|Remarks by the Provost, Geoffrey
Thomas Carlyle once said that "The founding of a library is one
of the greatest things we can do. There is nothing I know of that
is at bottom more important. A collection of good books contains
all of the nobleness and wisdom of the world before us. A
collection of books is the best of all universities." Today we
celebrate, not the founding of a library, but, in a meaningful
sense, its rededication.
The path by which we reached this point of celebration was a
tortuous one. I first learned of Marty’s aspirations for the
expansion and reconfiguration of Regenstein Library shortly after I
became provost six years ago. At that time, the University was in
the depths of what we euphemistically called a period of financial
challenge. Every proposed capital project was carefully and
skeptically scrutinized. The proposed library reconfiguration
project was certainly no exception.
As Marty no doubt painfully recalls, he and I suffered through
many stressful meetings in the main conference room of the
Administration Building during which I asked Marty such ennobling
questions as: And why, exactly, do we need more books? Don’t
we have enough already? How do you know we need more books? After
all, Marty, the old ones were good enough for Hutchins and Levi,
why aren’t they good enough today? And, even if we really do
need more books, do we really need more space? Why can’t we
make room by simply tossing, or better yet, selling, the old books?
And if that won’t work, and we really do need more space, why
do we need to reconfigure Regenstein? That’s so expensive.
Why can’t we just put a remote library on, say, 63rd Street?
And if that won’t work, why can’t we just share books
with Columbia or Stanford or Yale? Why do we need our own books?
And what about all this talk of computers? Why do we need books at
all? And, wait a minute, Marty, let me get this straight
you’re telling me it will cost $15 per book just to shelve
them? Do you know how many Humanities professors we could get for
that? And so on.
Over the course of many meetings and several years, Marty
patiently, wisely and persuasively answered all of my troglodyte
questions. With hindsight, our lengthy exchange reminds me of a
story I once heard about Cambridge University, which received an
inquiry from a sugar manufacturer stating that we would like to
purchase some of your books for use in our company’s library.
Would it be possible to do so at wholesale prices? To which the
Cambridge University responded: We would like to purchase some of
your sugar for our coffee breaks. Would it be possible to do so at
wholesale prices? I was in the moral position of the sugar
In the end, of course, Marty, and the right values, persevered.
We were right to ask the hard questions, even the ones that
sometimes seemed rather Neanderthal; but we were even more right to
be persuaded that, at the University of Chicago, even in times of
serious financial challenge the library comes first.
At some universities, the heart and soul of the institution
resides in the football stadium. At others, it is in the student
center, or the basketball arena, or the performance center or even,
astonishingly, in the administration building. But at the
University of Chicago, the heart and soul of the institution are in
the Library. At the University of Chicago, the Library is not only
the symbol of who and why we are, but it is also quite literally
the lifeblood of the institution. It is no accident that the
University’s new campus master plan, with its north campus
residence halls, athletic center, dining halls, and arts center,
defines the campus of the future with Regenstein Library as the
very focal point of activity. At the University of Chicago, that is
as it should be.
A great research university needs a great library. The
University of Chicago is, in my judgment, the nation’s
preeminent research university because it exists, more purely than
any other university in the nation, to advance knowledge, plain and
simple. It is therefore fitting that we celebrate today both this
extraordinary Library, with its now enhanced potential to embrace
the nobleness and wisdom of the world before us, and this
remarkable University, of which our library is so central a part.
As Carlyle observed, there is, at bottom, nothing that is more