"If you can teach a child to use a library, then stand back. Because that person, throughout their life, will have access to the information they need, will have an inquiring mind, will be able to adapt better.”
- Senator Jack Reed, July 5, 2012
Reed, Capitol Hill's leading advocate for libraries, says they may be playing a more important role today than in the past.
This year you received the American Library Association's top honor of being an honorary member. Very few people get into that club. And you won your second Crystal Apple from school librarians (the American Association of School Librarians). Obviously you are regarded as a top person by people in this field. What brings you, for so long and so successfully, to this interested in libraries?
SENATOR JACK REED
Well, libraries always have been a huge part of my life. I can remember as a kid going up to the Auburn public library on Park Avenue – which is now, I think, demolished, since they built new libraries – but going in there and just spending hours just fascinated and literally transported, figuratively transported, into different worlds. And that was reading as youngster. And then now, as a member of the Senate, recognizing the central roles – in fact, libraries might be playing a more important role today than they ever have in our country.
And this lesson was brought home to me, just graphically. I went up about, oh, about six months ago to the Pawtucket Library, and I walked in and, you know, we looked around and there were some few people reading in the collections, and we went to the computer room, and there’s there a line, waiting their turn at the computer. And I looked at the librarian, and I said: Everyone’s just checking their e-mail? And he said: No. The only way you can apply for a job now is on-line. These people are all looking for work. And when I was a kid, and you wanted to apply for a job, you went down to the factory, filled out the clipboard, handed it back and waited for the phone call, or the message.
So, just as a way to be a part of the workplace, libraries are playing a critical role. They are going to play a critical role in literacy and adult education. They are already doing that, but they will do it more. They are going to, also, I think, be a place where, as we roll out healthcare reform, people need the information, people need the access to a Website, to make a choice for the health exchange.
You know libraries, they’ve got the computers. One of the things that we've done in Rhode Island, and again a tribute to a lot of great local leaders, the OSHEAN network [part of Broadband Rhode Island], they've put in, I think, 700 computers in 70 different libraries, so that there would be broadband access for people. And we’re talking now about middle and lower income people, who can't afford the kind of the price of service in their home or a sophisticated computer in the home.
So libraries, they are future, really. And I think a lot of people say: Oh well, that's the past, that’s Andrew Carnegie, and that’s going and taking a book out, and we don't do that anymore. No, it's the future. And we have to do much, much more. And so I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington working hard to make sure that we have some support for local libraries.
Where does the federal funding for libraries stand at this point? Has it been level-funded, Senator?
It’s basically level-funded. The big initiative we undertook, and this was something I that I helped draft in the Library and Museum Act back a few years ago, is that the libraries support – there’s a technical and support provision, which provides resources – that's level funded, currently, in both the President’s budget and what we're trying to do. I would argue we could do much more, and it's very efficient. But if we can hold on to this funding, at least we've can help update technology.
And there’s an important aspect to this, often overlooked: help professional development of librarians. Because, once again, now, this is not, you know, your grandmother's library, where you go in and you go through the card catalog and find a card. The librarians get questions about: Well, I’m looking for a job. How to find this material? And you have to develop librarians.
And it’s also important, another aspect, is the school libraries. Because we are we're working on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act arena, both the budget and the authorization, to provide resources for school libraries. They’re often the first thing that's cut. And I found this out when I was in Congress in the 1990s.
And again, one of the reasons that I've done pretty well is I just generally just try to follow what Senator (Claiborne) Pell did, and if you did that you're pretty successful. So he, of course, was the great leader in all these issues.
But back in the 1990s, when I was in the House, and I was working hard on libraries, school library education, the librarians would send me these books, these old books, talking about – now this is the 1990s – about how the Soviet Union was our great threat. Of course, the Soviet Union had collapsed, didn't exist. But these were on the shelves as school library books. But many of them were stamped “ESEA-1965.” The first Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided significant resources to buy books. They were still on the shelves, 30 years later, out of date, many of them. And so we started working, and said: Well, we've got to update this. And now it's happened, of course, with computers and e-books, we’ve sort of leaped over just replacing books.
But it's not just public libraries, it's also school libraries. And, frankly, my basic premise, again after all I've experienced, if you can teach a child to use a library, then stand back. Because that person, throughout their life, will have access to the information they need, will have an inquiring mind, will be able to adapt better. But if they don't have access to libraries, they don't know they exist, they’ve had poor experiences with them, a huge resource in their lives is going to be lost forever.
Things are changing, obviously, people don’t read don’t read the way they did, or in the form that they did, and especially, as you alluded to, the whole electronic book revolution. So, then, what does become the role of the library, beyond providing some computer access to people who otherwise can't afford it? What other role can the library play, or should it play?
Well, I think the libraries are, first of all, common ground, and we are losing more and more of our common ground: a place you go, a community place, a place where you actually see people. That's an important role, that's often understated.
The new technology is both enabling and disabling. And, again, I talked about the need for librarians to be well-trained. Because one of the problems I see with this new electronic media is you can create your own virtual world. You can have only the Websites you like. There's no intermediary who can say: No, no, no, you don't understand: that's totally erroneous, that if you want a good reference point, this is an accurate reference. Where you get that? Well, one place you could get that is a well-trained librarian, who does not have, as they say, an ax to grind; just: You are looking for information about a particular program; well, then I recommend you go to this source, it's very reliable etc. It's that validation, that expertise, that can be so important.
So, the libraries, again, I think have a much more important role going forward, as much as they did in the past. And libraries always, and one of the things that, the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie did, is he decided to put libraries practically everywhere, because he had this vision that if you were to open knowledge to every American – not just the affluent, who can afford the sophisticated computers and things like that, but to everybody – then this country is going to take off. And if you have this separation, not only on income, but access to information, you’re going to have not only an unproductive economy, because Andrew Carnegie I think was pretty shrewd about – again, I think he was a pretty devout capitalist among many other things – but you're not going to have a good economy. But you are also going to have a society that doesn't, you know, it doesn't work well. So, again, libraries I think are, you know – it's something that we can't neglect as an anachronism.
At every level of government, people wrestle with it, though, especially at the local level, at the state level, which, in Rhode Island, gives a lot of funding, which is dependent and tied into what the local cities and towns are able to do. And then, obviously, there's a big fight going on federally about all government spending. How do you convince people at every level, Senator, that they either maintain or increase spending, when it's so easy to cut the libraries as the first easy, low-hanging fruit?
It’s continuous advocacy that you have to undertake. Because, one of the things about libraries is, you can make cuts so: We won't buy books this year; we've got plenty of books. That's okay, but five years from now, when the books are all are out of date, and the library roof is leaking, etc., that's when: Oh, well, we can’t afford to do anything now. So you have to be an advocate.
The other thing you have to do, too, because I don't think you can ever get away from making the case, on sort of dollars and cents – and I go back to my example of becoming part of workforce. Today, you can't be engaged in looking for work unless you have access to the computer. For thousands of people in Rhode Island, the library is the place. So, this is not just a: You can go read some magazines, and, you know, take a nap in the air conditioning. This is about: How can I get a job? How can I keep the job? How can I update my skills? If my employer tells me: You know, there's this on-line course, which is excellent, which would help you. Where do you get it? Well, you can go to the library and ask the librarian for some help.
You know, one of the things that's happening now in higher education – and this goes, too, to how do we make things more efficient – and I would say libraries are a very, very efficient allocation of resources. You know, we are not buying everybody a computer, and we are not getting everybody free Internet service; but what we're doing is making available on a community basis.
MIT, for example, is putting most of their courses on-line. So if you’re a young student, and you want to do something to supplement your education, or you want to see more of this – you’re a worker and you want to upgrade your skills – you can go in and get this course on-line.
The library you mentioned at the beginning that you went to when you were growing up in Cranston, what was the name that, again?
It was the Auburn public library. It was on the corner of Woodbine Street and Park Avenue in Cranston. It was an old house. You walked up the front steps, and you walked in, and the librarian was there to greet you. It was constructed as a big house, probably in the 1890s, and the books were all up in the shelves, and you would go up and get the books, and it was great. And then, subsequently, they built two new branches in Cranston, one here on Sockanosset Cross Road. I don't know if they demolished the building, but that was my first library.
How far did you have to walk to get from your home to the library?
It was about two miles. I had a friend that lived on Woodbine Street, so often I could, before I visited him, I could go up into the library. It was one of those things where you are probably in seventh or eighth grade, you were given those projects you had to do, library research, and you could go into the library and do that. But it was, you know, thinking back now, it was sort of the great American life of Norman Rockwell: you could walk up the steps to this old wooden building with the library, and get the books out. It wasn't that long ago, but it seems like it was that long ago.
