Yale’s libraries are the like the “portals of freedom” on campus — at least for David McCullough ’55.
McCullough, one of the nation’s leading historians, spoke on the history of the Sterling Memorial Library, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, to a packed crowd at the Yale Law School auditorium last Friday. From the day he first entered the gothic walls of Sterling library his freshman year, McCullough — a two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — said he was intrigued by the library.
“To me, it had been there since the Middle Ages as far as I could tell,” McCullough said. “I loved all the etchings in the windows.”
McCullough said his love for Sterling library prompted him to stay on campus during spring break his junior year, so he could do research for a paper. Eventually, McCullough’s time spent in Sterling library influenced his decision to become a historian.
“I wondered if there could be a way I could do this all my life,” McCullough said. “I began to find my vocation at Sterling Library.”
McCullough said Sterling library is the heart of the University and one of the premier libraries in the nation.
“Sterling is the noblest of Yale’s buildings,” McCullough said. “It is one of the five greatest libraries in the country.”
During his hour-long talk, McCullough also spoke about the importance of history and books to individual development.
“Books are the best possible antidote to apathy,” McCullough said. “Apathy is contagious. Books shake this off.”
McCullough lamented the waning importance of history in American society. He criticized the “No Child Left Behind Act,” because, he said, it places more emphasis on reading and math skills than on the study of history. McCullough also said he was particularly distressed when he spoke to a group of Harvard students and none of them could identify George Marshall — former Secretary of State and architect of the post- World War II Marshall Plan.
But McCullough balanced his cynicism with a dollop of optimism.
“If you ever get down about the state of our culture in the United States, just remember that there are more libraries than McDonald’s,” McCullough said.
Students said they agreed with McCullough’s points and identified with his experiences.
“The part that I enjoyed most was listening to him talk about his experiences as a student, and I think every Yale student comes into Sterling and gets those shivers,” Evan Stone ’07 said.
Alex Afsahi ’09 said he was impressed by McCullough’s in-depth knowledge of the school and history.
“It was an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history that was very inspirational,” Afsahi said. “Hearing his anecdotes about studying here — it was amazing.”
Zach Mirks ’09 said McCullough validated his decision to choose the path that he did.
“He gave me a reason why I’m studying history here at Yale,” Mirks said.
McCullough’s talk is one of the first events in the yearlong “Treasures of the Yale Library” series which is being held on campus to celebrate the anniversary of Sterling library.