The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Libraries are not just for reading in, but for sociable thinking, exploring, exchanging ideas and falling in love.  They were never silent.  Technology will not change that, for even in the starchiest heyday of Victorian self-improvement, libraries were intended to be meeting places of the mind, recreational as well as educational.".... ....Ben Macintyre.

Commentary of the Day - November 10, 2006: Liberty and the Librarian.  Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

Jane Goodwin's essay "You Can't Take That Away From Me" was wonderfully written in its capture of those summer days in libraries of long ago: the gluey smells of book spines, the thunking sound of the date stamp that gave us two whole weeks at home to meander through pages, and the impatient wait for access to the grown up shelves.  A raspberry popsicle would be nice, too.  It's been a long time.
I'm old.  I miss a lot of things about those days.  Card catalogs were great pieces of furniture, all oaken and holding card maps to the shelves.  Oh, those big green guides to periodical literature.  Book racks spun around.  Magic and a treasure hunt, all in one.  I owned three library cards.  They were my first means of identification.  I was a reader.  It was official.  The libraries I biked to were, indeed, an air conditioned paradise for kids in the summer. 
Perhaps they remain a heated place for the retired in other seasons.  Libraries of today offer not just computers, but technical help in mastering the machinery.  Older citizens suddenly have a home with thousands of newly installed windows to the world.
While I too have fond memories of equally magical libraries, the new incarnation of libraries is not a real problem, in a congested sea of problematic information flotsam.
It's where the books are.  Free.  That's still magic.  Mill towns all over the Northeast, facing severe budget cuts, shut most of their libraries in poor places that desperately need them.  In some cities half the citizens have Spanish as a first language.  Others have large multi-ethnic Asian populations who need to learn about America and to see their own history and appearance recognized in their reading.  The loss of a town’s library is a serious matter.  School libraries are constantly being scrutinized for suspect subversive tomes on both sides of the censorship issues.  In Fayetteville, AR the flagship university town remains embroiled in debate about what students should be able to check out.
Our public libraries tend to fight harder for the right to read anything than most other parts of our government.  Libraries nurture an informed citizenry more than sound bites and talking heads.  Who else actually celebrates Banned Books Month?  Challenged books since 1990 include the Harry Potter series, which tops the list, as well as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, A Wrinkle in Time, To Kill a Mockingbird, plus James and the Giant Peach.  Forbidden fruit is offered up to anyone who dares to take a bite into the complicated world we live in.
Libraries are more than the books they hold.
Access to computers in libraries is also critical to learning and  a pathway to the outside world.  It's a small attempt to even the divide among economic classes.  Many libraries now subscribe to a pricey database that can allow sophisticated research beyond the clutter of regular search engines.  A self-directed learner could gain quite an education by employing the new technology with some old fashioned digging.  We have a smart, productive population.  But millions of poor or newly arrived people do not have a free ticket to ride the campus bus.
Goodwin says, "Now, the library seems to be a big day-care/recreation center, full of loud disrespectful adults and children who are not required to behave properly in a public place."  Really?  Everywhere, all the time?  If librarians can adjust to a louder noise level, and avoid the stern leaky tire stereotype (shhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhh) of the bun wearing, brogan shod guardians of yore, then more power to them.  Often the school classrooms that are most orderly and quiet are not the ones where enjoyment of learning and new experiences are going on.
As Marydee Ojala has said: "Does the Internet disrupt how libraries operate?  Yes.  Does it alter their look and feel?  Yes.  Does it afford opportunities libraries lacked before?  Yes.  Does it disrupt the basic reasons why libraries exist?  No. That may be the most important point -- and why libraries were early adopters of online and Internet technology.  It parallels the information professional's ethos of free and unfettered access to information -- all information, not just the information deemed acceptable by one group or another."
All of us get nostalgic at times, but I take exception, even umbrage, to the idea that a big problem within libraries is alleged political correctness.   I'd call targeted inclusion of other voices and access to more realistic reading that is recognizable to a changing population crucial to a new millennium.  If there are some books such as -- oh, I don't know -- Heather Has Two Mommies, I say books should reflect the real world.  When Richard Wright fell in love with libraries in his memoir Black Boy, he had no clue that black authors existed. The Harlem Renaissance was nowhere in evidence in southern libraries where he had to use a card borrowed from a sympathetic white man and pretend he was merely picking up books for Big Mister.  Multicultural offerings are a must.
Libraries offer children who don't get story time at home, the wonders of the reading circle.
Libraries offer poetry readings, promote Community Read programs that bring people together with a common reference during the year.  Libraries have little buses that bring books to people who are cut off from the world except for Dish Network.
Libraries lend framed art prints.  Parents who might otherwise have bare walls due to a limited budget can provide a revolving but important set of still images in a child’s consciousness.
If students are graduating from high school who are functionally illiterate then shame on our country.  If students are graduating from college and are still functionally illiterate, then shame on us who teach them.
A public library with a multitude of offerings can hardly be part of the problem.  It's an unregimented solution, without drill and kill, and with permission for student learners to move at their own pace and to follow their own, singular interests.
Every time a parent takes a child to the library, it reinforces one important lesson for children.  Look!  Here is a place where you can pick out what you think you might like, try it at home, bring it back when you are done, and come home with something else to explore.  It’s not a store full of costly ugly plastic fads.  It’s a place where we can borrow, share, learn to take care, recycle, and meet other kids who have similar interests.  It’s needed enrichment for home schooled kids.
Libraries offer more newspapers and magazines than any of us could afford.  
Libraries offer classic films, (where I finally saw Citizen Kane) music to lend, large print books, audio books, bilingual stories that read forward in one language but with one flip the same story unfolds in another language. 
At the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts I’ve spent many Sunday afternoons listening to string quartets or solo singers.  Silence in the library can be highly overrated. 
If a children’s book makes a noise and delights a toddler, or one kid says to another, “You’ve got to see this,” then a boop and a whoop are sounds of learning.  Magic and more magic. Still. At the local library. For free.

2006 Beverly C. Lucey.
Beverly Carol Lucey is a freelance writer who teaches writing and communication at the University of Central Arkansas.

The IP comments: Beverly Lucey and Jane Goodwin definitely have diametrically opposing views on the libraries of today.  Let us know what you think about the changing role of libraries in American society.  Your community does have a public library doesn't it?

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