“Verba volant, scripta manent.” [“Spoken words fly away, written words remain.”] — Latin proverb
Leaders know that if you want people to remember what you say, put it in writing.
We’re fortunate to live in a time when we can consult the oracle at Google, finding myriad answers to the puzzles of life that confound us — where a great speech given by a leader of the past is no more than a Wikipedia article or YouTube video away.
But the reason we can easily peruse the clever oratory of Marcus Tullius Cicero or the simple brevity of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is that we have them in writing.
The treasure chest of humanity’s history is the written word. Somewhere along the way, Homo sapiens determined that we needed a record of our thoughts, processes, and events.
The Library as a Center of Knowledge
When Ptolemy I founded the Great Library of Alexandria circa 272 B.C., little did he know that it would eventually grow to house as many as 700,000 texts. From the standardized text of Homer’s poems to scientific knowledge, the library came to represent Alexandria as the intellectual capital of the world, and many philosophers, scientists, historians, and other leading Greek intellectuals gravitated there.
This idyllic setting for intellectuals was disrupted within 150 years, thanks to the instability of the Ptolemy dynasty, which fell to the clarion call of nationalism and began to emphasize the Egyptian aspect of their nation over the Greek influence.
When Ptolemy VIII rose to the throne following the murder of Ptolemy VI, the new ruler purged those who opposed him and supported his predecessor; many Greek scholars had already begun to leave Alexandria for safer countries, and Aristarchus the sixth head librarian, fled to Cyprus.
After that, the position of head librarian was treated as a political appointment rather than an intellectual position, with Ptolemy filling the role as a reward to those most loyal to him. He appointed Cydas, one of his palace guards, as head librarian, further diminishing the position.
Unsurprisingly, the political climate grew less stable in Alexandria, further weakening the region and leading to its invasion by Roman forces in the following century.
Alexandria was no longer the center of knowledge as the library’s contents were dispersed.
““Read to live,” says Flaubert somewhere in his letters, and I take him at his word. Books I regard as voyages of discovery, and with an author I admire I gladly book passage to any and all points of view or destination—to Rome during the lives of the Caesars, to Shakespeare’s London, to Berlin and Harlem in the 1920s. I don’t go in search of the lost gold mine of imperishable truth. I look instead to find the present in the past, the past in the present. To discover within myself the presence of a once and future human being.” — Lewis H. Lapham, 2020
Leaders and Libraries
Why does all of this matter to leaders? Why should we care about a center of learning or documenting our thoughts, visions, and plans?
The hallmark of a great leader is strong communication. Words matter.
Being able to move people with your spoken words, whether in front of an audience at a conference or from a video screen, is a talent.
But the feelings that are stirred fade, leaving a vague sensation or perhaps even misheard phrases in their place. Reinforcing oratory with a written record leaves a permanent mark on the mind.
This is particularly apt, as we can’t predict when people will have time to reflect on our words or when the mood might strike them to look something up. Everyone consumes media at different paces and in different settings.
And yes, one of those settings might be a library. It could be a home library or a public library, but the intention is the same: to have a sanctum sanctorum where we can retreat with our thoughts and our reading material, to become absorbed for a while.
E.B. White once made the most lovely observation about libraries in a letter to the children of Troy in 1971:
“A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books. If you want to find out about something, the information is in the reference books---the dictionaries, the encyclopedias, the atlases. If you like to be told a story, the library is the place to go. Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had. And when you are reading a book, you and the author are alone together---just the two of you. A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people---people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”
As you’re thinking about the next Zoom call or engaging in the latest barrage of Slack or Discord messages, consider the ethereal nature of those interactions.
How might you aim for the permanence of your ideas and words? How could you leave your story in the minds, in the hearts, and on the lips of the people you wish to inspire?
Think back to what we once had in Alexandria.
Give your audience a chance to build a repository of their own, comprised of knowledge amassed from thinkers of all sorts, catalogued and categorized for easy reach, from within their minds or from their shelves.
Let the written word remain.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
P.S. One piece of bonus material this week: Here is a Theodore Roosevelt Reading List: book recommendations from a constant reader.
A few thoughts: 1. Too few people study history in any capacity and so not enough of us see the patterns repeating before it's too late to mount an intervention. In other words, the changes under Ptolemy VIII are sounding mighty familiar. Sigh. 2. As for libraries, as a shy and nerdy kid who used too many big words, the ability to be kept company by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Jane Addams and others, via their biographies in section 921, offered relief. 3. Great orators often need the help of great writers who know how to translate the spoken word into the written one with the same or greater impact.