Loving Books, Libraries, and the Internet

If you read certain local blogs, or letters to the editor of local papers, you may notice a recurring theme from some disgruntled citizens. Libraries, and the books they contain, are our enemy. (Who knew?) And the best way to save money and preserve democracy from socialism is to stop buying books for our town and school libraries. Instead, we should buy everyone a computer, and they can download books from the internet.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. There is so much wrong with that sentiment, I barely know where to start.

First of all, public and school libraries are awesome. (Sorry to go all fan-boy on you all, but I actually mean “awesome” in its original sense: overwhelmingly, profoundly powerful.)

Libraries are a pillar of democracy. They are a level playing field for anyone seeking knowledge, self-education or escape into fiction. No money down, no cover charge, and no entry test required. (You don’t even have to read. But it helps.)

Public libraries have been a measure of a culture’s or a community’s wealth and sophistication – and egalitarianism – since before there were books. (When they were scrolls. And can you imagine those “oh, books will never replace the tactile experience of scrolling through a text!” laments from ages past?) The library at Thebes announced itself as “medicine for the soul.”

Libraries are a great use of tax dollars. Really. For every $1 invested in a public library, the community receives $3-$4 or more in benefits. Study after study from the last decade confirm this ripple effect. http://www.oclc.org/roi/ The education, literacy, and cultural programs offered by our libraries enrich us all. Public libraries can act as free universities to a motivated scholar. Plenty of intellectual luminaries – from Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln to Frank Zappa and August Wilson – are autodidacts. (and some of our dimmer bulbs: http://mediamatters.org/blog/201002210010) In short: want economic development? Invest in a public library.

Libraries can reveal the history of a community. Beyond books, libraries often house historic documents, maps, portraits, or other artifacts that celebrate people and events from our past. Check out New Milford Library’s top floor, or the glass display case in the entry way.

Now, before everyone starts screaming, “Ooh, gimleteyes is anti-technology! Gimleteyes is anti-progress!” stop. I embrace technology. I adore the internet. I don’t know what we ever did before wikipedia. I am practically dating my kindle. I am ready for the 21st century and all it has to offer.

I can think of many ways to further integrate technology into the classroom. E-readers could replace those heavy, overpriced, too-soon out-of-date textbooks at the high school and college level. Smartboards can help immensely with presentations (for starters, they are a helluva lot more readable than blackboards). Downloading films or video presentations on demand can be a cost-saver as well as a space-saver. Internet connections can allow students to interact with other schools, other teachers (I know that Ellen Page commercial is a bit cutsie – shouldn’t all those adorable Chinese children be in bed? – but the possibilities are still amazing). And the assistive technology available to those with disabilities is truly miraculous.

But (you knew this was coming) I do not believe that a laptop and a wireless connection cures all ills, or replaces brick-and-mortar libraries or paper-and-ink books. Libraries, even though they now hold microfilm, microfiche, cds, dvd, downloadable books and internet connections, are nothing without books.

Computers are tools. They can be used for good or ill. But they require knowledge and skill to be used well. Simply giving all students a laptop will not raise test scores (in fact, it might lower them, as students spend more time on facebook or surfing for porn instead of reading.) http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2010/06/14/computer-access-leads-to-lower-test-scores-study-suggests/ The same, it seems, can not be said of books. Surrounding a child with books is all but guaranteed to boost their intellect. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/20/AR2010072005303.html

Too much integration of technology makes it far too easy (and tempting) to plagiarize. Students can simply cut and paste whole chunks of online text into a Word doc to create a Frankenstein’s monster of a paper. Doing this not only often creates unreadable dreck, but undermines students’ abilities to analyze text, think critically about their source material, or do research that deviates from their own point of view.

As anyone who spends their day at a computer knows, too much screen time can create eyestrain. It can also fundamentally rewire our brains, making us skimmers instead of contemplative thinkers. And it undermines fine motor skills. Students need to learn to read and write the “old-fashioned way” because reading and writing text on a page develops and stimulates a whole range of skills that simply can’t be learned via computer.

And what about the expense involved in cutting-edge technology? That’s something New Milford in particular has a hard time addressing, especially in these “cut the education budget!” times. Witness the latest town council meeting, where a citizen suggested uploading meetings to the town website. Responding with a letter to the editor of the NM Spectrum, Tom Morey quipped, “hosting meetings on the web costs money and the town does the best it can without burdening the taxpayers and creating a new line item in the budget …. the town has only one IT person, not dozens like the Board of Education has.” http://www.newmilfordspectrum.com/opinion/article/Calls-Board-of-Education-to-task-for-lack-of-594466.php

For the record, the Board of Ed doesn’t have “dozens” of IT personnel. The superintendent’s office has 2 “technical staff” persons; NMHS, SMS and SNIS each have 1; and JPS, NES and H&P share 2 between them. NMHS and SMS also have 3 “tech education” instructors, but I gather they are there to teach computing to students, and not write code or fix machinery. That’s a grand total of 10 people who have computer expertise, which is less than 1 dozen. (Oh, Tom.) Never mind that the taping of town council meetings is funded by the PTO and filmed by a school tech staffer. (Oh, Tom again.) If it’s too expensive to link a digital recording to a webpage, and people feel that 7 tech personnel and 3 teachers for 5000 students and 600 staffers is the height of decadence, how on earth did we graduate from punch cards? We certainly won’t be doing much tech investment this year: the BoE had to cut capital investment to save teaching positions and keep the school budget at $0 growth (again).

And that's the scary part. How much overlap is there between the "close the libraries!" and "cut the budget!" crowd? If we stop investing in traditional ink-and-paper books (an absurd proposition, but one that has persisted this budget season), but fail to properly support e-learning, we'll be a community of idiots. (If I were a conspiracy theorist, this is where I'd say, "And that's their diabolical plan!" But I think really, it's just people talking out of their a$$.)

There is room – there is a fundamental need – for both “old tech” and “new tech” in our schools and our community. We must adequately support both systems of learning. We should embrace new technology. And we should celebrate our treasure we have in our libraries. Lady Bird Johnson once said, Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.” What does that make those who wish to abandon libraries?


Life As I Know It Now said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

CT Fair and Balanced said...

When conservatives claim that buying computers or E-readers (like Amazon's Kindle) would save money, they are simply speaking from the brain they sit on.

Giving 4500 students a Kindle would cost at least $150/student. Then you'd have to start adding the cost of book titles - ouch! Worse yet, you'd have to "assume" that none of the 4500 students would lose/damage/destroy the devices. That's a lot to "assume," since these are children from age 5 - 18. Considering the old addage "you know what happens when you assume," the conservatives who advocate this nonsense have already made asses of themselves.

Oh - did I mention that there will likely be technical support for these devices? Do you need tech support for books? I "assume" you don't need tech support for books, right?

I could go on and on, but we all get the point. Thanks for the great perspective, gimlet eyes.

gimlet eyes said...

In case anyone thinks gimlet eyes is being hysterical and paranoid, read this:
Enough to make one sick.

Connecticut Man1 said...

This is a really great post, gimlet eyes. Thanks for taking the time to write it!