With recent cuts to education in many states, and with politicians and others weighing in on a regular basis with their own versions of the truth on various issues, the news media have coined the phrase “war on knowledge.”
With recent cuts to education in many states, and with politicians and others weighing in on a regular basis with their own versions of the truth on various issues, the news media have coined the phrase “war on knowledge.” And as libraries are very closely associated with both knowledge and the truth, we are a part of this, whether we wish it or not.
War, knowledge, and libraries go back a long, long time. In ancient times, the royal librarian frequently would be involved in the planning of military campaigns, insuring that enemy libraries would be captured and their precious texts sent back to the king. Knowledge was a rare and valuable commodity. Knowledge was power.
In later years, when the Vikings were burning, looting, and pillaging Europe, knowledge and libraries were on the endangered species list. Only on remote, windswept islands such as Lindesfarne and Iona were knowledge — and our civilization — preserved, as monks labored to safeguard and copy books in their monasteries.
If knowledge is power, then destroying bodies of knowledge yields intellectual control. No one knew this better than the Nazis, who routinely emptied libraries of books which were not in line with their politics or worldview and burned them.
But reducing the truth to ashes isn’t so easy in the digital age. That is why opponents of knowledge now use other tactics. If the truth is inconvenient and at odds with your personal version of it, then it easy — if you are willing to suspend all critical thinking — to find a website, blog, or other source which supports your viewpoint. The truth has evolved from a hard matter of fact to a personal belief system.
Libraries and librarians and their mission to educate and enlighten our communities are more crucial now than ever. I sometimes imagine that libraries are beacons of light in the darkness. Sadly, some of those lights are fading.
Even in good times college and university libraries had to fight for their funding, but after many years of budget cuts most of them are shadows of their former selves. And in spite of research indicating that students who have access to a library and a librarian achieve more, the ranks of public school librarians have been decimated in past years.
Public libraries are feeling a little nervous these days as well. Here in Kansas, comments made by state officials, as well as legislative initiatives, have caused concern amongst many librarians. These are uncertain times for libraries.
Yet all we can do is to continue fighting the good fight for truth and knowledge as we cast a furtive glance over our shoulder at the columns of smoke arising in the distance. But this time those fires are not the work of Vikings or Nazis from a far off time and place. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
— Steve Read is the director, McPherson Public Library