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Ursula K. Le Guin on the Sacredness of Public Libraries

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

“If librarians were honest,” Joseph Mills wrote in his delightful poem celebrating libraries, “they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…” For Thoreau, books themselves were also changed and fertilized by their cohabitation, “as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.” “When people don’t have free access to books,” Anne Lamott asserted in contemplating the revolutionary notion of free public libraries, “then communities are like radios without batteries.”

That fertilizing freedom is what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) extols in one of the many remarkable pieces in her anthology The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library) — the source of Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on gender, what beauty really means, and the magic of real human conversation.

In a 1997 speech celebrating the renovation of Portland’s Multnomah County Library, Le Guin writes:

A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place.

After an affectionate time-travel tour of the formative libraries in her life, Le Guin considers the universal gift of the free public library:

Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.


Plunging into the ocean of words, roaming in the broad fields of the mind, climbing the mountains of the imagination. Just like the kid in the Carnegie or the student in Widener, that was my freedom, that was my joy. And it still is.

That joy must not be sold. It must not be “privatised,” made into another privilege for the privileged. A public library is a public trust.

And that freedom must not be compromised. It must be available to all who need it, and that’s everyone, when they need it, and that’s always.

Couple this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent The Wave in the Mind — titled after Virginia Woolf’s famous metaphor for writing and consciousness — with a photographic love letter to public libraries, then revisit Le Guin on where ideas come from and the “secret” to great writing.

Images based on photograph of Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Published November 6, 2015




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