Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, Central Branch (photo: David Yamada)
I’m what some labor economists call a “knowledge worker.” In other words, I make my living via the consumption, intrepretation, creation, and presentation of information and facts. I’m hardly alone with this designation; millions of people also make their living via one of the knowledge trades.
Of course, I’m also a geek. I love books, reading, thinking about stuff, tossing around ideas, and hanging around places where others are doing the same, in person or virtually.
Indeed, I can identify with the late Carl Sagan, who once said that if he could travel back in time to a single place, it would be to the ancient library and museum at Alexandria, Egypt. Until its destruction some 1,700 years ago — most likely ransacked and burned in the midst of violent religious conflict — the library held almost every book known to humankind. The museum was a storehouse of the history of world civilization. It also served as a research institute and school, providing a home for the world’s leading scholars to think, write, experiment, and teach.
My fascination with such places has led me to ask: What are our contemporary sacred places of the mind, those entities that preserve, create, and share knowledge?
I nominate as my top three: Libraries, universities, and — yes — the Internet.
I enjoy working at the central branch of the Boston Public Library, especially in the beautiful and historic Bates Hall reading room (pictured above). I usually sit at one of the long tables, with laptop open and surrounded by various papers. On occasion I’ll look around and wonder who might be working on the next great novel, groundbreaking historical work, or scientific breakthrough. Even though my own tasks are of comparatively modest ambition, I feel a quiet kinship with these serious library denizens.
Libraries, especially public libraries, rank among our greatest inventions. Even with the vast resources of the Internet, we must preserve these repositories of human accomplishment that freely open themselves to people thirsting to consume and create knowledge. A public library card remains a ticket to a free and thrilling adventure. We cannot forget what that means.
Especially in the U.S., institutions of higher learning are under fire these days. Tuition has been soaring for decades, and now, with an economy still struggling, the job market has been turning away many people who have invested time, money, and energy into earning a degree. With countless learning opportunities available for free or at little cost through independent study and the Internet, the basic utility of a college education now is being questioned.
In the meantime, too many academic workplaces have moved toward over-specialization, insularity, and elitism. In terms of scholarship, graduate students and new professors are encouraged by their mentors to research and write on narrow, esoteric topics. Linkages between scholarly research and the real world increasingly are becoming frayed.
However, I cannot imagine a world without our universities. They remain our best providers of higher learning, places where knowledge transmission to (mostly!) willing minds takes place on a daily basis. They continue to provide space for research and scholarship, free from the dictates of commercialism and short time frames. Furthermore, the presence of a college or university usually has an energizing ripple effect on the cultural and intellectual life of its surrounding city or town.
Oh my, there’s so much junk and unsavory stuff on the Internet that it may seem plain wrong to call it a sacred place. The bottom end of the Internet captures some of the worst of our culture and behavior.
And yet, the Internet is a stupendous human achievement, even if it’s too raw and new for us to regard it as such. Aided by powerful search engines, it is the most expansive storehouse of knowledge, information, and exchange in our history. And while it may be true that many of us spend too much time on it, we have yet to exhaust its possibilities as a communications medium.
Barring some cataclysmic meltdown, the Internet is primed to become our library at Alexandria, only more comprehensive and universally accessible, and with greater promise to create and share knowledge.
I realize that invoking the term sacred in connection with a good number of secular institutions may raise eyebrows.
But I use the term carefully. These three entities house and nurture our civilization; they help to ensure that our words and deeds are made available for current and future generations.
When I read about the destruction of the library and museum at Alexandria, I am struck by the tremendous sense of loss. Thousands of years of collected knowledge were taken from us, as scholars continue to lament the works of history, science, mathematics, philosophy, and poetry that will never be recovered.
The disappearance of our libraries, universities, and the Internet would be as tragic and haunting as what happened in Alexandria many, many years ago. We must safeguard and protect them.
If you’re as geeky as I am, some recommendations:
Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (2008)
Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind (2006)
Jacques Verger, Men of Learning in Europe at the End of the Middle Ages (2000)
Diane Asseo Griliches (photos) with Daniel J. Boorstin (essay), Library: The Drama Within (1996)
Julius Getman, In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education (1992)
Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987)
Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of Universities (1957)