Wednesday, June 22, 2011

History in the Dark

A publisher approached me recently with the idea of doing a book on one of the national United Confederate Veteran reunions. Gaines Foster (Ghosts of the Confederacy) and others have done a good job describing the general progression and importance of the reunions, but this publisher was interested in a more detailed look at a single reunion’s method of organization, activities, local involvement, economic impact, etc.

Because I’m currently headquartered in Dallas, I began looking for collections regarding the UCV’s Dallas reunion that brought more than a quarter million people to this pre-metropolis prairie town in 1901. Most of the material I’d need to tell the story was housed in special collections at the Dallas Public Library.

In the end, however, I declined the project for reasons that continue to irk me.

You see, the City of Dallas (like many other cities) is facing a budget shortfall. During the last budget go-‘round the city manager proposed slashing the library budget, laying off librarians, reducing branch hours and mothballing the reference and research floors of the central library for all but 24 hours a week. (Don’t even ask about the acquisitions budget!)

Limited access to the materials I needed would’ve prevented me from researching and completing the book in any reasonable amount of time.

As a result, the story of the 1901 Dallas UCV reunion will probably never be recounted in depth, and that’s a loss to scholarship. More to the point, however, the loss of that story will cost the City of Dallas. First of all, the city will lose the use fees I would’ve paid the library for materials and images that would appear in the book. But, more important, the city will lose a valuable history lesson about citizen involvement and private financing of one of the largest conventions in its history—and this at a time when Dallas is struggling to compete with other cities for event revenue and to fill a city-financed convention hotel.

Largely as a result of citizen hearings and action by Friends of the Dallas Public Library, the proposed cuts were reinstated…for the time being. The city is still writing checks in red ink, and it’s likely the library will be squeezed again during the next budget cycle.

So here’s the point of my sermon:

If you allow public officials to view your local library as little more than a warehouse that loans books, your community will suffer. Even the smallest public library system is also a repository of its community’s history, a place where dwells the institutional memory of the community’s successes and failures. To turn out the lights at the library is to rob your community of lessons that could strengthen it.

You can’t read history in the dark.

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