Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > An Unsolved Mystery at the Talbot County Free Library
Notre Dame burned yesterday. There's a sentence to silence the mind. The fire gutted the cathedral. The central spire became a torch, then a spent match, and then it wasn't there anymore. On the internet, among our friends, there were expressions of inconsolable grief, of anger (How could we have let this happen?), and of despair ... the church's fiery end standing somehow for all that seems to be coming apart, ending, in our world.
Ironically, the building had been undergoing months of restoration work when the fire broke out. Early theories see a culprit there, some workman who left a piece of equipment still plugged in, still hot, resting perhaps on something all too flammable. I imagine scores of French workmen from that restoration team in their homes last night, watching the television, biting their nails. Was I the one? Am I responsible for bringing down an edifice that stood for, symbolized, civilization? Will the ages hold me up as the knave whose carelessness brought an end to one of mankind's most sublime creations?
If it was a workman, if it was the result of negligence, can you imagine what he wouldn't give to take it back, to undo that one injudicious moment when he turned from the day's work, failed to check everything one last time, hurried off home instead, little more than the thought of dinner occupying his mind? How often have we all, at one time or another in our lives, wished something similar, regretted some similar, seemingly minor bit of carelessness that resulted in catastrophe? But thankfully, we tell ourselves, nothing of such magnitude, nothing that could be viewed as a crime against civilization.
But is that true? Churches have burned before, haven't they? And not all the fires have been accidental. Don't we each, in our own way, every day, carry a book of matches around with us? When someone says something hateful, when someone does something hateful, we have a choice. We can light a match, add our heat to the flame. We can (and often do) turn our backs, tell ourselves it's none of our business, ignore the imminent danger. Or we can say something soothing, try to restore the moment, the world, to its rightful place.
I work at the Talbot County Free Library, in its own small way as much a symbol of civilization as Notre Dame. It may sound silly when compared to a twelfth century cathedral, but I can't tell you how frightening it can be knowing you're responsible for the safety of a library. When we close at night, I want to check each door twice, make sure all alarms are set and functioning, try to remember each and every little thing. During regular hours of operation, I try to keep a weather eye on all that is going on around me, try to make sure our patrons are safe, their information kept secure and confidential, their minds free to wander where they will. All of us at the library feel this responsibility.
But there is another responsibility we feel and honor as well. The library prides itself on being neutral ground, a place where people of different beliefs can come together to work, study, and discuss as our forefathers dreamt they would. To protect and maintain this neutrality, we library staff avoid, on principle, making any remark that might be taken for partisan ... just as carefully as we avoid leaving a fire exit blocked or a water tap running. Over the years, it sets a tone for one's mind, a tone of civility and respect. I like it. I think the people who have to live around me like it. I wish I'd gone to work for the library earlier in my life; I can believe others wish it as well. And, truth be told, at a time like this, maybe the best we can do for the world, for the generations that built and reverenced Notre Dame, is to take a step back and consider what we hold sacred in our lives, what is the library, the cathedral, we feel called upon to protect and maintain.
Each of us in his own way, however small, has a duty to protect civilization, to keep those matches we carry safely out of sight, safely packed away in their little box. A building can be replaced. Notre Dame can be (and I pray will be) rebuilt. But what we can't afford to lose is the sense of community that allows edifices like Notre Dame to be erected in the first place. Let us take care of each other. If we are to take any lesson from this awful, awful tragedy, let us learn to take care of each other.
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