Saturday, 2 April 2011

Felix Frankfurter and the world in which we live

In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to appoint the poet Achibald MacLeish to the position of Librarian of Congress, head of the United State's national library. There was opposition to this appointment from the ALA largely because MacLeish was not a professional librarian. Roosevelt sought advice from his friend Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. As part of his advisory reply, Frankfurter wrote words that still resonate today. They are well worth reading (these words and this story come from Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas A. Basbanes):

In the world in which we live it is no longer agreed that the common culture is a common treasure. In the world in which we live it is no longer agreed that the greatest glory and final justification of human history is the life of the human mind.

To many men and many governments the life of the human mind is a danger to be feared more than any other danger, and the Word which cannot be purchased, cannot be falsified, and cannot be killed is the enemy most hunted for and hated. It is not necessary to speak of the burning of the books in Germany, or of the victorious lie in Spain, or of the terror of the creative spirit in Russia, or of the hunting and hounding of those in this country who insist that certain truths be told and who will not be silent. These things are commonplaces. They are commonplaces to such a point that they no longer shock us into anger. Indeed it is the essential character of our time that the triumph of the lie, the mutilation of culture, and the persecution of the Word no longer shock us into anger.
The Library of Congress reading room

1 comment:

Library Web said...

I think all this falls under the heading of 'the human condition'.

As Edward de Bono points out, description leads to explanation, the purpose of which is usefulness. The problem is getting that description of crime that something useful can be done about it!