“I love the library and had done a lot of work there as a researcher and writer, going back to when I first came to Boston in 1969,” says James Carroll. “It was such a vital center of civic life and intellectual life for me already, and I knew from my own experience how urgently important the library is for the citizens of our Commonwealth.” So, when an unofficial “writer’s seat” previously held by Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough became open, Jim was happy to join the Boston Public Library’s Board of Trustees. During his 11-year tenure, Jim chaired the Neighborhood Services Initiative and the BPL Compass Committee.
“Culture changed more between 1450 and 1550, one might argue, than in any other century over the last several millennia. A vast population of Europe that had no relationship to reading, for example, within a century became significantly literate,” he explains. “So from Gutenberg to Shakespeare, this revolution in human awareness embodied in reading and the book, and the changes in the way the human mind works, the way communication works, the way culture identifies itself— all of that followed on a technological revolution in how human beings read.”
To Jim, we’re going through a version of the very same thing—perhaps with even more far-reaching consequences. “And libraries are at the dead center of this revolution, which is why it’s so urgent,” he says.
Recognizing that there is resistance to the evolution in digital technology, he warns against succumbing to it. “The library can’t be defensive and afraid of new technologies on one hand—that’s the perfect formula for being left behind and discarded by culture—and it can’t let go of its custodianship of the treasured literacy of the past,” he says. “It’s more important than ever that we remember what the book was and learn from how human beings treasured it. The Boston Public Library is doing a great job, in my opinion, of maintaining the cultural tradition by keeping the book as the central symbol, but also understanding that service to the public is about far more than books.” He adds that, “If there were no public libraries today, someone with the brilliant idea of establishing public libraries would never get the funding. It would never happen today. There’s no way government—local, state, or federal—would undertake to embark on the library system.”
Fortunately, he sees a brighter future ahead for the Boston Public Library. As he puts it, “I think it’s the center of public service, the heart of the way city government responds to the needs of its citizens as they grow from infancy to old age, centrally and in partnership with public schools and other public institutions.”
For that reason, he predicts “more and more, not less and less” public resources poured into libraries, enabling them to expand their services. In his vision, libraries will serve as community centers and connectors. “Many community members urgently require the services that are available at the library, whether you’re talking about internet access so that people can go online and apply for jobs or academic assistance for kids who are living in homes where both parents are working late, and so forth,” he says. “The library does it all.”