Even if you read mostly ebooks, as I do, you can imagine the delights of growing up inside a library full of paper books.
In fact, that’s what Ronald Clark did in the 1940s in the New York Public Library’s Washington Heights branch where his father worked as a custodian. From Atlas Obscura:
“Kids are strange,” he says. “We always want to be normal. So at first I was a little ashamed that I lived in a library.” His family had moved from a small town in Maryland, where everyone knew each other, for his father, Raymond, to take a job as the library’s custodian.
When New York City’s branch libraries were first built, each one had an apartment on the third floor for a live-in caretaker, who would keep the library clean and its coal furnaces burning.
Soon enough, though, Clark realized the advantages of his new home. “I thought—wait a minute, I’ve got a building to myself with every book in the world,” he says. He decided he liked it. “After a few years, my friends would introduce me and say, ‘This guy lives in the library. Literally—he lives in the library!’”
When Clark’s old apartment was converted into space for library programming, he spoke at the opening ceremony. He embraced change despite his nostalgia for his old surroundings.
No, we can’t all grow up inside libraries—library apartments are no longer occupied, remember—but it certainly would help if more parents took children to libraries or at least bothered to read books to them.
Related lesson for Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s HUD nominee
And now, a lesson for the forthcoming Trump Administration:
Back in his former home, Clark said that living the library had been a life-changing experience. Before moving there, he had not been a bookish kid, and no one in his family had graduated from high school. But while residing in the library, he started paying attention to books. Every time he read something new, he was amazed. He found himself walking past stacks of books and picking out titles to take to a library table, or going downstairs at all hours of the night to read.
Although not every child can grow up inside a library, we can make certain that books of all kinds, paper as well as electronic, are convenient to read. Donald Trump is making the unconventional nomination of Dr. Ben Carson, a retired surgeon and ex-presidential candidate, as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Not the pick I would have made. But as long as Carson is there, perhaps he can shake up public housing for the better and lean on public housing projects to offer small paper libraries and at the same time promote use of ebooks in the Bibliotech tradition. In fact, the all-digital Bibliotech public library system in San Antonio already has already opened a branch in a public housing project.
What’s more, HUD should also encourage the parents of children in both public housing and rent-subsidized housing to read to them. Perhaps that should even be a requirement, with allowances for parents who face extenuating circumstances such as health issues or the need to hold multiple jobs. Not to mention the possibility of family literacy classes if the parents themselves can’t read or can barely do so.
As a former public housing reporter, part of my old poverty beat, I believe that public housing programs should change lives for the better in many ways, just like libraries, rather than simply proving shelter.
The existing HUD has already announced a partnership with literacy efforts, but I would like to see more specifics. Financial literacy projects for public housing residents are also happening. But HUD also needs to promote the traditional kind of literacy, using tools ranging from one-on-one instruction to cell phone book clubs.