Williams Convocation Address: “Bibliolarceny and the Size of the Universe”

My alma mater, Williams College, begins the academic year with a convocation, a ceremony for seniors, faculty and a small number of alumni who are being honored with the college’s Bicentennial medal, an award for “distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor”. I was honored to be one of those medal recipients this year, and the college asked me to address the students. My remarks follow below. (Should you want to see me deliver the address, here’s the YouTube video.)

If the job of a commencement address is to offer students thoughts on how to exit college and enter the world, a convocation address can urge students to make the best of their remaining time in college. I wanted to try to connect my time at Williams more than twenty years ago to my professional life, to talk about the college’s new library and connect the year’s academic theme – The Book, Unbound – to my own work.

I’m posting the speech here at the request of a few faculty and students who were kind enough to ask. It may not make a ton of sense to my regular readers, who don’t know about the rivalry between Williams and Amherst, two fine colleges in Western Massachusetts that have lots of similarities and a long-standing rivalry. I’m not above playing to the hometown crowd, so most of the laugh lines here are digs at Amherst and Lord Jeffrey Amherst, British Army commander and all-around nasty piece of work.


I’m honored and thrilled to be with you today for the Williams 2014 Convocation, for the dedication of the extraordinary and beautiful new Sawyer Library, and for this year’s conversation about “The Book, Unbound”. Given the circumstances, I’ve been thinking back to one of my favorite Williams origin stories. You know it, I’m sure: how in September 1821, Zephaniah Swift Moore, the second President of Williams College, skulked out of town in the dead of night, leaving the wilderness of western Massachusetts to build Amherst in the tamer lands of the Pioneer Valley, taking with him not only 15 students but key volumes from the Williams College library.

It’s a fantastic story, just the sort of thing to justify our centuries-old rivalry with our neighbors to the east. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Yes, President Moore left, and yes, fifteen students left with him. And there’s a lack of clarity about where the 700 books that constituted Amherst’s original library came from. But there’s no evidence that Amherst’s library was seeded with purloined volumes, only records of votes by student societies not to move libraries along with the students who left the college.

It’s possible the story began as an excuse for the poor quality of the Williams library in the 1800s. In 1821, the library wouldn’t have been that hard to steal – at that point, Williams had two buildings, two professors, two tutors and 1400 volumes, ot a huge expansion from the school’s original library, 360 volumes in a bookcase in West College. And students complained bitterly of the quality of those books, most of which were dusty theological texts – if you wanted to read non religious literature at Williams for much of 1800s, you would do better to turn to student-run literary and scientific societies.

It’s likely that the legend is much more recent, probably forming in early 1960s. In an essay about the legend, Dustin Griffin points out that early histories of the college discuss President Moore’s departure and rivalries with Amherst, but not the story of the books, and that the story of the books wasn’t one his contemporaries knew in the early 1960s. But by the mid 1960s, there’s record of John Chandler, then dean of the faculty, visiting Amherst’s new library in 1965 cracking a joke about coming to take our books back. When I was here in the early 1990s, the theft of Williams’s library was presented as fact, a simple explanation for the inherent moral superiority of our institution over our rival… which was helpful, as many of us had applied to Amherst as well and needed solid grounding for our contempt.

So we have a myth that’s fairly recent, but which has some powerful explanatory properties and enduring power. It’s worth picking at the myth and asking what it says about us as a culture that this is one of our origin stories, an explanation for our place in the world.

When I’ve heard the story, the theft of the books is always presented as the final straw: Yes, Amherst took our president and took our students. But can you believe they had the nerve to take our books! Bibliolarceny is somehow a more serious crime than other forms of theft – not, perhaps, as serious as proposing the extermination of native Americans with smallpox blankets, but worthy of special consideration nevertheless.

Books have a special, symbolic meaning in our culture. The burning of books – whether by the Mongols when they sacked Baghdad in the 9th century, the burning of “degenerate texts” by the Nazis in the 1930s or American extremists burning the Quran today – isn’t just about the destruction of an object. It’s the symbolic destruction of a people, a culture and a way of thinking. Whether we’re banning books from library shelves, burning them or stealing them, we’re talking about shrinking the universe of cultural possibilities, limiting the number of different ways we can look at the world through the eyes of the authors.

