By Brian C. Jones
Rhode Island Library Report
CRANSTON – July 5, 2012 – In a recent visit to the Pawtucket Public Library, U.S. Senator Jack Reed, D-RI, was surprised to see a long line of patrons waiting to use the library’s free, Internet-connected computers. Reed asked why.
“These people are all looking for work,” a librarian said, explaining that employers now want job-seekers to apply on-line.
It was a sharp contrast with Reed’s memories of growing up in working-class Rhode Island, when someone wanting a job simply walked into a factory and filled out a form on a clipboard.
And it reinforced Reed’s view that libraries now are more essential than previously in American history.
“Libraries might be playing a more important role today than they ever have in our country,” says Reed, who Capitol Hill’s leading advocate for libraries. But Reed also says library supporters need to convince skeptics that libraries are relevant in the digital age.
There are many reasons that libraries still have an important place in America’s cities and towns, he says, beginning with their provision of free computer and Internet access.
For people who cannot afford a home computer or an Internet subscription, libraries are the place where they can connect, he says. And that will be increasingly vital as the Internet serves as a gateway to more aspects of life, for example, the new national health care program’s insurance exchanges, and university courses provided on-line.
BUT THERE'S MUCH MORE, Reed says, including the role that librarians can take in countering one downside of the digital revolution: misinformation, partial information, slanted information pouring into computers from cyberspace.
Reed sees librarians as becoming expert guides to reliable information, neutral arbiters who can point patrons toward reliable sources and broadening the outlooks people who may have developed tunnel vision by consuming only media reinforcing their personal viewpoints.
Libraries also will continue to occupy a special place in American life, as gathering spots where people, regardless of wealth, are welcome.
“I think the libraries are, first of all, common ground,” Reed says. “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.”
REED MADE the comments in an interview with the Rhode Island Library Report at his Cranston office, not far from Cranston’s Central library on Sockanosset Cross Road.
It was a day after he’d marched in July Fourth parades. Relaxed and down-to-earth in his conversation, Reed nevertheless was formally dressed, Washington style, in a blue-gray suit, and blue-and-white striped tie. Shortly afterwards, he was planning to fly back to the capital, to rejoin his wife, Julia Hart Reed, and their daughter, Emily.
"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.”
Scattered around his office were models of military aircraft. Reed is well regarded as a military expert. A West Point graduate, he’s one of a dwindling number of national lawmakers who actually served in the military, in his case, as an Army Ranger and paratrooper.
But Reed also is the leading sponsor in Congress of legislation supporting libraries, a role underscored this past April, when he was honored by two national groups.
- The American Library Association declared Reed an honorary member, the organization’s top award, given sparingly to advocates such as the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, Reed’s predecessor; Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates; and entertainer and reading advocate Oprah Winfrey.
- For a second time, the American Association of School Librarians presented Reed its Crystal Apple, which singles out those who have had a “significant impact” on school libraries. Reed was similarly honored in 1994 and is the only two-time recipient.
Among key pieces of legislation with Reed’s fingerprints is the Museum and Library Services Act, crafted originally by Pell and reauthorized under Reed’s watch in 2003 and 2010. Rhode Island libraries and museums have received $15 million in grants from that program, according to a Reed news release.
Reed engineered inclusion of $28.6 million for school libraries and literacy programs as part of the 2012 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. In 2001, he authored the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program, to train school librarians and to buy books and computers. He also crafted the Librarian Act, which cancels Perkins student loans for librarians who have master’s degrees and work in low income areas.
“It was on the corner of Woodbine Street and Park Avenue,” Reed recalled. “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.”
Reed visits transported him into new worlds and now seem like an idyllic scene in a Norman Rockwell painting. But he acknowledges there have been big changes since then: the Auburn branch has moved to new quarters on Pontiac Avenue, and, in general, most libraries no longer resemble “your grandmother’s library.”
Now, libraries lend electronic books, have banks of computers hooked up to high-speed Internet connections, and patrons go to libraries not just to browse through old issues of Life magazines (a Reed pastime when he was at Harvard law school) or to cool down in an air conditioned reading room. They go to switch careers, learn a language and seek government services.
Not everyone realizes this, he says.
“I think a lot of people say: Oh, well, that’s Andrew Carnegie (the philanthropist who sponsored libraries), and that’s taking a book out, and we don’t do that anymore,” says Reed, who supplies his own instant rebuttal: “No, it’s the future. And we have to do much, much more.”
"If you can teach a child to use a library, then stand back. Because that person throughout their lives will have access to the information they need, will have an inquiring mind, will be able to adapt better."
“If you have this separation, not only on income, but access to information, you’re going to have not only an unproductive economy,” Reed says, “but you are also going to have a society that doesn't, you know – it doesn't work well.
REED SAYS LIBRARIES need “continuous advocacy,” and he credits both library professionals in Rhode Island, as well as volunteer supporters, with creating strong backing for the state’s libraries. But the fight to maintain libraries has been long-standing.
When he was first in Congress, as a member of the House of Representatives from 1991 to 1996, school librarians would send Reed samples of books still on their shelves, stamped “ESEA – 1965” – signaling they were subsidized by the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Thus, 30 years later, those same books continued telling students that the Soviet Union was an ardent foe of the United States, even though by 1991 the USSR had ceased to exist.
The Rhode Island Library Report , which is working to create a unique team of professional journalists to cover Rhode Island libraries, asked Reed about efforts by journalists and librarians to work together, since both newspapers and libraries face similar challenges from new technology and strained finances.
It’s impossible to predict what new models will emerge during a period of “unpredictable change,” Reed says. In some instances, journalists might try to replicate the work of newspapers on the Web, while in other cases, libraries may step in to provide community news provided by now-closed newspapers.
One of the services librarians may offer, Reed suggested, could be to mitigate an unwelcome byproduct of the Internet revolution: one-sided, partisan news.
“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,” Reed says. If that’s lost, “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.”
LIBRARIES WILL FLOURISH, Reed says, because the need is both historic and on-going.
“I’m optimistic because I just sense there is such an inherent quest for knowledge by everyone,” Reed says, recalling his visit to the Pawtucket library, which despite having to fight tough economic issues like many urban libraries, was “jam-packed with people.”
“They found their way there,” he says, “and if we keep those doors open, they’ll find their way there.”
Unchanged, Reed says, is the impact that a library can have on a student’s developing mind:
“If you can teach a child to use a library, then stand back. Because that person throughout their lives will have access to the information they need, will have an inquiring mind, will be able to adapt better.
“But if, you know, 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 life is going to be lost forever.”