Last week I spoke to the Chatham Rotary about the library; here’s the text of my remarks:
Thanks so much to you all for inviting me here today. There’s an old hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story” that maybe some of you know, and that’s something I think about every time I am asked to speak about the library—I love to tell the story of the Pittsylvania County libraries.
It might not surprise you that librarians are storytellers—in fact that might be your first memory of librarians. My first memory is being taken to story time at the public library in my home town in Ohio. This was decidedly low-tech—a room, a bunch of kids, a nice lady, and a book. No PowerPoint. No video. Just a lady and a book—and us. But that lady held the magic. She infected us with that magic, and for me, that just started me down the road to a love of reading, of literature, of words, of the life of the mind.
Now that “library lady” had help with me, and that was in the form of my parents. I always say that my mom was the greatest reader I have ever met—and folks, meeting readers is an everyday thing in my line of work! Books surrounded my brother and me while we grew up, and to this day when we see each other, we talk about what we are reading.
So that’s my reading story, and it’s not that extraordinary for someone who grew up in the 50s in a nice middle class home where education was valued. A library lady who told stories, and a supportive home that encouraged reading. And of course a top-notch school system. Fast forward to 2011 Pittsylvania County. For some people, the story isn’t all that different, I would suppose. We see those folks every day, too—they get their child a library card while still a baby. They check out piles of books. They bring their kids to our classes. They identify the experience of a library very much as I might have in the 50s. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that story—supporting that one is a slam-dunk for me.
But there are other library user stories, too. The old commercial—orange juice: it isn’t just for breakfast any more—comes to mind. The library isn’t just books any more. Of course, it never was—there was always media [though it might have been filmstrips instead of DVDs!], and puppet shows, and research– and though books are our “brand” so to speak in many people’s minds, it is really all about education—connecting people with the information they need to make their life better, richer, more liveable, if you will. The library delivers equal opportunity in education, public education for all ages. Some of that education is self-directed, using the books and electronic resources we have. Some of it is acquired thorugh out classes, whether that be computer classes for adults, or knitting and quilting classes taught by our staff, or our preschool classes that I’ll talk about in a bit. And some of that education comes through instructive and enlightening experiences we provide–for example, the discussions we had with Claudia Emerson and Mary Sue Terry as part of the Virginia Women in History initiative, or the appearance of guitarist Peter Fletcher, or the Books for Babies program we have funded in partnership with the Womack Foundation to put a baby’s board book and information for parents into the hands of those having babies at Danville Regional Medical Center. Free public education at the library is not simply about the book as a physical object. So what if that book might be one that you download to a device that you can carry in your pocket? As they say at Staples, Yeah, we’ve got that. Not only do we have it, but we’ll help you make the device work, too. We have print books, ebooks, audiobooks, and whatever the next flavor of the month is, we’ll have that, too.
For some people in our community, the library is, in their own words, a lifeline. . .There’s the man who came to me a couple of months ago. His job had been in construction and as you know, those jobs dried up with the downturn. He had done some short-term things, but had the opportunity for a well-paying job. He wanted me to work with him on his resume. I taught him how to create a winning resume, a cover letter, and how to prepare for the interview. He called me three weeks ago to say he landed the job—full-time with benefits. He couldn’t be happier—and he says he owes it to the help he got at his library.
Or the group of senior adults who came to us week after week for several years to take our computer classes, to learn how to use their computers, digital cameras, iPhones and iPods. They drove up from Danville in a group, and it was clear it was partly about the computer classes, and partly about the socializing in a comfortable, fun, collaborative atmosphere.
Then there are the children–and this is where I can get very passionate about what we do. We have preschool classes that teach creative expression, social skills, listening comprehension, and the foundations of reading through letter and number recognition and vocabulary building. One of the newest things we are doing, and something that is near and dear to my heart, is called Mother Goose on the Loose, which is preschool education for babies, the ones that sit on their mom’s laps. I’m passionate about the importance of preschool education because studies have shown that children who come from areas of economic deprivation who have access to that education are ahead of the other children in measurable ways by the age of five. That’s not so surprising, but when those children are followed through high school, huge differences open up. The young people in one study who did not have preschool education had three times more arrests; earned only 2/3s of what the others ones did. The ones who had preschool education were more likely, as twenty-somethings, to have a savings account and to own a car. What’s going on here? In preschool classes like the ones we teach, there is structure and routine. The children have circle time. They talk about the calendar, they talk about the weather, they learn how to paint or make something. Someone reads to them and shows them that the story flows from left to right. They interact with each other and learn to share. These studies of preschool education demonstrate that these children end up having the “soft skills”, the interpersonal skills, that help them get a job and keep it. Job training later in life may not work if children do not acquire these soft skills at a young age. What we do at the library is help teach those skills, and that’s crucial for that child’s life.
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy exclaims that everything at the library is FREE–and Linus says, “Sort of makes you wonder what they’re up to.” But of course, it’s not all free–it’s paid for with your taxes. We can make your tax dollar go farther than just about any other governmental agency. In Virginia, it costs about $24 per capita to provide library service to every citizen in the Commonwealth for a year. That’s $2 bucks a month, lots less than most of us spend eating out, less than a burger and fries, and what do you get for that? Access to information, all the latest books, meeting rooms you can sign up to use, access to a color copier in every building, faxing service, preschool early literacy education for your kids and grandchildren, book discussion groups, cultural events, help with the latest i-thingy someone gave you for Christmas, a friendly person to help you–do you need me to go on?
September is library card sign-up month in the United States. In your packet, I have included a card application. Many of you already have one, and use the library–but maybe you know someone who doesn’t. Share with them what the library is doing. Don’t whisper, like we were always told to do back in the 50s in the library–let your friends know that the library is about free education for everyone. Come on in and find out what we are up to!