Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress


On History


Archibald MacLeish in 1944. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Today brought welcome news that the New York Public Library has abandoned its plan to “renovate” (i.e., reduce and/or ruin) its research flagship at Bryant Park, on Forty-Second Street. The renovation would have meant removing the stacks beneath the main reading room, thus displacing an untold number of books and research materials; the plan met with derision among scholars and authors, and a piece in the Times last year by Michael Kimmelman made an elegant case against it.

And wouldn’t you know it—today is also Archibald MacLeish’s birthday. His 1974 Art of Poetry interview is great reading, but given the news of the day, and given his role as the Librarian of Congress—a position he held from 1939 to 1944—it seems fitting to peruse his 1940 essay, “The Librarian and the Democratic Process,” which addresses … well, not many of the same issues at stake in the NYPL’s renovation controversy. It was 1940; the world was on the brink of war, and digitization was not a going concern for librarians. But the piece does find MacLeish asking, in a sweeping, stentorian tone: What is a librarian supposed to do, anyway?

Mr. Andrew Carnegie is cited as holding the opinion that the purpose of a library is to “improve the masses. “Mr. Henry E. Legler supplies the view that the purpose of a library is to “furnish the ambitious artisan with an opportunity to rise.” Mr. F. A. Hutchins is authority of the proposition that the purpose of a library is to give “wholesome employment to all classes for those idle hours which wreck more lives than any other cause.” It is at least doubtful to my mind whether librarians would accept these descriptions of their usefulness today … To provide harmless recreation in competition with the street and the saloon is not a profession: if it were, Hollywood would be a profession from producers and directors down to ticket takers and ushers in plum-covered regimentals. To give wholesome employment for those idle hours which wreck the young is not a profession … definitions such as these taken together with the contemporary state of mind would seem to establish the fact that no generally accepted or acceptable definition of the function of librarianship has yet been found.

Oh, for the forties, when Hollywood was prima-facie valueless and a good bit of rhetorical puffery—the bloat of “no generally accepted or acceptable definition of the function of” would never fly today—was par for the course. Still, as the NYPL dispute attests, MacLeish’s central question remains a good one. What we expect from our libraries remains unclear.

In the seventies, MacLeish wrote more about his library philosophy in “The Premise of Meaning,” which he originally published in The American Scholar, and which the Scholar, in a rather unscholarly turn, doesn’t even mention online, let alone reproduce. A library, he wrote,

is an extraordinary thing … It is not a sort of scholarly filling station where students of all ages can repair to get themselves supplied with a tankful of titles … On the contrary it is an achievement in and of itself—one of the greatest of human achievements because it combines and justifies so many others … But what is more important in a library than anything else … is the fact that it exists. For the existence of a library, the fact of its existence, is, in itself and of itself, an assertion—a proposition nailed like Luther’s to the door of time. By standing where it does … at the center of our intellectual lives—with its books in a certain order on its shelves and its cards in a certain structure in their cases, the true library asserts that there is indeed a “mystery of things.” Or, more precisely, it asserts that the reason why the “things” compose a mystery is that they seem to mean, that they fall, when gathered together, into a kind of relationship, of wholeness, as though all these different and dissimilar reports, these bits and pieces of experience, manuscripts in bottles, messages from long before, from deep within, from miles beyond, belonged together and might, if understood together, spell out the meaning which the mystery implies.