Write Team: Library of Congress stands as monument to learning

Robert Cotner, Write Team

The Library of Congress is, in truth, the people’s Library.

Recognizing the absolute necessity of an enlightened populace to carry on the work of the will of the people in the newly forming democracy, the founders created as handmade, across the street from the Capitol this magnificent edifice in 1800.

The Library has grown to fill three large library buildings and has become one of the foremost libraries of the world.

A long-time friend of mine, John Cole, Historian of the Library of Congress, has recently published “The History of the Library of Congress,” a book appropriately fitting in its own elegance to the splendor of this creation. John captures both the complexity and the completeness of this vast repository and features illustrative materials, which completes the panorama.

Reading this book reminded me of my first visit to the Library of Congress in 1954, when I was a fresh high school graduate and a fledgling employee with the FBI. In the display cases on the main floor, I saw the typed manuscript of Dwight Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address and then I walked the stately stairs up to a vast arched window towering to the ceiling and looked down upon what may be the most beautiful architectural setting in the country, the multistoried reading room of the Library of Congress.

The original edifice of the Library of Congress, the John Adams Building, stands as a monument both to a cumulated learning and the American people who would direct this learning toward a perpetual enhancement of the developing American government.

The act of reading lies forever at the heart of the human intellectual process. Both formal and informal education are driven by the process of reading, which brings into human awareness the finest and most advanced thoughts of the best minds of history. Accumulating, adapting and advancing these thoughts into new formulations into the American enterprise would advance and expand with each new generation.

This was both a dream and the plan of our forebearers for the American Republic.

The foremost illustration of what I speak lies in the life and learning of a man who, though known as an Englishman, was, in fact, infused by American ideals through his mother, who was an American citizen. I speak of Winston Churchill, who was the brightest star in the intellectual firmament of the 20th century and the greatest leader of a free people in his time.

Deprived of an Oxford education in his early years, he created a personal reading program that surpassed that of those educated in England’s finest universities. Biographers of Churchill, both English and American, detail his lifelong commitment to reading both widely and deeply.

The culmination of his prodigious intellectual commitment was the production in his lifetime (1876-1965) of 42 books in 74 volumes and over eight million words. In 1953 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his six-volume “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”

Winston Churchill represents, perhaps, our finest example of what I shall call “creative reading.” American poet Robert Frost best defines creative reading in a letter to his daughter, Lesley, a student at Barnard College, written in 1919: “to keep on top of your reading by thinking. Have at least one idea for everyone in the books.”

Mature reading demands an intellectual response from the reader guiding the mind from ignorance, provincialism and bigotry. Mature reading leads a democratic nation to a balanced government, of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Robert Cotner, his 25 years as an English teacher included serving as Fulbright Lecturer in English at the University of Liberia. He concluded his career as an executive at the Salvation Army and Shriners Hospitals for Children-Chicago. He now lives in Seneca.