According to an article I recently read in the New York Times, Merryl H. Tisch, the former chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, and her husband, James S. Tisch, the president and chief executive of Lowes Corporation (who sits on the New York Public Library’s board of directors) will give 20 million dollars to the New York Public Library (NYPL) to “expand and strengthen its education programming, from early literacy classes to technology training.”
The article goes on to explain that owing to this gift, a new position for a director of education will be created and Tisch added that she hoped the money would help the library create more job training courses and other programs to help expose students to the library’s rich collection of resources. Christopher Platt, the chief branch library officer, is also quoted saying that, to his knowledge, “this is the first educational gift to public libraries of this scale in the country.”
Giving money—especially large amounts of money that can make a lasting impact—to support any organization and institution on a mission to promote literacy, education, and access to knowledge is admirable on every level, yet this article (and story) has left me with unsettling thoughts that I wish to share here, in hopes they are not misunderstood or taken out of context. And these are pervasive thoughts, similar to those I have often expressed on NSR in my effort to draw attention to unequal access to knowledge and books permeating our society.
In an age when we are able to share information at the speed of light, in an age when that information can be equally available to a dreamer in rural Texas, a dreamer on an island in the Adriatic, a dreamer in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a dreamer in New York, why is it that New York always wins? Allow me to explain where those unsettling thoughts come from. And let me preface my argument by adding that New York was my home for well over 20 years.
Libraries are increasingly becoming community centers where people no longer go just to check out books but to take classes and get all kinds of help, the article reminds us, as have hundreds of other articles I’ve come across in recent years. Libraries are still those wonderful, magical, beautiful institutions that house (and protect) knowledge in all forms, and they are always within your reach. All you have to do is walk through that door. All you have to do is show that card. And if you can’t make it to the physical library, then log into its virtual collection (of ebooks and econtent) using your pin, if you are lucky to live in an area where your library provides access to ebooks.
But what if you can’t walk through that door? What if you don’t live in the right zip code? What if you don’t have a library card? And what if the library you belong to has a handful of books to offer you, none of which are the books you want or need? What if you didn’t get accepted to the university of your dreams but you are eager to learn on your own terms, in the privacy of your modest home in rural Texas, the Adriatic, and Sub-Saharan Africa? What if you never set foot inside one of those glorious ivy league libraries that the other kid in your small town is now enjoying because he or she got that acceptance letter? Why not you? Just because. What if you are still dreaming of one day visiting the Big Apple and taking a picture standing next to those lion statues in front of the New York Public Library?
Twenty or so years ago, just before the Internet began to democratize access to information, we relied on libraries to be ‘there’ for us when we needed them. And it made all the difference in the world where we lived and paid taxes, which schools we attended, and what our parents could afford on our behalf. Twenty or so years later, despite the technological advances beyond our expectations—making it possible for books and knowledge in digital format to reach people all over the world—it seems that we still want people to go to libraries before we want them to get the knowledge as quickly as possible. And we still want them to live in the right zip code.
Yet, the promise of digital content in all its incarnations (including ebooks) has been to bridge the digital divide that we talk about at every book and library conference. To equalize access to knowledge. To think beyond the confines of physical institutions and government entities. To march in the direction of a world where access to human knowledge has nothing to do with where you live. And, perhaps most important: to believe in another human’s ability to find his or her way through the maze of information out there. To insist that even children are able to censor what is right for them (as a parent, I’ve come a long way in this thinking). To not overthink the roles of middlemen in the evolution of knowledge and to find the courage to enable reading and then simply get out of the way. Because it’s not about us or about the institutions. It’s about the individual.
What does all of this have to do with NYPL receiving 20 million dollars? Well, to start, it shows that the biggest and most affluent libraries out there are only getting more affluent. It shows that wealthy urban libraries that have made tremendous progress keeping up with technological advances are receiving gifts to reinforce their roles as community centers, which in turn reinforces the centuries-old belief that people need to be taught how to be taught instead of allowing technology to empower people to learn on their own terms. It also reminds us that not all libraries are created equal. They never have been, but today we have the tools to empower small libraries to empower individuals and in ways that have nothing to do with location or citizenship, yet we choose to make the powerful even more powerful. We choose to remain closed.
What if NYPL used the 20 million dollars to boost its robust collection with even more content and then open it up to libraries in rural Texas, the Adriatic, and Sub-Saharan Africa? What if that wonderful collection of books and content in digital format on Fifth Avenue could flow beyond New York? Well, for one month back in December 20016, when a small country in the Adriatic (Croatia) became the world’s first country to be turned into an open virtual library in its entirety, that’s kind of what happened. It wasn’t exactly the NYPL collection that was opened for reading, but it was a robust collection with tens of thousands of books in various languages, and for one entire month, anyone inside Croatia could access it, anywhere. On boats, buses, and trains. In schools, libraries, and cafes. In the heart of the country’s capital and in the vineyards of the country’s South. No card needed. No zip code required. No citizenship confirmed. For 20 million dollars, a country like Croatia could remain an open virtual library for over 20 years.
For 20 million dollars, dear reader, many other cities and countries around the world could be enveloped with the knowledge given to NYPL patrons and NYU students. At the risk of sounding utopian and being misunderstood for suggesting that libraries and institutions of learning need to empower people in ways that mean “less mediating and more freedom of access,” I end with a quote by Indira Gandhi: “Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratizing force, butting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances.” To be fair, we’ve come a long way in our joint efforts to equalize access to knowledge and education, and I have no doubt that this gift NYPL gets will do a lot of good for a lot of people (in New York), but isn’t it time for libraries to raise the bar higher? Isn’t it time to show the true power of libraries like the NYPL and make them omnipresent? Dare I say invisible?