Update, August 15, 2018: To the best of my knowledge, Martin Luther King High School has not followed through with a first-rate ebook initiative. Details in this essay.
“This is a Library, but Where are the Books?”
He rages in the video from a room at Martin Luther King High School—97 percent African-American—in the Germantown area of Philadelphia.
Really? No books? King Leon X’s camera homes in on the “God-damn Diary of Anne Mother Fucking Frank”—a book but, as he apparently sees it, the wrong book for the black students. More on that later.
I caught up with the school for its side. The bad news is that King Leon X’s video missed out on one of the biggest outrages of all—most of the time the book room is locked up, so the kids usually can’t even read there. The good news is that Keisha Wilkins, MLK’s principal for the post two years, says she is just as fed up with the status quo as the angry rapper is. And she has a plan to get the kids reading again—both paper books and ebooks. She says each of the approximately 750 students this school year will benefit from a Chromebook capable of downloading reading from the Philadelphia public library and other sources. Nirvana? Hardly. Many weeks into the school year, the public library ebook apps apparently are still not on the Chromebooks. And I am not hearing a peep out of Ms. Wilkins directly. Why? Because she’s is just talk? Because someone in the school administration won’t let her proceed? Her technology coordinator, a history teacher named Robert Schlichtmann who is about to retire after a student assaulted him in the classroom, has been doing his best but has limited time. So far he is not enjoying the support of faculty members or, perhaps, Ms. Wilkins.
The book room is not 100 percent bookless as photos below show—School Counselor Andrea Caple says the video misleadingly overplayed the parts of the room without books—but only about 5,000 paper titles are around and more than a few out of date and begging to be weeded out. Many are packed away in boxes. Smartly, Ms. Wilkins told me last summer that she hopes for manga comic books and Dummies-style how-tos and other books to whet the students’ interest in reading. Enough of such relics as a recently discarded book titled The Negro in America (complete with back-cover copy asking, “Who are these people?”)! Great talk from her about changing this outrageous status quo. But what about action?
Most of all, Keisha Wikins said she dreamed of the school getting a librarian. Volunteers can help—see reports from a local CBS station and the Philadelphia Tribune on 125 people from a consulting and accounting firm spiffing up the room with a new paint job. But that is no substitute for the cash to hire a school librarians and ideally an aide.
The issue isn’t just books and computers. It’s also getting students revved up about books, something that can happen far more easily with a well-trained and up-to-date librarian—a passionate professional who can use paper books to lure them into the book culture and ebooks to help them explore topics in depth. Such a librarian could also reach out to the students’ families and help get the parents reading—teaching them how to enjoy both traditional books and those on Chromebooks, their cellphones, ereaders and other devices. That is my vision and, as it turns out, that of Ms. Wilkins, too, as a booklover and Kindle user. Well aware of the social aspects of books, she’d even like to see a coffee shop in the library, along with plenty of comfortable furniture, to encourage students and even their parents to hang around. Would that the money be available for this inspired, community-oriented approach! And that the right people would act!
MLK is one of many examples of the need not just for school reform but also for a national library endowment, with special focus on K-12 even though it should aid all kinds of libraries. Individual corporate contributions could also help. Existing efforts such as literacy campaigns by the Philadelphia schools and others are not enough. Call King Leon X a hater if you want: he possibly is. But you can’t deny he is on to something in complaining about the book room, as I’ll describe it, since this isn’t really a K-12 library in the strictest sense without a librarian. The spruce-up started in the MLK book room didn’t hurt. But even allowing for the dodgy title and distortions in King Leon X’s video, the viewers still won’t confuse the understocked book room with the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. The elite prep school in Andover employs a dozen highly qualified people from various specialties and houses “more than 90,000 fiction and non-fiction printed books” for its 1,150 students. Millions more items are available digitally and otherwise through the NOBLE Consortium.
Few schools can match Andover in resources, and I am not suggesting a direct transfer of wealth from it to MLK even if just a one alum has promised $15 million to the prep school, a lot of PTA cookie sales. Instead we should help the Martin Luther King school library and thousands of others—if we do want to use the L word without a real librarian at MLK—through a national digital library endowment and otherwise. Regardless of the challenges here, must the gap between Phillips and MLK be so criminally wide? More than a little politely on Facebook, considering the gross neglect the MLK book room has suffered from the Philadelphia establishment, School Counselor Caple acknowledged that “our library is not furnished with books in the way we would like.”
