Saturday, October 5, 2013

Literature, history, philosophy ... community?

I can only afford to spend a week or so in Warren, so I have been spending 10:00 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday at the library and brown-bagging both lunch and dinner. Usually I just pack 2 of everything, wolf half of it down between 1:00 and 1:15, and the rest from 5:30 to 5:45. But after 4 10-hour days in a row and 4 days times 2 of turkey on wheat, this afternoon I allowed myself a full half-hour on the library's front lawn.

I tossed my sandwich to some squirrels, sipped my tea, and people-watched. My eyes followed a young but exhausted-looking female who was pushing two kids in a double stroller, had an infant strapped to her back, and was hollering at a preschooler who had run too far ahead. My eyes followed her up and across Market Street and into the library.

As she entered the building, the swinging doors broke my concentration. It was then that I took a minute to read the inscriptions running across the library's front façade.

Original front entrance to the Warren (PA) Public Library
Directly above the main entrance is:

"LITERATURE
The storehouse of knowledge, the record of civilization. The fulcrum for the lever of progress."


Then, to one side:

"HISTORY
The story of the human race in conflict with nature and with its own elemental passions but ever aspiring."


And to the other side:

"PHILOSOPHY
The thoughts of men about human thinking reasoning and imagining and the real values in human existence."

Then, on the sides of the building are additional inscriptions about biography and religion.

My academic pals no doubt would have a field-day analyzing these phrases. I myself mused over the definition of history which apparently places people and their environments in competition -- I tend to think many of the short-sighted things we do, especially when we extract nonrenewable resources from the Earth, stem from such an attitude about humanity's place in creation.

But critiquing things written in 1915 through a 2013 mindset is as stale as my turkey sandwiches. It's so easy to do that it's already been done a zillion times. So let's take this conversation in two different directions. 

First of all, there is an interesting story behind the inscriptions. Surprisingly, when you consider that Warren Library Association is situated in a small city within a rural county, the architects of the library were Warren and Wetmore of New York, who designed Grand Central Station in New York City and many other notable buildings. Their plans for the Warren's public library allowed for 5 brief inscriptions. It proved surprisingly difficult to identify a series of quotations that were short, meaningful, timeless, and harmonious. Judging from extant correspondence in box 18 of the Wetmore Collection at the Warren County Historical Society, it appears that either the architects or the library board first consulted with John Cotton Dana. Dana, who was then the head of the Newark (New Jersey) Public Library, was widely considered one of the most progressive librarians of his day.

Dana chose to focus on the evolution of speech, language, writing, printing, and libraries. The first two 2 in his suggested series of quotations were:

"Each man once had of nature's moving picture only the narrow glimpse his own eyes gave: speech came at last and told him what others saw."

"With speech came words: the tools of thought, the messengers of knowledge, the crucibles of wisdom and the bonds of  social order."

Then, Dana's suggested inscription for the panel directly above the entrance was: 

"Writing made words visible, held learning fast, bridged space and time, and through world wide knowledge promised world wide peace."

(Awesome, right?)

After that come 2 more:

"Printing bade learning and wisdom knock at every door, made truth immortal and gave each to know himself and his proper task."

"The library gathers learning for learning's increase; sets opinion free that truth may prevail; and asks all men to seek for wisdom."

 
So why isn't THAT on the building today?

One possibility is that Dana's verbiage simply didn't fit within available space. Importantly, Dana felt the phrases "must stand on the building in the order in which I have numbered them." This would have placed the phrases on speech and libraries out of view for many people approaching the building head-on. This said, placement of the inscriptions didn't seem to trouble the architects at that point. In fact, Warren and Wetmore felt Dana's suggestions were "very good indeed" (letter from Warren and Wetmore to Edward D. Wetmore, April 3, 1915).

Mary Weiss, Warren's librarian, also liked Dana's words "very much." She even checked their readability by sharing them with the library's janitor, who "seemed to grasp" their meaning. However, she admitted Dana's language was "a little stilted" and that "no doubt a more simple word could be used here and there" (letter from Mary C. Weiss to Edward D. Wetmore, April 10, 1915). 

Although it appears that Warren and Wetmore initially had no concerns about the length or placement of Dana's words, a problem may have cropped up later. An intriguing letter from library board secretary W. H. Jones to Edward D. Wetmore referred to the architects' "rigid requirements" on the inscriptions' length. There is also a possibility that one or more members of the library's board were not enthused by Dana's suggestions. In the same letter, Jones stated that while one board member preferred Dana's words "provided some changes were made," she was "alone in that opinion" (letter from Jones to Wetmore, May 31, 1915). Finally, in the Wetmore Collection there is a letter from Charles W. Eliot to W. H. Jones. In it, Eliot provided the inscriptions that ultimately appeared on the new library (letter from Eliot to Jones, August 14, 1915). Eliot, who had recently stepped down as the longest-serving President of Harvard University, was apparently well-known for composing verbiage for public buildings and memorials -- there is actually a collection of these writings, published in 1934.

Besides learning about the quotes that ARE, and ones that MIGHT HAVE BEEN, I also find it fun to think of inscriptions that COULD BE. An addition to Warren's public library was built in the 1980s, and the façade of that wing is a blank canvas awaiting our generation's words.

What would you write?

I suppose many of my colleagues would suggest TECHNOLOGY, given how hard we strive to be at the cutting edge of communication and information sciences.

But instead, I would suggest COMMUNITY. Without people and the rewards of positive social relationships, there wouldn't be much meaning to any of the other stuff libraries do. 

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