I wanted to talk this week about libraries. Make America Read is centered on the idea that reading can encourage critical thinking, compassion and civil discourse. Libraries are the command center for that mission. Libraries are places of education and empathy. I can't take credit for that lovely, alliterative summation — it came from John Faherty, director of The Mercantile Library here in Cincinnati — but it's so true.
Libraries haven't always been public resources. The Mercantile is a private library founded in 1835, before public libraries were cropping up across America, by a group of young men, merchants, who wanted to educate themselves. They pooled their books and resources, and nearly 200 years later the library they created still is lending books, hosting book discussions (I've led a few), and bringing in authors and speakers to educate members and nonmembers alike. And they often work with local booksellers and the public library system to do so. This week, I saw Wesley Lowery, author of They Can't Kill Us All, receive the Mercantile's Harriet Beecher Stowe Award for writing that can change the world, and speak about his work chronicling the Black Lives Matter movement. The whole night was about the power of words and stories to breakdown ignorance.
The Mercantile is a particularly beautiful library, and I'm fond of saying it's my church. But really, I could say that about any library. I'm not talking about worshipping books. What I mean is that libraries are places of community that do good for people.
You can get everything from a tax form to the latest movie out on DVD at a library. You can learn a language or get a free lunch. My public library, which always is packed with people using computers, has started offering collections of kids' books with tags that say things like, "If you liked Wimpy Kid, you'll love these!" I really appreciate the effort to expand kids' reading horizons. Other libraries in my region, like those around the country, feed kids throughout the summer. Libraries host discussion groups and classes — tech courses for seniors were popular at my Florida library — and story times, which help build a culture of reading in our littlest citizens. Libraries aren't perfect. There are serious conversations to be had about equity and diversity, about how resources are allocated to communities and what stories and voices libraries are promoting. But libraries provide access to education and entertainment and resources. Because of they provide these free or nearly free resources in a public space, libraries also are great places to get to know your community.
This statement from the American Library Association sums up why having — and using — my library card feels nearly as important as voting: Democracies need libraries. An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy; after all, democracies are about discourse—discourse among the people. If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens. It must ensure that citizens have the resources to develop the information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process. It must allow unfettered dialogue and guarantee freedom of expression. All of this is done in our libraries, the cornerstone of democracy in our communities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of young Abraham Lincoln reading borrowed books by the light of a fire always has inspired me. When my family went camping, I'd sit by the fire with a book — ignoring my mother's worries about ruined eyes — and imagine educating myself with whatever books I could scrounge up. No regular school. No county library. No tall rows of shelves to get lost in. Even as a kid, I was thankful to live in an America that had decided libraries were a necessary public resource.
I realize there's a chance I'm preaching to the choir here, but I've been shocked over the years by how many grown adults I know don't have or don't use their library card. When you love books and have resources, it can be easy to just buy the books you want. If we want to Make America Read, we must make sure libraries remain a public resource. We need to use them. We need to support them and promote them. We need to give them feedback and help make sure they're serving our communities.
So, I have two requests:
Go to your local library and ask someone you don't know for a book recommendation.
Share why you love your library on social media and tag it with #MakeAmericaRead.