The Very Existence of Libraries Affords the Best Evidence That We May Yet Have Hope for the Future of Man

T. S. Eliot? Jayne Ann Krentz? Alan Bennett? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot apparently stated that the establishment of libraries provided compelling evidence that humanity had a future. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The renowned poet T. S. Eliot died in 1965, and the earliest match known to QI appeared many years later in 1992 within the novel “Perfect Partners” by Jayne Ann Krentz who started her career as a librarian before she become a top-selling romance author. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Since the days of ancient Alexandria libraries had stood for all the best that mankind could achieve.

The very existence of libraries held out hope for the future of the human race, as far as Letty was concerned. If people had enough sense to collect and store information and make it available to everyone, perhaps they would someday have enough sense to use that wisdom to stop wars and find a cure for cancer.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A very similar statement was ascribed to T. S. Eliot within the 1999 book “Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of Men and Nations” by George and Karen Grant. The remark was grouped with other quotations about libraries in a chapter called “Literary Collections”: 2

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The authors did not present a citation, and QI has not yet been able to identify a source within the works of T. S. Eliot.

In 2000 “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution” published the quotation at the top of the first page of the “Arts and Book” newspaper section. The book “Shelf Life” was acknowledged: 3

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.” –T.S. ELIOT, QUOTED IN “SHELF LIFE: HOW BOOKS HAVE CHANGED THE DESTINIES AND DESIRES OF MEN AND NATIONS”

In 2010 the “Chicago Examiner” published an article about the Harold Washington Library Center of Chicago, Illinois. The paper remarked that the quotation was conspicuously displayed on a wall of the library: 4

East of the award case is a large water basin that wraps around a downward escalator. People throw coins into the basin, as if it were a wishing well. Above the basin is a quote from the American-born English poet T. S. Elliot (1888-1965), “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”

In 2014 a columnist in “Hood County News” of Granbury, Texas employed the statement as an epigraph for an article discussing books acquired by the local library: 5

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”
—T.S. Eliot, poet

In 2016 the publisher Faber & Faber of London issued a tweet attributing the saying to a prominent playwright and screenwriter: 6

‘The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.’
– Alan Bennett

The website of The International T. S. Eliot Society has a webpage about “Popular Quotes Attributed to T. S. Eliot”. The quotation under examination is accompanied with the annotation “Source unknown”: 7

The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.
Source unknown

Though it seems plausibly Eliot’s in both language and substance, this saying remains untraced.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. Jayne Ann Krentz is the leading candidate for coiner of the saying based on the 1992 citation. It is conceivable that she heard or read a similar remark before she placed it in her novel; however, QI has not yet found earlier matches. Also, the evidence supporting the ascription to T. S. Eliot is weak because it appeared in 1999 which is very late. Perhaps future investigators will uncover illuminating citations.

Image Notes: Picture of shelves of books in a library from Tamás Mészáros at Pexels. The image has been retouched and resized.

(Many thanks to Katherine Harper who told QI about the valuable 1992 citation. Great thanks to Jérémie Conan, Sandra Gornall, Tim Spalding, Robert Macfarlane, and David Chinitz whose discussion and inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to David Chinitz for pointing to the 2016 tweet. In addition, thanks to Brian Luff for pointing to a typo. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Update History: On June 23, 2019 the 1992 citation was added to the article. On June 24, 2019 the 2016 tweet was added.

Notes:

  1. 1992, Perfect Partners by Jayne Ann Krentz, Chapter 7, Quote Page 123, Pocket Books: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1999, Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of Men and Nations by George Grant and Karen Grant, Chapter: Literary Collections, Quote Page 91, Cumberland House, Nashville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans)
  3. 2000 January 2, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Quote of the Week, Quote Page K13, Column 2, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 2010 November 24, Chicago Examiner, Section: Chicago Libraries Examiner, Article: The Harold Washington Library Center, Part 3: The Popular Library and Grand Lobby, Author: Sean O’Connor, (Page number not listed), Chicago, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. 2014 August 13, Hood County News, The future is at the library by Bobbie Brownlee (Friends of the Library Community), Quote Page 8B, Column 4, Granbury, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. Tweet, From: Faber & Faber @FaberBooks, Time: 5:11 AM, Date: November 19, 2016, Text: ‘The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.’ – Alan Bennett. (Accessed on twitter.com on June 24, 2019) link
  7. Website: The International T. S. Eliot Society, Article title: Popular Quotes Attributed to T. S. Eliot, Date on website: Undated, Website description: Website for an international association of persons interested in the art and thought of T. S. Eliot; the society was founded in 1980. (Accessed tseliot.sites.luc.edu on June 21, 2019) link