Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.
On a recent trip to the Boston area I took a photo of the house in Danvers, Mass., in which landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland lived in the 1860s. He was later instrumental in creating the Minneapolis park system. I located the house with the help of the Danvers town archivist. I was curious about the property due to letters that mentioned the house that I had found in manuscript collections at Harvard University's Houghton Library and the New York City Public Library. In both of those hallowed places, librarians provided invaluable assistance in finding what, to me, were important documents.
The subject matter is unimportant, however, because what matters is this: I have no connection to any of those institutions and have no credentials that would compel them to assist me. I was an unknown person asking them questions through their public websites. I was a nobody — and yet they responded at length and in detail about their collections.
That experience has been repeated with numerous libraries, public and private, across the country: University of Minnesota, University of Chicago, Yale University, Library of Congress, University of Texas, Chicago Public Library, Milwaukee Public Library, Peabody Essex Museum and many more. Similar assistance has been provided from smaller libraries and historical societies from Dunn County, Wis., to Prince George's County, Md., to the town of Lancaster, Mass. I know some of my correspondents were volunteers; all were willing to share their knowledge and resources.
I was reminded of a passage in a book I read long ago by French philosopher Jean Francois Revel, who posited that most "revolutions" would originate in the United States for the simple reason that this country has a rare public library system that makes information and ideas accessible to absolutely anyone and everyone. I would extend Revel's observation to include academic libraries, too, as my experience has shown. I recently inquired of the library at Carleton College in Northfield what I would have to do to gain access to hard-to-find microfilm in their possession of a century-old newspaper. There was only one requirement, albeit a temporary one: all library users were required to wear masks. Visitors were welcome. Another prestigious university was sharing resources without restriction.
We are fortunate to have incredible library resources available to everyone in our own backyard. I have benefited from the collections and expertise available at the Hennepin County Library, Minnesota Historical Society, and several University of Minnesota libraries. The Special Collections librarians at the Minneapolis Central branch of the Hennepin County Library have been especially helpful to me in my research and to others I have referred to them. I was privileged a few years ago to participate in the work of transferring a large portion of the archives of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to Special Collections. The primary objective of that effort was not only to preserve and protect records but to make them accessible to everyone. Now they are. The Library Board and Park Board and their professional staffs should be saluted for that effort.
What many people may not realize is that our city and county libraries can access many books and records that they do not own through interlibrary loans. I have obtained books and microfilmed manuscripts and newspapers from libraries across the country — Minnesota to Mississippi — just by filling out a form on the library's website. I was astonished once when the Library of Congress shipped 10 rolls of microfilm to the Hennepin County Library upon my request. I had expected to get maybe one or two rolls at a time, if that, but they shipped the entire range of records I had requested.
With some experience now, I am rarely surprised by the efforts made on my behalf by librarians and archivists around the country. They are a fabulous, willing and able resource to help anyone learn just about anything. We owe them our gratitude and, especially, continued funding through our taxes and our donations. Reading and research, information and education remain the bedrock of democracy. Libraries in all their forms are among the most useful, egalitarian and essential institutions for a free society.
David C. Smith is the author of "City of Parks: The Story or Minneapolis Parks." His website is minneapolisparkhistory.com.