Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Monday, March 7, 2011

Libraries are Sanctuaries - Books are Journeys

Segregated, but reading anyway
North Carolina State Library, 1930s
Despite all appearances, The Obsessive Reader is holding out hopes for the world's libraries. I know they are being threatened, with cuts to funding, a reliance on book stores, online retailers, and the lazy forgetfulness of literate people everywhere.  But think about Egypt!! February 26 - 28, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina hosted a summit for young people "in recognition of their significant role in the Egyptian Revolution."  National Geographic interviewed BA Library Director Ismail Serageldin about the youth meeting.  Serageldin says, it was the people themselves, the demonstrators, who stood and held hands, and said, "This is our Library. We're not going to allow anything to happen to it."  He also says, the Library has played a role...to spread the ideas that these young people embodied so magnificently.

The new Library of Alexandria, Egypt

Egyptian National Flag at Alexandria Library
The Alexandria Library website reports The Library was protected by the people who joined hands around the building. Young students from the university designed and made a huge National Flag, and put it on the steps of the Library which elicited cheers from passing demonstrators... 

In the U.S., we have our own looters. Corporate looters who were bailed out by the federal government. Elected officials trying to solve a fiscal crisis caused by corporate greed, the inequities of our tax system, and lack of vision. The solution to problems caused by favors to corporations and the rich? Cut services to the poor and staples of community life.  Such as libraries. With such role models, would American youth protect libraries in a crisis? Would they protect them now?

For you whose libraries may be threatened, here is a wonderful article by writer, Pico Iyer from the Los Angeles Times.  Let me hear from you obsessive readers in defense of libraries.  Also, feel free to read this interview with Pico Iyer, by Rolf Potts. 

Ryszard Kapuściński 1932 - 2007, Polish journalist, poet 
I place Iyers among my favorite travel writers, although I've always thought the term travel writer, particularly in the 21st century, when so much of the world has been traversed and reported on by outsiders, is peculiar. 

To me, masters of so-called travel writing, such as Ryszard Kapuściński, Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux are not hired guns for the travel industry, nor do they provide tips for sight seeing. No longer are they simply white sojourners into unknown lands, a contingency of colonialism. The best of them know that to look at the Other is to gaze into the mirror. They know that narrative is a journey, and that being a tourist, no matter how observant, is no substitute for insight.  

Finally, speaking of travel writers and libraries.  Without going to a library (or relying on the online library of a bookseller) you will not be able to find a copy of My Great Wide Beautiful World, a great, forgotten travel book published by novice author, Juanita Harrison, in 1936.  Starting at age 16, Ms. Harrison, an African American woman, traveled solo to 80 countries by the time she was in her thirties. She published her idiosyncratic observations and heartfelt experiences kept in her diary and from letters home.  When it was issued, it received reviews in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Time magazine and other periodicals,  and was a best-seller. The book is out of print. Because of libraries, you can still read it. 

Our culture needs to be reintroduced to libraries. On Facebook the other day, I read the response of a gentleman to a plea to support a ballot measure that would fund libraries. The gentleman wrote, "You can find a lot of texts online now." To which The Obsessive Reader replied in frustration, "Where do you think those digitized online texts come from? LIBRARIES!!!!!!!"   

If you live in Los Angeles, on Tuesday, March 8, Election Day, you have the opportunity to join other citizens in voting Yes on Measure L to keep the city's public libraries funded. If you live in another city, let me know what's going on with your libraries. The Obsessive Reader cares!

American Library Association poster

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