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.