The interior of the the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A society’s relationship with its libraries tells us much about the society itself.
When Benjamin Franklin opened the first library in the American colonies, it reflected an Enlightenment openness – actually a thirst – for knowledge. No longer would access to the great books of humankind be the exclusive property of scholars or elites.
The common citizen, whether formally educated or not, could touch and absorb the literature and scholarship of generations.
As a repository of what humankind has come to know, libraries also reflect a nation’s cultural heritage. The Library of Congress in the United States and the National Library of Israel, among the top tier of knowledge institutions globally, provide an entry point to understanding who we are.
They are the repository not only of books, but also manuscripts, objects, photos and other media – in other words, a collage of society and all its parts. And these libraries represent a safe space, where people can gather and think and debate.
Today, such safe spaces are needed more than ever before. Knowledge and culture are under attack in conflict zones, where the quest for power is now accompanied by the destruction of the perceived enemy’s culture and history.
How else to describe what has happened in Afghanistan and Syria with the purposeful and wanton destruction of religious sites?
Or what is happening in UNESCO, with the attempt to erase Israel’s connection to its holiest religious site, notwithstanding centuries of Islamic scholarship specifically connecting the Jewish past to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount?
This is a moment when reason and civil discourse about fundamental issues of culture and religion are most needed, when the safe space of libraries can serve as venues for rational reflection and discourse.
One example of how a library can serve this purpose is the gathering of global public figures at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem in late November on the topic: “The Fate of Secularism – The Sacred and the Profane: Confrontation. Collaboration and Mutual Influence.”
How can state, society and the individual reconcile the apparently contradictory and mutually exclusive spheres of religion and secularism? What can the great thinkers of the past and present teach us about tolerance in an era of ideological radicalism and rigidity? What is the role of states, multinational institutions and empowered individuals in building respect for human life, liberty and religious differences?
In founding the first library of America in Philadelphia, the young Franklin observed: “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” One of the questions before us today is whether religious intolerance and the mutually inconsistent narratives of religion and secularism are the result of ignorance, or something deeper, more primordial.
Our willingness to learn more about these phenomena, to combat and overcome ignorance and the prejudice that result, may end up as the most important function that the safe space of libraries can fulfill.Daniel Kurtzer is S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; former US ambassador to Egypt (1997- 2001) and Israel (2001-2005), and a member of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel.