So many Midwestern towns and cities have lost so much. Local banks vanish. So do local banks, high schools, businesses. In both small towns and the poorer neighborhoods of big cities, too many components of civilization have gone away.
But when much else goes, libraries remain. Like schools, local libraries stand as outposts of learning and windows on to a wider world. In a time when many Midwestern children - urban and rural both – grow up in a bookless world, libraries offer a vision of another and richer way to live.
Several things recently have brought this to mind. One is the violence in inner city regions, from Chicago’s Englewood to the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where young people are growing up in poverty, in homes where paying the electricity bill takes priority over books, where the road to a better life can be very hard to find. These are bad places to grow up, but they almost all have public libraries – Englewood does, and so does Ferguson - where young people can read, and dream.
Another was a recent article in the Chicago Tribune about graduates of the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men who have gone on to college. Urban Prep is a group of inner city schools, working only with boys, with the aim to get them out of their neighborhoods and into good schools. Mostly, it succeeds – but the article made it clear that these students, once on campus, often struggle to make up for boyhoods that left them unprepared to compete.
One of them, Tyler Beck, said he felt he was in a foreign culture when he arrived at Trinity College in Connecticut, and books had a lot to do with it.
“I’m from the South Side,” Beck told the Tribune. “We just didn’t talk about books the way they did here.”
Another was the celebration here in Chicago over the Little League national championship won by an all-African-American team from the South Side of Chicago. The town turned out for a victory parade and celebration. All the politicians, not to mention Jesse Jackson, were there to talk and get their pictures taken, but the real point was that these kids have emerged from their neighborhood – next door to the Roseland neighborhood where Barack Obama got his gritty start in Chicago – and have seen a wider world. Sports that do that – for a talented few. Libraries can, too – for anyone who walks in the door.
Finally, I read a blog written by a high school classmate of mine, Mo Kelley, about the small Iowa town where we both grew up. In his most recent blog, Mo included a reminiscence from a woman recalling a librarian named Helen Stevens, who loved to read stories to children by the fireplace in the library basement.
“The building has been well maintained,” the writer, Rae Ann Clark, said, “and even with the updates, if you visited the basement as a child, you could still visit today, close our eyes and remember Helen doing her story times in front of the fireplace which is still there.”
I was one of those children. I didn’t know it then, but I was getting a leg up on life just from being read to by a librarian who knew that we needed stories to understand the world we would inhabit.
We didn’t know how lucky we were.
The good news is that libraries are still there, and are still being used. It’s a rare small town across the Midwest that doesn’t have a public library, open six or seven days a week, run by a handful of employees, mostly women, who are heroes, whether they think of themselves that way or not.
In an era of TV and video games, both adults and children still come to these libraries. I’ve never been in an empty one. Especially after school, kids pour in to read books or use the computers. (The librarians keep a sharp eye, to see what’s being watched on the computer screens.)
It’s fashionable to declare the death of books, whether by Amazon or indifference. It seems that most commuters these days are listening through earplugs, not reading (although they may be hearing audio books). But if books are dead, the word hasn’t reached libraries.
Unlike schools, libraries are non-controversial. Everybody loves them. Every once in a while, some local Torquemada sponsors a boycott of Judy Blume or Mark Twain. The librarians stand their ground, the ACLU rides to the rescue and the silliness is soon squashed.
But the libraries, if free to the public, aren’t free to run. All scrape by on small budgets and diminishing staff. Two years ago, Chicago instituted a Monday closing – since rescinded – on its branch libraries. Helen Stevens knew she had a lifetime job: the townspeople even voted a one-cent sales tax to enlarge the library there. Today’s librarians have no such assurance.
Philanthropists love to lavish money on university hospitals and football stadiums. If they really wanted to do the maximum amount of good, they should endow the future of local libraries. For sheer civilizational impact, these may be our most valuable institutions.
I know, donors love to see their names emblazoned on hospital wings or arenas. But nothing says that libraries can’t similarly salute their benefactors. If Andrew Carnegie enjoys immortality, it’s through the libraries he funded, not the steel he made.
One purpose of education is expanding horizons. Especially in small towns or inner cities, the horizons can be awfully narrow. Parents should be reading to children at home but we know this often doesn’t happen. If these children are going to glimpse the possibilities of life, it will be through books, in the libraries where these books await them.