Isaac Asimov's letter to the future patrons of a new library

97 writers sent letters in 1971 to celebrate the opening of the new library in Troy, MI., including Isaac Asimov, who had this to say: "Congratulations on the new library, because it isn't just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you---and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life."

The Troy library is under threat of closure today.

A library is many things (via Beth Pratt)


  1. I love this so much – and mostly because it looks just like the two postcards I got from Asimov way back when. Ah, Isaac…

  2. A library is also:
    1) a warehouse half-full of useless junk in dead-tree format
    2) often, a museum to old, expensive technology (microfilms etc).

    Libraries shouldn’t be closed: they should be reinvented for the XXI century.

    1. My local library system puts a lot of emphasis on offering free wi-fi, free computer use, and free online access to periodicals and other databases from anywhere (just log in with your library card). There’s huge demand for internet access at the library; a lot of people nearby can’t afford a home computer or home internet.

      The library also does a great job of keeping their print collection current, relevant, and useful. (They had each Ex Machina trade in circulation the week it came out. Yes, they carry graphic novels.) And yes, there are some things for which dead-tree format is still the most useful and accessible.

      They are the very model of a modern [strikethrough]major general[/strikethrough] 21st century library.

      But their funding is still getting slashed. They’re still having to cut hours and staff.

      Libraries aren’t necessarily getting closed because they’re old and irrelevant. They’re getting closed because the geniuses in local government don’t see the public good in free, open access to information.

      /daughter of a librarian, please excuse the soapbox

      1. Please don’t excuse yourself for getting on a soap box over libraries. They are hugely important to society and it is only those who have never had to depend on them that don’t see this importance. I never had a computer until I finished my university degrees and started my PhD and I depended on libraries to be able to do my school work and my university studies. My family couldn’t afford one and neither could I. Everything my parents had went in to being able to give my brother and me and education.

        Far from being irrelevant, libraries are more important now than ever. We still need to know about old technologies even if they are old and outdated, we still need to preserve at least some of the “dead tree format” that is in existence even if it is not read by the new little young things and we need to preserve an open, free space for people to access knowledge in whatever format.

        We need to be very careful about “getting rid” of things before we know what it is that we are getting rid of and what impact that will have on future generations.

        1. This is just an old fart talking, but I firmly believe that the “dead tree format” imparts something that the various instant gratification machines do not. To anyone who cares about “civilization” a library is a sacred place. As for why the geniuses in local government don’t see the value in free, open access to information, it’s pure survival instinct. A informed electorate capable of critical thinking would not vote for a lot of them. George Carlin is quite eloquent on this topic, several places on YouTube (try “The American Dream”.

    2. They are also somewhere safe that isn’t home, a place where it is ok to sit and read, somewhere warm and dry when you have no home, internet access and computer access when you have none, a space to work when you don’t have one, a public access learning environment and open to everyone so don’t knock them.

    3. 1) a warehouse half-full of useless junk in dead-tree format

      The wrongness of your sentiment is epic. Your tastes are neither superior nor universal. The library is for everyone, including you. So I do like your second point a lot better than that first one.

    4. Microfilms are old, expensive, and sometimes the only place I can find old original writings without paying a lot of money for someone to scan them. I’ll only consider them museum pieces when the internet catches up.

  3. I wonder what he was going to write before he decided on “ship”. Something else, apparently.

    1. “Space” again, most likely. “space ship” works like one word (and nowadays is very often written as one word), and since he ran out of room on the previous line he started the ‘one word’ again and then realized his error. It looks like “spa” to me under those xs.

      1. You can tell from the way he x’ed it out that he was going to write “space GOD DAMN ROCKET WOOHOO” and then thought better of it.

  4. I love these time captured moments. I hope communities all the the US can come up with creative ways to save Libraries and the jobs that come with them. I’ve been unemployed for over a year and am only surviving because I moved in with my Dad. I’m 55 and have lost everything and am desperately looking for work. I just applied at Chase and am hoping for the best.

