The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Children of Troy

What a thing, this link that’s being passed around, posted on Boing Boing and tweeted all over the place! The letters to the children of Troy: congratulatory messages solicited from writers, politicians, and other famous folk to commemorate the opening of the first stand-alone library in Troy, Michigan, way back in 1971.

Isaac Asimov’s index-card letter has gotten a lot of play:

E. B. White’s speaks more seriously to me, and mostly for his last line:

But it’s the letter from Clifton Wharton, then-president of MSU, that strikes me most deeply. You wouldn’t be able to guess just by reading it, I don’t think—it’s solid, but not soaring:

On the surface, this whole collection is such a cute little thing, so easy to write off: just a bunch of folksy letters sent to a new library in a suburban town. (By the way: who would even send such letters today? Or ask for them?) Lovely. Let’s move on to the next link.

But here’s the thing. I grew up in Troy, Michigan; this library, the subject of all this celebration, was my library. I spent a significant fraction of the mid-80s and early 90s in there, migrating from the Choose Your Own Adventure books on the spinning wire racks to the science fiction and fantasy novels on the long low shelves. I can still draw you a map of the place, and roughly plot Dewey decimal ranges. I can still remember the mechanical swish of the automatic door, the cold AC in the foyer, the lignin smell. I can remember whole sensory macros: my dad pulling the car up to the curb; me hopping out, hustling to the entrance; the whoosh-thunk of books going down the after-hours chute; the turn, the sprint.

And here’s the other thing. I went to school at Michigan State and grew into myself on the campus that Clifton Wharton helped build. I walked past the building marked with his name hundreds of times—maybe more. Maybe a thousand. And I mean, my god: I met Tim Carmody on that campus!

So this little correspondence cracked like lightning in my head. I mean, it’s no big deal; it’s a small thing, it’s a letter, they were both in Michigan, it makes perfect sense. And yet, and yet. Clifton Wharton, president of Michigan State University, and Marguerite Hart, librarian of Troy: a tangible thread connected them. And as soon as you realize that, you can’t help but imagine the other threads, the other connections, that all together make a net, woven before you were born, before you were even dreamed of—a net to catch you, support you, lift you up. Libraries and universities, books and free spaces—all for us, all of us, the children of Troy everywhere.

What fortune. Born at the right time.

So anyway, Wharton’s letter is my favorite. But close on its heels is the long one from then-Hawaii governor John Burns. It’s a little dorky and preachy in parts, but near the end, he writes:

If you are a child reading this, you should go home and make a Hawaiian flower lei—you get a needle and thread and sew the flowers together into a ring—and put it around the neck of the City of Troy librarian. It will tell her that you are grateful for the gift of books and of wisdom and of aloha found in the libraries of the world, and especially—for you—in Troy. And if she laughs and cries at the same time, pay no attention. That’s the way librarians always act when they’re very happy and grateful […]

And it’s not the librarian laughing and crying at the same time here; it’s me. Every time I’ve read these letters, it’s me.


Wilson Miner says…

Lovely. Those sensory macros also unlocked some memories for me, also starting with the ride in my dad’s car. I think new libraries in a certain size of town must have been built all around the same time, and have the same kind of whooshing doors and the same smell, and the same carpet, and the same lingering power over us who were children just before the dawn of the Internet.

sherada collins says…

I remember sitting in the “stacks” at the Plymouth Library wondering how I would ever finish all the Little House on the Prairie books…but I did. That library is now a space ship. Check it out. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Thanks Margaret Dunning and all the other supporters.

I was really happy for you, b/c this is a beautiful post and collection and I feel like *I* have a connection to that library just from talking to you about libraries over the years and then. ..

What fortune. Born at the right time.

This made me unbelievably sad, because I suddenly have this sinking feeling that our generation’s children will not have the same connection with public spaces and public enterprise and civic community that we had. It’s not really a feeling based on evidence, just a cumulative reaction to closed parks, trimmed library hours, etc., etc..

Nodding my head to Saheli’s “beautiful post and collection”. But, I’m more optimistic about what awaits our generation’s children, at least for the time being, because:

(1) My family lives at the public libraries. Wherever we go, even on vacation, we find a library. I often say that we collect visits to libraries. While hours might be trimmed or in danger of trimming, libraries are incredibly busy these days. Here in San Diego, public outcry has saved the libraries from proposed cuts. My daughter collects her library receipts and had them ready to share at City Hall as evidence of “books that she would probably not have been able to read had it not been for the libraries.” (In the end, she didn’t need to do that, but she and her brother did need to speak to City Council about cuts to the public pools and swimming programs.)

(2) As far as public spaces go, there seems to be a renewed interest in Situationist thinking, especially through urban computing. For me, that’s like having a library spread over the entire urban fabric. (Some references collected here, though you might start with Adam Greenfield’s “The overarching vision“.)

Yikes Greco, I think I just fell into a massive internet productivity hole from Adam Greenfield’s site. Thanks!

I know that there exist examples one way, and counter-examples the other way. There’s plenty of great and vibrant stuff going on in the field of community works and libraries. My regret is more for a lost confidence that society as a whole was going to use the mechanism of being organized in governments to do great things for itself. It may still do that, but I don’t think our kids are going to be nearly as confident of that as I was.

“Letters to Children on the Occasion of the Closing of Their Library”.

Necessary. Not because the pessimism and anger would echo the hope and spirit of these letters; but because now more than ever, we all (not just children) need some advice and reflection on how to proceed.

I like how Rob’s #2 above almost begins to heed this call to action, Adam. Yes: it’s not about saving all the libraries, preserving them in state. (At least I don’t think so.) It’s about mapping new spaces & weaving new threads, a new net.

I am not exactly nostalgic for past forms, but for past enthusiasms and the wideness of scope of past endeavors–not on the part of the patrons, but on the part of the voting populace. I felt like when I was a kid people were still enthusiastic about the idea of public endeavors built for the community by the community, and forced to be truly public forever by the then still honorable imprimatur of ‘government.’ Now, miniature public works all seem like hopeless partisan and increasingly impractical pipe dreams. There’s something sort of righteous and possessed by all about innovations and endeavors that are truly, legally public–not nonprofits, not social enterprises, not loose collectives or online communities. I’m all ears on how to proceed, but everything from our evolution into a low tax country to our excessive inequality makes me wonder if much of our class’s obsession with innovation is not really going to serve the whole as much as it could.

What a tremendous post. Thank you.

I “rediscovered” Marguerite Hart’s gift to us — this tremendous snap shot of history, this homage to libraries — while arranging the papers of the Library in anticipation of a possible closing. The Troy City Council has said that the Library will close if an August 2, 2011, millage does not pass.

These letters speak to a different time — a more compassionate time — when we understood the need for public reading, public libraries. A time so unlike now, when there is no sense of public good, no sense that we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Let us hope that common sense prevails in this City and that the millage is approved. If not, the lessons from these letter writers will have been written in vain.

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