I think that’s why this story has special significance in the context of a college. Even before 1965, when this story gained its currency, college was a place to expand your worldview. The process of packing up, leaving your hometown and going to live with a new set of people is constructed not just to give you access to a different set of teachers, but to a different and broader set of friends and influences. In 1965, when this myth took root, colleges themselves were shifting. In 1964, the civil rights act mandated access to public schools for African Americans and for women. Williams became coeducational in 1970. When this myth arose, we were right on the cusp of the college experience changing: from one which exposed students to a world of mostly white men, to one which served as a bridge to a much wider, multicultural international world. Against that backdrop of the widening world, we have a story about part of a college’s community giving up, finding the challenge of building a community out in the wilds to be too difficult, and shrinking the horizons of those who stayed by taking their books.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about this story is that I wonder whether it has as much currency now as it did in the 60s, or even in the 90s. We’re at a very different moment in our relationship with books, our relationship with information, than we were even twenty years ago. The story of the stolen books is a story from the days of scarce information. Now most of us feel like we’re inundated with information, possibly drowning in it. How do we think about losing part of our library when we have an apparent infinity of information online?

I published a book last summer, Rewire, that looked at the question of how having access to an abundance of global information is changing what we know about the world. I had been a cyberutopian, someone who believed that the internet was going to make the world a smaller, more connected and more understanding place. This seemed pretty obvious to me – it used to be really hard to get news from Sub Saharan Africa or Central Asia – now you can read a Nigerian newspaper online or make a Skype call to Kazakhstan.

But a strange thing has happened as we’ve gotten access to more information from around the world – most of us are choosing to encounter less of it. We have to make thousands of decisions a day about whether we read a story about Ebola, a tweet from Ferguson, or a Facebook update from a high school classmate. In aggregate, most of us are getting much less international news than we did in an era of the daily newspaper and three television stations.

When we’re faced with a wealth of choices, we tend to opt for the familiar, for what we already know to be important. It’s a basic human tendency to pay more attention to members of “our tribe” than people we’ve never met and don’t have a reason to care about. This was a fine coping strategy for a world of disconnected villages, the world almost everyone lived in 500 years ago, but it’s deeply maladaptive for the connected world we live in today. We may not know anyone in Liberia, but it’s a pretty short plane flight from Monrovia to New York – problems that were distant have a way of become our problems very quickly.

Much of my work at MIT looks at questions of how we maintain a broad view of the world when we’re faced with an avalanche of information. It’s directly parallel to the problems librarians have today now that the problem isn’t expanding from 360 volumes to 1400 – the problem is engineering serendipity. It’s making the library – or, in my case, the internet – both a place where you can take a deep dive into a subject you care about, and also a place where you can discover something unexpected and life changing.

One of the things I’ve learned in my research is that it’s much easier to pay attention to people than to places. If there’s someone you care about who’s from Haiti, if you’ve had the chance to travel there and meet people from Haiti, you’ll watch the news differently. You’ll have a connection to that place, a context for a story you hear. The events will be more real to you because Haiti is more real to you through the people you know there.

For ten years, I’ve been helping run a website called Global Voices, which uses citizen media – blogposts, YouTube videos, tweets – to bring readers news from around the globe. The reason we use citizen media is that it gives you a connection to ordinary people writing online as well as to the events they’re describing. For our readers and our community, the Arab Spring wasn’t just the story about a political upheaval – it was the story of our friends who were in the streets, in and out of prison and then in and out of the new governments.

