Library of Human Imagination
Library of Human Imagination
by William H. Benson
July 2, 2015
In 2002, the multi-millionaire Jay Walker designed and built his Library of Human Imagination. Located in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Walker’s 3,600 square-foot home stores and displays his collection of books—over 50,000 volumes—plus his myriad of museum-quality artifacts. Thus, it is both library and museum. Wired magazine said that “it is the most amazing library in the world,” and after seeing pictures and videos of it, I agree.
First, Walker drew his inspiration for the library’s floor tile from the twentieth-century designer, M. C. Escher. The tile design that Walker created reveals a tumbling, wooden-block pattern that creates a three-dimensional effect. Then, from the floor one can look upwards and see stairs that connect the library’s three levels. Books stand in shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling against the outer walls, but certain of the rarest books are opened and displayed on tables.
Walker’s most stunning effect is his dazzling display of glass throughout the library. Partial glass walls, no more than four-foot tall, surround visitors, who feel as if they are walking through a maze. Walker commissioned artists who then etched the glass walls with specific designs, such as the binary code, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or Chinese symbols. Then, by directing blue, green, red, or yellow lights at the glass, Walker creates an eery, but overpowering sensation.
As for his artifacts, Walker likes to juxtaposition two items. For example, one can see an original copy of Robert Hooke’s book, Micrographia, published in 1665, that listed illustrations of bacteria as seen through a microscope. Nearby stands an early book on dwarfs. Small life forms, and small people.
Then, in a TED Talk, Walker points to a four-foot high scale of a DNA molecule, and beside it sits an Enigma machine used to decode the Nazi’s communications. Walker describes the former as the code for life, and the latter as the code for death.
On another TED Talk, Walker holds up his Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed on Gutenberg’s printing press, but Walker points out that that Bible was not printed for reading, because, “in 1455, nobody could read.” What then prompted the invention of the printing press? Walker answers by holding up a single sheet of printed paper, an indulgence.
To raise money, Walker said, the Church sold a piece of paper that promised the purchaser less time in Purgatory, following his or her death. Once the Church began printing indulgences instead of drafting them by hand, it was like printing money. Walker says, “The religion drove the technology.”
Hanging from the ceiling is an un-launched Sputnik satellite, and also a chandelier from a James Bond movie, Die Another Day. In a case stands a dinosaur’s hefty thigh-bone, and on a table stands a complete skeleton of a juvenile raptor.
A visitor can see both old and new in Walker’s library: a meteorite, a U. S. flag carried to the moon and back, Franklin Roosevelt’s napkin on which he drafted his plan to win the war, a clutch of fossilized dinosaur eggs, a 1535 Coverdale Bible, an edition of Chaucer, and an instruction manual for the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon.
In recent years, Walker acquired an anastatic facsimile copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of the two known to exist. In the early 1840’s, John Jay Smith brought the anastatic technique to America from England. There he had learned to apply chemicals and a copper plate to an original document. The ink from the document would soak onto the copper plate, and then printers could print copies from that copper plate.
It is not certain if Walker’s facsimile was reproduced from the original Declaration of Independence, which would explain the original’s current poor quality, or from a subsequent engraving. Either way, the words on the anastatic copy underscore the intent of the fifty-six Congressmen who signed the document in early July of 1776, that they wished to sever all political allegiance to England’s monarch, King George III. “When in the course of human events,” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident”
In the history of humankind or in the Library of Human Imagination, little is of more importance than independence, the idea that the people should govern themselves, free of a ruling monarch, and do so by forming laws that they all can read and obey. Slavery begins when others tell the people what to do, say, or think, but freedom begins when the people think and behave as they want. Thomas Paine called that simple idea, Common Sense.
In the fifteenth century, indulgences freed people from Purgatory in the after-life, but in the eighteenth century, the Declaration of Independence freed the colonists and gave them permission to create their own government in this life.
Jay Walker, curator at the Library of Human Imagination, said, “We create by surrounding ourselves with stimuli, with history, and with human achievement.” In his library the stimuli includes plates of etched glass bathed in light and colored blue, green, red, or yellow, as well as historical documents. Together they dazzle the imagination. Enjoy the 4th of July!