Thoreau, Emerson recalled, went to the Harvard University Library to get some books.
The librarian refused to lend them, as did the university president, mentioning that the collection was available only to current students, certain alumni, and residents who lived within 10 miles of campus. Apparently, the management didn’t want treasured volumes wandering too far.
But Thoreau, hitting upon a clever argument, noted that the advent of the railroad “had destroyed the old scale of distances,” presumably meaning that books could now travel farther, and more safely, than they once did. By simply following the old rules, Thoreau contended, the library had compromised its mission.
Compelled by Thoreau’s logic and a few other arguments, the president relented. Thanks in part to the presence of the railroad, an institution about which he could be critical, Thoreau now had convenient access to a wealth of learning.
Thoreau was aware of the need to reconcile the wonders of the wild with the benefits of urban centers. In a journal entry from 1851, he mentions visiting libraries at Cambridge and Boston, which makes him consider a contradiction that confronts many a naturalist.
To study the woods, he has to get away from the collected works of other naturalists – the bounty of big-city libraries – that would help him appreciate what he’s seeing. “Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature,” he muses, “have not recorded it on the bark of trees with the lichens ... if I would read their books I must go to the city ... so strange and repulsive both to them and to me.”