As a grade schooler in the 1970s, I stayed at LSU a few days one summer for a 4-H program, my first chance to see the campus of Louisiana’s flagship public university up close.
I walked into Middleton Library and couldn’t believe my eyes. My hometown library was lovely but intimate, a few shelves of books in a building about the size of a corner drugstore. Middleton, by comparison, seemed endless, its rows of volumes reaching far and wide. Study carrels along the walls, as intimate as confessionals, suggested something hushed and sacred, a world larger than the little life I called my own. Middleton pointed me to what the “higher” in higher education really meant. Here was a place where ideas seemed to take flight, slipping the realm of the everyday. I felt proud that my home state had such a library.
Earlier this summer, my 16-year-old son made his own trip to Middleton. He was taking a class on campus to get a head start on college, and we happened to be together when an errand took him to the library I had first known as a youngster.
The library has aged since my initial visit more than 40 summers ago. I can’t say whether the furniture is the same stuff I saw as a boy, but much of it is ragged, obviously decades old. The building itself is in terrible shape, as numerous news stories have made clear. In some spots, plywood covers holes in the floor. The basement routinely floods when it rains. Plastic covers some books to protect them from the leaky roof.
My friend Bob Mann, the blogger, newspaper columnist and an LSU faculty member, has written at length about Middleton’s terrible condition. The library’s scandalous decline has made headlines in The Advocate, too, including a story last spring about a visit by Gov. John Bel Edwards and some state lawmakers to Middleton. “This is what you get from years of neglect,” the governor said. But the money needed to truly fix or replace Middleton has yet to surface.
I’ve been thinking about this because of a book on my summer reading list, “The Farm in the Green Mountains,” a memoir by the German émigré Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer. The author fled Nazi Germany and ended up in rural New England. As World War II raged, she marveled at the university libraries she found in the States. Their brightness and abundance expressed the free exchange of ideas that had helped America thrive.
Herdan-Zuckmayer’s experience is a potent reminder that national greatness is about more than the size of our army, the height of our skyscrapers, the sum of our GNP. It’s also about the quality of our libraries, the temples that hold history’s highest thoughts and ambitions.
To let a library like Middleton go to seed isn’t just a failure of fiscal policy. It’s a failure of patriotism, too.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.