Libraries In The [Not So] Contemporary Crisis


Something new at the LOC caught my eye. As part of the "Freedom's
Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953
collection, there's a really neat speech by former Librarian Of Congress
Archibald MacLeish.

"clerks, businessmen, and laborers using the library
in an "ordinary good library town" amount altogether to less than a fifth of an
undetermined portion of 15 percent of the population. This figure, says Dr.
Munthe, "is amazingly low." One admires his restraint.

Though he wrote this in 1939 you'd never know it. MacLeish held his position from 1939 to 1944 when he left to become assistant
secretary of state. He seems like quite an
interesting fellow. The speech is below, or on the LOC Site.





Librarian of Congress






I have known for some months
that I was going to have the honor of speaking to you this evening. But it was
not until 5 days ago that I learned what I was expected to say. Five days ago I
was sitting more or less comfortably at a luncheon table in an Annapolis hotel,
with my attention wholly given to the ice cream, when the learned and
distinguished gentleman on my left informed me that the new Librarian of
Congress was on the point of rising and delivering a speech. When I asked him
what the new Librarian of Congress was on the point of rising and delivering a
speech about, he said, “That’s easy. There is only one thing these people want
to know about you. They want to know why on earth you did it.�

It is an interesting question.
Or rather, it is two interesting questions. The first is a question interesting
to that minority— an excessively small minority if the sales of my books are
correctly reported—which likes to read my verse. To these rare people—rare in
every sense of the term—the question means “Why on earth did you take a job as
librarian which will leave you little or no time for your own work?� The second
question is a question interesting apparently to a very much larger number of my
fellow citizens, but interesting in a somewhat different way. When the New York
Herald Tribune asked the new Librarian of Congress why on earth he did it, the
New York Herald Tribune was not concerned for the unwritten verse of A. Mac
Leish. The question as the Herald Tribune asked it meant, “Why on earth did you
take a job for which you are so patently unfitted?�

But interesting though the
question is I doubt if I shall attempt to answer it. There are two persuasive
reasons. As asked by the Herald Tribune the question is not answerable-and is
not meant to be. As asked by the readers of my books it is answer able only at
the cost of a personal history which you would find both long and dull.

There is, however, a question
under this question, or within this question, or behind this question, which I
should like to try to answer. It is a question addressed not to me but to all
men of responsibility. And it is a question which concerns not a particular
librarian but the librarians of the Nation.

If you object that I have been
a librarian for 2 weeks only and that I know nothing about libraries and that I
should therefore not attempt to talk about libraries, I can only reply that the
first statement is true, and that the second statement is true, but that the
third statement is not true. For some months the librarians of the country have
been talking quite freely about me without knowing anything about me. It is only
fair that I should reciprocate.

Moreover, ignorance has never
stopped the mouths of lecturers. On the contrary, American notions of American
poetry are almost wholly formed by people who, if they spoke only out of
knowledge, would not speak at all. For one Louis Untermeyer who will patiently
present to his audiences the important poetry of our generation in this
country—the poetry of Pound and Eliot and Sand burg and Frost and Cummings and
Crane—there are a hundred enlighteners of the people who not only do not
understand the greater part of the work of these poets but are not even certain,
of their own knowledge, that it exists.

There is no doubt that I am
ignorant of American libraries. American writers generally are unaware of
American libraries except as imposing frontages on important streets, and the
fault, I may add, is not altogether with the writers. But ignorant though I am,
I have several precedents for speech. And I have also a compelling reason—the
reason more compelling than any other—the reason of time.

Our age, as many men have
noticed, is an age characterized by the tyranny of time. Never more than at this
moment was that tyranny evident. Those of us who are concerned, for whatever
reason, with the preservation of the civilization and the inherited culture of
this Nation find ourselves in a situation in which time is running out not like
the sand in a glass but like the blood in an opened artery. There is still time
left to us. But we can fore see and foresee clearly the moment when there will
be none.

I do not like epigrammatic
condensations of history. I do not like analyses of life which present its
situations on the brutal balance of an “either� and an “or.� But it seems to me
no less than exact to say that the situation which now confronts us in this
country is a situation which must be expressed in just these terms.

