By Damien Williams
News came yesterday that radical Islamists have burned the ancient library of Timbuktu.
When I was twelve years old, one of the most important resources for my family was our local library: RL Christian Public Library, on H Street in Washington, DC. Though the area has changed, quite a bit, as any DC Metro-area resident can tell you, it's certainly not the best part of town. Nineteen years ago it was even rougher around the edges.
As funding for city libraries was cut, the operating hours of R.L. Christian were some of the first things on the chopping block. My sisters and I, along with other children from our neighbourhood, wrote essays and went before the DC City Council and explained to them —clearly but forcefully — what this library represented to the neighbourhood.
RL Christian Public Library had free after-school programs for children whose parents worked late. Study resources for those who would need them. A place to be off the street, later in the evening, in a part of town then still coping with regular gang violence. We, the children most affected by this, not our parents, made this case. And they shortened the hours anyway. Eventually RL Christian Public Library closed its doors.
People who know about but don’t fully understand history may ask, "Why do conquerors and fanatics always go for the Libraries?" Our most famous example has always been the Library of Alexandria, but it is by no means the sole instance. And if you take a look at that list, you can see something of a distinction: sometimes invaders burn libraries and loot them, and sometimes they just burn them. Why is that?
It's because a library, more than any other thing humans have ever made, is the physical promise of a wider, more inclusive world.
A library challenges our perceptions. A library shows us that there is more to religion than zealotry, more to belief than delusion, more to the search for meaning than fanatical heresies.
A library presents to us, gives to us, for free, the benefits of human inquiry and allows us the time, and space, and resources to connect all of these things in ways that no one before has managed to do.
A library is the embodied fact that the search to be more and better can win over the petty, bullshit that fanatics of all stripes want us to swallow. A library is the place we can go to become more, stronger, and better.
And fanatics and conquerors—especially those who believe their world-view must be unquestioned—cannot have that kind of resource available to the people whom they are working so very hard to subjugate.
This is why libraries are knocked down, burned, their contents tossed into the river. Because their very existence challenges the idea that there can only be one right way to live, to know, to understand, to believe, and grow in this world. A library is an affront to enforced, willful ignorance.
But there are glimmers of hope. During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, when the reconstituted Library of Alexandria was threatened, the youth of the city banded together to protect its books and artifacts. They understood what the Library represented.
On a more personal note, while researching this piece, I found out that the RL Christian Library has been turned over to the surrounding neighborhood. The property will still be owned by the DC city government, but under the management of the residents of H Street. It will henceforth be known as the RL Christian Community Library.
Citizens worked for, and demanded, a place to study and learn, and become more. This is what libraries are. This is what libraries mean.