Perhaps you saw in a recent American Libraries piece celebrating ALA’s 140th anniversary a reproduction of a classic World War I poster. The doughboy soldier, still in uniform, tin helmet and all, has laid down his rifle, pack, and canteen and is moving toward the staircase made of books labeled FARMING, DRAFTING, CITIZENSHIP, BUILDING, BUSINESS, ENGINEERING, LAW, and on and on, winding and twisting its way up toward an ethereal city in the distant clouds.
The implication is clear: Those books are his pathway to a better life after the grime and gore and folly of the war. At the bottom we are reminded “Public library books are free,” and emblazoned across the top, in a strong but inviting serif font, all in gold capital letters: KNOWLEDGE WINS.
It’s an arresting image, very much of its time, and pretty potent stuff, even today. (It’s about $25 for a reproduction, and I found an original for sale online for more than $1,000.)
It is also, admittedly, facile. Quotable, yes. Catchy, yes. Though if you spend a moment with it, you’d have to say that “knowledge” rarely wins anything, at least not in isolation. Knowledge that you can get at, that you can understand, that you can use, in the right time and situations, sure. But that makes a terrible slogan. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for a pithy poster. It’s hard to do much better than READ, which grabbed me at a young age and never let go.
So while I cop to splitting semantic hairs here, I have a purpose. Almost exactly a century on from the end of that horrible and pointless war, there is a heck of a lot more knowledge around, and staggeringly unimaginable quantities of it are available through billions of devices all over the world. And arguably, as much if not more ignorance, fear, hate, terror, and loss.
Where does that leave libraries? In reflecting on this poster in all its Wilsonian-era naiveté, I was reminded of one of my favorite little bromides for my students: “Stupid is forever. Ignorance can be cured, and we’re in the ignorance business.” It usually gets a chuckle, as it’s intended, though I firmly believe it. We all have to believe that our institutions and collections and skills and efforts and blood and sweat and tears, matter. That knowledge is better than ignorance, that experience and expertise and reason and facts beat the alternatives.
In a world that seems increasingly indifferent or even hostile to that mindset, we can’t flinch on that belief, and we can’t give up that fight. This expands the notion of “library advocacy” beyond the traditional to incorporate a broader and richer and more meaningful canvas, to make the case (neither always easy nor obvious) for knowledge, for actually knowing things, in a complicated and often scary world. Otherwise, ignorance wins, which would be a future too awful to contemplate.
In writing this, another proverb bored its way into my consciousness, perhaps as a cautionary caveat: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing … but that’s another story.