Mens et Manus: Reaching for the Future

On Sunday, I was honored to provide the keynote address for the Next Century Convocation at MIT, the institution which launched my career and shaped my worldview. I shared my thoughts on MIT’s striking founding vision and how pervasive its influence has been over the last 150 years, even in unexpected places.


MIT’s motto is “mens et manus”, Latin for “mind and hand.”  It embodies the educational philosophy of William Barton Rogers and the founders of MIT. Their original proposal to create MIT, Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology, addresses itself to “…manufacturers, merchants, mechanics, agriculturists, and other friends of enlightened industry in the Commonwealth.”

So where did William Barton Rogers get his inspiration?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “A man is known by the books he reads…”  Rogers was a geologist by training but a look at his personal library gives one a sense of the range of his knowledge, interests, and attitudes toward the approach to education outlined in the Objects and Plan.

In 1975, when the MIT Alumni Association was celebrating its Centennial, a colleague and I had the opportunity to prepare an exhibit based on our yearlong effort to identify and reassemble the founder’s original library.  Working from a crude inventory in his own handwriting and with a lot of time at the shelves of all of the MIT Libraries, we discovered more than 1000 titles which had survived.  These books formed the very first MIT Library and represent the remarkable range of interests of Rogers, his brothers, and his wife, Emma Savage.

The collection includes books on science of every sort: geology, mineralogy, astronomy, ornithology, pharmacology, conchology, experimental physics, optics, chemistry, botany, zoology are all represented, along with civil engineering, mechanics, acoustics, scientific agriculture.  And my favorite, published in 1868, The American Beaver and His Works.   Nature’s engineer!

The can-do, problem solving culture of the Institute has spawned generations of leaders in research libraries around this country, including Dartmouth, Washington University, University of Texas, Purdue, North Carolina State University, Duke University, University of Virginia, University of California at San Diego, Northeastern University, and the great research libraries of the New York Public Library have all been led by librarians trained at MIT.  Each of us carried with us the spirit of MIT in the work that we did here with students, faculty, and researchers-a spirit characterized by innovation and creativity and a passion for practical education.  So, you see, MIT’s reach is far and pervasive.

I have one more example of the extent of MIT’s reach.  As the nation’s record keeper, I am responsible for protecting among other documents, the Declaration of Independence.  Until recently I have been giving Dolley Madison sole credit for saving the parchment copy of the document.  It was Dolley who reminded her husband to get the Charters of Freedom out of Washington the night before the British burned the town during the War of 1812.

In August of 1876, concerned about the fading of the lettering of the Declaration, Congress adopted a Joint Resolution establishing a Commission…”to resort to such means as will effectively restore the writing of the original manuscript…”

The Commission was not appointed until 1880 and it requested that the National Academy of Science appoint a committee of experts to consider whether restoration “…be expedient or practicable…”  The Academy President at the time was William Barton Rogers.

Several “skilled penmen” volunteered their services to trace over the letters to restore the original luster with special new inks.

Rogers’ report to the Commission was clear:

“…it is not expedient to attempt to restore the manuscript by chemical means partly because such methods of restoration are at best imperfect and uncertain in their results, and partly because the Committee believes that the injury to the document in question is due, not merely to the fading of the ink employed, but also and in large manner, to the fact that press copies have been taken from the original so that a part of the ink has been removed from the parchment.”

Now I can proudly acknowledge Dolley Madison and William Barton Rogers when I am describing how it is that the Declaration of Independence has survived.

Congratulations to MIT on 150 years of mens et manus, reaching for the future.

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One thought on “Mens et Manus: Reaching for the Future

  1. Great to hear the MIT connection to the Declaration of Independence!

    I think it must have been in the mid ’70’s that I was crossing the campus, by the Great Sail, and I bumped into you after not seeing you for decades. You must have been gathering the 1000 books when I then met you…

    It has been my pleasure to follow your continuing successes, and I am proud to brag to my friends that the country’s chief librarian was a neighbor of mine when I was a kid in North Beverly!

    Best to you, David!

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