Dedication of Reconfiguration Project

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Remarks by the Provost, Geoffrey Stone

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 company.

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 important.