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By the Library Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Matt, United States Jul 4, 2003
Human Rights  
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In the heart of Philadelphia stands a majestic building whose stone cloak is thoroughly classical and whose interior is a modernized portal to, and guardian of, a large and representative portion of human knowledge. It is the Central Library, and its walls contain more than simple books from New York and London printing presses. Just beneath the roof, at the zenith of old staircases and new elevators, is a specialized repository: it is the Rare Books Department.

The Rare Books Department houses those books, manuscripts and pieces of art deemed “historically important” and valuable—too precious, fragile and rare for any chances to be taken with them. Illuminated manuscripts sparkle with the thin layers of gold applied by a pious anonymous monk, doing his duty to replicate knowledge and teachings. Original printings of Charles Dickens’ fiction rest peacefully, not to be disturbed.

These books are given homes on sterile shelves and in pristine locked cases. The humidity is carefully controlled, as is the temperature, so that the books will not suffer ill effects from their environment. Rarely do any hands touch the protected works, though on occasion those of the carefully clean and careful curators will move, display or check up on a guarded masterpiece. Watchmen and caretakers are always present, working behind locked doors through which only special employees and arranged visitors may pass. They leave the library only under special circumstances, such as when they were on loan to Philadelphia’s famous art museum to be displayed with equal care and greater pomp.

On the other side of the library’s outer wall, perhaps meters away from a unique incunabulum, leans another valuable and rarely visited point of curiosity. He is not wrapped in leather binding, but a thin blue plaid blanket. He is worn from time, but has no pages. His words do not reach visitors, but they are no less important. It’s a human being, a homeless man.

His shelf is the far-from-pristine sidewalks and alleys of Philadelphia, his case is more like a cage of circumstance, preventing him from finding a job or even a bed in the overburdened shelters scattered too sparsely across the city. His environmental conditions are monitored by no one and are adjusted as frequently as the weather changes. Lacking a roof and walls to protect himself from the rain and wind, there is no thought of a thermostat or humidity regulator. Like the books, he is rarely touched, but that is because, it seems from my view point, that he has no family to hug, no proffered hands to shake, no friends with whom he can even talk. His curators consist of soup kitchens that will feed him every now and then—if there’s enough food. He has no door to lock to keep him isolated or safe at night, and his protection comes in the form of patrolling police officers, whose main role in the man’s life is to inform him when he must move and where he cannot be. He stays silent on the always-shadowed rear side of the library, hidden from the city and the people streaming in and out of the library’s front entrance, unwittingly putting books before people. I see him there, and wonder why.

The man doesn’t complain or protest the elevated treatment of the books. He stays silent; experience has taught him there is no recourse but the passive acceptance of his lot. He speaks only when sought out, responding to “Friend” or “Buddy;” over the years he stopped calling attention to himself, ceased even offering his name. In the winters, if pressed, he’ll admit he’s cold and accept an offered blanket, new jacket or dry clothing to replace his freezing wet cloth. In my experience, if he can, when he’s not starving, he’ll politely refuse food. Unlike many street-dweller’s, this man’s eyes are always alert, not only for his own protection, but alert in searching. He searches not for handouts or help, but opportunity—his only wish.

Enormous sums of money are spent every day to care for special stacks of paper, vellum and parchment are never thought a waste; a library has a noble purpose, after all, to hold and make available knowledge. The library users sleep easy at night, knowing that their taxes are protecting original copies of Charles Dickens’ books, whose pages are filled with sympathy for the less fortunate. They derive peace of mind from donating enough to buy another illuminated bible, which preaches love and charity.

So much is spent on these books; they have such high extrinsic value. They are valued for their age and rarity, given better treatment than people. One time, on a school trip to the Rare Books Department, a child asked a simple question. “Why are the books valued so highly, if their authors are not heeded and their messages ignored?” No tour guide or teacher could answer his question, and the answer was not printed in any book, no matter how rare or old.


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Life not object
Morgan Levy | Aug 31st, 2003
While I agree with the disturbance you voice on the matter of an inanimate object's worth being held above that of a human life, I feel that your comparison demeans your argument. By focusing on the protected and rather privileged life of a rare book collection, something of material rather then personal value, you contort the impact of the homeless man's plight. Instead of emphasizing the absurdity of essentially loving an object more than a life, you have turned the homeless man into an object by comparison. When you draw the line seamlessly between the

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