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May God bless the librarians of the world. Unrecognized as such, they are the keepers and preserves of culture, and of our sanctuary islands in the maelstrom of turbulent modernity.

My earliest memory of entering a library was sometime during my first few days at Wiley Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas. It was the fall of 1974, and I had just entered first grade. Our school library at that point was simply a trailer located on/in the school playground. Whatever the shoddy construction of the place, it was magical. The first book I ever checked out—recommended to me by the librarian—was a biography of Lewis and Clark. I can still see, smell, and feel that orange book in my hands. It opened a world of possibilities to me. After that, I checked out books on Benjamin Franklin and the American revolution. Not surprisingly I suppose, I have been fascinated by Lewis, Clark, Franklin, and the rest of that era all of my life.

The real mecca of my childhood, though, was the Hutchinson Public Library. My mom—always a reader and an encourager of reading—allowed me to bike on my own to the public library, 2.4 miles from our home. As early as first grade, I had my own library card, and I began to explore the rather extensive children’s section. Every once in a while, I even snuck over to the adult section, perusing the mystical shelves of science fiction and fantasy.

Throughout my years in grade school, the public library also sponsored a Bookmobile, and I would meet that on a regular basis. The librarian even anticipated my arrival by pulling out certain books she thought I would like. In every case, she was right. I especially remember her introducing me to the myths of Atlantis and of King Arthur as well as introducing me to the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke.

In fifth grade, as I’ve had a chance to mention at TIC before, I became obsessed with the notion of research and writing research papers. I begged my teacher to allow me to write a paper on the Pacific theater in World War II in fifth grade; an analysis of the Panama Canal in sixth grade (jointly done with another student); and a history of NASA space launches in seventh grade. By eighth grade, I had become so immersed in fiction that I spent all of my free time writing stories about a Paladin named Vortirian. Vortirian existed in a world all his own. Granted, it was a very Tolkien-esque world, but that world occupied most of my time (I had also given up watching TV in 7th grade and didn’t return to it until my senior year of college).

But in ninth grade I joined the debate team, and my love of research not only returned, but it returned with such power that it has never left me.

In Kansas, for better or worse, residents get their driver’s licenses at age 14, with the restriction that the driver (for two years) drive only to and from school, work, church, or the library. Well, I took full advantage of this, spending hours at the library. And I do mean hours and hours of wonderfully endless reading and endless research. Not only did I love debate, but things at home were troubled, to be sure, and the library offered not just an escape from domestic violence but an escape into the intellectual world.

My favorite librarian was Ms. Canfield. I really liked her at the time (yes, I had quite the teenage crush on her), but I admire her even more in hindsight (minus the crush). She taught me the card catalogue, she taught me how to pursue one source to another, and she taught me the value of current events in the extensive periodical section. And I now realize how not just how intelligent she was, but also how incredibly patient and kind she was. Every time I arrived at the library, she gave me a smile, but she also gave me excellent advice. I especially remember her showing me how to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature and other reference guides. At the time (being extremely libertarian), I wanted to become an economist (Milton Friedman was my absolute hero), but I also became fascinated with library science.

In a previous piece here at TIC, I had the chance to praise the depths of time. Research is a form of depth as well, a struggle against the flatness of the current world. In research, we pursue one interesting idea, one author, and one source to another. When we search for Atlantis, we discover myth and we discover Plato. When we search for the Panama Canal, we discover Teddy Roosevelt, American ingenuity, and American imperialism. Far from the flatness of internet searches, we discover hidden depths and meanings and nuanced realities. We also, critically, discover personalities. For what place or what idea or what innovation really exists without a personality behind it?

Between 1982 and 1986, I not only debated (which was my life, frankly), but I also attended Hutchinson High School. At that school, I had the blessed fortune of meeting yet another great librarian, a brilliant and hilarious man by the unlikely name of George Story. While I never had a crush (!) on him as I did with Ms. Canfield, I thought the world of him. He served as an extraordinary resource and inspiration to me. He ran the Monty Python club, and he also was a serious libertarian. I discussed ideas with him at school, and he even invited me over to his front porch for continued discussions.

I never had a chance to get to know the librarians at any personal level at Notre Dame (undergraduate) or at Indiana University (graduate school), but I have become particularly fond of the librarians at Hillsdale College, especially the now retired Linda Moore—who has always seemed to me to be as wise as Moses. Unbelievably witty, Linda has shown me yet again the virtue of tenacity in research.

May God bless the librarians of the world. Unrecognized as such, they are the keepers and preserves of culture, and of our sanctuary islands in the maelstrom of turbulent modernity.

This essay first appeared here in June 2020.

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