We tend to think about lessons from the coronavirus pandemic in terms of health care provision and capacity, vaccine research, and the jarring collision of science and politics as difficult choices are made. Looking beyond health care, we see stark reminders of the price paid for failure to value and invest in community institutions that are incredible public assets.
At a time when libraries are being recognized as key components in educational and economic efforts, they are hobbled in their operations by the limitations imposed by the coronavirus and the cumulative impact of years of severe underfunding. Those who believe that technology makes libraries passe are now discovering that acquisition and deployment are not automatically equalizers. On the contrary, the lack of universality has worsened rather than bridged the gap in educational access and opportunity. Libraries can be an equalizing force, but must confront challenges of resources and reach.
Carl Rowan, distinguished African American journalist, diplomat, and syndicated columnist, penned a powerful endorsement: “The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history.” Track the views of instructors, researchers, tutors, and patrons for whom the library remains a crucial institution in their lives, and we find enthusiastic subscription to Rowan’s assertion.
The inescapable conclusion from Pennsylvania’s less than lackluster record of library funding over the past twenty years is this: state decisionmakers treat libraries as an afterthought or relic, imperiled by the wonders of technology combined with the dying off of library-centric generations.
In recent weeks, the importance of vital libraries has been underscored by revelations many Americans do not remember the history they were taught or misunderstand what they think they recall. Eric Foner, prize-winning author whose volumes chronicle controversial passages in American experience, offers an insightful view on history: “Who owns history? Everyone and no one – which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”
A disheartening discovery is how many people insist their kids be taught their version of history, or none at all. Sadly ironic that, when history is serially mangled and purposely erased, there are so many ways and many places to learn about history. Look at the evidence and stories emerging from archaeology. Look at the illuminating documents and artifacts turning up. Look at how research has been transformed by digitizing old media and records. Look at how a magnificent biography of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to produce an exceptionally popular and compelling Broadway show. Watch true heroes such as Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and Harriet Tubman on the big screen.
Atop all this, we have easy access to a tremendous repository of history and heritage – the community library. Our many museums and state historical sites were struggling financially before the pandemic. More than a few are delaying reopening or are closed for the year because of virus concerns and the costs of adding safety protections. With so many adults flagging in their appreciation of history and their participation in civic processes, we cannot reasonably expect home instruction to fill the void. Again, we circle around to the indispensable role of the library.
As school officals scramble to cobble new options and avenues for delivering lessons, they should concede the utter folly of cutting school librarians in false economy moves and allowing libraries to fundamentally disappear from the school day. Fingers point in every direction to lay blame for funding deficiencies, but you have to wonder about districts cutting the librarian while keeping a well-paid spokesperson around. Yep, keep up the image, and all will be well in the world of make believe academic reputation. If we want to revive libraries, we need to start treating librarians as the educated, trained, and dedicated professionals they are, rather than disposable extras in school life.
Libraries are proving quite adaptable to the new world of information competition. To provide the options citizens seek, to upgrade technology and collections, to keep the doors open all the hours convenient to patrons, cannot be done solely with armies of volunteers and creative friendraising drives. Purpose and promise cannot be fulfilled when public funding seeps in at staying afloat levels. An interesting footnote is the number of libraries rethinking their system of fines and penalties. The small measure of personal responsibility appears to be outweighed by cutting off library access for those who can benefit most of all.
We fail our obligation to history instruction when we do not emphasize providing students with core knowledge and the tools of inquiry necessary to fill in the gaps, challenge incompletely or falsely drawn conclusions, repudiate mythology, and remediate historical ignorance.
This can involve the illuminating, such as the stories of women who were too frequently written out of history or who had their accomplishments incorrectly and unfairly attributed to men. It can be the bittersweet remembrances of aging veterans. It can be painfully divining the truth about incidents and eras where racial discrimination or ethnic and religious bias contributed to ugly chapters.
Courtesy of social media, our lives are increasingly filled with misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misinformation. Some cling to the notion that libraries are edifices for the elite. Spend time in one, and see how much tutoring is taking place, how many outings there are for individuals with disabilities, how many people use the computers for job hunting and course work and personal enrichment, and you get a better profile of libraries as an institution serving all, irrespective of income or intelligence or schooling.
Articles have appeared recently about people turning to nostalgia to relieve the severe stress inflicted by the pandemic. If people want to view the library as a nostalgia place for renewing a relationship with books, terrific. The full truth is even more encouraging. Libraries go far beyond nostalgia, reaching into the realm of necessity in both communities and schools. To adapt a line from the movie The Untouchables, here beginneth the lesson.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.