We face a situation which has
an “either� and which has an “or,� and we will choose or fail or to choose
between them. Whichever we do, we will have chosen. For the failure to choose in
the world we live in is itself a choice.

The “either,� as I see it, is
the education of the people of this country. The “or� is fascism. We will either
educate the people of this Republic to know, and therefore to value and
therefore to preserve their own democratic culture, or we will watch the people
of this Republic trade their democratic culture for the nonculture, the
obscurantism, the superstition, the brutality, the tyranny which is overrunning
eastern and central and southern Europe.

Others, I will admit, see the
alternatives in different terms. Six and seven years ago at the bottom of the
depression, American intellectuals saw the American progress as a race between
economic reform and violent revolution. Economics, as you will recall, was then
the one, the true religion which explained everything. If you made the economic
machine operate, you made everything operate; if you didn’t make the economic
machine operate, everything collapsed. The “either� in those days was economic
salvation; the “or� was social ruin. That, however, was before Herr Hitler had
demonstrated that men could be led against their economic interests as well as
against their spiritual interests if the propaganda were good enough.

Another and a still popular
definition of the American alternatives was, and is, the definition which puts
Americanism on one side and a conspiracy of evil on the other. The nature of the
conspiracy depends on the angle of observation. To certain good Americans the
conspirators are the Communists. There was, and there still is, some
disagreement as to what a Communist is (and some of the disagreement is honest),
but there is no disagreement as to the general theory. The theory is that
America is all right and the Americans are all right and everything else would
be all right if only the Communists could be prevented from spreading their
insidious propaganda and wrecking the country. It is not, I think you will agree
a very flattering picture of America despite the fact that it is a picture
offered by those who are loudest in their protestations of love for the country.
It implies that the American ism of the rest of the Americans is so shaky and
insecure, and the appeal to them of Communist dogma so seductive, that only by
stopping American ears with legal wax and strapping American arms with legal
thongs can American democracy be preserved. I for one have never been impressed
by the sincerity of those whose eagerness to save American democracy is so great
that they would gladly destroy all the American guaranties of freedom to ask,
freedom to answer, freedom to think, and freedom to speak, which make American
democracy democratic. I more than half suspect that it is not America but some
other institution, something very different, something very much smaller, very
much less admirable, these people really wish to save.

But the self-appointed
guardians of America have not been the only ones to see the American situation
as a conspiracy of the forces of evil. The people they hate most, the Communists
themselves, take exactly the same position. They take it, however, with this
difference: That the conspiracy as the Communists sees it is a conspiracy of
evil persons from the other end of the political rainbow. The Communist
conspirators are conspirators who meet in bankers’ dens furnished with
black-leather armchairs and boxes of Habana stogies to plot the ruin of the

The shallowness and romanticism
of both these pictures of the contemporary crisis are obvious. No one of I
intelligence who really thinks about it believes for one moment that American
democracy is endangered by conspiracies—least of all by conspiracies like these.
If there is any danger in this direction, it is the danger introduced by those
who talk about these alleged conspiracies; not by those who theoretically take
part. For the only effect of such romantic talk is to distract the attention of
the citizens from the actual situation. Those who shout that America is
threatened by the “reds� prevent a certain number of their fellow citizens from
considering soberly and quietly what it is that really threatens America. And
those, on the other side, who attribute all our dangers to a Wall Street
conspiracy to corrupt the Army and take over the Government, divert the minds of
their listeners from the much less romantic but much more disturbing truth.

For the truth is that the
threat to free culture and democratic civilization in the United States is the
threat not of any person and not of any group of persons but of a condition.
Those who, like myself, assert that the threat to a free culture and a
democratic civilization in this country is the threat of fascism do not mean by
that word what the Communist Party meant by it, or pretended to mean by it,
before the Russo-German pact. Those who, like myself, assert that the threat to
democratic civilization in this country is the threat of fascism mean that the
culture of the Republic is threatened by the existence in the United States of
the kind of situation which has produced fascism elsewhere, and that that
situation in the United States has already given indications, human and other,
of developing in the known direction. In the same way those who say that the
alternative to fascism is education do not mean that democracy can be saved by
educating the people to see conspirators under the bed, but that democracy can
be saved by educating the people to value the kind of life democracy makes

