I was attempting to reorganize the bookshelf by my desk the other day, and I came across a TU library publication, Ghosts, Books, and Libraries, from 1982. Dr. Rennard Strickland, who was then the John W. Shleppey Research Professor of Law and History, addressed the University of Tulsa Library Associates during their inaugural meeting in May, opening the event with a speech concerning the value of libraries and the communities they serve. I feel the need to share part of his speech with the TU community, particularly with my colleagues in the English Department, because of Strickland’s apparent appreciation of books—of the written word—and their relationship to the past, present, and unforeseeable future, and their ability to forego time and place and speak to that constant human element within each of us.
I want to begin this talk about books and libraries with a scene from one of my favorite books. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the story of a boy and his father traveling across the country. One evening, early in their journey, the father, his young son Chris, and their friend John have stopped at a motel for the night. The father describes their discussion.
“Let’s tell stories . . . ,” Chris says. “Do you know any good ghost stories? All the kids in our cabin [at camp] used to tell ghost stories at night.”
After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts.”
“No,” I say.
“One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts. . . . Tom White Bear.”
John and I exchange look, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
“Ohhh, Indians!” John says.
I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”
“What’s the difference?” [Chris asks.] “Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff [about ghosts]. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”
He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts.”
“It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. . . . Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”
To me, books are ghost visits. They are the collective wisdom and shared experience, the common memory of all mankind. Libraries are the houses in which these ghosts not only live but prosper, where ghosts are nourished, are fed, and are exorcised by readers. And new young ghosts are brought to challenge the ideas of old ones.
There is no better description of the presence of ghosts in a library than Virginia Woolf’s account of the British Museum in her novel Jacob’s Room.
There is in the British Museum an enormous mind. Consider that Plato is there cheek by jowl with Aristotle; and Shakespeare with Marlowe. This great mind is hoarded beyond the power of any single mind to possess it. Nevertheless . . . one can’t help thinking how one might come with a notebook, sit at a desk, and read it all through. . .
Stone lies solid over the British Museum, as bone lies cool over the visions and heat of the brain. Only here the brain is Plato’s brain and Shakespeare’s. . . . Meanwhile, Plato continues his dialogue; in spite of the rain; in spite of the cab whistles; in spite of the woman . . . who has come home drunk and cries all night long, “Let me in! Let me in!”
–From Ghosts, Books, and Libraries, by Dr. Rennard Strickland, who is now Professor Emeritus in the Law Department at the University of Oregon.
To read the rest of Dr. Strickland’s speech, please come visit us in Special Collections.