Libraries and the Enlightenment


from Libraries and the Enlightenment

The philosophical and political principles of the European Enlightenment provide the philosophical foundation of American academic and public libraries. The values of the Enlightenment should seem very familiar to Americans. The Enlightenment belief that scientific investigation of nature and society leads to improvements and progress has been a constant American refrain since the early republic. American political rights are numerous: individual human rights, liberty, democracy, equality, the freedom to believe what you like, behave how you want as long as others are not harmed, study what you want, share your beliefs or insights freely with the world. These rights are commonplaces of American identity. Also derived from the Enlightenment is the belief in the necessity of education in a democratic republic and the obligation of the state to improve the lives of all its citizens, not just the lives of the rich and powerful. This book explores the relationship between the values of the Enlightenment and the development of modern American academic and public libraries.

Chapter I provides an overview of the Enlightenment, both as an historical phenomenon and as an ongoing political project. It explores Enlightenment thought through the work of key eighteenth-century thinkers as well as the work of contemporary historians and philosophers. The chapter investigates both the philosophical or scientific principles of the Enlightenment as well as the political principles and develops an interpretation of the Enlightenment relevant to the history of libraries.

Chapter II traces the influence of the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment on modern academic libraries, especially research libraries. The belief that humans should pursue knowledge for its own sake, subject that knowledge to criticism based on reason and evidence, scientifically investigate nature and culture, and freely publish the results of those investigations provided the impetus to found modern research universities and along with them the academic libraries necessary for their operation. Because academic libraries are by nature adjuncts to their institutions of higher education, much of Chapter II explores the history of higher education and the birth of the research university and the research library necessary for its operation. We move from the Enlightenment to the German Idealist movement and its influence on the founding of the University of Berlin, the world’s first true research university. Then we follow the German Model of the research university as it slowly makes it way to the United States and significantly changes the nature of higher education and academic libraries in America.

Chapter III explores the influence of the political principles of the Enlightenment on the American public library movement. The knowledge created through unlimited research should benefit everyone. Useful knowledge should improve the lives of the citizens, because in a democratic republic all citizens are supposed to educate themselves to make wise political decisions, and a just society both educates its citizens and seeks to improve their lives. These goals derived from Enlightenment thought motivated the foundation of American public libraries. We see how a belief in the necessity of educating citizens of a free republic led to the establishment of public libraries throughout the United States, and how the shifting purpose of these public libraries has provided continual fodder for debate.

Chapter IV examines several examples of the dream of a universal library, including the Library at Alexandria, a seventeenth century French treatise on developing a research library, the Encyclopédie project in eighteenth century France, H.G. Well’s idea for a “World Brain,” Vannevar Bush and the Memex (a machine similar to but predating the modern personal computer), the influence of Google, and the recent call for a Digital Public Library of America.

This work is not a comprehensive history of its subject by any means. Any one of the chapters could expand into a book of its own, or even several books. Throughout this book, I have tried to focus attention on foundational texts and critical moments in the history of American libraries. In the following chapters, we see the development of the Enlightenment during the eighteenth century and the emergence of a coherent set of values centering on human reason and freedom. The values of the Enlightenment in turn provided the inspiration and philosophical foundation for American academic and public libraries, as well as the universal library they can potentially create. As American libraries developed, their mission to provide information equally to everyone rose in importance, and libraries as systems of cooperation and sharing moved ever closer to such universal access. This trend logically culminates in a universal library available to all, or what we might consider the Universal Library of the Enlightenment. The dream of a universal library is as old as the Library at Alexandria, and received fresh attention from the Enlightenment forward, as we will see. The Universal Library of the Enlightenment could actually exist, but only in cooperation with American libraries.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum is the Philosophy & Religion Librarian at Princeton University