Why We Need Libraries In a World Filled With Noise

I could hear my oldest daughter come rushing down the stairs last week as I arrived home from work. My two youngest pulled and gripped on me as I picked them up and carried both into the living room. I sat down on the couch, both in my arms and took an exasperated breath before tickling the two-year-old and 11-month old still pulling on my face.

“Daddy!” I heard at the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey, Kylie,” I yelled over top of the laughter. “How was your day?”

The scene on the couch did not faze her. She pushed her way through the little ones till she was directly in front of me, anxiously waiting to tell me something.

“Daddy, do you know who Flat Stanley is?”

Cautiously, I said, “Yea, I think I know who that guy is. Is he flat?”

“Yes. He’s flat. And he travels around in an envelope. My class is doing a project. We read Flat Stanley today and it was so funny the trouble he gets into…”

She went on like that for a few more minutes as I asked a few questions here and there. The excitement did not diminish as we headed to soccer practice. More questions about places she could send Flat Stanley, and more ideas about how big the envelope might have to be to fit him.

That night, she went straight upstairs to read instead of her usual ritual of asking to watch the iPad (and getting upset when we tell her to read!). Her younger brother — who was listening and wondering about Flat Stanley all night — went to get a book for us to read to him. And just like that, the entire family was reading. Which is no easy feat in a world filled with iPads and On Demand TV!

It was a simple moment, in an otherwise crazy day, but I was thankful and couldn’t help thinking.

When kids read, we all win.

That night, we watched the debate on TV. I checked the hashtags on Twitter. We were immediately sucked back into the noise of the everyday world. This noise is increasingly infiltrating our children’s lives as well. We can’t hide from it. It is present and we have to deal with the noise.

But earlier that night, because of a teacher at school, and because of a safe place to read, my kids could get away from the noise, and just be kids. My wife and I could do the same if only for a little while.

A Safe Place to Learn, Read, and Make

It got me thinking the next day how many of our students and kids around the world don’t have this safe place to get away from the noise. My daughter not only had a place at home to read and learn in peace, but she also had this space in school. A recent article in Brain Pickings reminded me of our responsibility as schools to provide this place:

Storm Reyes, who grew up in an impoverished Native American community, had her life profoundly changed, perhaps even saved, by a library bookmobile, and went on to become a librarian herself.

Here’s her story turned into a short video by Story Corps. It’s powerful. Reading, and having a space to be encouraged to read, profoundly impacted her life. Storm’s words are here:

My parents were alcoholics, and I was beaten and abused and neglected. I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle.

When you are grinding day after day after day, there’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. You may walk down the street and see a row of nice, clean houses, but you never, ever dream you can live in one. You don’t dream. You don’t hope.

When I was twelve, a bookmobile came to the fields. I thought it was the Baptists, because they used to come in a van and give us blankets and food. So I went over and peeked in, and it was filled with books. I immediately — and I do mean immediately — stepped back. I wasn’t allowed to have books, because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things minimal. Of course, I had read in the short periods I was allowed to go to school, but I’d not ever owned a book.

Fortunately, the staff member saw me and waved me in. I was nervous. The bookmobile person said, “These are books, and you can take one home. Just bring it back in two weeks.” I’m like, “What’s the catch?” He explained there was no catch. Then he asked me what I was interested in.

The night before, an elder had told us a story about the day that Mount Rainier blew up and the devastation from the volcano. So I told the bookmobile person that I was nervous about the mountain blowing up, and he said, “You know, the more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” And he gave me a book about volcanoes. Then I saw a book about dinosaurs, and I said, “Oh, that looks neat,” so he gave me that. Then he gave me a book about a little boy whose family were farmers. I took them all home and devoured them.

I came back in two weeks, and he gave me more books, and that started it. By the time I was fifteen, I knew there was a world outside the camps, and I believed I could find a place in it. I had read about people like me and not like me. I had seen how huge the world was, and it gave me the courage to leave. And I did. It taught me that hope was not just a word.

Libraries Can Save Lives

The next day my daughter came home excited about a new series of books she signed out from the library at school. She had caught the reading bug much like Storm Reyes had in the bookmobile story above.

Libraries are vastly important to our social and economic future. We often forget that in many communities, many schools, and many areas around our country (and the world) libraries serve as a refuge for not only reading but also learning.

There’s a movement in the United States and many other countries to add makerspaces to libaries. We are going through a process now in my school district of planning and looking at what a library should look like in 2016 and beyond.

I know libraries are a sacred place because I was a bookworm growing up. I also know that these spaces can be used for making, creating, and designing, as much as they can be used for reading, researching, and consuming information.

But in a rush to make the library more about creation, we must not forget that it is a place that still needs to be focused on literacy. It still needs books, it needs adults to encourage reading, it needs to be open and safe and free.

Libraries can save lives.

Because literacy saves lives.

