Monday, April 25, 2011

A Temple to the Glory of Knowledge and the Written Word

Two weeks ago, I spoke for three days at elementary schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, and for the next five days I played unabashed tourist in Washington, DC. It was Spring Break for many school districts and, as far as I could tell, 25% of the nation’s school children were spending the week in the nation’s capital. Museums, monuments and other federal buildings were bursting at the pilasters. In some cases, queues for limited admission tickets began at 6:30 am. As a result I didn’t even cross the porticos of many of the sights on my list. Just the same, my visit had a clear highlight and I cannot imagine any other attraction having surpassed it.

I refer to our nation’s temple of learning, dedicated to the glorification of knowledge and exaltation of the printed word. I refer to the Library of Congress.


The LOC’s main building, now called the Jefferson Building, is an Italian Renaissance masterpiece, a celebration of learning, nationalism and the spirit of
confidence and optimism that defined the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. To quote from a page on art and architecture in the LOC’s extensive website, “Few structures represent human aspiration in such dramatic fashion.” Compare the following anecdote with the political and financial climate of today: in 1886, architects presented Congress with two sets of plans for a library building -- an adequate one with a projected cost of $4 million and an elaborate one with a price tag of $6 million. Congress opted to spend $6 million. And this: the construction engineers managed to build it for less than the allocated sum, leaving substantial funds for “artistic enhancement.” The result is a highly decorated cultural monument featuring sculpture, mural painting and architecture unsurpassed in any public building in America. And all of it devoted to the glory of…books. (OK, not just books but other cataloged items that include recordings, photos and maps.)


When I decided to write my post on this remarkable instit
ution, the world's largest library, I first thought I would delve into the numbers, my usual stock in trade: the 32 million books, which are but a fraction of the 142 million cataloged items … the 22,000 items received daily, of which 10,000 are added to the collection (what kind of recycling bin receives the other 12,000?) … the 650 miles of shelving … the staff of 3,600 … the 1.7 million visitors per year (few of whom exercise their right to access the collection, available to anyone 15 years or age or older). Instead I have decided to share some of the quotations inscribed in stone in the four corridors on the second floor of the Great Hall. Blown away by the overall effect of the building and entranced by the plethora of details, I found myself returning time and again to those quotations. Their sources are not given, lending an air of secular “gospel.”


What follows are my favorites, without punctuation edits (though I am tempted) and with brief commentaries to which I invite you to add your own by commenting on this post.


BOOKS MUST FOLLOW SCIENCES

AND NOT SCIENCES BOOKS
Does this bring “creation science” to mind? Global warming denialism? Astrology and other pseudosciences?

IN BOOKS LIVES THE SOUL OF THE

WHOLE PAST TIME

Note that it says “the soul,” not merely “the record.” The difference is profound and, I imagine, the word choice was not accidental.


WISDOM IS THE PRINCIPAL THING

THEREFORE GET WISDOM AND WITH ALL

THY GETTING GET UNDERSTANDING

So it’s not just the stuffing in of facts, but the understanding that counts! Do you see any parallel to the dichotomy between the reading of textbooks (chockablock with disembodied facts) vs. quality non-fiction literature (facts in the service of understanding)?


KNOWLEDGE COMES BUT WISDOM LINGERS

The ultimate goal, again, is not merely a gluttony of facts, but what happens when they are processed into wisdom. A comforting thought.


IGNORANCE IS THE CURSE OF GOD

KNOWLEDGE THE WING

WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN

Even in this secular temple we find theological themes like this, but notice how the author identifies the flight path to Heaven.


THERE IS ONLY ONE GOOD NAMELY KNOWLEDGE

AND ONLY ONE EVIL NAMELY IGNORANCE

Another aphorism with theological undertones but secular overtones.


GLORY IS ACQUIRED BY VIRTUE

BUT PRESERVED BY LETTERS

A high-fallutin’ paen to books. And as a tribute to those who write them, we have…


THE CHIEF GLORY OF EVERY PEOPLE

ARISES FROM ITS AUTHORS

How can I but adore this one? Finally...


THE FOUNDATION OF EVERY STATE

IS THE EDUCATION OF ITS YOUTH
I can add nothing to that. I just hope that some members of the august body for whose education this institution was principally intended (and whose name it bears) will wander over here to take note. . . and instead of political lip-service to education, they will literally put their money where their mouth is in a fashion as generous as that of their 19th Century forbears who chose the high road in funding this truly magnificent building.


4 comments:

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Thanks, David, for the guided tour to our cathedral of books. Most of my experience with LOC comes from their prints and photographs which adorn several of my books. The collection is a treasure that is now online.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Here, here David. It's a confusing place to search online, but I've gotten some great photos and engravings for historical sections of my books. In fact, my editor for See How They Run (about our government and elections) felt so strongly about it, she wrote a third page tribute to it in the Photo Credit section of the book, including the fact that the LOC was created in 1800 by John Adams with the government moved to DC with $5,000 to "purchase such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress--and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein."

Leslie said...

David, I really enjoyed your reaction to this amazing place...I am a recently graduated docent and would have loved to gone around with you....Leslie Rose

Loreen Leedy said...

Those quotations are great, I haven't seen most of them before.