Almost 400 years ago, after nearly dying from typhus, the great English poet John Donne wrote that:
"...all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another."
I’m not a particularly religious person, but I find Donne’s extended metaphor in this passage deeply moving; not just because it imagines life and death as purposeful, but because it imagines people as books and the library as the embodiment of heaven—which, to my mind, it is.
Donne’s words remind us that libraries are not, nor have they ever been, just depositories for books. Rather, they are one of humanity’s most remarkable achievements: sacred places where discussions about profound ideas and human experience can happen, sometimes with others, sometimes quietly within oneself. In libraries, a young person can encounter the wisdom of Donne, the searing vision of Toni Morrison, the satire of Cervantes. In the modern library, citizens can connect online, attend a story hour with their children, or perhaps encounter a burgeoning maker space.
The library, even more than our public education system, is our country’s most egalitarian institution. It is based on the conviction that everyone has the right to learn and that learning leads to intellectual, social, and moral improvement.
This has been an extremely challenging legislative season with painful cuts to a number of important programs, including ones for people who need help staying warm, incarcerated students trying to get on track, and people with disabilities. When compared to these vital services, the decision to cut 20% from the Vermont Department of Libraries budget might seem reasonable, even justified, but I think it’s important to consider it in the context of the 183 public libraries in Vermont.
Yes, we can find many books and journals online, but the social and cultural vitality added to a community through its library is not easily replaced, and its absence would undermine the promise of our democratic society. Donne also famously writes that no man is an island – neither is a library and what happens to our libraries affects us all.