Take a look at these stats from the Literacy Project Foundation on the current state of literacy in the USA, and how it correlates with prison and welfare:

  • Currently, 45 million Americans are functionally illiterate and cannot read above a fifth-grade level.
  • 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level
  • 85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading
  • 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read
  • 3 out of 4 people on welfare can’t read
  • 20% of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage
  • 50% of the unemployed between the ages of 16 and 21 cannot read well enough to be considered functionally literate
  • Between 46 and 51% of American adults have an income well below the poverty level because of their inability to read

(Sources: National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, U.S. Census Bureau)

I’m a Director of Technology and Innovation. I’ve helped bring makerspaces and creative opportunities to kids in schools using technology.

But I know the importance of reading.

I know the importance of the library and the librarians that work in these spaces.

I know what it can do for Storm Reyes, and I’ve seen what reading can do for my own daughter.

Libraries may matter more now than ever, because in a world filled with constant noise and distraction, we all need a space that puts literacy, learning, and reading in the spotlight.

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Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Roxanne Price says:

    Well said!! We do need to keep the love of reading alive.

  • Lori Sackman says:

    As we work towards defining our newly renovated school library, your article is so affirming. Yes, we have a room devoted to a MakerSpace/Creation Station, but we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it will look like. Yes, we have a beautiful library space with lots of books and computers and printers and charging stations and comfy seating and subscription databases and. . . and. . . and. . . but for our patrons we still seem to just be the place students come to hang out and chat with friends. Is that a good thing/bad thing?!? Your article reminds me about the importance of unplugging every now and again, picking up a good book, and about continuing our quest for peace and reverence in this awesome place we call a library.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Lori, thanks for sharing. I agree that both consumption and creation is needed. I also love the idea of the library expanding into a makerspace. My only worry is trying to “replace” a library with a makerspace. That can’t happen. Libraries and the focus on literacy, still has to be where our attention lies.

      • LN Klemm says:

        How do we connect the MakerSpace with the information that can be found in the library? Students need to learn how to research in order to acquire a love for learning. A MakerSpace provides the opportunity for students to follow their passions and hopefully leave them hungry for more knowledge which can be found within the walls of the library or through the technology available there.

  • Kay says:

    Your article was a great opportunity to do a self-check, in evaluating whether or not students are encouraged and supported to read! Do I provide the time? Am I recognizing and emphasizing its importance, amidst the pressure and push to be prepared for testing and data collecting? Am I “hooking” them on reading books, by reading aloud and modeling what good readers do? Thanks for the enlightening stats, reminder of our library and librarians’ value, and the opportunity to reflect!

  • Mark W. says:

    The stats from the Literacy Project Foundation blew me away. Very distressing. I really didn’t know how high the rate for illiteracy is in the U.S. Thank you.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Quite honestly, neither did I. They speak volumes to me and show just how far we still have to go in public education.

  • Elena S. says:

    Our school library underwent a change a few years ago, from a quiet place with books, study spaces and comfy chairs, to a noisy gathering space that is useful for group projects or meeting your friends. The only books are resource material – the kind you can easily look up on a computer (provided) and I doubt they have been touched since the space went in. I miss my quiet space to read and a good book worth reading.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Elena, interesting change. I love the ability to have a group space like that, but we also need the other side, a place that is a haven for thinking, reading, and reflection.

  • Erin Dennis says:

    I want to thank you for bringing attention to the importance of school libraries. For thirteen years, I worked as an elementary school librarian at a school in Michigan. During that time, my curriculum shifted from teaching print resource information seeking strategies (card catalog and Dewey Decimal System) and literature appreciation to teaching digital information literacy (search strategies, website validity, and Internet Safety) AS WELL AS literature appreciation. A year and a half ago, I decided to take on a second Master’s degree, this one in Educational Technology , so that I could make sure my students left my care literate, digitally literate, and informationally literate. I LOVED what I did and the kids loved being there to hear me read, to check out books, and to learn technology skills. We even began putting in a makerspace.

    In June, I learned all of our media positions had been cut and would be replaced by one librarian to run all seven of our schools. My elementary school’s library is now closed every other week. Students can check out during the week that it is open because there is a para-educator there to scan the books. No one is learning information literacy skills in my building. No one is teaching them how to find things in the catalog or how to send recommendations to friends. No one is teaching them the magic of Boolean searching. And, as for me, I’ve been sent to teach 4th grade (and am doing just fine).

    Michigan ranks 46th in the country for schools with a full time librarian and 43rd in the country for 4th grade reading scores (source: http://www.mimame.org/uploads/8/2/6/5/826513/schoollibrariesbestpracticefactsheet2015-5a.pdf).

    Coincidence? I think not.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Erin, you raise a good point. There has to be a correlation between much of these stats, but it’s hard to find a causation point. The trend we are seeing over and over again is that literacy is losing focus, just as we need it even more!

