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Books constitute capital…

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.” — Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorite founders, partly because of his love of books, but also because he had a large hand in guiding the course and development of the United States. He also left his large library of books to help reestablish the Library of Congress collection after the British burned the capital building in 1814, which is an awesome legacy in its own right.

This quote is not directly about libraries. Though Jefferson mentions a “library book,” I have a feeling he means books as part of a collection and this is reinforced when you look at the quote in context; Jefferson is appalled by some tax being levied on books.

However, the spirit of the quote is applicable to libraries and I believe that books as capital is an apt perspective to take when looking at a library collection.

To own a book is to have that knowledge on the ready when ever the need arrives and this is an investment in the future. To have access to a public library would be access to a large amount of capital. This access cannot be underrated: life long learning, job training, job searching, hobbies, health information, etc. As Jefferson mentions, this is sometimes the only capital people have. I have often thought of this as one of the primary values of a public library. If people are to invest in their lives and take responsibility for their future, they must have access to the basic resources that would make that possible. Shutting knowledge behind pay walls makes attempts at self-reliance all but impossible for those without the financial means. When I hear that the library is no longer needed because people can get books from other sources I shudder. If all the library were was a place to get books they might have a point. However, books are not like other commodities; they hold information. Information that can be used in education, innovation, training, and personal well being. This places books and libraries in special consideration for a community.

I wonder how Jefferson’s language could be used in the advocacy of libraries. How would it sound if libraries pitched themselves as intelectual capital investment?


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A public library is the most enduring of memorials…

Mark Twain, 1907

“A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them” — Mark Twain

This quote resonates most profoundly today as many libraries face increasing budgets short falls and the rise of eBooks. However, the spirit of the quote is still apt and Twain is right in singling out the library as being something whose purpose and value endure despite the passage of time and the ravishes of war. Libraries exist not just to provide access to information but to preserve information. Many local artifacts find their way to public libraries and archives and wouldn’t exist or be publicaly avaible if not for the library. While books may go out of print due to low demand or expiring copyright, libraries hold on to these materials as long as possible, hoping that a reader may stumble upon it while browsing.

What are your thougths on Twain’s quote? How does it reflect on the status of public libraries today?

*As a side note, I am hoping this will become a regular feautre: Quotes to Muse. I’ll locate a quote about libraries (usually from a person of note) and muse on it. And you’re thoughts are always welcome.

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