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.
Related: BiblioTech Building Ebook Access by Bus, in Library Journal. Also see Bibliotech introductory video. And check out a New York Times feature on library apartments.
Photo: Children’s room inside a New York public library branch.
Dr. Ben Carson has even better expertise for dealing with public housing. He grew up in one, knows what a trap it can be, and only escaped with assistance from others. He’s also been funding scholarship programs for many years. I suspect he also knows that public agencies are ill-suited for lecturing the public on what they should and should not do. Too much hectoring only provokes rebellion.
I see that in my own life. I now live but a few blocks from the state university I enjoyed attending between 1966 and 1972, when I crammed a four-year degree into almost six years. (partly because I worked to pay my way through). Visiting campus since I returned, I found myself depressed and eventually realized there were two reasons.
1. Trees and green spaces have been replaced by cramming more and more buildings onto the campus to fit in an almost doubled enrollment and a grossly inflated bureaucracy. Of course being anti-green in practice didn’t mean they’re not pro-green in their dogmas. That leads to the other reason why that once lovely campus is so depressing.
2. Apart from the names on buildings, almost every bit of signage on the campus—and there is a lot of it—is either telling students what they must do or what they must not do. I feel like I’m walking around in Prussia circa 1900, where “everything that is not prohibited is required.” It makes me want to buy a can of pop and deliberately not put it in the recycling bin.
That is why it’s emphatically not a good idea to have a government so intrusive it teaches the public to either obey the government in everything or to rebel against a suffocating set of rules.
I suspect you can tell a lot about a person by how they respond to the song and movie “Convoy.”
Some love the idea of sticking it to meddlesome authority and joining 1,000 semi-trucks driving cross-country, smashing their way through anything that stands in their way. Some don’t.
That explains much about today’s politics. Precious little snowflakes find the uncertainities of the trucking life and its disdain for “safe spaces” terrifying. Cocooned by rules since kindergarten, they’re ill-suited for life, but irrestibly draw to the Democrat’s 2012 campaign propaganda about what their party offered to Julia. Or, as a contrary-to-the-paper NY Times editorial put it:
“The liberalism of ‘the Life of Julia’ doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did — as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness. It offers a more sweeping vision of government’s place in society, in which the individual depends on the state at every stage of life, and no decision — personal, educational, entrepreneurial, sexual — can be contemplated without the promise that it will be somehow subsidized by Washington.”
Search for “Life of Julia” on Youtube if you’d like to see that now-removed 2012 ad and the mocking it received. Search for “Pajama Boy” for similar hillarity surrounding an Obamacare ad—even from liberals.
But, alas, there are some who want to give us just the sort of world both ads describe—a perpetual childhood.
“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.” <— what a horrifying thought. I'm a librarian (liberal/progressive) and love to read and believe we should all encourage reading whenever and however we can. Require? For a housing benefit? Think about this the next time the government decides to "require" something in exchange for assisting those in need. (drug testing comes to mind) People need housing assistance — they don't need preachy requirements.
@Carleen: The “perhaps” was deliberate, and I mentioned the need to consider such circumstances as health (not to mention the parents’ own literacy issues). But why not at least experiment with a very minimal requirement? Not reading to a young child, when the parent has a choice, is a form of child abuse. We expect parents to feed children regularly. Shouldn’t we encourage at least some mental stimulation, while doing our best to make it fun and showing parents how to engage and teach their kids? My own hunch is that most parents want to do the right thing anyway.
Addendum: See http://sharenews.com/illiteracy-is-a-form-of-child-abuse/. Just found.
Further thoughts: Any decent research out on this topic? And not just on “required” versus “not required.” Are there any ways to do it right? If nothing else, parents need the tools and encouragement to do the job. Otherwise? No requirement even as a possibility!
As I read the post, the kid who lived at the library wasn’t bookish until he was around books. I recently heard that in some European country (not to be named because I don’t remember and I don’t know if it’s true anyway but it makes my point so I’m sharing ‘as if’) kids aren’t taught to read until they’re 12 years old. Makes sense? Makes sense: they learn to read anyway. I.E., lead the little horsies to water, and put some salt (careful, not too much) in them oats.
well-funded libraries supported in communities plus professionally-staffed school libraries (frightening current climate of loss of those positions)– those are the tools — all with dynamic outreach efforts to encourage local populations. Proof in the literacy rates of communities that already have this sort of support. Better use of tax dollars than book police knocking on doors finding out who read today and threat of loss of housing. “Shouldn’t we encourage…” — yes, we should. If we help parents with assisted housing/employment/benefits — something tells me the health and well-being of children in their care will naturally improve.
@Carleen: Not only do I agree, I fervently agree with your just-posted thoughts! Have you heard of Changing Lives through Literature? I’d like to see the same concepts used not just with offenders but also with at-risk kids.