The situation which has
produced fascism elsewhere, and which threatens to produce fascism here, is a
situation with which education can deal, because it is a situation which failure
of education has created. The situation which produced fascism in Germany and in
Italy, and which threatens to produce fascism here, is a situation the
historical background of which is clear enough. The industrial revolution, with
its need for specialized labor, created a new economic class, the so-called
lower middle class, above and distinct from the masses of the people who labor
with their hands. The capitalist money system, with its tendency to squeeze
society into pyramidal forms, froze this new-made class into the social order.
The result was to suspend a great mass of people in a kind of limbo just above
brute labor, just below comfort and decency and self-respect. Freed on the one
side from the discipline of labor by the hand, they were excluded on the other
from the discipline of labor by the head. Deprived on the one side of the
realism, the hard-headedness, the piety, the traditional human wisdom, the salt
sense, the kindness of those who labor the earth and the earth’s metals with
their bodies, they were equally deprived on the other of that different
kindness, that different knowledge, that different wisdom of those whose life is
in the mind.

They were, in other words, a
class for which the old education of habit and custom had been broken, and for
which a new education of intelligence and reason had not been supplied. Fascism
is the image of that fact. When this class, driven to revolt by the failures of
the economic system which had created it, put forward its leaders—its Mussolinis
and its Hitlers—it conducted itself precisely as a class so deserted by the
culture of its society might be expected to conduct itself.

The reason why fascism is so
brutal, so vulgar, so envious, so superstitious, so childish, so shrewd, is that
these are the characteristics of a social class excluded from the moral and
emotional and intellectual traditions of its society. The reason why fascism
makes flags and parades its symbols is that no other symbols are moving to those
who have not been allowed to inherit the culture of their past. The reason why
makes war and hate its aim is that those out of whose misery fascism is created
are men incapable of imagining any other ends except the ends of hate and war.

But the fact, the evident fact,
the fact which must at all times be held in view in the United States, is the
fact that fascism is the image of a condition, not the invention of a man, and
that the condition which has created fascism in Europe may very easily create
fascism here, unless we act, and act now, to prevent it. And the question, the
always asking question, the question which history presents to us, and will
continue to present to us, no matter how we close our eyes or turn our minds
away, is the question how we shall act? Shall we turn our attention to the war
in Europe and do what we can to encourage those who are fighting fascism there?
Shall we organize patriotic displays at home and punish those who preach fascism
directly or indirectly here? Or shall we, as honestly as we can and as directly
as we can and as effectively as we can, attempt to change by education the
condition from which fascism results?

To my mind, there is no doubt
as to the answer we should give. I am aware, I think, of some, at least, of the
difficulties. I am aware that the immediate forces which drive the
intellectually and culturally dispossessed into fascism are economic forces and
that education is not an altogether adequate answer to those who ask for a
chance to work usefully and creatively and to fulfill their lives. I am aware
also that there are people in the United States who do not wish to admit that
there are large numbers of their fellow citizens who have been excluded from the
American tradition and the American culture. But I think, notwithstanding these
difficulties and objections and many others, that we have no choice but to make
use of the one effective weapon we know ourselves to possess. If we respect
prejudice because it calls itself patriotism, we are poor patriots. If we wait
for the economic restoration of a world at war, we will wait too long. As things
are, in the world as it is, we can either attempt to educate the people of this
country—all the people of this country—to the value of the democratic tradition
they have inherited, and so admit them to its enjoyment, or we can watch some of
the people of this country destroy that tradition for all the rest.

It is this issue, as I see it,
which is presented to American libraries, for it is upon American libraries that
the burden of this education must fall. It cannot fall upon the schools. There
is no longer time to await the education of a new generation which will come in
due course to a more enlightened maturity. It cannot be left to the newspapers
or the magazines, however earnest their protestations of honesty and
disinterestedness. There are honest publishers, but there are no disinterested
publishers and there never will be.

