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 by William H. Benson

April 25, 2002

     Although technically under Congressional authority, the Library of Congress serves as our nation’s national library.  Its contents include books in all languages, a perfect Gutenberg Bible, Presidential Papers from Washington to Coolidge, Chinese and Japanese and Russian memorabilia, paintings, photographs, music recordings, etc.  It is truly a national treasure, a depository of knowledge. 

     Standing at 101 Independence Avenue on Capitol Hill, its three buildings cover 71 acres of floor space and each were named after Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.  The Librarian of Congress oversees the Library’s day-to-day operations, and is appointed by the President with the Senate’s approval.  The poet Archibald MacLeish served as the Librarian in the early forties, and the bow-tied popular historian Daniel Boorstin served from 1975 until 1987.

     Congress initially funded the Library on April 24, 1800 with a $5000 appropriation and housed it in a room of the Capitol; however, on August 24, 1814 the British burnt the Capitol, and in so doing destroyed the Library.  To re-establish it, Thomas Jefferson in 1815 offered to sell his 6000-volume collection to Congress for $23,950, and a very reluctant Congress agreed.  So the Library had a new birth.

     Also situated on Capitol Hill just north of the John Adams Building stands another marble construction, another library–the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Henry Clay Folger, a former President of the Standard Oil Company of New York earmarked his entire fortune toward the establishment of this library, dedicated primarily to the British playwright.

     William Shakespeare died in 1616 on April 23, his 52nd birthday, for presumably he was born on April 23, 1564.  He wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and five poems during a 25-year writing career in London.  In 1623, seven years after his passing, two of his old friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell gathered his works into a single volume–the First Folio. 

     Since then writers have written extensively about Shakespeare, and collectors have gathered memorabilia, such as playbills and promptbills and account books, from his era.  It was Henry Folger’s dream to gather all of these into a single library.  Today the Folger Library contains 79 copies of the 1623 First Folio edition, plus many of the quarto editions of individual plays.

     And so a library devoted to Shakespeare stands just a stone’s throw away from the legislature;  every other author has a niche of shelf space in the vast Library of Congress, but William Shakespeare has his own special place.

     Last month at a used book sale, I purchased two books–Joseph Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  Bronowski observes almost reverently man’s crawl out of ignorance, focusing on those miraculous moments when science overcame superstition, prejudice and fear and emerged supreme.

     On the other hand Bloom finds deplorable the current state of American intellectual life, and he severely judges the decline and decay of the typical American’s capacity to reflect upon life’s larger and more important questions.  Whereas Bronowski tout’s humankind’s previous victories, Bloom sadly comments upon today’s failures in the eternal battle against ignorance. 

     In virtually every community across America, stands a library, that dividing point between wisdom and ignorance.  Their doors are frequently open, and they charge nothing to enter.  And with even the most modest mental effort anyone can find inside the means to overcome their own lack of understanding and at the same time increase their capacity to reflect upon good and evil, truth and falsity, tolerance and prejudice, knowledge and superstition.

     Shakespeare’s Hamlet said it this way, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”

     And you can read all about it and much more in the library.