Oh so correctly, Ms. Caple reminds us that K-12 library woes are hardly unique to Martin Luther King. The “savage inequalities” documented by Jonathan Kozol are alive and well in our schools and libraries. Even average public libraries can spend only about $4 per capita each year on books and other content. All library endowments in the U.S. total only several billion or so. Harvard’s endowment alone is worth some $36 billion. Meanwhile the Trump Administration hopes to kill off the Institute of Museum and Library Services and related programs, which, although providing just a small slice of library funding at the national level, are godsends for many cash-strapped libraries. Donald Trump’s sadists probably won’t succeed in the 2018 budget. But if Trump remains in office, his people will keep trying to wipe out IMLS or compromise its mission, possibly turning it in whole or in part into a propaganda agency.
Philadelphia is not the sole city stingy toward public and K-12 libraries. But it stands out as an example of the underlying library crisis in the U.S. and the risk of ugly social ramifications. The threats range from a less prepared workforce to heightened racial, ethnic, and religious tensions, given the importance of libraries not only as vehicles for self-improvement but also as community unifiers. It is no coincidence that public libraries in Baltimore and Ferguson excelled as violence-free sanctuaries during the riots in the aftermath of police killings of African-Americans under questionable circumstances in both those two cities.
If nothing else, promoted well by skilled librarians, the right books at K-12 and public libraries can help foster life-long empathy—both among members of minorities and the police officers who all too often gun them down.
Tell that to Philadelphia, however. The city has shed almost all its full-time certified school librarians and shuttered many K-12 libraries; never mind the damage to the reading culture. School librarians are also suffering in Chicago, Boston and elsewhere regardless of the value of recreational reading and the profession itself. Do we really want understaffed “multipurpose rooms” to replace full-strength K-12 libraries run by pros rather than simply volunteers? Just where are the well-trained librarians at schools like MLK to popularize the books and help the students tell truth apart from malarkey—whether between covers or on the Web—in this era of fake news?
Angry White Men are the fixation of many in the media right now in the era of Trump, but may I remind journalists, politicians and the philanthropic community that nonHispanic whites will be a minority in a few decades, one reason to care about the library needs of Americans of color? Believe me, we may see plenty more race riots in the future, and not just over the slaughter of innocent black people by out-of-control police officers. As the Flint water crisis shows, African-Americans have no shortage of other grievances. Almost half the workers in Detroit were functionally illiterate as of 2011. In Chicago, as reported by the Sun Times, “barely one in four students could read at grade level.” Not the best news for future employers and job seekers. Just 17 percent of students at MLK are proficient in reading at grade level.
The library and literacy crises are really a jobs crisis in disguise. Not every poor person cares about books. But plenty do about jobs. Libraries cannot single-handedly bring about an employment nirvana and prevent riots—the causes and solutions are many—but as LibraryEndowment.org and others note, they can provide a high rate of return on investment. Libraryless, typical MLK students do not even know how to use a library, and this will hurt them not only in school but even in occupations beyond white collar. A hairdresser may spend hundreds of hours reading up on her specialty. Furthermore, as factories become more automated, blue-collar job will increasingly become more like white-collar ones—requiring far more than rudimentary literacy. But what to do if you’re a student who sees the library as just a room to be quiet in? Who doesn’t even know the first things about a card or digital catalog, much less how to tell a good book from a bad one?
While many in the American elite have apparently given up on books and libraries as life-improvers for the disadvantaged, a Pew study from several years ago shows that the poor and minorities actually value books and other content more than well-off whites do. No, riots won’t directly break out over underbooked K-12 and public libraries. But this miserliness does contribute to the jobs crisis and poverty, which can lead not only to social instability but also increased uses of drugs and other responses of the poor to hopelessness, not to mention tensions between ethnic and racial groups. From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates, our billionaires love to talk up the benefits of books. Now, by way of the endowment, they need to put their money where they mouths are, especially with cash so unlikely to come from Washington.
King Leon X’s YouTube shot in May 2017 offers at least an early preview of the escalating hatred ahead if the Trump White House wins its war against the disadvantaged of all races—while callous local politicians and less-than-fully-in-touch philanthropists ignore or downplay the library needs of schools like MLK. His post about the school’s book room drew more than half a million views, as noted, in addition to 1,000 Facebook comments, 15,396 shares, and 4,400 “Likes” of various kinds. Now here’s what he said, including his obscene reference to Anne Frank, the most famous victim of Hitler’s Holocaust.
