Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Honoring Jefferson's vision for the next 200 years -- column of Nov. 5, 2015


Before we relied on smart devices to answer our questions, people became smart by reading books.

Many still do, of course, on paper and screens, but few read or collect books the way Thomas Jefferson did, almost compulsively. He was a human Google, a genius whose vast knowledge and interests reflected his appetite for learning.   

During the five years he lived in Paris as a diplomat, Jefferson wrote later, he spent his free afternoons in bookshops, “turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.”

Jefferson, who read six languages and spoke four, amassed a library at Monticello of more than 6,000 books in 33 languages. He sold his library to Congress in 1815 to replace the 3,000-volume Library of Congress burned by the British the year before.

Congress could set the price, Jefferson said, but he insisted that it take the collection in its entirety, not choose among the volumes.

Amazingly, the decision to buy the trove was not the 19th century equivalent of a slam dunk. Then, as now, Congress fretted about spending in a time of bitter partisanship.     

Some legislators thought the price -- $23,950, estimated to be $265,500 in today’s dollars -- was too high. Some argued there were higher spending priorities than a grand library and that the government needed to economize.  

Others found fault with Jefferson’s expansiveness -- too many works of literature and French philosophy, some irreligious and immoral, having encouraged the French Revolution.

The books were “good, bad, and indifferent, old, new, and worthless, in languages many cannot read, and most ought not,” one congressman complained, calling it “true Jeffersonian, Madisonian philosophy to bankrupt the Treasury, beggar the people, and disgrace the nation.”  Sounds familiar.

But Jefferson had a high opinion of the intellectual curiosity and capacity of Congress: “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have the occasion to refer,” he wrote.

Fortunately, Congress finally approved the purchase – narrowly and along party lines. Jefferson watched as wooden planks were nailed to his bookcases, which were then loaded onto 10 wagons for the 125-mile, six-day trip to Washington.

Jefferson,72, used the proceeds to pay off debts – and buy more books.

I review this history because the Library of Congress, where Jefferson’s splendid library is on display, is at a crossroads. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington retired Sept. 30 after 30 years. Billington, 86, was widely criticized for failing to take the nation’s library into the 21st  century.

A search is on for a successor. Too often we see technology in conflict with tradition, an either-or proposition, but we need not. In its next 200 years, America’s library should honor Jefferson’s vision by using the newest technology.

In Jefferson’s time, the great libraries of England and Europe were in monasteries, courts and palaces -- accessible to the elite but not to ordinary people. Jefferson wanted the Library of Congress to serve the public as well as Congress.

“The idea that knowledge belongs to everyone was a fairly radical concept at that time,” Jurretta Heckscher, Library of Congress history specialist, said in a web discussion Oct. 20. While it was accepted that men and women should be able to read the Bible, she added, slaves were prohibited from learning to read and risked their lives doing so.

It’s wonderful that ordinary people can still walk in and use the library in Washington, the world’s largest with 160 million items. Millions more people worldwide use the Library of Congress at all hours on the Internet.

Only a fraction of the library’s books are available online, though, and that needs to be addressed so anyone with a computer -- laptop, desktop, tablet, smartphone and whatever’s next -- can access the library’s collections. That’s a goal that would please Jefferson.
(C) 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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