Hartford Public Library was thrown a lifesaver last week, and like a lifesaver, it will only keep us afloat until we get to stable ground.
Speaker of the House Jim Amann, along with state Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams, Deputy President Pro Tem Eric Coleman and Rep. Ken Green of the Hartford delegation believed it unthinkable that our neighborhood library branches were forced to close for lack of funding.
In presenting the $200,000 check from the state of Connecticut that will allow the library to open all branches, albeit with reduced hours for this fiscal year, Speaker Amann said, "Never again can it be an option to close libraries."
Both Sen. Coleman and Rep. Green spoke of how simply wrong it is, in the face of increasing violent crime, the need for after-school help and the decline in hope among Hartford's youth, to not provide the library with funding enough to keep its neighborhood branches open.
Stephen Krashen, in his book, "The Power of Reading," makes the case for free voluntary reading as "the most powerful tool we have in language education," and by extension the most powerful difference between the child who succeeds and the one who does not.
Free voluntary reading, made possible by libraries, not only teaches children language, it teaches them curiosity — it teaches them that there are other places and people different from them. Research has shown that the majority of inner-city children never venture outside their neighborhoods — reading gives them that chance. Reading gives them dreams and possibilities. It can give them hope.
The doors to libraries are the same doors that open to those hopes and dreams. They should never be closed.
Modern libraries look and feel different; card catalogs are long gone, replaced with technology. But one thing has not changed — librarians who genuinely care about the children who come into their rooms, librarians who teach children how to learn to listen, how important it is to wait, how thrilling it can be to learn. Librarians have not been replaced with technology — they are still people who love children and take joy in guiding them, and their parents, to experience the pleasure of books.
If we lose our libraries, we will lose our librarians, we will lose the chance to reach children early on, before they take to the streets, before they come to believe that reading is not "cool," before they stop asking "why?"
"What poor kids really need can't be taught in a classroom," Paul Tough notes in his thoughtful piece in a recent New York Times Magazine. He writes that "the sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date"; it ignores the "overwhelming evidence of the impact of family and community environments on children's achievements."
Libraries are part of the larger environment and a crucial player in the education of the city's youth. Poor children become poor adults when they don't have access to the resources necessary to change that cycle. Echoing the concept that school and "not-school" are both essential to a child's growth, James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, believes that the skills children learn out of school are both "cognitive and noncognitive," meaning things like the "ability to stick to a schedule, to delay gratification, and to shake off disappointment." Learning to socialize, learning how to be respectful to other children and adults — these are the secret lessons a child learns in a library setting.
Many cities are facing budget challenges, but as Mayor Christopher Coleman of St. Paul, Minn., said, "It is widely recognized that one of the things library professionals do better than almost anyone else is to prepare children to read and support their parents as their first and most important teachers."
Public libraries are crucial to a community, and the families that make up that community — closing them should never again be an option.
Louise Blalock is the chief librarian of the Hartford Public Library.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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