And then I can remember when I was at Harvard, at the law school, I would study a lot at the Radcliffe library, which consisted of reading old volumes of Life magazine – that was because I was such a great law student. Libraries can be distracting as well as good places to study. But it was out of the way. The law school library was so frenetic – I mean everyone was just so wrapped up, and I was about 28 or 29, I was much older than my classmates, I’d served for 12 years in the Army. So, I went over to the Radcliffe library, which was much more sort of quiet and a little more collegial, and, you know, did little torts and then Life magazine.
Rhode Island has a lot of libraries, and a lot of, frankly, goodwill toward libraries right now. Why?
Because there’s a personal connection for most Rhode Islanders to a library. All my contemporaries, growing up, they used the same library. They had to do the project at school, just like I did. I think that the other thing, frankly, is we have just a wonderful cadre of librarians and library supporters, people who are active in their community, who have been volunteers of libraries, etc., and they are community leaders. So, yeah, we have that. And, you know, I would suspect if you went across the United States that you’d see similar situations, where people have some close connections to their local libraries.
The problem, of course, is translating that into the resources and appropriate programs at every level. And, again, it’s from going out and visiting these things, I think a lot of people have the notion, because they’ve lost track of what the libraries are, that these are sort of, they are old institutions, and that was in the 1950s or 1850s, and they don’t realize how vital a role they’ll play in our economy.
Are you optimistic about their future?
I’m optimistic, because I just sense there is such an inherent quest for knowledge by everyone. When you go into a Pawtucket library, which is, again, fighting like many urban libraries, tough economic issues, and you find it jam-packed with people – they’ve found their way there. And they’ll find – if we keep those doors open, they’ll find their way there.
And it isn’t frivolous, this is all part of learning something, and again, of participating in the market. And also, I think, stressing over and over again, everyone wants efficiency. When we have a significant amount of digital material, college courses on-line, technical courses on-line, access to it, etc., you’re going to need a couple of things. One, you’re going to need the hardware and software in the library, the computers. But I think, as I said before, you’re going need someone who can give you advice objectively about what’s terrible, what’s a gimmick, and that’s where librarians – well-trained, professionally-developed librarians – can play a critical role.
We always respect them. They are not sending you only to the books that they like. It’s: What are you looking for? Here’s the range. Let me suggest that has been very useful to many people. That help is invaluable.
There’s just one more area I’d like to get into, which is of particular interest to us (at the Rhode Island Library Report). We’ve discovered that there is a growing convergence between the old-style media and librarians. We have commonality of interests. Both industries are really shaken up by the advent of the computer age. What do you think about that? Do you think that is a good partnership, or maybe one that’s got some potential problems down the line? The idea, for example, that in some towns, where the newspapers have collapsed, the library has taken over newsletters and has actually has started to take on a news-gathering job. Whereas, in other places, journalists are forming kind of partnerships with different libraries, for different reasons.
I think you’re at this moment of extraordinarily dynamic and unpredictable change, and you’re going to see different models rise and fall very quickly. Some will have the attraction, and some will work. You know, we’ve been there before. Not recently. I think we have technologies that evolved out of World War II and into the ‘40s and ‘50s, but they were deployed rather slowly. I mean television took, you know, a decade or more to start penetrating households, etc., etc. You know, the iPhones – whoosh – 18 months, and millions and millions of people have iPhones, and all the apps, etc.
So we are in cusp – I don’t think we are yet at the point where we see precisely what model is going to the best. And my suspicion is, in some places you’re going to find local journalists coming together and hire an e-platform, replicating what used to be the traditional print media, and then doing more. Some places, they don’t have that center of mass, so the library might be the one that steps in to other places.
The one thing, the concern is that in the old media there was always a journalistic effort and a factual standard and a sort of principled approach to providing both sides of the story, different viewpoints, etc. Maybe not the editorial page, but the news pages. And one of the concerns I have is that it is now possible to sort of self-select your own, you know, media, so that you’re just reinforcing – you’re not learning, you’re just reinforcing what you thought, or what you didn’t think, but a gut reaction. And that’s, again, I think where the libraries can play a critical role, because a professional librarian, that standard of sort of intellectual honestly, that there are two sides at least (where I come from, there are many more than two sides) there are two sides to each story, that is so important. And I hate to see – that’s one of the reasons, you know, away from just the access to computers, and access this, but just the integrity, the intellectual integrity that librarians bring to the process is something we can’t lose. It’s not heralded enough. We can’t lose it.