What the commonwealth still requires

When civilization seems to be under pressure in the ‘post-truth’ era, the public library helps hold things together.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Elsa Palariza works on a computer in the reading room at the Boston Public Library, Copley Branch, in Boston, Mass.

I had an opportunity to play tourist in my hometown the other day. Planning a day of visiting museums with a friend in from out of town, I was reminded that a different kind of cultural institution would also be worth a visit: the Boston Public Library (BPL) on Copley Square, with public tours of its art and architecture.

Maybe I was feeling some postelection aftershocks, or maybe just a surge of pre-holiday gratitude. But it seemed like a good idea to celebrate this palace of learning. At a time of stress and division in the body politic, cultural institutions keep us together. Great libraries remind us that beauty and truth are “free to all,” in the BPL’s simple but memorable phrase, and what’s more, that there are facts of given situations that can be discovered, even in the world of “post-truth.”

The BPL is a municipal institution, but it serves the entire commonwealth: Anyone who lives, works, studies, or owns property in Massachusetts can have a full-service BPL card. And commonwealth is a good word to keep in mind in connection with the library. 

It originally meant something like “the public welfare or general good,” a sense now taken over by commonweal. By the 16th century, commonwealth meant the “whole body of people constituting a nation or state, the body politic; a state, an independent community, esp. viewed as a body in which the whole people have a voice or an interest,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The philosopher John Locke used the term as an equivalent of the Latin civitas.

Massachusetts is one of four states in the United States formally designated as “commonwealth.” The other three are Pennsylvania, Virginia (like the Bay State, one of the original 13 Colonies), and Kentucky, once part of Virginia but hived off in 1792 to become the 15th state. 

Oxford Dictionaries was in the news again recently, and for another reason than usage look-ups. Merriam-Webster’s list of top “trending” look-ups tells you all you would want to know about the election cycle just ended, maybe more: fascism, bigot, xenophobe, racism, socialism, resurgence, xenophobia, misogyny.

But no single word describes the whole global political cycle so much as Oxford Dictionaries’ pick for the 2016 word of the year: “post-truth,” with its abandonment of truth in favor of perception and assertion. 

Before we taxied off to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Venetian palazzo on the Fenway, I wanted to show my friend the inscription on the Boylston Street side of the library, a quotation attributed to its Board of Trustees. It always moves me to see it, but I was surprised to feel the catch in my voice as I read it aloud: “The commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.”

With its mention of “order,” you’d have to call it a conservative motto. But the commonwealth, I suggest, is not “post-truth.” 

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