Monday, June 22, 2009

Historical Amnesia and libraries

Beverly Gage’s appearance at our recent Evening with an Author event gives me ample grounds for spending just a moment on the topic of historical amnesia, and the importance of libraries in fostering public literacy and memory.
Her book, The Day Wall Street Exploded, a Story of America in Its First Age of Terror is a study of the Wall Street bombing of Sept. 16, 1920. The bombing, allegedly the act of anarchists, killed 38 people and maimed hundreds more. It was the worst terrorist bombing in the United States until the Oklahoma City attack in 1995, the worst in New York until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. This image of terrorist acts describes an America that may seem quite alien to us, or at least more volatile, reflecting more dissonant voices and discontent than commonly associated with the early 20th century. Yet these realities are clearly elucidated throughout the book. This dichotomy between perception and reality in turn reminds me of a particularly resonant theme in the speeches and writing of Abraham Lincoln, that being his frequent assertion that a faded or false view of the past can harm the future. Exemplary of this, in his address at Cooper Union (1860), Lincoln complains of "invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did”. Commenting on this passage, political scientist Diana Scab rightly observed, “Being misty-eyed or bleary-eyed about the past leaves us vulnerable to sophistry. Our acquaintance with the past must be fully mindful.”

The Day Wall Street Exploded is the sort of book that helps us to maintain that fully mindful relationship, disabuses us of our frequently ahistorical relationship with the past, and serves as an antidote to the historical amnesia that is lamentably commonplace.
I also believe that public libraries, such as the Otis Library, are an essential part of the anti amnesia therapy. On our shelves, in proximity to The Day Wall Street Exploded you will find books exploring the trial and execution of anarchists Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, dissidents who also appear in Professor Gage’s book. Also nearby is Howard Blum’s history of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building during a violent struggle between radical union and anti-union factions in that city. That attack left 20 dead and about the same number injured. A few shelves away, Christopher Finn’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America provides valuable context for the zeitgeist in which the Wall Street Explosion took place, including the 1919 anti-radical campaign instigated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and more commonly and eponymously known as the Palmer Raids. (Lest we think Connecticut was immune from the egregious violations of the First Amendment that accompanied these raids, Finan notes the detention for almost 5 months of 100 men in Hartford without charges and without access to legal counsel.)
What the library offers then, is information, but more importantly, the opportunity to weigh that information, establish a context, and cultivate the critical thinking skills that inoculate us against sophistry. Especially in these hard times, when personal finances are in a parlous state and our patrons may not have other access to books, magazines and the Internet, the Otis Library is an essential resource, not a luxury, and undeniably an asset to the community it serves.

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