Blankley: What is a Library?

Submitted by John Blankley, former member of the BET and Greenwich Library trustee

Quick, you must know the Dewey decimal system, but can you define it exactly? Used throughout the world it classifies library books into ten basic groups. Go to our wonderful Greenwich Library and check it out, well, when we’re past the pandemic and life returns to normal!

The Library as it is today goes well beyond anything that Mr. Dewey could have imagined and with its current renovation is redefining the very concept of what a library is. But for a moment let us review some history and think more widely about libraries and their significance. For example, a university is a seat of learning, but what is at the heart of the university? – its library. It is where truth and knowledge are stored. And so, for a community or society at large, the library is the focal point of conserved wisdom, the place where works of fact and fiction are kept for the benefit of all and the profit of posterity.

Such sentiments state no more than the obvious for the civilized mind. Not for nothing did Andrew Carnegie in his years of benefaction give money to the building and creation of libraries around the world. The richest man in the world, as he was at the time, remembered his early years of poverty in Dunfermline in Scotland and as his gift to humanity devoted his charity to libraries so that books and learning would be available to all classes of society. For example, in my case, the first library I remember was the local municipal library in the working-class town in the north of England where I was brought up. It was a quiet, almost hallowed space. And donated by Andrew Carnegie.

Another visionary in the world of libraries was Thomas Bodley who founded the library at my alma mater, Oxford – the great and venerable institution known, eponymously, as the Bodleian. It was the 1590’s and in the wake of Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries half a century earlier Bodley was aware of the loss of the monastic libraries but greater still was his ambition to recreate the great library of Alexandria, which early in the Christian era had fallen into neglect and was eventually destroyed. These were big themes and a leap indeed from the municipal library back home in Yorkshire. Here in the Bodleian were books dating from centuries past that by their very existence and preservation in that magnificent building (four copies of Magna Carta are kept here) spoke of the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors – knowledge that today we can so easily take for granted. Here resides truth as much as knowledge, learning that leads to mankind’s advance and prosperity.

However, the knowledge in books is also power and therein lies the impetus for a darker impulse, the destruction of libraries and book burning, acts motivated by religion, politics and culture. The current director of the Bodleian has just written a book on this subject, cataloguing everything from the smashing of Assyrian tablets, to the first emperor of China who had all Confucius’ works burned, to Nazi book burning, to the destruction of three million volumes in Bosnia’s National Library in Sarajevo in 1992, to the targeting of libraries in Yemen today.

Then there are librarians themselves as heroes. Take the librarians in Vilnius in Lithuania who literally risked their lives to save national documents and archives from the Nazis then had to do the same thing all over again when the communists took over. Librarians in Timbuktu in 2012 saved priceless manuscripts from jihadist insurgents and earned themselves the title “Badass Librarians!” Then there is the predecessor of Bodley’s current Librarian who in the 1660’s hid the works of Bunyan and Milton from the book burners after the Restoration of the monarchy, most notably John Milton’s Areopagitica, the famous peon to reason and the freedom of speech.

But let’s move on from these depredations of history and talk about our very own Greenwich Library. The director of our Library, Barbara Ormerod-Glynn, will thankfully never have to face the historical challenges I’ve described and can continue to devote herself to new programs and the ongoing improvement of this iconic institution, where she has served for 18 years, the last 6 as director. She and her team have successfully guided us through the digital revolution, given us access to music, movies and the arts and thanks to support from donors and the town, the Library has grown exponentially since my wife and I first arrived in town almost 40 years ago. I now have the honor to serve as a trustee during the Library’s next step forward: what we call “ReImagine Greenwich Library.” After an $18 million renovation project we will have a new theater, a new innovation lab and new meeting facilities that will make the Library a veritable cultural center in our town. Dewey and Bodley would wonder at this modern incarnation of what a library can be. Join us for the virtual celebration later this month and see for yourselves.

John Blankley
Former member of the BET and Greenwich Library trustee