Libraries are sanctuaries of ideas

Published 12:40 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2018

By Chuck Witt

1814. The British army has invaded Washington and burned the White House and the Capitol.

Lost in the conflagration at the Capitol was the collection of the Library of Congress.

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Later that year, former President Thomas Jefferson offered his entire library as a replacement for the works lost in the fire. His collection included numerous tomes from Europe, many in languages foreign to most Americans at the time, which he secured while serving as ambassador abroad, and at his own expense.

By 1814, Jefferson had been out of office for five years. Both houses of Congress were dominated by Democratic-Republicans, with Federalists in the minority and Jefferson was no longer held in the high esteem which had been earned as a co-author of the nation’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson’s proposal contained conditions which included that the collection be accepted as a whole and that he be remunerated (if at all) as Congress should find appropriate.

And thus began a monthslong battle of words and calumny that, unfortunately, was not uncharacteristic of many meetings of the chambers.

Some Congressmen, in addition to adherence to party affiliation (sound familiar?) were also concerned that Jefferson’s collection contained volumes whose subjects might not be in keeping with the staid and religious-oriented positions prevalent of the day.

Massachusetts’ representative, Cyrus King (obviously no friend of Jefferson), proposed: “As soon as said Library shall be received at Washington, the joint library committee be required, and they are hereby authorised and directed, to select therefrom, all books, if any there be, of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency, and to send the same back to Mr. Jefferson, without expense to him.”

King’s fellow Massachusetts congressman, John Hulbert, made a further suggestion by saying, mockingly, that if contagion from the ideas in the books was a concern, they should be burned.

King was not averse to this idea.

Imagine! Not only was Congress meeting elsewhere while awaiting the rebuilding of its quarters which had just recently been burned, the war was not yet officially over (Dec. 24, 1814), its sanctified volumes containing important documents of the history of the founding of the country had just gone up in smoke and there was actually a serious discussion going on about burning books.

A newspaper editorial following the vote, in 1815, to accept the collection stated: “The next generation will, we confidently predict, blush at the objections made in Congress to the purchase of Mr. Jefferson’s library.”

Not only the next generation, but hopefully every generation to follow.

Libraries today, from the smallest community facility, to the Library of Congress, are the sanctuaries of ideas, ideas both good and bad, and everything between, all to be determined by the reader.

The concept of burning books did not die with Savonarola or with the Nazis, or with King and Hulbert. It is a concept that lies suppressed in an informed society, a society which seeks knowledge and is willing to abide all ideas because they cannot exist in isolation, unchallenged by other ideas which may, at the time, seem heretical.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at