    1. Not so. Books have taken me to many, many places.
      Books are the one thing that teach a person so much. You can lean
      so much.
      With one of those electronic readers you read it once and it gone. With books you can read and reread for ever.
      I try to spend at lease two hours a night reading.
      I agree libaries need to be updated to a small degree.
      Without libaries you have nothing.

  5. In the 70s I used to ride my bike to the Troy library. I was just a kid and it was almost an hour’s ride along big fast roads with no sidewalk in places. It’s hard to believe, now. As a father, I cringe thinking about my kids making that kind of long and risky ride. But my mother used to pack me a brown-bag lunch and I’d spend the day there. She’d ask me if I had a quarter for the public phone in case anything happened. I can still remember walking up the hot sunny concrete path and opening the door into the air-conditioned, glorious smell of the books, the ice-cold water from the drinking fountain, the quiet tables and carrels. There were closer libraries, but I’d already plundered their collections of science-fiction. Troy had a different selection. They had Mervyn Peake–whom I’d read about in a Michael Moorcock foreword to some other tome. They had new books on the lives of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. They had James Branch Cabell and Anatole France. They had a nice selection of sci-fi paperbacks in revolving racks. I found the Riverworld books there, more of John Norman’s Gor books, more Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I remember breaking the strap on my backpack trying to bring home to my mother the second and third volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter. Those were the days. Long live the Troy library.

  6. >This should be tattooed on the foreheads of those tabling the closure of this library.

    What would Asimov have thought of the internet? Etc. Fact is, lots of libraries have outlived their usefulness’s.

    1. What would Asimov have thought of the internet?

      A quick google found this interview on exactly that subject. Turns out that Asimov loved the idea and thought it would promote independent learning.

      Funny story: my college physics professor was convinced that the second law of thermodynamics disproves the theory of evolution. So he made that argument in a lecture one day. Fortunately I had been reading an Asimov on just that subject the previous day in the college library….

      Asimov could write a book on anything.

      1. “Asimov could write a book on anything.”

        And he did, I think he wrote more than 500 books and countless papers.

  7. Well my library has millions of books and magazines that aren’t on the internets, all for free. It also has comfortable seating and is well lit. And best of all, liberry ladies!

  8. Where IS this push to dumb shit down coming from, anyway?
    It’s been going on for years and years now, and it has to have a source somewhere. A civilization doesn’t just wake up one day and think “hey, wouldn’t it be great if everything were simpler and less functional?”

    1. “A civilization doesn’t just wake up one day and think ‘hey, wouldn’t it be great if everything were simpler and less functional?'”

      No, but as a civilization increases in size and complexity, it also becomes characterized by increasing disparities in access to wealth and power (sociologist-speak for ‘the rich grab all the good stuffz’). This stratification is also associated with the rise of mechanisms to defend the access of the privileged against the desire of the rest of the population for access to some part of the same.
      We no longer count ‘wealth and power’ in terms of how many heads of cattle one owns, but rather in terms of access to knowledge and information. It’s also that same knowledge that allows those who are dispossessed to better understand how their lack is not a personal failing, but the result of an institutionally sanctioned and protected greed on the part of elites.
      Today, the rich and powerful are terrified of what the masses may do if they get up from their videogames and actually take a stand demanding equitable access to resources. An informed and engaged public is a scary thing to those who want to keep everything in their own hands.

  9. Sharp contrast to the letter I sent him about 10-ish years later when I was 11 or 12yo. I had been reading his books for a while and it was the standard “I love your books/can you tell me more about where your ideas come from/this is my favorite so far.” kind of letter. I got a response back in time for the book-fair where I was to put up my Asimov presentation.

    What I got back from him was my same letter with his notes written in the margins. My memory of all the exact wording is thin atm, but essentially “yeah right”, “whatever” and other small, snide remarks, maybe five or six total. What’s really flattering is that he spent at least 30 seconds to a minute to intentionally crush the admiration of a young boy! That’s akin to walking across the street to slap an ice-cream cone out the hand of a child.

