The public library system in the U.S. is one of our most cherished community services, yet in these days of government budget cuts, libraries around the country are feeling the pinch of shorter hours, fewer staff and old technology. Our guests discuss why funding and supporting our libraries is a way to raise smarter kids, help residents with social service navigation, boost the economy, and help immigrants become full American citizens.
- Dr. Timothy Crist is the president of the Board of Trustees for The Newark Public Library, Newark NJ
- Karin Slaughter, internationally bestselling author whose latest novel is titled The Kept Woman, founder of Save the Libraries
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The Importance of Supporting Libraries
Gary Price: Many American cities and towns are still feeling the pinch left over from the 2008 economic downturn. Belts are still being tightened in these communities and, unfortunately, this means budget cuts for some services that some think of as “extras” – city parks, recreation programs and, sadly, public libraries. Our guests say that cutting funding from libraries is counterproductive and can hurt economic development in the long run. Dr. Timothy Crist is the president of the Board of Trustees for the Newark, New Jersey Public Library. He says that often, people in a city have the idea that public libraries are just for people who want to read the latest how-to book or check out a novel.
Dr. Timothy Crist: We really have to get across the point that we’re future-oriented. That we’re all about helping people create their futures not just explore the past. You know, find jobs, develop their skills, find ways to carry out their dreams. And those of us who support libraries, work in libraries, that’s what makes it exciting because it is about the future. I think we have to do a better job of getting that across to our city councils and public officials.
Price: Crist says that at the Newark Public Library they serve one-thousand people every week who are looking for a job or who want help writing a resume, not to mention the services they’re providing to foreign residents and people trying to navigate the maze of public agencies.
Crist: We’re teaming up with a local community agency to provide English as a Second Language for adult immigrants, we’re doing a lot more on the social service access point, helping individuals sort out health care issues and their options in Medicaid and under the Affordable Care Act. Providing really fast wifi is important. A surprising number of Newarkers really don’t have access to computers or to wifi service in their homes, and they depend on the library to provide access to information. But one of the ways libraries have changed is that traditionally they were a place to access and store information. We think libraries going forward are going to be much more defined by helping people connect and exchange information.
Price: Increasingly common, Crist says, is the use of the library as a neutral meeting place for opinions and ideas to be voiced.
Crist: So we’re putting a bigger emphasis on meeting rooms and workrooms, on allowing people to gather and exchange ideas. One of the ways we’re doing that is through the public policy discussions. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was in Newark and she chose the Newark Public Library as the place for her latest in a series of justice forums. But it was a place where law enforcement officials, the mayor, members of the city council – not only from Newark, but from around the state – and community activists – some of the strongest community activists – could talk about police-community relations. The library as a trusted place, as a neutral place, is increasingly important in our really fragmented society.
Price: If you’ve been in a public library lately, Crist says you’ll notice that it’s not the “Marian the Librarian” place of old. He says that the noise level is a gauge of just how well their librarians are serving the public.
Crist: Libraries are increasingly noisy. We’re finding that density of raising the energy level in a room is one of the ways to attract more users. You still want to have quiet spaces for some people. Librarians have that very, very important role of helping individuals track down information well past the top-10 results in a Google search and help them get to the next step in whatever they’re trying to do. But, even more important, it’s thinking about how libraries can serve people 10 or 15 years from now. And that’s what I find at the Newark Public Library excites our librarians most. They want to experiment, they want to try new things, they want to find new ways to connect with patrons.
Price: Literacy is an important part of the library’s function, and that means helping people of all ages become better readers. Crist says that the Newark Public Library has a number of strategies for making libraries a “family affair,” no matter where a family comes from or how well they can read.
Crist: One of the most important things in helping a child learn to read is the support of his or her family. And we’re putting a strong focus on family literacy efforts. We’ve worked with a group called “Newark Mommies” for toddler story hours and arts and crafts. We are using our remarkable collections related to the great migration of African Americans to Newark and to the Latino immigrant experience to develop family literacy materials because we think that families will support their children in reading if they’re reading about their own stories, reading about experiences very similar to what their family went through – their parents or grandparents – and that’s one of the ways that we can help members of our community work with their children and help them learn to read.
