History, History Column

Libraries are Still Cool: Why We Celebrate National Library Week

by ©2023 Sarah Becker

The American Library Association [ALA] celebrates National Library Week April 23-29. Did you know Thomas Jefferson [1743-1826]—author of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Minister to France, first Secretary of State, third President of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia—was fascinated with books? The ALA’s 2023 theme: There’s more to the Story.

“Books are boring,” the green frog said.  “Dude, books are fascinating,” the orange frog replied. The frogs were discussing Newbery medalist Kwame Alexander’s Surf’s Up. Libraries offer not only children’s and big print books, audio and e-books but also story times and book clubs, programs and lectures.

“A little attention to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful,” Jefferson wrote in 1771. “[E]very thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue,” i.e. moral excellence.

“More patrons check out fiction than nonfiction,” Brack Stovall Duncan Library Branch Manager agreed. “I cut my teeth on science fiction.” He now enjoys environmental fiction, books like Kim Stanley Robinson, Jennifer Fitzgerald, et.al.’s 2019 Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Also The Ministry for the Future by Robert Powell [2020].

Alexandria’s Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library [KWBB] received a six-month 2020-2021 American Library Association Resilient Communities grant to educate patrons concerning global climate change: to “highlight issues of environmental justice, sustainability, and emergency preparedness.” The local takeaway, flooding.

“Climate change is the one thing we’re all experiencing,” Megan Zimmerman KWBB adult services librarian conceded. “Twenty percent of Alexandria city is located on a floodplain and in recent years rainstorms have become more severe, causing homes and businesses to flood.” Examples include the Old Town Alexandria waterfront and the West Street Braddock Metro.

“With the detonation of Trinity in the New Mexico desert in 1945, the United States took control of Earth’s destiny for the first time,” Douglas Brinkley’s nonfiction book Silent Spring Revolution explains. “Not only was nuclear fallout a public health menace, but radioactive materials contaminated entire ecosystems…Prosperity [post WWII] came at a heavy cost: oceans began to die, wilderness vanished, the insecticide DDT poisoned ecosystems, wildlife perished, and chronic smog blighted major cities.”

Ecology as defined by the American Heritage dictionary: “The study of the detrimental effects of human civilization on the environment; the science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.”

“[E]very child in America…[every American] should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice,” Noah Webster penned in 1788. Recommended environmental children’s books include: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss [3-7 years, 1971]; We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom [3-7 years, 2020] and teen pick, ages 12-16, The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go From Here by Hope Jahren [2021].

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello library was well organized. He could “not live without books.” Jefferson selected his books carefully: mostly from the three categories English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) referenced in The Advancement of Learning: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Reason: “The capacity for logical, rational and analytic thought.”

As of 1783 Thomas Jefferson arranged his library books on the basis of: History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. His Fine Arts section included Thomas Payne’s Observations on Gardening [1770]; Religion: David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, et.al, A Philosophical Survey of Nature [1763]; Law: Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England beginning 1765; Natural Philosophy/Natural History: J. Nourse’s A Compendium of Physic & Surgery [1769]; Education: John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education [1693]; Modern History: Lord Clarendon’s History of the [British] Rebellion [1720] and William Stith’s History of Virginia [1747].

Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia [1785] “is at once a compendium of information about the state and a sweeping commentary on natural history, society, politics, education, religion, slavery, liberty, and law,” Encyclopedia Virginia clarified.

The Alexandria Library Company, in existence since 1794, now celebrates its 229th year. The Company is “one of the oldest continuously operating social libraries in the United States.” The Company, the private library’s first librarian: Quaker and Alexandria apothecary Edward Stabler [1769-1831].

“From the latter part of 1789 to the close of 1791…Edward Stabler’s leisure hours were mostly employed in the acquisition of knowledge of various kinds,” son William Stabler wrote. “He read all that he could meet with; which he thought likely to be improving, whether literary, scientific, historical or religious.”

“Endowed by nature with a clear, comprehensive, and discriminating mind, capable of weighting evidence,” son Stabler continued, “his first step, in the conclusion of such a mind, was to embrace the Truth in the love of it.”

