Libraries

Growing up, one of my absolute favorite places to spend time was at the library. I would wander among the tall shelves of books, inhaling the musty smell of aged paper and listening to the echoes of my footsteps. I can close my eyes today and take myself back to the various libraries from 20 and 30 years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot revisit them and expect to see the same surroundings. As we have moved into the digital age, fewer and fewer people are using the library for books and instead are using it for internet access. Libraries have been forced to cut back on book offerings and in some cases, some libraries have become mostly digital offering their services through e-readers. While I recognize the importance of progress, it is with some sadness that I contemplate the current state of libraries today. I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like without the library.

Early on I grew to appreciate the value of a good book. I relied on an author’s ability to transport me via my imagination to another world, another time, another life. Of all technology in the world, it is the book that has sustained importance in my life. All who know me can vouch for my love of books, especially if they have helped move me over the years. I can hear every grunt from a friend hauling box after box of books asking, “More books? Really Colleen, Why do you have so many books?” All I did was smile. I love my books. I go back and reread my favorite stories. I have favorite books for particular moods and of course books related to the areas that I teach.

It was in this vein that I resisted the e-reader until this past summer. I did not want to abandon my support of books. There is nothing quite as satisfying as physically turning the page and not only feeling the book but smelling the pages as you read. But last summer, I caved and bought an e-reader and since its purchase, my sleep-deprived state has increased as I spend more nights reading rather than sleeping. I love that I can take my e-reader anywhere and read. It was helpful during a particularly long power outage recently when I was able to read in the dark. I still love my books and nothing will ever compare to the experience of reading an actual book, but it is so much more convenient for me to have certain books handy at all times, without breaking my back lugging the physical texts around.

So when I go through libraries today, I do so with a small sense of disappointment. I still remember my Dewey decimal system and wonder if kids today still learn about that or not. I remember what it was like in grad school, hauling journals to a copy machine to copy the most important articles I needed for my thesis. Staying until the library closed and being there first thing when it opened again.

I had never wondered this before last year when I was going over my syllabus with a new class and reviewing my scholarly source requirements for the research paper. I noted how using Wikipedia and Cliffnotes was not acceptable and one of the students raised her hand in a panic. She asked if she cannot use Wikipedia, how is she supposed to research the topic for her paper. I remember standing in front of the class and counting to 10 in my head before replying, trying to maintain a professional demeanor as I tried to wrap my head around that question. How had she graduated high school and never done research outside of Wikipedia? Sadly, my sarcasm could not be held out of my tone as I advised her to start at the library. When she followed up by asking if there was a library on campus, I nearly slammed my head into the podium. Calmly, I gave her directions but then she followed up with complaining that she would not be able to do all of her research from her home. I can imagine the look on my face as I tried to remain calm and not look as shocked and disappointed as I felt as I rolled into the “this is college” lecture. And of course, giving that lecture makes me feel like Sgt. Hulka addressing the class of new recruits in the 1981 movie “Stripes.”

I wonder if kids today are growing up loving books the way I did. I know that my nieces are but that may be due in some part to my influence, encouraging them to read, to go to the library. It is so much easier to plug into a movie or television show but nothing really beats your own imagination. I hope that kids today are reading and letting their imagination run wild. I hope that kids are taking some time to unplug from all of the distracting social media and curling up with a good book and relaxing. We all need some down time from time to time, regardless of how old we are. I just hope that future generations are being taught to use their imagination and embrace reading as my generation had been.

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30th Anniversary of Banned Book Week

Today is the beginning of the 30th anniversary of Banned Book Week (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/bannedbooksweek).  Censorship has been an issue that I have always been very passionate about.  While I do not promote hate speech, I do believe that it is imperative that we read from a wide variety of perspectives.  I am a strong advocate of critical analysis of all information that one encounters, whether that be in the form of books to news broadcasts to blogs to music.  I think it is important that we stay aware of the issues of our current time as well as the issues of the past.  History does repeat itself and hopefully as more people become aware of this, we can change enough to ensure that the horrors of the past do not become horrors of the present.

Since I learned how to read, my family can attest that it is unusual to find me without a book.  In 1984, I was determined to read George Orwell’s “1984” although my English teacher at the time as well as the school librarian kept on me about how that book was too advanced for me and I needed to select something else for now, something easier to read and understand.  My stubborn side won out and I made it through “1984” and am glad I did.  The challenge of reading this book and thinking about the ramifications of a society under surveillance not only heightened my confidence in my reading comprehension, but also made me realize that all of our actions have consequences and how many individuals will behave differently if they are aware of being under surveillance.  I truly attribute this to my fascination with psychology and sociology to this day.

My first encounter with the notion of banned books happened in college.  I had been fortunate enough until that point to have very open and supportive English teachers, even allowing me to read Stephen King books for book reports in the 7th grade.  In college I was enrolled in an elective course called “Could It Be Satan?” and yes it was named after the Saturday Night Live skit with Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.  My professor was a riot.  I was surprised however on the first class period when we were encouraged to have our parents sign permission slips regarding the reading list.  I could not understand why anyone over the age of 18 would need this permission to read a few books.  It turns out that when my professor taught the course a few years earlier several parents had become irate at the reading list and as a result, she had to make several concessions in order to teach the course again.  It is at that time that I ran across Banned Book Week and the American Library Association’s battle for freedom of speech, granted this was before the Internet, so tracking down and disseminating information about banned books and the important role that school boards play in selecting and approving curriculum was more challenging.

Ever since, I have been a strong advocate for parents being aware of the agenda and philosophies of the school board members and to remain involved.  A few years ago, a local school district was debating the reading list for the optional summer honor’s students reading list.  One school board member wanted most of the books banned even though participation in the reading program was optional and if a student was uncomfortable with a particular book, the teacher assigned a less controversial alternative.  I was honored to be among the hundreds of speakers at the marathon school board meeting that night.

There are a lot of complaints about kids and young adults these days and I admit that at times, I am among the complainers.  Nothing irks me more than when there is a power outage and neighbor kids whine about having nothing to do.  Light a candle and read a book is my suggestion.  I truly feel we need to expose ourselves to the controversial, to the uncomfortable in order to develop a cohesive set of values that will guide us through the challenges that we encounter in our lives.

So I encourage you to check out the American Library Association’s website dedicated to the 30th anniversary of banned book week.  I encourage you to go out and not only read what is on that list but read in general.  Read across all genres and take that jump into the unknown and let your imagination run wild instead of relying on television and cinema to squash your independent thought.