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In Print: the last cultural commissar

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Of all Chicago's cultural commissars, Lawrence W. ("Bill") Towner was, until his death in 1991, perhaps the least known but the most nationally influential. Many people on the staff of the Newberry Library considered him a dictator when it came to policy, but no one doubted his scholarship, sense of purpose, or vision, which made the gloomy library into a shining example of independent scholarship.

He did not cultivate publicity for himself, and only reluctantly employed public-relations methods to raise money for the library. In Chicago at least he was the last administrator of a large institution whose true smarts lay more in the realm of preserving culture than in creating an institutional aura that would attract money--though he did that quite well, too.

In the two and a half years I worked for him as gofer-clerk-editorial assistant, I was able to watch a protean mind operating at full speed: he'd churn out lengthy letters cajoling people for money, then maybe an internal memorandum to the staff bibliographer about collecting books from a particular period, then a talk he was preparing on the uses of a library or to testify before Congress, then perhaps a book review or some other scholarly item. In nearly every case the writing was elegant, passionate, and forceful. He was never afraid to pile on an avalanche of words to support a cause. These writings often reached far beyond the confines of academia or of libraries, because Towner was not only a good writer but a humanist well aware of his place and time and the importance of the institution he represented.

So expansive a scholar, librarian, writer, and advocate for the humanities as Towner would seem a suitable subject for a conventional biography. But two of his former colleagues--Robert W. Karrow, a curator at the Newberry, and Alfred F. Young, a professor at Northern Illinois University--have chosen instead to publish a collection of Towner's best writing, from informal memoranda to letters, speeches, forewords, and essays, piecing together an interesting portrait. The writings in Past Imperfect, most of which have not been published before, taken together evince his formidable thinking. As Towner once said, "It takes an act of real imagination for a person who is not himself a scholar to get excited about what happens in a research library."

Towner reshaped the Newberry according to his own simple theory, articulated in one of his many speeches: "By 'Past Imperfect' I mean that our knowledge of the past--whether of literature, history, music, or philosophy--is, indeed, imperfect. It follows, so it seems to me, that it is the indispensable and primary use of a research library to preserve the records of the past so that research can make our knowledge less imperfect than it is. Any other purpose of a library, however appealing, can only be secondary."

Perhaps more important, he saw libraries as a social force, repositories of a "usable past" to constantly redefine history and keep it relevant--but not under the guise "of that heinous historical sin of presentism. . . . I think there is a significant difference between seeking the historical antecedents of a present problem, on the one hand, and judging the past by contemporary values, on the other."

Though he would certainly have scoffed at the term, Towner was thinking multiculturally long before that was fashionable. In 1977 he wrote the foreword for the second edition of The Surrounded, a 1936 novel about American Indians by D'Arcy McNickle, the founding director of the Newberry's Center for the History of the American Indian: "Times are surely riper for The Surrounded in 1977 than they were in 1936. It is true that federal policy in the 1930s was changing, showing a new respect for, and a desire to protect, the diverse cultural patterns of the First Americans (a policy tragically reversed in the 1950s in still another attempt to eliminate the Indian problem by eliminating the Indians). . . . But most Americans, even though shaken by the Great Depression, were still too confident of the American Dream to be moved by a desire to share the land with those who owned it first. Despite evidence to the contrary, most Americans assumed that the 'Indian problem' would go away as the Indians died or were assimilated--if indeed they thought about them at all. . . .

"No longer confident of its own history, or of the 'American way of life,' the America of the 1970s may be more sympathetic to other peoples and other cultures than it was, or at least more understanding of other peoples who may seem also to have lost their way."

Towner was indefatigable in his efforts to bring history--especially American history--into the present. And the writing in Past Imperfect reveals the passion of someone who understood the real value of books in building a literate, progressive, and compassionate society. Past Imperfect: Essays on History, Libraries, and the Humanities, by Lawrence W. Towner, is available at bookstores or by calling the University of Chicago Press, 568-1550, or the Newberry, 943-9090.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy the Newberry Library, Koehne Studio.

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