Land and Literacy

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Mary Anne Zak

Land and farming blessed mankind with archives and libraries.

When early humans learned to live off the land and acquire it, they needed records. Unable to read or write, they found ways to record property transactions.

Making wedge-shaped marks in clay with plant stems, ancients invented cuneiform, a code of symbols.

Boxing the clay in wood to dry, they produced tablets, stacking them upright and marking their sides to identify content. Called archives, tablet collections coded property acquisitions and transfers.

Archives could be decoded only by trained scribes until scholars deciphered them centuries later. Emperors and pharaohs could not read archives but stored them in caves and palaces, as many archives became part of public records.

As ancient societies invented language and literacy, on palm leaves, parchment, and vellum some people wrote texts called books. The word for book was liber in Latin so collections of books were called libraries. Stored at first with archives, libraries eventually required separate facilities.

In the 14th century, Gutenberg invented the printing press, advancing literacy. Printed one at a time, however, books were rare but increasingly necessary.

People had lived under royal rule for thousands of years. In eleventh-century Europe, the ruled began to realize that they had rights and began to rise against rulers. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were called the Age of Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment as rank and file populations rebelled and sought education and learning.

Some people collected books and rented them out, charging membership fees. In 1731, American printer Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company in Philadelphia, the first lending library in the colonies. Wikipedia calls it the “predecessor of free public libraries.”

Thomas Jefferson believed that to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” people should be educated in schools supported by taxes. Colonists, however, did not support paying taxes for education.

As the United States slowly developed, reading and writing became essential to self-government. Townships established schools; individuals built and endowed libraries. Suffield’s original Kent Memorial Library, the classically beautiful building now part of Suffield Academy, was a gift of Sidney Kent in memory of his parents.

Historically a farming town, Suffield benefits from an ancient legacy of respect for land and a need for literacy. It can be said that farming harvested reading and writing. 

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