One consequence of metaphors describing Harvard’s Public Library is of course that they convey different things to different people. Case in point. The Harvard Press’s emotionally charged words in a recent editorial describing the library as one of Harvard’s crown jewels. To be sure, few would dispute that the library is a magnificent structure set off by the backdrop of the glittering pearl of Bare Hill Pond — perhaps one of Harvard’s best naturally occurring crown jewels!
Few would dispute that the library symbolizes Harvard’s rich history, wealth, privilege, and no less a community achievement. Few would dispute that it is a precious resource with high intrinsic value and utility. Unlike crown jewels, however, our library does actually incur high and increasing costs of ownership. Those brave souls of Harvard who, in their service of the public good, dare to give voice to question and enquire of those costs risk a fate, at least in the columns of the Harvard Press, akin to that of the brave souls of history who challenged the very monarchs whose heads the original crown jewels adorned. Think Tower of London and all that jolly stuff. (In 1649, England’s Oliver Cromwell considered the crown jewels redundant. He had the entire lot sold and melted down into coin).
Cynicism at monarchist metaphors aside our public library is exactly that — public. Like our DPW, public safety and our schools, they all require increasing amounts of money just to function. When that scarce commodity is available in decreasing quantities we would all do well to unite as suggested in the words of one of our Founding Fathers…
Abraham Lincoln once said “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
Surely, we have the collective dignity to ask the toughest of questions. More importantly, we surely have the capacity to debate with honesty, integrity and mutual respect. If we do that, just maybe, we will never have to ponder melting down our crown jewels — howsoever we, the public, choose to define them.