This 1827 article on the value and history of libraries appeared in Washington DC’s Freedom’s Journal. Although Freedom’s Journal lived a relatively short life, it is important in that it was the first American newspaper written by blacks for blacks. From the beginning the editors felt, “… that a paper devoted to the dissemination of useful knowledge among our brethren, and to their moral and religious improvement, must meet with the cordial approbation of every friend to humanity…“.
Of the many efforts made by the friends of learning in different parts of the Globe, none have met with more success, nor been attended with more benefits to the community at large, than the establishment, in different cities, towns, and villages, of libraries : whether we consider them as public, social, or private. All nations appear to have been sensible of their value, whether we recall to the reader’s mind, the papyrus of the Egyptians; the parchment of the Romans; the pictures of the Peruvians, or the palm leaves of Sandwich Islanders. Many of the wealthy Romans had private libraries . Libraries were also established by several of the Emperors as Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, and others. Even the cruel Domitian sent to foreign courts for the purpose of collecting and enlarging his library . In the reign of Constantine, there were no less than thirty public libraries in Rome. The most magnificent of all, was the Ulpian library, founded by Trajan.
We know little about the middle ages; between the destruction and revival of literature in Europe. It is highly probable, however, that very few were preserved by the rude tribes of Goths and Vandals, who, at that period began to overrun Europe, sparing neither age, sex nor condition. For what value could men, rude and uncultivated “as the beasts that perish” and are not, set upon the classic authors of Greece and Rome? – Plunder was all their aim, and little cared they for the most valuable manuscript of former times.
But former efforts, in former times, when books were scarce and dear, were nothing compared to the great principles now in action by the moderns. It is true, we read of the Alexandrian library, containing at the time of its accidental destruction, five hundred thousand volumes; but whether they were sheets of parchment, each composing a separate volume, is left uncertain. Of the advantages to be derived from the perusal of interesting and instructive books, we need not enlarge: we need not assure those aspiring after knowledge, that the path to Minerva’s Temple, though still with many inequalities in the road, is as open as it ever was, to those self-taught men of this and former ages, who have been the pride, not only of their native countries, but of the age in which they lived.
The extent of a library is indefinite: and rules for its formation must depend chiefly on the purpose for which it is designed. Its real and nominal value consists not in the number of the volumes, but in the goodness of the selection. An ancient sage is said to have possessed only four volumes.
But though, we, who live in the present enlightened era, need not expect such difficulties in the way in procuring books, or acquiring knowledge; we contend, that every facility should be placed before our youth, that the many moments now spent in idleness and dissipation may be employed in storing their minds with all kinds of useful knowledge, and preparing themselves for future usefulness. “Knowledge is power,” we are assured; and I need not inform our readers that were we as a community, to be judged by that standard, we should be exactly in our present condition, were not the present circumstances, beyond our control in a measure, really in the way.