In Praise of Libraries by James R. Coggins

I’ve always wanted to own a castle or at least a country estate.

I particularly wanted to have my office at the top of a tower in the castle or country manor house. From there I would have great vision and perspective on the world. The reality is that my office has most often been in a basement, where, by necessity, my vision was turned inward.

But the real attraction of owning a country estate was books. My parents had a marvelous collection of books, some dating back to the 1800s that they had in turn inherited from their parents and grandparents. Back then, books were very expensive and highly valued. My sister has had the unenviable task of trying to find homes for many of those books.

My own collection of books really took off when I was in university. I was obsessed and thrilled with the opportunity to accumulate knowledge. My daughter has said that she would like to inherit my library. The reality is that she does not have space to accommodate my library in her house and in her life. I have begun the sad task of trying to find homes for some of my books. I have donated some of them to university libraries, rare book rooms, thrift stores, and the Christian Salvage Mission, which ships Christian books to less privileged societies around the world. And I have begun setting aside a small collection of the best of the best to give to my daughter and perhaps eventually her sons.

If I had inherited a country estate, I could have kept my parents library and added my own to it. It is a great vision of each succeeding generation treasuring the wisdom and knowledge of the past and making its own contribution.

My impulse is a good one. In his great survey of world history (Civilisation) Kenneth Clark opened his book with a chapter called “The Skin of our Teeth.” He credited medieval monasteries with copying and preserving the great literature, not only of the Christian era but also of Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations, which laid the foundation for Western civilization.

When I was in graduate school in university, part of my research involved spending hours scrolling through microfilm. A project had been initiated in England to catalogue and microfilm every book published in the United Kingdom from the invention of the printing press in the late 15th century until sometime a couple of centuries later. In many cases, there were only one or two copies of a book scattered in university and country estate libraries. The microfilm project preserved these books and made them available to a wider audience. Universities could buy a copy of this collection of microfilm for the exorbitant price of about a million dollars. It filled an entire wall in the university library. It made some of my own research possible.  

Also when I was in graduate school, I was appointed to be a student representative on the university library advisory committee. At that time, the university was struggling to find enough space to contain its burgeoning collections. The science student representative on the committee suggested discarding all books and journals more than ten years old since they were obsolete and had been superseded by more recent research. That might have worked for some science disciplines, but it would have destroyed the literature and historical departments of the university.

The work of preserving the wisdom of the past is a noble one. Perhaps the most notable and remarkable task is the preservation of the Bible, which has preserved the story of God’s revelation to humanity through wars, invasions, long journeys, neglect, and other disasters, often “by the skin of our teeth.” God made that happen.

The reality is that, try as we might, we cannot preserve everything. As Ecclesiastes so eloquently points out, everything in human life is temporary.

It is encouraging, then, to remember that God has no limitations and has His own libraries, where He has preserved the record of humanity. One day, the books will be opened. We can be sure that everything that we have entrusted to Him (2 Timothy 1:12) will be preserved.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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1 Response to In Praise of Libraries by James R. Coggins

  1. chaddamitz says:

    Thank you for sharing! When our family moved to Florida, there was no room to keep my theology books. I had them in the garage for a while, but then decided to start giving them away as well. I really liked how you ended your blog. You said, ” One day, the books will be opened. We can be sure that everything that we have entrusted to Him (2 Timothy 1:12) will be preserved.” Amen to that. Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

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