruling their lives. Among these democratic struggles, of course, was our own American Revolution.
The United States was truly the first nation in the world to embody the democratic ideas brought about by the growth and spread of knowledge and literacy in Western civilization. The English held on to its archaic system of monarchy, and the French could never quite figure out how to forge a proper democratic government out of the ashes of revolution.
In America, however, our forefathers created structures which were intended to preserve democracy both in form and substance. The Constitution and the government it mapped out constituted the "form" of democracy. The "substance," however, would be maintained by institutions that kept people in touch with the democratic ideas that brought about the Revolution in the first place.
Among such important institutions were public libraries. Just as the printing press brought us literacy, and literacy contributed to democratic thinking, public libraries ensured that knowledge remained "decentralized," that is, in the hands of all people- not just a select few. Unlike private libraries, which often had membership requirements akin to country clubs, public libraries were- and still are- open to everyone.
Not surprisingly, the very first public library was built right here in Massachusetts. The Boston Public Library, which celebrated its 150th year in 1998, was created by legislation enacted by the state legislature in March of 1848, authorizing the City of Boston to "establish and maintain a public library." Upon approval by the Board of Alderman on April 3rd, 1848, the BPL became the first publicly supported free municipal library in the world.
As public libraries began to grow in Massachusetts, the Legislature created a body in 1890 to oversee and maintain the strength of these institutions throughout the Commonwealth. The Board of Library Commissioners, which was responsible for developing, coordinating, and improving library services in Massachusetts, continues to play an important role today. Far exceeding the initial $5,000 appropriation set aside for the BPL in 1848, the Board is responsible for the disbursement of almost $10 million in state grants for municipal libraries.
These funds greatly assist the efforts of our public librarians in providing a vast array of resources for the citizens of Massachusetts. Having been in several of these libraries in the recent months, it is obvious that the joint efforts of state and local governments- along with the tremendous support of the community- have made our public libraries something to be very proud of.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Stoneham Public Library during its "Month of Reading," where I saw firsthand the efforts of library officials to get kids "hooked on reading." Due to a temporary "staff shortage" (or so they told me), I was "recruited" that day to read a story to a group of bright-eyed youngsters from Stoneham.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Reading library to present the departing director, Deirdre Brennan, with an official citation from the House of Representatives honoring her years of outstanding service to the people. Several members of the community came by to say goodbye to Dee and thank her for the incredible work she has done in the community.
Anyone who frequents the Winchester Public library- which just underwent a massive renovation effort- knows that it is an invaluable resource for all members of the town. The very fact that taxpayers were willing to pay for such an incredible project demonstrates how important the library is to the community.
These three public libraries are just a few examples of how the Commonwealth preserves the democratic principles that America was founded upon. As depositories of the collective works of mankind, these institutions provide citizens with tools that enable them to think for themselves and control their own lives. It should be no surprise that, in Latin, the word "liber" means both "book" and "freedom." So long as people have unrestricted access to information through public libraries, our freedom will be safeguarded well into the future.