“I’m at Career Day…speaking in front of a whole bunch of youth in a bunch of different classrooms. But I’m in the library at this school. I want you all to notice something, because this is the library… I was like, ‘Yo?’ I had to ask them just in case. ‘Yo, is this the library? You got another library?’ They was like, ‘This is the library’… I’m like, ‘Are you sure this is the library?’… I’m like, ‘You all, where are the books at the library?’” King Leon X was engaging in poetic license at best. The room was hardly bookless (and beyond that, School Counselor Caple and Principal Wilkins told me that the school did not invite him to Career Day). But how many books and how appropriate for MLK students?
“Guess what they do got?” King Leon X snickers in the video. “God damn Diary of Anne Mother Fucking Frank.” The camera shows multiple copies. “…Mother-fuckers lying to the people…” Does King Leon X mean the book is a lie? “They want to make sure that black children are sensitive to six million people being slaughtered,” he says on YouTube, “versus 200 plus million that actually look like them.”
As a Jew, I can see the possibilities of anti-Semites of all races delighting in King Leon X’s observations, regardless of whether this self-identified black separatist hates Jews or is merely saying “Anne Mother Fucking Frank” to grab attention and stir up rage over neglect of African-American children. See some snippets from him suggesting a strong distrust of whites in general (not without reason with a racist President in the White House!). Needless to say, the Frank story should be a lesson for everyone and should be told and retold everywhere to people of all races. Distant European relatives of my parents almost surely died in the Holocaust, and these days I am collaborating on various writing projects with an aged survivor who witnessed the Nazi horrors himself in Romania. The Holocaust—the capital H is deliberate—was mass genocide against Jews and other “inferior” people on a huge scale. Full extermination of the Jews, not mere exploitation, was Hitler’s Job Number One in regard to them. Myriads of his Nazis loved Beethoven music and other trappings of “civilization.” The civility of the many thousands of murderers may have been the most horrific fact to set the Holocaust apart and justify the presence of the Frank diary and other apropos works in our libraries. If even Goethe worshippers could help slaughter millions, how much evil lurks in the hearts of the rest of us?
That said, MLK’s book room also needs to contain its share of books by and about African-Americans—and I don’t just mean those related to the deaths, pain and other suffering from slavery. MLK has at least some books in those areas even if they are not the most up to date. But with more funding, a school like MLK could do better, as can mainstream American publishing, which, despite improvements in recent years, has dissed the African-American market.
Just as important, we need enough librarians to teach the students proper research methods and as a matter of course help them make the connection between the the fates of the Jews and other minorities, beyond simply the former group’s enslavement in ancient Egypt. Dying as “property” in America was no more pleasant for black people than Jews’ deaths though mass genocide, and even today African-Americans suffer the aftermath of slavery and of the segregation that in some ways merely restructured it. Without enough titles on other victimized groups, especially the presence of an ample number of update-to-date and readable books on the suffering of the African-American community as well as of poor whites, all the Holocaust-related titles in the world won’t cleanse haters of their anti-Semitism. Indeed, as King Leon X’s cruel obscenity shows, the Frank books may even backfire if piles of them are available without others to provide balance.
Likewise of importance, if we are to fund libraries sufficiently, how about enough African-American and Latino librarians, as well as whites and others from disadvantaged backgrounds? “Of 118,666 credentialed librarians,” as I noted a few years ago in the Baltimore Sun, “just 6,160 were black and 3,661 were Latinos in 2009-2010, as tallied by the federal government and mentioned in an ALA diversity report.” Perhaps the statistics are not as ugly now. But much progress remains to be made. The ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship program for minorities is limited in size and provides beneficiaries with just a fraction of the expenses of their education. Ideally a national library endowment could help ALA and others expand such programs.
In his fury over the underfunding of K-12 libraries in minority communities, King Leon X is hardly alone, if you go by the flood of comments accompanying his Facebook post displaying the YouTube. “I bet every bookshelf in those Caucasian libraries are full of books!” said Jamila Dennis. “This is a travesty…this is sickening and reprehensible!”
“That is so sad,” posted Melon Smith. “If this was a white school there is no way this would happen.”
“I was a teacher there until the district closed our school and made it a ‘Promise Academy,’” wrote a Facebook poster nicknamed Bobby Bux, whose real name is Bob Fitzpatrick if you go by his FB Web address. “They removed 90 percent of the staff with false promises” of more money.” Toward the end of his post he linked to a Guardian clip headlined Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of the world’s populations, says Oxfam. And mind you, this poster is white.
