Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) is probably most remembered for his play J.B. He spent some time in and out of the writing life, as a lawyer, an ambulance driver in WWI, an Ivy League professor, and, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, as Librarian of Congress. His appointment was initially opposed, by Republicans for his known leftist political views, and by librarians because he had no degree in Library Science and no experience, but Roosevelt’s choice prevailed.
MacLeish brought in a committee of professional librarians to study what needed to be done to modernize the institution. Within a year, he had streamlined and reorganized the library, put a plan in place to address its shortcomings, and wrestled increased funding out of a reluctant Congress.
Inspired by the book, Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis, he defined the mission of books and libraries:
“A true book is a report upon the mystery of existence… it speaks of the world, of our life in the world. Everything we have in the books on which our libraries are founded—Euclid’s figures, Leonardo’s notes, Newton’s explanations, Cervantes’ myth, Sappho’s broken songs, the vast surge of Homer—everything is a report of one kind or another and the sum of all of them together is our little knowledge of our world and of ourselves. Call a book Das Kapital or The Voyage of the Beagle or Theory of Relativity or Alice in Wonderland or Moby-Dick, it is still what Kazantzakis called his book—it is still a “report” upon the “mystery of things.”
But if this is what a book is… then a library is an extraordinary thing. …
The library, almost alone of the great monuments of civilization, stands taller now than it ever did before. The city… decays. The nation loses its grandeur… The university is not always certain what it is. But the library remains: a silent and enduring affirmation that the great Reports still speak, and not alone but somehow all together…”
As Librarian of Congress, he also initiated the position Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, now called Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
To read the poem, Liberty, by Archibald MacLeish, click here:
by Archibald MacLeish
When liberty is headlong girl
And runs her roads and wends her ways
Liberty will shriek and whirl
Her showery torch to see it blaze.
When liberty is wedded wife
And keeps the barn and counts the byre
Liberty amends her life.
She drowns her torch for fear of fire.
“Liberty” from Collected Poems 1917-1982. © 1985 by The Estate of Archibald MacLeish – Houghton Mifflin Company
Painting: “Liberty Fallen” from Down With Liberty, © 2013 by Karen Azoulay – Nothing Else Press