From about 2000 until 2005 I was regular user of my local libraries. There are 5 within about a half an hour of my home (in a rural area). I homeschooled my eldest child, while my youngest was a toddler, from grades 2 to 4. It was a great experience. I had textbooks, books, and curriculum books at home, but I mostly unschooled her. I knew what I wanted her to learn during the year (certain math skills, reading, spelling, writing, and the topics in science or social studies). But every day I would ask her what she wanted to learn that day and that’s what we did (which is what unschooling is).
I may have my own little home library, but it’s nothing compared to the books at those libraries. We’d go and pick out books by the boxful. I literally carried a plastic milk crate with me when we went, and boy did we fill it up. Like I said, it was a great experience.
At one time I counted at least 100 books from local libraries in my home. I figured that I read at least 30 magazines every month (everything from Archeology to Discover to Psychology Today). I had finished my Bachelor’d degree in 1999, in Literature. But I realized at this time that I knew NOTHING. There’s little else more enlightening than coming to the realization that you know nothing. I read children’s books so I could understand the adult (or even young adult) books on any given topic. I learned amazing facts. I studied String Theory. I read about survivors of the atrocities of WWII. I delved into Dorothy Parker and Maya Angelou. Did you know that the first and last person to die during the construction of the Hoover Dam were a father and son? Wow. (That’s one of those things that I knew nothing about, the Hoover Dam, so I’ll read a children’s book.)
The library was a haven to me. I searched for information on everything. I started realizing that the people around me, mostly decent working class Americans, were well, not very educated. I would bring up a topic and they were either look at me with a sense of despair and bewilderment, as if I’d just sprouted wings and declared myself God, or with a strong sense of contempt at the outrageous thing I just stated. Somehow, I had separated myself from their world. Once I dared to mention String Theory and for evermore I’m teased about string theory, the theory of yarn.
While homeschooling my child, I had been homeschooling myself. Later, I went back to my university and completed my teaching certificate, then my Master’s in Education, and now I am working on my Masters in Library Science. Somewhere along the line, between being a B student in high school that didn’t really get it and completing a couple of degrees, I had found myself and, what I hope to be, a lifelong love of learning. I love it so much that I want to bring it to others.
But I wonder. . .
In our economic and political climate, where politicians decry public employees and urge us to ditch the department of education, can our libraries survive?
They are funded by you.
Our taxes are the basis for their existence. And if our attention is turned toward the wastefulness of Medicare or the Post Office or the Department of Education or who sexually harassed who, will we even notice when they defund our libraries?
Some people tell us that we no longer need libraries. We have Kindles. We shop in book stores. We read online. People don’t read anymore anyways, right? They’re too busy watching their favorite sitcom or American Idol (is that still on?).
Libraries are a thing of the past, when people couldn’t afford their own entertainment.
Or is it something else? Are they valuable in ways that most people are ignorant of?
Honestly, the extreme number of students that I have taught that said to me (sometimes on a regular basis) that they didn’t need to know this (reading, writing, grammar), or that this was dumb, or that they would never need to know that. They didn’t care. They just didn’t want to know.
And I know why. . .their parents are exactly the same. I see them every day in the grocery store or in line at the movie theatre or at Pizza Hut. They just don’t care. They’re happy with their WiFi and TiVo and whatever slithers into their living rooms as they gorge themselves on Doritos and spray cheese while they vegetate in front of their televisions.
We’ve become a nation of Idiots. Literally. We have empirical proof in our rates of graduation, testing, and (in my apparently extremely judgmental opinion) by what we choose to watch on television.
If only we had a place to go where there was knowledge just waiting for our approach.
But we do. We all know where a library is. We’ve all been in one at one time or another. But they’re just sitting there, being defunded and neglected. Not because we don’t need to learn anything, but because we’ve forgotten why need to learn it. We’ve forgotten that knowledge is what made our country great. It’s going to be a hard lesson to relearn.
Paul Krugman said, “If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be ‘education’.... Until now, the results of educational neglect have been gradual — a slow-motion erosion of America’s relative position. But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis ... deals a severe blow to education across the board.... We need to wake up and realize that one of the keys to our nation’s historic success is now a wasting asset. Education made America great; neglect of education can reverse the process.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 2009)
And Thomas Jefferson said, "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."
“The countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
BARACK OBAMA, press conference, Mar. 17, 2009
Disclaimer: I am employed by a small public library (largely privately funded).