“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?