The Library in a
Liberal Arts Environment
William A. Coulter
Dean of the College and
Katherine Haas Eichelbaum ’32 Professor of English
Aula Lectionis Amicae Bonae
October 19, 2004
My two texts, or points of reference, are the English poet John Keats and my friend Doug Shedd, Thorsen professor of Biology.
The young Keats desperately wanted to be a poet. As many of you know, he lacked the classical education that Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron enjoyed, so the Latin and Greek authors were closed books to him except through translation. When he was 21, he was introduced to George Chapman’s Elizabethan translation of Homer, and this was the result:
- Much have I travel’d in the realms of gold,
- And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
- Round many western islands have I been
- Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
- Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
- That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
- Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
- Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
- Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
- When a new planet swims into his ken;
- Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
- He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
- Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
- Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I would call that experience “pure library” (never mind where it actually took place!): the anticipation, the discovery, and especially the act of the imagination required to appropriate that which is found. The Internet and other electronic resources are wonderful, but they make discovery quick and easy, and therefore routine; and they provide color photos, movies, audio, and so forth, so that very little imagination is needed. When we celebrate this reading room, or any other part of the library, we are celebrating those acts of the imagination, which carry with them a reward that is not to be matched anywhere else.
Doug Shedd is a good friend and a wonderful teacher. He regularly teaches evolution and was beside himself with glee when, in Cambridge a few years ago, he got to meet the great Darwinian Richard Dawkins. Looking back on the work of Darwin, and also of Sigmund Freud, it is customary to say that they taught us not to think so highly of ourselves; that they showed us ways in which human beings resemble our cousins of the animal kingdom. Some animals organize themselves into complex societies; some animals use tools; and there is little question that some animals communicate with each other using what can only be called speech. Clearly, many of our skills are just more highly developed versions of these. However, as you look around a reading room, as you examine the pictures in the Maier Museum, as you listen to a Beethoven sonata or a song by Willie Nelson, you are encountering the crucial difference: we make works of art (which many like to point out have no practical value), and we use writing. Furthermore, we use these tools to reflect on our situations. Perhaps there are animals that reflect, but that seems so contrary to our experience that I am going to risk affronting Doug Shedd and say categorically that there are not.
To answer the question, “what does it mean to be human”? one might go into a legislative assembly, or a marketplace, or a scientific laboratory, or onto an athletic field. All of those activities are familiar and characteristic. In my view, one could not do better, approach more nearly the heart of the matter, than to come to a place like this.
2500 Rivermont Avenue
Lynchburg, Virginia 24503
Theodore J. Hostetler
This site is maintained by
format of this page last revised April 6, 2012http://library.randolphcollege.edu/amicae.html
graphics adapted from a 15th century French book of hours
by Frances Webb