While we frequently and justifiably pay tribute to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the great leaders who followed, we do not faithfully heed their admonitions.
Thomas Jefferson said: “I cannot live without books.” Abraham Lincoln said: “All I have learned, I learned from books.” Looking for something of more recent vintage? Prize-winning author James Michener, exhaustive in his research and prolific in his output, observed that: “A nation becomes what its young people read in their youth.”
Then there is the remarkable legacy of Andrew Carnegie. His philanthropy established nearly five dozen community libraries across Pennsylvania, plus nine academic libraries. As his steel built the infrastructure for a modern America, his libraries built the support structure for education, opportunity, and engagement.
A generation ago, popular commercials reminded us that reading is fundamental. It was then, it is now, and it will be in the future. Are young people reading enough of the right stuff today? The challenge is not just the emergence of so many media and activities dislodging the preeminence of libraries and books. It seems we are deemphasizing the importance of young people embracing the joys of reading and the immense pleasure and insights to be derived from books.
Pennsylvanians were relieved that Governor Wolf’s state budget proposal was not greeted with the usual rancorous partisan response. Nonetheless, the lack of sound and fury does not mean the document is free from deficiencies or disappointments.
While the budget reviews universally declare education a winner, libraries appearing on the loser lists sure dampens the celebration. Libraries are again flat-funded. State funding for libraries is a shade more than two-thirds what it was in 2001, when Pennsylvania was fortunate to have a first lady in Michele Ridge who was a librarian by trade.
To fill the gap, people have stepped up supporting libraries with contributions and bequests. Voters in some places have approved dedicated local taxes for libraries. Other efforts have failed due to anti-tax sentiment. Local investment matters, but is rarely sufficient to compensate for the drop-off in state support.
Even with the new political math and a president who has a floating definition of winning, it is hard to buy a clear-cut education victory when libraries are losing. Are we satisfied with mediocre student results on reading comprehension tests? Are we untroubled by the economic and financial illiteracy that pervades public discussions?
This is a sad circumstance in a commonwealth that counts among its proud moments Ben Franklin establishing the first lending library. Do we really want to be the first state with the dubious distinction of going out of the school library business? Or content to relegate the library to becoming a nicely decorated meeting room? Are libraries so low in priority that we cannot bring ourselves to devote more resources or time to them? Even the advocacy groups pressing and litigating for improving education policy and funding rarely spotlight the plight of libraries. That such an indispensable resource is allowed to wither, whether by benign neglect or malice aforethought, is dismaying.
The library is an excellent place to read, research, write, think, discuss, form and trade viewpoints, go on great adventures of prose and poetry, and explore the ever-expanding universe of knowledge.
Spend time in a public library, and there is nothing to suggest a declining or irrelevant institution. Parents are bringing their kids in for reading sessions. Students are doing research. Job aspirants are networking and making crucial contacts. Older adults are accessing technology they do not have at home. Tutoring sessions are conducted. Groups of individuals with disabilities hold outings. It is a mix of regulars who know where everything can be found and newcomers who need expert assistance in their research or recommendations for reading. Another measure of community value is how many individuals provide countless hours of volunteer service.
For folks fortunate enough to live with one of Pennsylvania’s fine universities or colleges nearby, those libraries can help fill the gaps. But for too many Pennsylvania residents easy access does not exist.
As challenging as the environment is for community libraries, it is direr for school libraries. The latter may soon need to be added to the endangered species list.
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported the Philadelphia School District is down to fewer than ten libraries staffed by a full-time certified librarian. This in a district with 220 schools and 134,000 students. A volunteer group has commendably stepped into the breach for more than a dozen schools in the northeastern part of the district. In the context of educational need in an urban school district, such low circumstances are scandalous.
During state budget hearings and deliberations, comparisons are made between how much we pay per student versus how much we pay for a prisoner in a correctional institution. For those who dismiss such arguments as false contrasts, consider this: prisons must have libraries. Not so for schools.
Some use our growing love for and dependency upon technology to paint the library as an unaffordable dinosaur. The reality is something else. Book lovers find their Kindle readers supplementing, rather than replacing, their book collections. Why should it be different for young learners? To draw an instructive parallel from the music industry, the last rites read over vinyl record albums many years ago have been rescinded. Libraries have not been supplanted by technology. Rather, they are making use of the new technologies, to the extent that constrained budgets allow. They are not caught in a time warp, but have adapted rather well to changing patron preferences while retaining their traditional strengths.
We argue over the impact of differences in language and culture in our communities, but tend to forget about the universal language and themes to be found in great literature. Our acceptance and appreciation of diversity means the broadened catalog of great books has added cultural perspective and appeal, which has manifold benefits for readers, teachers, and students.
Given all the issues and arguments competing for public attention, the volume must be turned up to address this high stakes but too quiet crisis. Those who lament the loss of traditional approaches to learning can add their voices toward reclaiming an heirloom in the school library.
A presidential tweet or a celebrity posting on social media sets off a thunderous storm of commentary. But putting libraries on the death row of insufficient funding does not draw anything approaching a similar level of condemnation. Library professionals and patrons are a devoted and involved crowd, but the public reinforcements have not yet resembled a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands.
As soon as I was old enough to read, our home began to be stocked with books. My mom established the weekly trip to the community library. I remember the bookmobile coming to our elementary school as a very big deal. My love affair with books, now admittedly augmented by Kindle, has continued unabated. It saddens that so many kids do not have the chance to experience the same joys because we foolishly underfund and underappreciate the value of libraries in schools and communities.
David A. Atkinson, is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.