Page 12 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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J
e w i s h
B
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and met nobody; but through the magic performed by a library
we can live in any century or in any land we choose, we can share
in any enterprise, exploit, and excitement we please, and we can
hobnob with the best and—sometimes it is more fascinating—
with the worst men who ever walked the face of the earth.
Nothing human—no knowledge, no experience, no aspiration, no
dream, and no reality—need be alien to us, so long as the doors of
a library stand open for us.
But there is a wider view, one that leaves out of account any
particular individual, even someone of such personal interest to
us as our own self. There recently appeared in
Life
an account
of the library of Harvard University—of Widener and its asso-
ciated collections. A president of Harvard was quoted as saying
that if all the buildings on the campus burned to the ground
but if the library were spared, the university was still in business;
whereas if the library alone burned down, that was the end of
Harvard. More, however, than a university hangs on the fate of
libraries. I t should be apparent that without the knowledge
and inspiration stored up and always on tap in our libraries,
civilization itself would perish within a generation. Without
books there could be no civilized administration of government
or justice, no maintenance and progress of science. Not a single
convenience of life that we now take for granted would survive:
not a railroad would run, an airplane fly, or an auto move, with-
out books; and not one of our darling gadgets—a deep freezer or
a TV set—would exist. Moreover, to quote a famous phrase from
the Danish scholar Bartholin, “without books God is silent,
philosophy lame, letters dumb, and all things become shrouded
in darkness.” It is the library—what it contains and what it serves
—that stands between us and primitive savagery.
The Long Chain of Jewish Libraries
Whenever, to come closer home, a Jewish community opens for
general use a roomful of pertinent books, it constitutes the latest
link in the long chain of Jewish libraries, public and private,
which stretches back to a misty and dateless antiquity. No one
any longer knows the nature or the precise origin of the first
Jewish or, better said, Hebrew library. Ancient Israel, we do
know, arose in a highly civilized region; and libraries, as 1 have
indicated, are indispensable to civilzation. Vast collections of
books, written to be sure on clay rather than on paper, have sur-
vived from the royal libraries of Nineveh and Babylon—collec-
tions whose earliest material, whose first editions, date from
nearly five thousand years ago.
Of Israel itself, only hints are left us. There was a city in
the territory of Judah, originally a Canaanite city, which Joshua
called Kiriat-Sefer, that is, Book-Town—a name later changed