Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 28, 2005|Volume 34, Number 9















Author David McCullough spoke on campus as part of the Sterling Memorial Library's 75th-year anniversary celebration. He is shown here with University Librarian Alice Prochaska.

Library is a 'treasure-house
of history,' says author

During his Oct. 21 talk on campus, author David McCullough was asked why, with today's emphasis on math and science, children should study history.

McCullough, who has been called "America's historian," invited the audience members to imagine what it would be like if they suddenly forgot who they were. Their eyes, their hair, their height and weight would all be the same, "but would you be you?" he asked his listeners. "No, because you'd have no story, and without a story -- without a history -- you'd have no soul."

"There are clear lessons from history, lessons of cause and effect," he continued. "If children don't understand cause and effect in history, if they don't have to see how that works among we human beings, then they might not get the point that it also pertains to themselves, to their own lives.

"A society can suffer badly from amnesia, just as an individual can," asserted the author. "History is about human nature. It's the best way to study human nature that I know."

McCullough, who has garnered two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards for his chronicles of America's past, spoke on campus as part of the year-long celebration of Sterling Memorial Library's 75th anniversary. His talk, "The Heart of the University" (a title taken from an inscription at the Sterling describing a library's function), drew a crowd that filled the Law School's Levinson Auditorium to capacity.

The Yale alumnus noted that when he arrived at Yale in 1951 as a freshman, the Sterling Library was in its 21st year -- something he told the audience he found hard to believe: "It couldn't have been just 21 years old. To me, it had been there forever. It had been there since the Middle Ages, as far as I could tell."

That initial visit to Sterling Memorial Library was his "first encounter with a great library," McCullough recalled, and to walk inside the massive Modern Gothic stone structure was "immensely exhilarating, awe inspiring and also a bit intimidating."

McCullough told the audience that he "immediately fell in love" with the library's etched windows and wall carvings. He especially liked the doorway above the janitor's closet, where "literally carved in stone" are a mop, bucket, broom and scrub-brush. "Now, whoever decided to do that is our kind of guy, right?" he quipped.

So much did he enjoy the time he spent in the Sterling Library, said McCullough, that in his junior year, he remained on campus during spring break, working every day on a paper in a little room off the central courtyard.

"And I was so happy. I loved it," he told his listeners. "There I was, with nobody bothering me. All these books and papers all around me, taking notes. And I thought, 'I wonder if there's a way that I might do this all of my life?' ... And so I feel in many ways that I began to find my vocation in the Sterling Library."

Yale's vast collections would prove a valuable resource years later, when McCullough was working on his first book, about the devastating flood that occurred in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889 when a dam broke, killing over 2,000 people and injuring thousands more. Although most of the town's records were destroyed during the catastrophe, the proofs for the town's new directory -- listing the names of all the Johnstown residents -- had been fortuitously preserved because the editor had them at his house, which was on higher ground. Those documents are now at Yale, said McCullough, adding, "talk about your rare books."

During his career, McCullough has visited many libraries doing research on topics ranging from the building of the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge to biographies of U.S. Presidents Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and John Adams to -- most recently -- the story of the nation's founders.

His years of research have convinced McCullough that learning to use a library is "like learning to drive a car. Once you get the hang of it, there's no limit to where you can go."

Describing libraries as "portals of freedom," the alumnus said he takes heart in the fact that "there are still more public libraries in the United States than there are McDonalds." He decried those who contend that libraries are too expensive to maintain, noting that "in the worst of the Depression, there is no record of any public library closing its doors for lack of money."

In marking the 75th anniversary of the Sterling Memorial Library, the University is both "celebrating the history of a building" and "celebrating a treasure-house of history," noted McCullough.

By preserving the books that define humanity's past, the Yale library also serves as "a symbol of all our futures," he said.

"Books are the best antidote to apathy," asserted the author. "Books shake it off. Books give us ideas. Books inspire us. Books change your life."

-- By LuAnn Bishop


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A call for action

Campus Notes

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