Tyrants hate learning. Colonial officials didn’t want printing presses or books in the colonies because they believed, as one of them expressed, “Learning breeds rebellion.” They knew ignorant people are easier to dominate.
In those early days books weren’t widely circulated and libraries were scarce. As late as 1754, one visitor to the colonies noted that libraries were hard to find. This condition would soon change as book distribution was steadily increasing so much so that by the time of the Revolution the common farmer was devouring Blackstone’s Commentaries!
For liberty-loving and book-reading Americans, one institution in particular would become the national symbol of popular education. As far as I can tell, it was James Madison who in 1783 became the first person to call for the creation of a congressional library. President Adams established the library in 1800 when he signed legislation which appropriated five thousand dollars “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them….”
Then on January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill which established the rules “concerning the Library for the use of both Houses of Congress,” and John Beckley of Virginia, the clerk of the House of Representatives, was appointed the librarian on January 29.
By April of that same year the library contained hundreds of small books and booklets and seven maps. Samuel Otis, who served as the Secretary of the Senate for 25 years, populated the library with some of its first volumes which he ordered from London. These volumes arrived packed in trunks and made their way to the new Capital City which was still taking shape. The library location, however, had to be moved around a few times because books were being damaged by leaky roofs.
Politicians and students alike made use of this center of learning. There’s a funny story about Chief Justice Marshall in connection with the library. One day he spotted a book he wanted on an upper shelf. He reached up, grabbed it, and as he was pulling it down a number of large scholarly volumes came crashing down throwing our Chief Justice to the floor. After dusting himself off the old gentleman dryly remarked,
“I’ve laid down the law out of the books many a time in my long life, but this is the first time they have laid me down!”
Thomas Jefferson provided the library with many of his own books. He said to a friend that “an interesting treasure is added to your city, now become the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the U.S., and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country.”
Today the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. According to the Government Website it contains millions of books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts. The Library is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office.
—-Love for People and Old Books
I want to conclude this article with the following preface from a book on Ancient History written by George Rawlinson in the late 1800’s. Enjoy!
To-day superficiality and sensation reign supreme, and the classics of literature are barely studied. The classics are largely relegated to the shelves of public libraries…The art of printing has revolutionized the world. The printing-press has proved far more potent than any other civilizing influence. Learning is no longer confined to the few. The literature of civilization is free to all. The danger lies in reading everything we come across. Indiscriminate reading is seldom beneficial.
While the printing press has proved a potent power for good, it has also been used for ignominious purposes. In many quarters the first consideration in accepting an author’s manuscript to-day is not whether it be a book that is worthy of publication, but whether it be a book that is sufficiently sensational to make it sell. There exists, however, a large and growing class of readers who are not satisfied with these superficial books of the hour. They crave for something more substantial than the sensational reading-matter offered them in “up-to-date” novels, decadent newspapers, and catch-penny magazines. The times are ripe for a revival of the fittest. On the intellectual horizon of the twentieth century breaks the dawn of a literary renaissance. The workers of the world long for “more light.” They desire to have the gates of knowledge thrown wide open, recognizing instinctively that “knowledge is power,” and that those who toil will ever be governed by those who think.
In the early days of printing, the books to which the people had access were few and far between. To-day the world is flooded with books, good, bad, and indifferent. The question is no longer how can I obtain a printed book, but how am I to know what printed book to read? This is a most important question for those whose leisure for reading is limited…
The books…under the head of classics…books of acknowledged greatness…Read them! There is nothing except human love from which you can derive greater happiness than the love of reading. Books prove companions in sorrow and solitude. They assuage the pangs of physical pain. They enable you to commune with all the master minds of by-gone ages. The light of intellect flashes across the printed page. The recorded thoughts of literature live on forever. Books are the “legacies of genius.” We are all heirs to the magic realm of fancy, the republic of letters, the glorious domain of immortal thought. The pyramids of Nubia and Egypt, the palaces and sculptured slabs of Nineveh, the cyclopean walls of Italy and Greece, the temples of India – none have escaped the ravages of Time. The beautiful statues of antiquity – the Venus of Melos, the sculptures of the Parthenon – will sooner or later vanish from the face of the earth. But the poetry of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the wisdom of Solomon and Socrates, the eloquence of Demosthenes and Cicero will last as long as earth itself. The material creations of art crumble to dust. Soul-stirring thoughts, the creations of intellect, alone survive.
“To be without books,” exclaimed Ruskin, “is the abyss of penury; don’t endure it.” Books that we own after awhile become actual companions. “He that loveth a book,” says Isaac Barrow, “will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counsellor, a cheerful companion or effectual comforter. By study, by reading, by thinking, one may innocently divert and pleasantly entertain himself as in a weathers, so in all fortune.”
The trend of the times is toward mental culture. The Intellectual pleasures and luxuries of life are made accessible to every home where the love of reading prevails. The publishers have provided a feast with the “Immortals.” The flow of soul comes from the authors of all ages. Let the toast be what Alfonso, King of Aragon was wont to say were the four best things of life: “Old wood to burn! Old wine to drink! Old friends to converse with! Old books to read!” Sic itur ad astra.