“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.
The school so far has not given me a book count. But a school counselor told on Facebook of “a lot” of “great” art history titles remaining, and she said the video misleadingly overplayed the parts of the room without books. She shared photos, reproduced below. And a local CBS station reported last year that 125 volunteers from a consulting and accounting firm “helped renovate the library, complete with a new paint job. Very nice. The area will now be a multipurpose room and hopefully a new activities center for the school community.” A Philadelphia Tribune story from 2016 told of volunteers clearing bookshelves “for more books.”
But are the above efforts—or literacy campaigns by the Philadelphia schools and others—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 call 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, whether or not people have fully followed up by now, amid budgetary challenges, a matter still under debate. 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 the Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. Not one credentialed librarian works in the book room at MLK. But 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, about the same number as at Martin Luther King. Millions more items are available digitally and otherwise through the NOBLE Consortium.
Few schools can match Phillips 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 Andrea Caple acknowledged that “our library is not furnished with books in the way we would like.”
Oh so correctly, Ms. Caple says 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 a godsend for many cash-strapped libraries. 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 countless 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 “multipurpose rooms” to replace full-strength K-12 libraries staffed 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? What’s more, however keen I am on ebooks, isn’t there a place for paper ones as well to help lure kids into reading the electronic variety?
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.
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 Keisha 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. Most likely MLK has at least some books in those areas even if they might not necessarily be up to date. But almost surely a budget-challenged 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.
Of at least equal 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.
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 was 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!”
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 catalogue. 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 America’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 two thirds 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
As of now I lack statistics for the number of books in the MLK book room—I do not know if they’re in the hundreds or thousands. I’d welcome more photographs of the room. My wife suffers from pancreatic cancer and is in a rehab center, she comes first, and I’ll make no apologies for not traveling to Philadelphia. Still, it’s clear that, while underbooked, MLK is far from absolutely bookless. Of course, this is no reason to be happy with the status quo. Quite the contrary. Meanwhile, unedited, here are on the photos from MLK’s Andrea Caple.
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.
I’m especially interested in knowing the number of physical books now available in the MLK book. And who, if anyone, is staffing it? I’ve also requested information on the kind and extent of online resources. In addition to contacting School Counselor Caple and Principal Keisha Wilkins, I reached out to Superintendent Hite, who, as best I can determine, never responded. Also not answering was King Leon X.
The TeleRead comments section beckons for all. I hope that when Ms. Wilkins returns from an out-of-town trip or even before, she can add to her thoughts. And I remain interested in hearing from the superintendent and ideally even King Leon X, who, I’d hope, would at least apologize for his obscene reference to Anne Frank.
A civil and constructive dialogue in our comments section and elsewhere would 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? 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. 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.
Other options: Here’s another 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 Priority #1.
In case anyone wants to speak out directly to the Gates Foundation about MLK’s here-and-now needs: The contact-us page is here. Of course, if you can also put in a good word on the need for a national library endowment, that’ll be great.