CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While back in my native state for a few days for a book signing, a number of people have been telling me about the unfortunate happenings with the Kanawha County Public Library.
As I listened, I was reminded of an incident back in 1985 when I was serving on the leadership staff of Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd.
The Gramm-Rudman Act, the 1985 version of sequestration, had imposed severe budget cuts on all federal agencies. These cuts had forced the Library of Congress to close its doors for evenings and on weekends. A dozen or so people who worked in the Library of Congress called to tell me what was happening.
I went right to Sen. Byrd and told him of the situation. That students, scholars, people who worked full-time day jobs, and others were being denied access to our nation's largest library.
I will always remember Sen. Byrd's response. He did not ask a single question. He did not even bat an eye. He just looked straight at me and said: "We can't let this happen. Find out how much they need."
This really impressed me. This man who was educated in a two-room school in a Southern West Virginia coal camp and who could not afford to attend college after graduating from high school, placed such a high value not only on education, but on access to knowledge. Considering that he was, for the most part, self-educated, maybe it did make sense. As a student and as an adult, he was always checking books out of libraries as well as taking correspondence classes to educate himself.
Following Sen. Byrd's instructions, I called the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Daniel Boorstin, and asked how much the library needed to stay open. The next day his office called me back and gave me the amount.
So I went to Sen. Byrd and told him what the library needed. Again, he did not ask a question. Nor was an eye batted. He just said: "We will get them the money."
In the speech in which he requested the needed money to keep the library open, Sen. Byrd pointed out, "From the earliest days of our republic, the leaders of the nation have recognized the importance of knowledge and the need to have it available to government officials and accessible to the people." By forcing the Library of Congress, "this treasured symbol" he called it, to close its doors to a large segment of the American public, the Gramm-Rudman Act was "anti-democratic" as well as "anti-knowledge."
The history of our country, he continued, has always been one of expanding and increasing access to knowledge. Now our government was restricting it. Other countries had restricted access to knowledge by the sword, by the banning of books, by the burning of books, by censorship of the press, but in the United States we were doing it through budget cuts. This, he explained, should not be happening in the United States. He quoted from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: "The most important bill in our whole life code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people."
Sen. Byrd delivered his words so passionately and so forcefully that anyone listening knew he believed every word. With the possible exception of his opposition to President George W. Bush's needless war with Iraq, in the 16 years I worked for Sen. Byrd, I, as a Senate staffer, former college professor, and West Virginian, was never more proud of him.
The public officials who are currently contemplating slicing the budgets of Kanawha County public libraries would do well to follow the advice and leadership of the Last Great Senator.
Corbin, a former speechwriter for Sen. Byrd, is author of "The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd's Encounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents."