Good evening and thank you for inviting me to join you at this special celebration.
First, I would like to thank The New York Times for hosting us, and Janet Robinson for your continued commitment to schools and libraries. We all would like to have had you as a teacher.
Vartan GregorianI would also like to salute Vartan (Gregorian) whose passion for libraries and learning is unparalleled and contagious. You are a worthy heir to Andrew Carnegie and have been a wonderful friend to my mother, and my uncle Teddy.
And finally I would like to thank one of the educators I most admire, Barbara Stripling, the Director of Library Services at the NYC Department of Education. Barbara has transformed school libraries throughout this city. She is a generous friend, an inspirational leader and has made a real difference in the lives of the 1.1 million students in NYC public schools.
I am honored to join you tonight to celebrate ten outstanding librarians and the thousands more that you represent. This award is truly significant because the nominations received from across the country show that libraries continue to play a critical role in our democracy, and that librarians are once-again on the front lines of a battle that will shape the future of our country. It is a battle that is fought out of view and the heroes are people who didn’t seek a career of confrontation, but who live lives of principle and meaning – understanding that the gift of knowledge is the greatest gift we can give to each other.
One of the hallmarks of a great civilization is the preservation of and access to information- libraries. We all know that the library at Alexandria was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. And we have all learned that our founding fathers believed that libraries were essential to the growth of America. Benjamin Franklin helped to found the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Thomas Jefferson‘s personal library became the library of Congress.
But this illustrious history doesn’t explain why libraries are a so often under attack — even in our own time. Why it is that Mao’s army destroyed Tibetan libraries? Why did the Germans target the medieval library in Louvain, Belgium and follow that with the sweeping destruction and confiscation of libraries throughout central Europe? Why did the Serbs burn the great multi-cultural Bosnian National Library? And here at home, why were nine people arrested in 1961 during the first “read-in” at a segregated public library in Jackson, Mississippi? And why did the Patriot Act seek to obtain the personal borrowing records of library patrons? Not only because libraries are important symbols of a civilized society, but because they are, in a sense, tabernacles of personal freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of opportunity and the true test of liberty – freedom to dissent.
In times of great political turmoil, libraries are a bastion of civil liberties, but in calmer times, they are integrated into every aspect of our lives. One of the most exciting rituals of childhood is getting your first library card, and last year, one-third of all Americans over the age of 15, or 77 million people, used a public library. There could be no more compelling statistic yet once again, libraries are under attack, this time from an insidious adversary- indifference and lack of funds. New York, one of the more generous states, allocates only $6.25 per student for library books, not enough to buy even one book and Congress allocated ZERO to the Improving Literacy through School Libraries Office. When times are tough, access to knowledge is seen as a luxury not a necessity, though in a difficult economic climate, we know that people need and use libraries more than ever.
Libraries are no longer hushed reading rooms but busy social hubs for the exchange of life skills and information. They have become community centers in the very best sense- places where we build community and weave together lives and dreams. The unemployed come to find job training and job opportunities, new immigrants come to learn English, students use the library for college readiness and college access, and adolescents can explore difficult social and emotional issues in the safe space of a library.
I have seen this first-hand in my work with the NYC public schools. Classroom libraries play a vital role in student’s intellectual development, and school libraries fill a larger void in their lives. A great school library becomes the heart of the school and the center of the larger community. A great school librarian understands that kids can’t succeed without the support of parents, teachers, business partners and 21st century research and writing skills.
That is why we have made libraries a special focus of NYC school reform efforts. Under Barbara Stripling’s leadership, the DOE has created a new curriculum which is a national model, and trained an energized, creative, professional cadre of school librarians who understand that they have the power to make a difference, that they are no longer the person who just keeps the books in order, and tells everyone to be quiet, but that they are one of the most important teachers that the students have.
At the Fund for Public Schools we have learned that when a principal and a librarian work together to make literacy a real priority, a relatively small amount of money can make a huge difference in the culture of not just a school library but an entire school community. Over the past eight years we have given $8.5 million to schools in 225 small competitive grants to bring school libraries up-to-date technologically, support family literacy workshops, build collections for English language learners, and provide comfy furniture where kids can hang out with a book. Now, as we move towards implementation of the Common Core standards, the role of the librarian is becoming even more important. We need visionary librarians who understand how to integrate technology into their curriculum and who can help students learn the higher-order critical thinking skills they will need to succeed.
The other library that I am part of is the Kennedy Library in Boston. In addition to preserving the documents and archival record of my father’s Presidency for scholars and researchers, thanks to my husband’s far-reaching vision, the Kennedy Library has broken free from its Boston home. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of my father’s Presidency, we embarked on a multi-year effort to digitize his papers, correspondence, memos, speeches, photos, and film holdings. The record of his Presidency is now available on-line to a world-wide audience in their own languages. We have also created a website for students – jfk50.org- with down-loadable curricula and exhibits – where users can also upload their own testimonials about service in the spirit of President Kennedy.
None of these efforts would have been possible without dedicated, committed and visionary librarians. Professionals who are excited about their changing role in a changing world – who are dedicated to serving others, who respect scholarship, and who understand that you are our guides on a life long journey of intellectual collaboration and collaborative composition.
Your work is truly life changing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote so many years ago, ”Be a little careful about your library. Do you foresee what you will do with it? Very little to be sure. But the real question is, ‘What will it do with you?’ You will come here and get books that will open your eyes, and your ears, and your curiosity, and turn you inside out or outside in.”
Congratulations and thank you.
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