Why We Need Libraries In a World Filled With Noise

By AJ Juliani, 22 comments

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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