“I graduated from there in 1996 when they had books,” writes Erica Vaughan. “Just to go back and work there to find out no books were available for the kids. They made staff throw away all the old books. Everything that meant something to the school. This is a disgrace and I’m ashamed of what MLK high school has turned into!” Of course, as noted, obsolete books should be tossed since this is a school library, not an archive, but her main point stands.
From California, Renee M. Green said: “I work at a public high school in Oakland whose student population is easily 95% black and brown kids. We don’t have a library. Supposedly, they’re renovating it, but AFAIK, it’s mainly going to be a fancy computer lab with books low or no priority. Where is the equity?? Unless every school can provide a fancy computer for every kid, we need books!”
“My Community College in Virginia,” wrote Keith Custer, “had a brand new Library built with no books …..I think only Reference books and Periodicals….we were told most literature was online….most college courses now have online reference sites.” I love Project Gutenberg and other online resources, but how about little details like the digital divide, not to mention the related issue of ebook literacy?
“Just saw a post of abandoned library in Detroit books piled/scattered across floor of dilapidated structure… Go salvage those books!!!!!” urged Norma Buie-Richard.
“Come to Camden,” said Courtney R. Barnes. “We have a closed down library with hella books in it but the city say the books gotta stay with the building… Right over the bridge.”
How to respond? The Philadelphia outrages, the product of many causes, show the need for the aforementioned national library endowment, among other solutions such as more and better-financed library advocacy. See LibraryEndowment.org and articles on the proposal in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Library Journal, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and elsewhere. The endowment should not only help pay for librarians and paper books, especially in disadvantaged communities, but also fund two separate but tightly intertwined digital library systems that could attend to some brick-and-mortar needs as well. One system could focus on public and K-12 libraries. The other would be for higher-level academic needs even though all citizens could access both through a common catalog. If we lump all libraries together in one system, the elite will shortchange the public and K-12 libraries.
Along the way, do not confuse public and K-12. They play different roles, and we need them both. People trained as both librarians and certified teachers—yes, the two skills combined in the same individuals—staff the best K-12 libraries. As a retired teacher has noted, “Librarians and teachers can collaborate in developing student research skills… Students are able to access the full attention of their librarian in lessons attuned to their grade level… Utilization is certain and woven into the school day.” Students may own public library cards, and schools should encourage to use them, but that doesn’t mean they always will.
The money is there for the endowment and a twin-system approach respecting the uniqueness of K-12 libraries online and in the physical world. 400 Americans are worth more than $2.3 trillion, and the top ten billionaires are worth north of half a trillion. Most library financing could and should still come from taxes. But an endowment of $20 billion within five years, with more to come later, could make a big difference. The three richest billionaires in the U.S., Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos, are gentiles. But as frequent scapegoats for bigoted rabble-rousers of all races, Jewish members of the super rich will ideally take a special interest in the proposal. Beyond helping millions of Americans in countless other ways, better-stocked and better promoted libraries could be help counter the Holocaust denial and other bigotry that arises out of the ignorance. As King Leon X’s remarks show, anti-Semitism is not a whites-only problem amid so many people’s flawed memories of the Holocaust.
Within the state of Pennsylvania, people will need to address the rural-urban divide, obstacle to adequate funding for urban schools and libraries. People in all parts of the states should together recognize the connection between well-funded libraries, prosperity and other positives. It would also help for city officials to site aside a higher percentage of tax revenue for K-12 and public libraries. More efficient spending would help as well. Martin Luther King is a public high school competing for resources against problematic charter schools without as many special-needs students, who make up one-third of those at MLK. K-12 activists also complain of the city schools squandering many millions on redundant studies. The real needs of the kids are already evident. A retired teacher says that Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite “is a lifelong educator, and he knows what real reform entails: smaller class size; one-on-one reading interventions; a library in every school; full support staff including classroom aides for students with special needs, English language learners and kindergarten. They have always been worth investing in.” Hello, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and other high-tech billionaires? Libraries and schools are not like software and social media services. They are people intensive and can be automated only so far. We already know what works. You have the money to make a big difference. Use it.
Although I condemn King Leon X’s black separatism and demagoguery, I cannot help but agree with him on the deplorable condition of the MLK library/book room (and countless others like it). Will the elite please listen? Sadly, Gates is actually phasing out his library philanthropy. Instead he and others should be organizing a multi-donor library endowment and massively funding genuine library advocacy of the kind offered by EveryLibrary.org. If our now-overlapping billionaire and political classes don’t care, America will pay the price in many ugly ways, including less domestic tranquility, given the importance of public and K-12 libraries as unifiers and vehicles of opportunity for all.