Price: Not only do libraries help kids with reading skills, they can also inspire kids to read more and perhaps become authors themselves. That’s Karin Slaughter’s experience growing up in a small, southern Georgia community. Slaughter is the internationally bestselling author whose latest novel is entitled The Kept Woman. She’s also the founder of “Save the Libraries,” an organization that has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund libraries in underprivileged communities.
Karin Slaughter: I didn’t come from a reading family, but my family recognized I loved to read so every Saturday I would spend the whole day at the library. And the librarians would put such wonderful books in my hands, like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huck Finn, or Gone with the Wind, or Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton or you know there was just this whole world I didn’t know about as a young woman that was opened up to me through literature. And, you know, I read about England, I read about Saudi Arabia, I read about all these different countries, different cultures, different people and I did that sitting in the reading room at a small library in south Georgia. You know, it opened the world to me in a fundamental way.
Price: Even today, Slaughter says she uses libraries to conduct research for her novels and get background information about the times and customs of the people and places she writes about.
Slaughter: In America, especially, our entire history is at libraries. Whether it’s the Library of Congress, whether it’s, you know, I can go to a library in Savannah and I can learn about slave trade, and I can learn about the census at the time. You know, when I was researching my novel that I wrote that’s set in the 1970s in Atlanta, I went to the library and I found on microfiche the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta Daily World from that time period. And who else but the libraries are going to keep all that stuff? You know, if I had probably gone through the archives for the newspaper online I would have spent a lot of money paying for those copies, so it was great to just be able to go there. And, of course, you know Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta and there’s a great Auburn library where he was born in downtown Atlanta near Sweet Auburn, and there’s so many wonderful resources there about the Civil Rights Movement and the great men and women who made this city possible.
Price: Crist says that Newark has its own author who is also a champion of the public library system.
Crist: Phillip Roth is one our most famous patrons and he’s told us how, as what he calls a “library-intoxicated boy,” he discovered the Great American Novelists by coming to the Newark Public Library and reading the Great American Novelists. And our library was practically a character in his first novel, Goodbye, Columbus. And that’s why he’s encouraged us to launch a Phillip Roth lecture series at the Newark Public Library, and we’re that this fall. Our first lecturer is Zadie Smith, the just tremendous novelist, and we’re hoping that she’ll help us inspire a new generation of young writers in Newark just as Phillip Roth was inspired when he explored our stacks years ago.
Price: So how can average citizens help support libraries in this time of cutbacks in communities large and small? Both Crist and Slaughter say that individuals and groups can contact local officials and make sure they know how important the library is to the community, and how it helps everyone no matter what their age, race, economic status or occupation.
Crist: The average citizen can help their library, first, by using it, second by becoming advocates for it. I think libraries ought to be a source for individual contributions and charity because they are such efficient ways of helping the community. That sense of community is so important in this country – it seems harder and harder to create. But if we’re worried in some way about the future of America or how our diverse population can work together toward a common goal, libraries are integral to that. It’s how the new immigrants learn about America, it’s about those of us who’ve been here for generations continue to understand just what it takes for our society to work.
Slaughter: Look in your own hometown and if you have a great library system then look next door. Because usually if there’s a really great county that’s in great shape, there’s one next-door that may not be in that great of shape. And just put your money there because it really does help you in the long term to have kids who read and who are educated and who are engaged with society, as opposed to kids who get the message very early on that we don’t care about them. You know, it’s been proven time and again that for a dollar spent in the library it returns five dollars to the community. And that’s a really meaningful return. There’s nothing else that government can invest in at such a basic level that gives that kind of return. It’s very shortsighted thinking on their part to look around and say, “Of all the things we cut back on, let’s do the library.”
Price: You can find out more about Karin Slaughter and her newest book, The Kept Woman, on her website at K-a-r-i-n Slaughter.com. For information on “Save the Libraries,” and to learn how you can help, log onto their site at Save the Libraries.com. To find out more about the Newark Public Library, it’s programs and events, Dr. Crist invites listeners to their website at npl.org. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.