Edward Stabler favored non-fiction books. Books like Quaker Elias Hicks’ Observation on the Slavery of the Africans and Their Descendants, and on the Use of the Produce of their Labour [1811]. And Mr. Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity: Made at Philadelphia in America [1751].

Brack Stovall was not surprised Jefferson had a library. “During the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson heard that British troops…burned the Capitol and, with it the government’s library [the Library of Congress],” author Cheryl Harness wrote. “Thomas, who believed that only an educated people could fully take part in democracy, offered his beloved collection [of 6,487 books] to the nation.”

This spring the Library of Congress is presenting a series of concerts including chamber music, jazz, dance, and film events. Also conversations with artists and composers: curated displays and educational projects that will provide opportunities for encounters with the Library’s “unparalleled music collections.” A contemporary fictional favorite: Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz.

Alexandria’s public library system dates mostly from the 20th century. The Charles E. Beatley, Jr., Central Library opened in 2000. Del Ray’s James M. Duncan Branch opened in 1969. The westerly Ellen C. Burke Branch in 1968: Old Town’s Kate Waller Barrett Branch in 1937, the Alexandria Room circa 1954. The Library’s tangled history of integration is tied to expansion. The Law Library was only recently acquired.

“Literature is such an important part of our understanding of culture, especially our value system,” Stovall continued. Said Saatchi & Saatchi in 1999: “The defining value for Generation Y [1981-1996]—the first generation to grow up in the digital age—is the importance of staying connected in order to grow.” The result: marketers build brands with them rather than for them.

Stovall’s favorite era: “The 19th century gave birth to all the different ideas we are facing today, the battle between good and evil especially,” he a Baby Boomer [1946-1964] concluded. Brack referenced the Civil War; the Lost Cause, Capitalism and the Gilded Age. Books like historian Jon Meacham’s And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle [2022] and Grant by Ron Chernow [2017].

“Today more than ever we need to ask: where is the dividing line between objectivity and subjectivity,” Stovall concluded. “We always need to question where subjectivity comes from and I think that literature allows us to understand another point of view; to begin conversations which include different ideas.”

Earth Day 2023 is Saturday, April 22.  The theme: Invest in Our Planet. “Investing in a green economy is the only path to a healthy, prosperous, and equitable future,” earthday.org proclaims. “Human influence is unequivocally to blame for the warming of the planet and the sad truth is some forms of climate disruption will be felt for centuries to come.”

Since October 2020 the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library has sponsored 64—zoom and in person—environmental programs. The Library like others wants you to know the facts. Zimmerman’s environmental book pick: David Pogue’s How to Prepare for Climate Change: A Practical Guide to Surviving the Chaos.

Whatever the subject the Alexandria Library stands ready to serve. The choice of Day is yours: come any day, on Earth Day, or during National Library Week. “The Library strives to be kind, to treat everyone equally,” Stovall smiled.

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen [2009] tops Parker A. Poodle, my Reading Education Assistance Dog’s list of reader requested books. According to the New York Times “about a third of children in America’s youngest grades are missing reading benchmarks. In Virginia, one study found that early reading skills were at a 20-year low.”

“Reading,” as my friend Betty Wright used to say, “is Fundamental.” Visit your local library, maybe Beatley Library’s Frank and Betty Wright Reading Garden and Imagine!

Columnist’s Replies: On February 28, 2023, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin [D-MD] and Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska] testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding S.J. Res. 4—their resolution to remove the arbitrary 1982 deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA]. Senator Dick Durbin [D-IL] chaired the hearing, the Senate’s first hearing on the ERA since 1984. Will they succeed? OTC, We’ve Come a Long Way Ladies, March 2023.

Congress enacted the first widely restrictive immigration law in 1917. The Act implemented a literacy test. It also “allowed immigration officials to exercise discretion in making decisions over whom to exclude.” Implementation of Alexandria’s 2020 Zoning for Housing Initiative/Housing For All began March 20-21, 2023. The two Initiatives “support the city’s commitment to housing production and affordability; the continuing emphasis on people of color and/or low income.” De facto segregation is defined as….?  The Complicated History of Immigration in America, Feb. 2023.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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