Like many of you, I gave thanks for our public schools and their teachers during American Education Week, which just ended. Now, during Thanksgiving week, I suggest we give thanks for our public libraries.
First of all, they’re everywhere: “If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the ubiquity of McDonald’s, this stat may make your day: There are more public libraries (about 17,000) in America than outposts of the burger mega-chain (about 14,000). The same is true of Starbucks (about 11,000 coffee shops nationally).” So wrote Emily Badger in the Atlantic Cities back in June. She adds that libraries serve 96.4% of the US population. While that does not mean that nearly everyone uses a public library, they could if they wanted to.
Public libraries are aggressive because they have to be; they need people coming through their doors, and so they provide internet access, loans of DVDs and more, all with the endgame of promoting literacy.
The strategy of meeting the public’s needs seems to be working: Library membership and usage are up in most parts of the country, even though public financial support has been declining. Here in New York City for example, circulation, participation in educational programs and the number of visitors are up by 45% on average, although funding from the City is down 18%, according to the Library’s President, Tony Marx.
New York’s public library system could be a national model for how to work with schools. NYPL main library and its branch libraries deliver books to about 600 of the city’s 1700 public schools, when requested by students and teachers. The aim, Dr. Marx told me, is to supplement school libraries “…so that those libraries can also circulate from our 17 million books and better meet needs, rather than forcing students and teachers to rely only on the books they have in their own small collections.” His goal, he said, is to support school libraries and learning everywhere–and to give every child a (free) library card.
I have been a fan of libraries for a long time, probably because, when we were kids, our Mom was a regular patron of our local public library. In the Preface to The Influence of Teachers, I wrote:
Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge—on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge. We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.
Not any more. Today knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the Internet. Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world. Most have become multi-purpose centers with Internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD’s. Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions, because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.
By contrast, schools remain a monopoly, places where children are expected to answer questions, by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.
Those thoughts can be condensed into a bumper sticker: “People go to libraries to find answers to their own questions. We make kids go to schools to answer someone else’s.” It’s not that simple, of course, because there are schools and teachers that insist on students taking control of their own education, and some teachers pose questions that they themselves do not know the answers to—and then enlist their students in figuring it out. 
But schools in general aren’t changing fast enough. It’s time to recognize that, because our children are growing up swimming in a sea of information, it’s incumbent upon adults to make certain that the institutions we force kids to attend are teaching them how to formulate questions, not merely regurgitate answers to the questions we pose. Meeting that challenge will require a sea change by the people in charge, and all the talk about ‘deeper learning,’ ‘blended learning’ and ‘flipped classrooms’ won’t amount to much if we don’t make that fundamental change.
The old saying, “If you can read this, thank a teacher,” still resonates. but I would add, “If you are a reader, you probably should thank a library.”
Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah, everyone……