On Libraries

Artemis Kirk is the University Librarian at Georgetown University. “People sometimes think that libraries are only in the ‘information’ business,” she recently wrote to me. “But our true aim is to assist in the creation, critiquing, and preserving of culture from the past in order to provide for the future. As I see it, there is a vast distinction between information, education, knowledge, and wisdom. Let’s hope we are fortunate enough to acquire at least a modicum of wisdom during our lives.”

Aquinas once wrote: “Sapientis est ordinare.” The function of the wise man is to order things. Wisdom is the knowledge of things in their causes, including the realization that the first cause must be itself uncaused.

Libraries can be sorted into several categories: public, private, and personal. Tell me what books, if any, are on your shelves and I will tell you what you are. Formerly, a library meant a place of books and printed texts. Today, small electronic devices effortlessly carry the equivalent of a good-sized library. Indeed, almost all books of any note are currently also in electronic form.

Books are heavy; electronic versions are light. With a small device and a little skill anyone can access almost any library in the world. The collected knowledge of mankind is thus at one’s fingertips. But it is only “information” if I have no idea of order, of what is important, what trivial, or even what corrupting. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot of knowledge. But knowledge as such is good.

What difference does it make if we hear something spoken, read it in a book, or find it on-line in another language? When considering libraries, I think of the Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq. His churches, buildings, libraries, monasteries, and flock were destroyed by ISIS in the name of Allah. How fragile libraries suddenly seem!

Barbarians were once described as those who did not know about books when they destroyed them. We have men today who know about books. That is why they destroy them. The very idea that books, even awful ones, should be kept is itself a product of a civilization that presupposes the existence of a reason from whence books originate.

Riggs Library stacks, Georgetown University, 1969 by Jack Boucher [Library of Congress]
Riggs Library stacks, Georgetown University, 1969 by Jack Boucher [Library of Congress]

A library, in Artemis Kirk’s word, exists to “assist” culture. The sixteen million volumes of the Library of Congress only sit there, waiting. Books are but physical objects. As such, they “know” nothing. It took a mind to put them together. It takes a mind to decipher them. Knowledge only exists when someone actually is knowing something that is. Technically, neither books nor ideas exist apart from minds.

Universities, schools, governments, businesses, churches, and institutions have libraries. Libraries today are inhabited by folks looking not at books but at computer-type devices. It is, indeed, often quicker to find a text of Plato online than in a library. Libraries can seem like storehouses for unread books.

Do we learn more from actually listening to Socrates question a sophist or reading the dialogue of Plato in which the same encounter is dramatized? Libraries again exist to “assist” us. Almost any decent library preserves infinitely more information than can be comprehended in any one lifetime. We are fortunate if we know even one discipline reasonably well. No one can know ten disciplines well, let alone, as Aristotle intimated, ten friends.

The most sobering, yet consoling, passage about books, and hence libraries that contain and classify them, is that found at the end of John’s Gospel: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.”

The whole point of this memorable passage is that “the whole world” originates in a living Word. Our final destiny is not to read a book, even one by John or Plato, but to know, face-to-face, those who wrote them and those they wrote about. Yet the accumulated books in all the libraries, actual and destroyed, that mankind has collected in this world represent a noble enterprise, the making of man and the universe luminous.

The reason that we can be content with “a modicum of wisdom” is not that we do not wish to know all things. It is the grateful realization that we are none of us gods. No indication is found in Christianity that the wisdom that is not contained in all the unwritten books of which John speaks will not be ours.

What the libraries of this world contain is the record, or some of it, of our kind as they account for why each existing person is not content until he knows everything. His immediate problem is that, to paraphrase Plato and Augustine, he knows that he does not yet reside in the Library of the City in Speech, in the City of God itself.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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