    Heinlein won out back then as far why I read SF anyway. Asimov is just another genius who I ended up not really caring for, including reasons beyond the above story.

    I really should see if that letter is in the time machine that is my packrat mother.

  10. Yes success pretty much turned Asimov into a huge jerk, but he was dead on in many of his early works, and totally about libraries. Closing libraries is just another symptom of the actual move of our world to ‘Idiocracy’ where the Korps want everyone as dumb and befuddled as possible, so they can exploit them and sell them useless crap. Many libraries are publishing Return on Investment pages this year that show what a huge value they are.

    Libraries are revolutionary idea and are based on a philosophy of community cooperation in pooling resources to buy and maintain a community owned storehouse of valuable publications.

  11. Should ye never forget Libraries are now many homeless hominids only connection to the interwebs…


    amistil sequence

    Love the chaos!

    Free the Anachronism!

  12. Another library closing? This is some kind of epidemic. My son, who works at Colorlines, just interviewed me on this same topic. But here are my thoughts on what’s going on:

  13. The world is not as nice as when Issac Asimove was here. He was one of my great teachers and his work guides and informs me to this very day…His words are, as ever, some of the truest you will ever read.

  14. I can’t believe we got on Boing Boing.

    Hey, Cory, you think you can come for a rally or something sometime?

    That’d be great.

  15. I live about 10 miles north fo Troy, MI and worked in Troy. While all you lament the closing of a public library in Troy, please understand that the local government DID have the money to such wonderfully constructive things as “roadside beautification” projects, in which they ripped up intersections, put down paver-brick pedestrian crosswalks (apparently because painted lines don’t work?) and built elaborate gardens at some corners which will require constant attention (i.e. money). PLEASE don’t buy into this ridiculous hype. It is YET ANOTHER example of an irresponsible government that has money for pet projects, and then holds the tax payers hostage for more $$$ by claiming the “essential” services *they specifically ignored* are now threatening to be closed. It’s total BS.

    1. Sorry, but you are wrong. I live in Troy less than a mile from our beloved library, (not that distance from the library is proportional to accurate understanding). The project you talk about on Rochester Road was 90% grant money from the State and Federal level. The small amount that the city spent wouldn’t keep the library open for one month.

      Only a dedicated funding source will save the Troy Public Library, now. Hopefully the citizens of Troy will say yes on August 2nd, and keep our library open, and make Mr. Asimov proud.

      I got most of my info from city council meetings and here:

      Thanks for the love Happy Mutants!

      p.s. if the state of Michigan had maintained its statuary revenue sharing at recent levels instead of handing our tax cuts to corporations we wouldn’t need a dedicated millage.

  16. When I was young, I was quite the Asimov fanboy, but only wrote him once, for a school science report. I got a similar postcard to the one above,

    The “font” in question was the only one available for the dot-matrix printer we had, a Radio Shack special hooked up to a TRS-80 Color Computer.

  17. Ah, Asimov! Inventer of future history, kkalkkulators with kkeys on the ejjies, and the underage female protagonist who takes on a sexless twerp who nevertheless had Awesome Mutant Mind Powers That Should Only Rule The Universe! What a genre! Somebody should have invented Three Laws of Plop Fiction for HIM to follow.

    [N.B. All spelling errors are here used sarcastically. No flames please.]

    James H. Schmitz is another in the tone-deaf ilk, made worse by trying to clean up his own psyche (Telzey toys, anyone?) when the psychologists pounced on his bathrobe-wearing father figure with something like little joyful squeals of Freudian glee. Whether the psychologues were correct is immaterial; Schmitz thought they were, and so denied our future his own sequel to Witches of Karres.

  18. “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”
    Anne Herbert

  19. Libraries are a place of learning and growing up in India, they were to be treated as places of worship. Every material possession can be taken away from you but knowledge stays with you forever.

    – roger v.

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