Josh Ritter on Libraries

At a time when many question the utility of libraries, musician and writer Josh Ritter offers a robust and beautifully expressed defense of their enduring value in the age of and His words can be found, fittingly enough, in Know the Past, Find the Future, a collection of essays marking the centennial of the New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue flagship in 2011. Here is an excerpt:

“There is the reading, of course. That is the given reason for going to a library.

“But I think that there’s another. I think that sometimes we go to libraries simply to be surrounded by and reminded of the enormity of human experience.

“Wandering down the aisles, our hands trailing absently from spine to spine, there are moments in a library when the collected and collective voices of our entire human history come crashing down around us like a wave, and, catching us up, prove to us that we are, individually, still a part of something sublime, chaotic, unknowable, and huge. As more and more of our lives are lived down some cyber-age rabbit hole mistaking information-on-demand for human knowledge, it’s a relief at times to walk physically through the jumbles, the conundrums, the mutterings, and shoutings of a million other souls across the centuries and to share in their amazement at the world we live in. It is good to be able to walk in wonder, if not understanding, among the constellations and chemical reactions, shipwrecks, high towers, songbirds, night sounds, saints, pin-up girls, jungle adventurers, and a billion other people and things. It is good to know that others went before us, thought before us, questioned before us, blazed before us, and then winked out, leaving behind their words as proof of their passing.

“Finally, it is good to be reminded by the sheer voluminous presence of all of these searching books that even with all that we think we know, mystery endures and whatever magic there is in life continues to live on, not in our answers, but in our questions.”