I’m going to choose my words very carefully. Because for as long as I can remember, I have loved words. Words convey meaning, and I can’t help but think that a search for meaning is what the whole human experience is about.
I didn’t think about this meaning stuff when I was eight years old in the summertime, riding a bus back from downtown at my grandma’s side. She always bought me at least two books when we would go to the bookstore downtown – one for the bus, one for the evening, and then we would go to the library to check out more books the next day. I would hear her brag to friends on the phone that I’d finished one of the paperbacks before the bus reached home. I would feel proud.
I devoured books as a kid, and I write this so you know that I am biased. I am a reader, and I’ve been a reader ever since I was a kid. I got more Personal Pan Pizzas than any other kid in school when we did the Book It program. My best friend and I created a “library” that lined the shelves in her bedroom, inventing policies for the other kids in the neighborhood to borrow our paperbacks. Books got me through long car rides, angsty middle-school friendships, Friday nights when I wasn’t invited to high school parties, and an extended illness that had me out of school for months. When I was faced with reading that didn’t thrill me – Shakespeare in high school, Plato in college, engineering manuals at my summer job – the habit of reading sustained me and carried my focus through the boring stuff. To this day, I feel less than whole when I’m not in the midst of a book or three.
Of course, there are more media options now. Sometimes I’m listening to a novel while I’m running trails in the woods. Sometimes I’ll highlight sections of nonfiction with a finger-tap to the iPad screen. But what counts is the story. Books allow me to live in the midst of more than one story – which somehow makes my own personal story just a little more inhabitable.
And so, I flinch whenever I hear of a library closing. These days, my flinches are practically nervous tics. In public education, budget axings pit libraries, arts programs, and nurses in competition for the distinction of first cut, with fatalities of the remaining programs soon after. In private schools, where budget woes are less pressing (at least for the moment), books are pushed aside to make way for what is deemed as innovation. In cities, libraries seems to exist just one headline away from closure, cutbacks, reduced hours, staff reductions – despite being the one thing that 91% of Americans can agree holds value in their communities.
After school last Wednesday, I was loading kilns and trying not to get drawn into a conversation with a few students who were working at a studio table. They were discussing the impending elimination of their school’s library, and its transformation into something that purports to be more innovation-themed and technology-driven. Words like “cool” and “awesome” flew across the table with glaze and splatters of wax. As I sanded shelves, I quietly meditated on how they seemed to know more than I did about plans just recently made public. Their conversation had the air of community buzz.
On my next trip past the table, I couldn’t help myself – I had to ask a question. “Don’t you guys have any reservations at all about clearing out the books?”
After the is-she-really-going-there pause, one bright, accomplished junior replied, “Seriously, Ms. P? No reservations whatsoever. The only thing I use those books for…” He paused. “I’m not on the record, right?” He knows I blog, and has been quoted before. I smiled. “I like to stuff a book in another kid’s backpack so that the alarm goes off.”
The others laughed and agreed. I leaned my forehead against a wall.
“Wait. But you guys read, right? I mean… you read more than SparkNotes?”
Laughter again. “There’s not much time to read more than I have to for school,” one student remarked. Another noted, “And sometimes I like reading that stuff! I mean, The Great Gatsby was one of my favorites.”
I quizzed them for a few minutes, then, on what else they read. Turns out that we have some recent fiction favorites in common – The Hunger Games, Divergent, Game of Thrones and others were on our shared lists. These were books they had purchased and I had borrowed. They talked about the plusses to reading on devices (lighted screens, you don’t have to fold pages, something I didn’t quite understand about what a pain it is to angle your pages while you’re reading in bed) – and about what they still like about reading physical books (less distraction, the sound of pages, the accomplishment of reaching the end). I didn’t say much – happy to let the conversation flow as long as it was flowing away from library alarm pranks.
But then, back to impending changes to the space-formerly-known-as-a-library. “It’s going to be awesome, Ms. P. Like… outlets hanging from the ceilings, and iPad carts, and a 3D printer.” I nodded, thoughtfully. “We won’t miss the books.”
In a book I’ve never read – The Leopard, by the Italian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa – a prince proclaims, “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi” – “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Technology has changed education drastically in the decade since I started teaching, and I have rolled along with most of it – adapting, progressing, even leading the charge at times. I’ve bought in. I’m drafting this in Google Docs, and a trusted friend might add notes and comments to the same screen as I’m typing. But lately, I’ve been hitting some psychological walls with the rapid pace of this change – and my latest wall is made of books.
My students might not see value in checking books out of a library to read. But they also don’t see much value in practicing with two pounds of clay before they try ten. Or in trying to read Shakespeare before SparkNotes resolves their confusion. Or in speed limits. They are teenagers; they are hard-wired to be cursory and impulsive. Having Google in their pockets seems to sometimes reinforce such an approach.
I’ve always seen part of my job as an arts teacher to remind them to slow down, to consider consequences, story, and implications. In a studio, we consider all of that meaning stuff – sometimes before we create, often as we are creating, and always after. Replace “create” with “read,” and books lead us to the same considerations. If my students don’t see value in their studio work, my passion and advocacy for my subject matter doesn’t change – but it’s a surefire sign that I need to re-evaluate my approach to teaching it. And if students don’t see value in a library or books, I don’t see this an indicator that the books should be boxed and set aside to make room for more technology – but rather a warning sign that students are not pulling depth or substance from reading.
Last time I checked, such depth and substance trumped the pocket browser.
Maybe the library of the future looks less like stacks and more like Seth Godin’s version. I’m with my students – it does sound “awesome.” But in order “to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together,” I hold that you have to have some deep content knowledge from which to work. Ever work with a co-worker whose knowledge was shallow and cursory? Ever coordinate and invent alongside someone who relies on Google for every answer? I have. It’s annoying, and any work that might happen feels equally shallow and cursory. I gravitate towards a different sort of collaborator – a more substantial and passionate one.
Depth doesn’t come from earning Godin’s “data shark” badge. Substance starts in curiosity, roots in understanding, takes form in exploration, and demonstrates itself in product and articulation. At least three-quarters of those steps are supported by the habit of reading – or at least by an inclusive approach that supports deep reading alongside the technologies of the moment.
There’s another issue at play here, and it has something to do with class. Public school systems and cities are closing libraries because they can’t afford them. Some of the reasons why libraries remain so necessary to communities are related to things that are hard to talk about when they aren’t in your front yard – homelessness, poverty, economic inequality, fair access to resources in the midst of a lousy economy. When you’re homeless, or barely making rent, the extra fifty bucks a month for internet access – or to pick up copies of books your kids would enjoy reading – may be impossible. According to Molly Raphael, past president of the ALA, “Public libraries are also serving as a lifeline for people trying to adapt to challenging economic circumstances, providing technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers and starting a small business.” If elite schools dismiss books, how do they ensure that their students – future citizens and community leaders – don’t dismiss the value libraries hold in more economically diverse communities?
But I told you – I’m biased, and in more ways than one. My grandma taught me to love books. Books taught me to seek meaning. The problem is that I’m struggling both with losing the books – and with the bigger meaning behind the gesture.
(Of course – even Godin is mired in the contradictions.)