It cannot, even more obviously,
be left to the moving pictures or the radio. The radio’s notion of
disinterestedness is equal time to both sides, regardless of the sides; the
moving picture’s notion of disinterestedness is silence. But this burden can be
entrusted to the libraries. The libraries and the libraries alone can carry it.
The libraries alone are capable of acting directly upon the present adult
generation. The libraries alone are staffed by people whose disinterestedness is
beyond suspicion. And though there are occasional directors of libraries and
occasional boards of library trustees who will stoop to the exclusion of books
which offend their social or political or economic preconceptions—books, let us
say, like The Grapes of Wrath—the directors and trustees of libraries are in
general men with the highest sense of their duties to their institutions and
their country. The libraries, in brief, are the only institutions in the United
States capable of dealing with the con temporary crisis in American life in
terms and under conditions which give promise of success. They are the only
institutions in American life capable of opening to the citizens of the Republic
acknowledge of the wealth and richness of the culture which a century and a half
of democratic life has produced.

That fact is a fact which
should properly fill the librarians of this country with a sense of pride. But
it is a fact also which should fill them with a sense of responsibility. For at
the present moment, as librarians themselves have been the first to admit, they
are not opening that knowledge and that understanding to the citizens of the
Republic. The American Library Association has this year published a small but
most important, as well as most readable, study of American librarianship by
Wilhelm Munthe, director of the University Library at Oslo, in which the
achievements of American libraries in this direction are analyzed. According to
such studies and surveys as he found available, Dr. Munthe concludes that in “an
ordinary good library town� the library card holders comprise some 25 to 30
percent of the population; that half of these are school children; that of the
remaining adult card holders “a large portion never use their cards�; that of
the remainder of that remainder 50 percent are high-school students, 21 percent
are housewives, 2% percent are businessmen, 5 percent are clerks, 5 percent are
skilled labor, and 5 percent are unskilled labor. In other words, clerks,
businessmen, and laborers using the library in an “ordinary good library town�
amount altogether to less than a fifth of an undetermined portion of 15 percent
of the population. This figure, says Dr. Munthe, “is amazingly low.� One admires
his restraint.

The truth seems to be that
American libraries have executed magnificently the first half of their
assignment, as that assignment was defined some 50 years ago by my distinguished
predecessor in the Library of Congress. They have solved with great brilliance
the problem of getting books for readers. They have developed practices of
accession, of cataloging, of classification, which enable them to secure books
intelligently and to make them readily avail able to inquirers. But they have
not executed the second half of their assignment. They have not learned how to
get readers for books. The typical American library borrower can still be de
scribed by a friendly but informed and intelligent European in Dr. Munthe’s
words: “A woman, of 23% years, with 3 years of high school, who borrows in the
course of a month four modern novels of no particular worth, one really good
novel, and one popular biography or entertaining travel account.� And who are
her authors As Dr. Munthe tells us: “We can safely say that they are not the
ones whose names will some day be cut in marble on the face of library
buildings. They are people like Berta Ruck, Zane Grey, and Kathleen Norris. * *
* Authors with trouble some or radical ideas are definitely avoided.�

If the learned doctor is right,
the libraries of America have a tremendous distance to go before they can feel
that they have found the readers their books deserve. But it is not a journey
they must make alone. Behind them, far back but still livingly there, are the
men who created the American library system—men like the man in whose memory
this day is celebrated. Beside them are the many still alive—writers, teachers,
lovers of American liberty—to whom the education of the people for the
preservation of their culture is the best and most hopeful undertaking open to
our time: The many who believe as I do that we can either educate the people of
this Republic to know and therefore to value and therefore to preserve their own
democratic culture, or we can watch the people of this Republic trade their
democratic culture for the ignorance and the prejudice and the hate of which the
just and proper name is fascism.

These are the alternatives our
time presents us. They are not alternatives which will remain forever open. We
may accept them now or lose them now. “History,� says Wystan Auden— “History to
the defeated May say Alas, but cannot help nor pardon."

History can say Alas to this
American civilization of ours as well as to any other. Unless we save it. Unless
we act, not only with our words but with our minds, to save it.


Macleish was a fascinating guy. Curious mention of a meeting with Bob Dylan (in his bio, "Chronicles"), whom he asked to set some of his poems to music.