  • Natalie says:

    My husband and I were holidaying with a friend who lives in the Canaries (I know, how often does that happen!) who also had invited friends – a German family for a stayover as well. What struck us, (and I am an avid reader, although my husband is so-so) is at a particular time in the evening, everyone in the family, from ages 7-15 and the parents, put away what they were doing, and read for about 30 or 40 minutes, after which they talked about what they read. I guess they had made it a family tradition, but it really struck us, as a great reading and also family bonding time.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Great story and thanks for sharing Natalie. I’ve had similar experiences here in the USA, and while traveling abroad. Different families put a different level of focus on reading. We aren’t there yet as a family (although we only have one active reader) but as our kids get older I can see something like this having a lot of merit!

  • Tonya says:

    Thanks so much for this article . I am a Media Specialist who runs a library/media center and we recently made a district decision to make our spaces more of a makerspace area. I have a master’s degree in Educational Technology and my job has involved to much more of me teaching technology rather than a literacy focus and I am not sure how much I approve. I constantly feel the pull between teach
    ing 21st century literacy skills and providing makerspace areas. I am trying to always connect the two..but it is sometimes tough to do so and keep the “library feeling.”

  • Catherine Krause says:

    Your message is important because of that rush to change how libraries are viewed and used. A space to have refuge is important to everyone but even more so to those who may not have that refuge in their life. A place of one’s own is necessary even if that place is a public library. While the rush to create is there and technology is a big push literacy is still one of, and will continue to be, the most important things people can own. If you can read you can see the world and the world becomes yours.

  • Chaitali says:

    Thanks for your article focusing on the importance of reading and literacy. It is indeed an enriching family tradition followed by the German friends of Natalie. In this era of digital evolution, love for books and reading is dwindling. It has become vital for libraries to have a literacy programme in place. I am a school librarian. We are a big team with big ideas – a teacher librarian, my co-librarian and the parent volunteers. Every year we begin our library hour by giving a brief orientation on Information retrieval skills, importance of citing sources and library rules. We have book club for our students that introduces them to different genre. The role of a librarian has seen a paradigm shift from information specialist to a change catalyst. We have students who are avid readers and a few who are not so keen to read. After every read aloud session,students who are less interested in reading would disturb the readers in the library and the quiet reading place transforms into noisy space. We decided to put up a small section in the library – a DIY with books on thumbprint art, Making Paper airplane, Scooby art kit, block printing and construction kit. After the read aloud session, the avid readers would resume reading their choice of books from the library while the not so keen readers create masterpieces with the help of books from the library. The makerspaces in libraries engage students in inquiry, learning, creating and collaborating with their peers. Librarians need to strike the right balance in nurturing the avid readers as well as the readers who can be innovators.

  • Kia Farhang says:

    Hi AJ – great post. I remember when I was a kid my mom would take us to the library for hours, just to hang out and read. I was shocked when one of my friends said he’d been to the library a few times TOTAL in his life.

    I don’t work in education but I found your blog and I’m definitely subscribing. Thanks and keep up the great work.

  • Jenny Wirtz says:

    Great article! It is tough to find the balance between print and digital. I’ve been a Teacher Librarian for 20 years and really watched the library evolve. My favorite time spent with my high school students is still when I’m connecting them to a book that will make them feel…joy, empathy, anger, sadness…or all of the above. The ability of a good book to evoke emotion is a powerful tool in young adults and can help move them to action in their own lives.

  • How meaningful to read this piece in the very library that A J is talking about renovating for the future! For many of our students, the school library is their only access point for books; they can’t travel to our local public libraries or go to bookstores (bricks & mortar or online), and they may not have a comfortable device on which to read, just a phone. I’ve had a student walk in on the first day of school and make a beeline to the sequel to a book he finished in June…but had no access to any other source for the story. I’ve had students who use the library as a safe way to explore the world and to figure out who they are–with the privacy that books and discreet selection and borrowing allow them. The library as an institution is one of our strongest sanctuaries that welcomes all people and all points of view. The sanctuary of the library protects the vulnerable–and, hopefully, leads to opening the minds of the rigid. All this is a long-winded way of saying thank you to AJ, a man renowned for being a “tech guru” for championing the idea of reading and libraries–now matter whether the words are delivered on paper or on screen. We’re glad you’re here with us!

  • Yaa Obeng says:

    Your story about Storm Reyes and the library book mobile struck a chord. I’m a teacher librarian in an international school in French West Africa, and I volunteer with a local community school. In my volunteer work, I get to see the extreme poverty and lack of libraries for local children. I desperately want to do something about it, but I’m unable to find books in French at prices that will not break the bank! Any leads to organisations that could help would be much appreciated.

  • Kirsty Bailey says:

    Well said!
    I contribute this from British writer Caitlin Moran (in her memoir, “How to Build A Girl”).
    Moran grew up in a large family/tiny urban house on inadequate welfare. To her teen self,
    “A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead”

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