Libraries and Enlightened Views

I’ve been reading Gabriel Naude’s Advice on Establishing a Library (1st ed. 1627, 2nd ed. 1644; trans. into English, 1661). Naude’s treatise is one of the earliest works on librarianship in any modern sense, and lays out a plan for systematically collecting a research library. Among other things, Naude was the librarian who developed Cardinal Mazarin’s personal library, the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and requested it be open to the  public, thus creating the first public library in France (at least as far as I can tell). Until relatively recently in human history, libraries were private, the property of royals or the rich, and served to collect but not disseminate knowledge, and Naude was among the first to develop the idea of a comprehensive, "universal library" open to the public and collecting works on almost every subject, libraries the historian Jonathan Israel has called "workshops of the early Enlightenment."

What’s especially interesting considering the time and place is Naude’s enlightened views on collection development. Consider some of his defenses for acquiring unpopular, heretical, or just plain wacky books:

On books with new ideas:

Neither may all those who have introduced or modified anything in the sciences be omitted, for it is merely flattering the bondage of man’s feeble wit if the scanty knowledge that we possess of these authors is buried under the disdain to which they are inescapably subject for having set themselves up against the ancients and having learnedly examined what others were used to accept as by tradition. . . .  I affirm that all these authors are requisite to a library . . . since it is certain that the knowledge of these books is so useful and valuable to him who can consider and draw profit from all that he sees that it provides him a thousand openings and new conceptions, which, being received by a mind that is open, inquiring, and free from prejudice, “bound to no master fealty to swear,” make him speak to the purpose on all subjects, deliver him from the admiration which is the true mark of our weakness, and enable him to discourse upon whatsoever presents itself with a great deal more judgment, foresight, and resolution than many persons of letters and merit are used to do. (23-24 in the U. of CA Press ed.)

On unusual books (Cabbala, divinations, etc.):

For, though most of them teach only hollow and unprofitable things, and though I hold them but as stumbling blocks to all who amuse themselves with them, nevertheless, to have something with which to please the weaker wits as well as the strong and at the least to satisfy those who desire to see them in order to refute them, one should collect the books on these subjects, although they out to be considered among the rest of the volumes in the library like serpents and vipers among other living creatures, like tares in good wheat, like thorns among the roses—and all this in imitation of the natural world, in which these unprofitable and dangerous things help to round out the masterwork and the scheme by which it was accomplished. (26)

On heretical works:

Since it is necessary, therefore, that our scholars should find these authors somewhere available in order to refute them; since M. de T. posed no objections to collecting them; since the early Fathers and Doctors had them at hand; since many of the clergy keep them in their libraries; since there are no scruples about having a Talmud or a Koran, which belch forth against Jesus Christ and our religion a thousand blasphemies infinitely more dangerous than those of the heretics; since God permits us to profit from our enemies. . .; since they an be prejudicial only to those who, lacking the basis of right conduct, suffer themselves to be carried away by the first puff of wind that blows, and seek out the shade of a beanstalk, and—to conclude in a word—since the intention which determines all our actions for good or ill is not vicious or hardened, I think it nether an absurdity nor a danger to have in a library . . . all the works of the most learned and famous heretics. . . .” (27-28)

How hard it must have been at that time to defend such a library, I thought upon first reading it. A Catholic librarian defending a comprehensive research library owned by a Cardinal during the Reformation. The defense isn’t that the books are right, or even good, but that they exist and are part of the world, and educated, enlightened, unprejudiced minds should read to learn and test their beliefs rather than just to confirm their prejudices. What a daring idea for its time.

Naude was enlightened for his age, and he’s still enlightened for ours. Consider stories like this, about a "conservative" blogger and dim thinker who toured the White House and discovered (gasp!) books on socialism in the library, and thus concluded Obama might be a socialist. Ooooh, those scary socialists! Imagine the poor education and lack of reasoning ability it would take to consider such a thing at all problematic. I’ll ignore the fact that anyone who thinks Obama is a socialist doesn’t know much about socialism. (No President who hands 30,000,000 new customers to big insurance companies is a socialist.) Instead, consider the mindset of someone who obviously believes that people read books to confirm their prejudices and not to learn. Owning or even reading a book on socialism is prima facie evidence that one is possibly or probably a socialist. I suppose reading Inside the Third Reich makes one a Nazi. For such people, education is nearly impossible, because of the unwillingness or inability to encounter ideas contrary to their own.

This sort of crude, ill informed belief isn’t confined to the right, by any means. One of my writing students–a good liberal whose very poor understanding of conservatism was based entirely  upon reading David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times–was in my office and once asked me about my political beliefs. Specifically, he wondered if I was a conservative because I have several books on conservatism on my shelves. Politics drives this sort of blindness more than other subjects, perhaps, because it would never have occurred to him to see all the books on Plato and ask if I were an ancient Greek philosopher. His reasoning became quite clear in the ensuing conversation. Only political conservatives would read books on conservatism, just as liberals read only liberals and his libertarian friend read only Milton Friedman. Thoughtless liberals may not be enemies of Enlightenment, but they’re not necessarily friends or examples. He probably has the Alvy Singer Defense ("I’m a bigot, but for the left, fortunately"). Or there was my socialist friend in library school who refused to read The Wealth of Nations because it’s "capitalist, isn’t it?"

The pattern is the same, and is much like the cloistered, stultifying mindset that Naude was battling in the early 17th century and that Enlightened libraries actively resist. Open inquiry and intellectual freedom are cornerstones of Enlightenment thought and foundational values for most libraries academic and public. The reason we collect books on all subjects isn’t because we are neutral and just want to represent all points of view. The false neutrality might make it easier to win local political battles, but it’s a value that’s incompatible with another value championed by librarians: intellectual freedom.

Intellectual freedom isn’t a neutral value, but instead one of the constellation of Enlightenment values that support research universities as well as academic and public libraries. In academic libraries, we don’t build extensive collections of the sort Naude envisioned because we’re neutral, or because we think every
idea should have equal representation and be considered equally useful or valid. We build those collections to support the habit of open inquiry and the increase of knowledge. If I buy books promoting totalitarianism, it’s not because I think totalitarianism is right or true, and in fact think it’s utterly imcompatable with the foundational values of libraries in a liberal democracy as well as being an assault on the nature of human beings. To the extent that public libraries serve as the "people’s university," their collections serve the same purpose, to allow at least the possibility of open inquiry even if few take advantage of it. It should clear from examining our country and culture that there are always plenty of people hostile to open inquiry, intellectual freedom, and reading to learn rather than reinforce their prejudices. When those people write books, we collect them so that open minds can be informed about them, not by them, and can test their beliefs against the arguments of those who wish to shut down argument.

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