The summer between tenth and eleventh grade, I decided that I was going to spend my time off from school doing something useful: I was going to read fifty books as part of the summer reading challenge (most of them came from the library where I was a volunteer). With that fact in mind, the following spring the branch manager asked me a favor — would I be willing to attend the upcoming County Board of Supervisors meeting and speak about my summer reading in defense of the library budget?
Being a civic-minded high schooler, I went, and while I was there a debate broke out so dramatically that it’s still discussed in Spotsylvania when topics to gossip about run short: the chair of the local Republican party chapter said that Spotsylvania students were hopelessly stupid because the school board wasted so much money — he said that high school seniors were so uninformed that they “didn’t know a participle from a predicate.” With the knowledge that my geography textbook still contained a chapter on the USSR (in March 2005!) because we couldn’t afford new ones, I listened to my neighbors talk about whether or not over-funding was making me and my classmates dumber than average.
When my turn came to speak, I couldn’t hold my tongue. According to the official minutes, I said my bit for the library, “spoke about the library’s resources and asked the board to support full funding for the library.” I also mentioned that I supported the school budget and did, in fact, know the difference between a participle and a predicate. On my way out of the meeting, an old man (or so he seemed to me at the time) stopped me to congratulate me on speaking, and mentioned that he himself didn’t know the difference between a participle and a predicate.
The reason I’m telling this story now is because, ten years later, there are two things about it I find somewhat striking, especially in light of some of our recent readings for this class.
Michael Casey says that “When faced with the questions of who to cut, those funding agencies must know that a cut to the local public library cannot be done quietly,” and motivating library users to make library advocacy a priority seems like a really good way to do this. I would never in a million years have thought to go before the board of supervisors to ask them to fund the library, but when Martha suggested it to me I was more than happy to help out. The NYPL has openly asked their users to sign petitions, attend 24-hour read-ins, and mail library-provided postcards to combat budget cuts. When that worked, they encouraged people to send thank you notes. The participatory service readings talked a lot about how to encourage users to feel invested in their libraries and how difficult that can be, but in some cases I think straight-up asking for what you want may be the way to go. People will feel like the library belongs to them if they know that they are an instrumental part of keeping it alive, and asking them for help will make them realize just how much they are valued.
The second thing that I find striking about my story is the missed connection — in all the comments I received about my appearance before the board, nobody ever pointed out to me that perhaps my knowledge of grammar terms may have more to do with my voracious library use than my formal education. Does the fact that I had the ability and desire to patronize the library regularly mean that my experience is atypical and has no bearing on the school board budget? As far as I’m concerned, of course not. But it does raise some interesting ideas.
Other than once a year in elementary school, the public library had no formal place in my public-school education, but maybe it should have. What if public libraries could collaborate with public schools to ensure that, between the two of them, more students are able to find the information they need? Teachers could link library visits with extra credit, perhaps, or bookmobiles could add public schools to their routes (or even, as long as we’re dreaming big, dedicate a bookmobile entirely to school outreach). Each should advocate for funding and public support of the other whenever possible, rather than being in competition. If we really want the library to be at the center of the hyperlinked community, we should work on building a community that values education, not just libraries and not just schools.
(Sorry for the super long post! TL;DR: This one time I asked the local government for money and I think libraries should ask other people to do that; education is good for the soul.)