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The Kind of Thing Librarians Do When the Library's Closed

January 21, 2013 at 8:33 PM

"But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."
-Martin Luther King Jr., "I've Been to the Mountaintop" (Memphis, TN--April 3, 1968)

A conversation with a friend inspired me to spend part of my day today looking up speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. (You can find a lot of transcripts and audio of them on the Internet, although we have books, CDs, and videos of them in the library system, too). The one I spent the most time with was King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon, which he gave the day before he was murdered. I had been vaguely aware of this address, but this was the first time I listened to it from beginning to end. In it, King talks about the particularlties of the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, urging people to take nonviolent action--encouraging peaceful protest and economic sanctions--but he calls people to a higher purpose, too. He references Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan and in a twist of interpretation confesses empathy for the priest and the Levite who failed to stop and help the man in need. King says, "And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure." He acknowledges how vulnerable we become when we stop to help someone, but he exhorts us to do so anyway. It is, he argues, an ethical and moral necessity.

While the sanitation workers' strike is a matter of history, the core themes of King's speech remain relevant because they are built on a foundation of history, philosophy, literature, politics, and economics. King was clearly the kind of person who loved a good library. His message makes me think of libraries, too, because what we do when we do our jobs the best is we stop and see the people who come in our doors, and we help them find what they need. King's words remind me that words are very powerful.

And so that's what I learned today. Not too bad for a day the library was closed. We're looking forward to opening back up tomorrow.


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