If you have a burning interest in morality, is it immoral to steal a book on it? Well that’s not exactly what Joanne Hall did. But she did borrow Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged from the San Francisco Public Library system 33 years ago, and let’s give her credit for finally returning it.
Lost from the stacks
Joanne was featured in a San Francisco Chronicle story about an amnesty the library was granting for those holding some 55,000 library books -- adding up to a cool $4.5 million.
The current daily fine for an overdue book is 10 cents. So for Ms. Hall that would have added up to (365 x 33 x .10) = $1204.5. Not including leap years or interest.
Joanne was not planning to purloin the magnum opus of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist philosophy emphasizes honesty and acquiring possessions by paying for them. We asked Joanne what happened and she explained: “Thinking back to that time in my life, it's pretty likely that one of my friends who had helped me to move just packed it away and didn't even bother to check and see that it was a library book. It was a casualty of high rents in SF dating back as far as 33 years!” (San Francisco housing policy is a whole other story.)
Joanne’s honesty shined through as she explained: ”The copy [of Atlas] I have is a rare first edition in very good condition. I'm not sure what the value of this particular copy is, as it has a library tag and stamp on it, but very good copies of a first edition are worth several hundred dollars.” (They are! We checked on ebay.)
Should governments run libraries?
While this tale of a lost novel ended happily, some Objectivists and libertarians might want to take this story to a meta-level and argue that governments shouldn’t be running libraries at all.
So let’s turn to Ayn of the overdue Atlas Shrugged for some help here.
When she was working on her novel The Fountainhead, she asked the professional staff at the New York Public Library on 5th Ave. to suggest a list of the best works for her on architecture. They assembled a collection that helped her detail the work and character of Howard Roark. Rand also is said to have regularly borrowed books from that library. And Rand famously donated the manuscript of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to the Library of Congress, a repository of millions of important books and historically significant items like the ones that flowed out of Rand’s own typewriter from Rand’s imaginative mind.
Are you conflicted now about the high priestess of privatization using public facilities? Then let’s take a moment to reflect on libraries as such.
The betterment of the mind
Libraries are first and foremost institutions for the betterment of the human mind. A civilization that values libraries values the best in humanity.
Alexander the Great set up the most famous library in the ancient world at Alexandria, the city he founded in Egypt. Alexander’s goal was to put all human learning under one roof, and his tactics included raiding visiting ships and hijacking their books and charts. (The library kept the originals and made copies for the originals’ owners!) The library of the Alexandrian Greeks is said to have been originally organized by Demetrius of Phalerum who, with Alexander himself, was a student of Aristotle. The final burning of that library in the 4th century AD is rightly seen as one of the sad milestones marking the fall of the classical world.
One of the most notable efforts to enhance the human mind through libraries came from none other than steel industry entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie. In the late 1880s and early 1900s he was probably the richest man in the world because he was one of the most productive, a Hank Rearden of his day. He put up the money for nearly 1,700 libraries in the United States for a total of over 2,500 - when Carnegie-endowed libraries in the rest of the world are included. He wanted to live in a world in which everyone developed their full, rational capacities. That’s true benevolence!
The priority of learning
Back to Ayn Rand, she no doubt thought all libraries should be private. But she had paid her tax dollars for the great one just up midtown from where she lived. Might as well use it!
This, of course, was before the human mind gave us technology like the internet, Kindles, and tablets. Now there are pay sites for movies—Netflix—and for
information of all kinds—the Wall Street Journal and many subscription databases. Today, Rand surely would fully endorse those options over government facilities.
But in our increasingly irrational culture today, it is important to promote the value of learning and to improving the mind. Better, for example, for inner-city children (or any child!) to be excited about going to libraries—public or private—than heading for the streets where they can end up ignorant of knowledge, lacking in responsibility and moral principles: future criminals or future casualties.
Our SanFran friend Joanne told us she picked up Atlas Shrugged because “I had read The Fountainhead and found it interesting.” She added that she likes “to read about different perspectives and think it makes us have a better understanding of each other. It doesn't necessarily mean that I have to align with a philosophy, I just hope to better understand it.”
If that is the Enlightenment mindset that libraries promote, they have done their job!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.