I started working on Global Voices because I wanted to read more news about sub-Saharan Africa in the newspaper. That’s because I spent five years in Ghana helping Ghanaians build internet service providers and other technology businesses. And I started doing that because I spent a year in Ghana on a Fulbright grant studying xylophone music. What got me interested in that was Sandra Burton, who I believe should be considered a national treasure as well as one of our colleges’ greatest heroes. Along with Gary Sojkowski and the late Ernest Brown, Sandra founded Kusika, the African dance ensemble, which was the center of my community when I was at Williams. The strange and wonderful path my life has taken, from starting an early web company to building internet businesses in Africa to working with media activists and journalists around the world, to teaching at MIT leads directly back to the dance studio and to the computer labs, to the professors and students who were passionate about a world wide enough to include both Africa and the internet.

The next time you visit Sawyer Library, I’d ask you to think about the ways in which it’s carefully curated, designed to make it possible to get lost productively, to discover something unexpected but wonderful. Possibly the only thing at Williams more carefully curated is the class you are a part of. We’ve got an almost infinite capacity to put information on shelves physically or virtually, but the opportunity to be in this place, with these people for four years is decidedly finite. I’m grateful for the effort that went into giving me a universe of a couple thousands people who challenged me and invited me to discover new ways of looking at the world.

This is something the college does very consciously, for the simple reason that who we know is going to help determine who we are. I don’t mean this in the narrow sense that, if the person sitting next to you founds the next Facebook, maybe you’ll get some stock options. I mean it in a much broader sense: that who you know, who you care about tends to determine how you view the world, what you pay attention to, and ultimately will shape your path through the world.

Like the library, like the internet, the class of 2015 is too big to know. But if the challenge of a really great library is not just to explore what you already know, what you already care about, the challenge is the same, to challenge yourself to expand your picture of the world by expanding who you know and who and what you care about.

Here’s what Zephiniah Swift Moore took from Williams when he left for Amherst: he took 15 students, 20% of the student body. We can think of those mythical stolen books as shrinking the universe, what we could learn from those volumes. But we should think of losing those students in the same way, as losing the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes.

We’re always going to have to make choices about who we know, what we read, what we care about. We never get to read every book, even when there are only 360 on the shelves, and we’re never going to know the people around us as well as they deserve to be known. But we can make decisions to choose a wider world. In ways I never expected, Williams launched me into a world that’s wider than I had imagined. I am eternally grateful for this and I hope the same for you.


Writing this address was a great chance to read up on the early history of Williams and its library. Here are some of the sources I benefited from:

Dustin Griffin (Williams ’65) wrote a terrific essay, “The Theft of the Williams Library”, which I drew from heavily. I’m especially grateful to Griffin for the term “bibliolarceny”.

Steve Satullo (Williams ’69) has been researching the history of Williams libraries as the college has built and moved Sawyer library. His essays have been very helpful for understanding the early days of the Williams library and its shortcomings.

In understanding the state of Williams College and the reasons Zephaniah Swift Moore and others believed it was important to move Williams from the wilderness toward the more settled Pioneer Valley, the 1895 “A History of Amherst College” by William S. Tyler is very helpful.

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7 Responses to Williams Convocation Address: “Bibliolarceny and the Size of the Universe”

  1. Eszter says:

    Terrific, Ethan, nicely done!

  2. marvin barenblat says:

    Thanks for the opportunity to have read you “Williams Convocation Address…only wish I had been there to have heard you “in person”…All the best, Marvin

  3. Dylan Tweney says:

    Nice address, Ethan! I had no idea that the legend about the library theft was probably apocryphal. It still makes a nice story, though.

  4. Kevin Greenberg says:

    A terrific speech from one of the most creative thinkers I ever met. 25 years ago we knew you were brilliant, but most of us are shocked that the mainstream world got to take notice. Congrats!

  5. Anne Marie says:

    Nice speech! Haven’t spoken nor seen you in 20+ years probably, but learning layout software and Photoshop from you for the Gharial my freshman year led to my own career trajectory into instructional design and internet work. Indeed, the people as much as the books are the value of a Williams education! On a similar note, I remember my dad insisted that I stay on the school meal plan all 4 college years, not because he thought I’d eat badly otherwise, but because he swore he learned more in the college dining hall from his peers than he ever did in the classroom.

  6. Terry Martin says:

    Brilliant, Ethan.

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