Sunday, January 30, 2000

The Public Library as Barn Raising

I was asked to serve as keynote speaker at the National Honor Society induction at Southbridge High School. I subjected the scholars to an elaborate speech, sprinkled with literary quotes, that I may post in its entirety someday. Here is the crux:
There is an expression that used to be popular in America, “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” I’d like to read a quotation from a wonderful book by Jack Larkin, Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village. From The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790 – 1840, p 268 – 269:
“Americans' most dramatic rituals of cooperative work were… barn raisings. Timber-frame building necessarily brought large numbers of men together, and an air of genuine risk as well as of masculine display of strength hung over the united efforts of men struggling to erect a massive frame. Workers could be killed if a two-story broadside slipped away from their hands and raising poles and fell on them. There was un-feigned relief when the crew put up the fourth and last section of the frame and locked it into place. The ridgepole… capped the frame at the peak of the roof. When it was set in place, the raisers began a series of athletic contests and drinking bouts. Intrepid men volunteered to climb up the frame to the ridgepole while carrying a bottle of rum or whiskey… drank a toast, christened the structure with the contents of his bottle, and proceeded to "name the frame" as if it were a ship… The frame standers then raced to scramble down from the top or demonstrated their daring by ‘jumping…’ or performing headstands atop the ridgepole. Eating, wrestling and more drinking usually concluded the day.”
I have often compared the efforts of a community to support a public library to the spirit of the barn-raising. I usually add that although neighbors are willing and happy to give such assistance to getting one started, the recipient is then expected to take it from there. No farmer alone can build his barn, but he is expected to plow and plant, harvest, milk the cows and paint the fence. In the same way, we offer the resources in the library so that any resident can use them. As I’ve said many times, “In an Information Age, our credo of equal opportunity is meaningless if only the well-to-do have access to informational resources.” We have neighbors who cannot afford encyclopedias or Internet access. For them, these are the “barn raising.” Once the barn is raised, though, it is time for them to start farming.