MLK-PROVIDED PHOTOS SHOWING BOOKS AND CAREER DAY
Last summer Andrea Caple offered to provide photos to refute the video’s title, “This is a Library, but Where are the Books?” I think she made her case even though I would have welcome more shots of the room—they will be coming, through either still pictures or a video. Unedited, here are on the existing photos from MLK. Of course, the issue isn’t the existence of books in the library rather. Rather it is, “How many and how helpful to students?”
AN INVITATION TO USE TELEREAD’S COMMENTS SECTION FOR CONSTRUCTIVE DIALOGUE—AND SOME OTHER IDEAS
People with the Philadelphia Schools have not yet answered most of the questions I asked by email—I invited written responses, in the interest of completeness and accuracy. My offer remains open! I recognize this is summer, and late answers are better than none. In addition to contacting School Counselor Caple and Principal Wilkins, I reached out to Superintendent Hite, who, as best I can determine, has not responded so far. Also not answering is King Leon X. I’d hope he would at least apologize for his obscene reference to Anne Frank. The TeleRead comments section beckons for all.
A civil and constructive dialogue in our comments section and elsewhere will truly benefit MLK. Based on two decades of writing about ebook tech and the digital divide, as well as countless conversations with my teacher sister over the years, I have some very specific ideas on how the students could better use what resources are available. Among them: the book-capable cell phones that so many of them almost surely own. If nothing else, the school could team up with the library system in new ways—well-promoted cell phone book clubs, anyone?—on family literacy efforts. The all-digital Bibliotech system in the San Antonio area might also be a source of ideas even though I would argue that paper books have an important role as a gateway to the electronic variety. Watch the hip explanatory video about Bibliotech. Click here or on the above image, and go here for some accompanying text. Notice the production techniques and values of the video? That is how to reach kids and parents. No wonder Bibliotech has caught on. I’d love to see MLK—and many other schools—pick up some of the innovations there.
Simply put, while MLK is underfunded, plenty more might be possible even now.
Related: MLK Web site. I can imagine the site teeming with links to ebooks and other resources that not only students but also parents could access. The Philadelphia library system is a customer of OverDrive, the largest library book vendor, just as the schools should be if they are not already. If nothing else, the site could offer direct links to specific titles at Project Gutenberg and other public domain sites. Mention of Gutenberg as a source of free books is not enough. Also, I hope that MLK will investigate the use of Open eBooks, which offers free selected titles from Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette and other publishers.
Other options: Here’s another possibility if the resources could be made available, one way or other. What about arrangements with Facebook, Amazon, Google or another company to design attractive pages pro bono with not only book-related links but also links to material that would whet interest in the titles. The material could include related online movies if available, forums, student-created book reviews, and discussions. Heavy use should be made of multimedia in addition to text.
Students and parents—not just teachers and librarians—could help determine the books featured. At the same time, the online areas would play up books relevant to the students’ courses. Ideally local celebrities, especially sports starts, could participate. What’s more, Facebook and other social media companies could even push mentions of specific books to students’ accounts, based on their needs and interests. Rap videos could promote individual titles and reading in general. Educators could even use rap to draw students into videos telling them how to use ebooks optimally. Corporate help needs to happen, though, with the genuine welfare of the students in mind, as opposed to the usual corporate marketing, which in fact might even alienate many people.
Wattpad.com: This might be place to go for students ready for short stories, rather than full books (even though classic novels like David Copperfield, along with more modern books, are also available there). Wattpad is a no-cost site rich in user-created writings. Perhaps a special Wattpad section could be started for MLK students. Significantly, Wattpad encourages its community members not just to read but also to write. And users of mobile phones, so popular among African-Americans and other minorities, are the service’s Priority #1.
On the issue of Chromebooks for every student vs. paying for a librarian: I don’t see this as “either or.” So many instructional materials are online these days. Same for tests, not to mention the employment forms and plenty else the students will need to fill out later on in life. Besides, with individual computers, students can more easily enjoy recreational reading. Of course, the hardware should be just a start: the kids will still need to know how to use it. That’s where a tech-hip and traditionally proficient librarian comes in—someone who can not only teach the technology, but also critical thinking skills and others in a digital context. Sometimes the line between tech skills and others can blur.
In case anyone wants to reach Bill Gates or other philanthropists about MLK’s here-and-now needs: Contact information is on the Web site advocating a national library endowment. Of course, if you can also put in a good word for the endowment, so much the better.