Guest Column: RPL’s Sullivan Center ‘no brainer’ may leave patrons asking, ‘Where were their brains?’

By Tim Hughes

As I began to speak, I noticed how rigid some of the facial expressions appeared, how tightly clasped togeher the hands of some of my listeners had become. After all, I was only asking library board members whatever happened to their well-publicized earlier announcement that the board’s No. 1 priority was getting the library opened on Sundays so young people could do their school work, but now most of the board members seemed to be in the grip of unthinking certainty regarding the decision to acquire the Sullivan Center. My immediate reaction to the proposal had also been somewhat unthinking, but then I began overhearing plans for poetry slams, and movies made by would-be Steven Spielbergs under the pretext of art, and I suddenly realized Rockford Dance Company performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream or a children’s church choir singing at a Martin Luther King Day observance was not exactly what some of the open house guests had in mind.

“The more unstructured something is, the more creative it is,” a poetry slam advocate glibly assured me. So much for Shelley and Robert Frost! Look. If New American Theater, which made its home at the Sullivan Center and routinely offered a broad selection of professional and semi-professional theater productions ranging from Shakespeare to avant-garde off-Broadway plays, couldn’t make a go of it, I hardly think the yuppie crowd at the Octane is going to be making a mad dash to the Sullivan Center and watch poetry slammers spit obscenities at one another. Ah, but I must remember, libraries are no longer just about books. Every time I read that or hear someone say that, I’m reminded of historian Daniel Boorstin’s observation that the obstacle to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge!

In its Aug. 27 editorial, the Register Star stated library program attendance is up 27 percent this year. I’d like to know the breakdown for that. The library’s Saturday Spectacular children’s theater and performing arts program is nothing short of spectacular in every way. I frequently attend the shows and find them for the most part an absolute delight, attracting professional children’s performers from around the country. Performed in the main library auditorium, which has a seating capacity of 140, the shows are rarely more than half-filled, even though each event is well advertised through the library system. I once attended a library presentation by a guest speaker who was an authority on old Hollywood movie posters. Held in the main library’s Little Theater, a perfect setting for such a presentation, the speaker held the audience of just four spellbound with his personal accounts of movie stars he had personally known. Well, actually there was only one audience member — me! When the library personnel realized only one person was in attendance, there was a scramble to bring staff members into the theater so the poor speaker could have some semblance of any audience. That, too, had been a well-advertised library-wide event.

For one thing, I suspect the “program attendance” designation exists largely in some library administrator’s exaggerated imagination and probably includes attendance at “fighting video games” in the so-called Young Adult Zone. I further suspect the lure for this “program attendance” figure might also include things other than fighting video games, but the lure of a friendly card game as well, when the librarian on duty has her back turned and is busily surfing the net. At any rate, I’ve seen card games going on in the Young Adult Zone, and I’ve observed the librarian on duty not paying attention to what is going on. I know there are library officials who are eager to pat themselves on the back for getting kids to use the library who have never been in a library before, conveniently overlooking the fact that the purpose of those kids being there is to play violent video games, the very activity educators have denounced as the leading cause of illiteracy among adolescents.

It is an indictment of the Library Board that it can somehow find funding for the very games the Colorado theater shooter was said to be obsessing over, but is helpless in finding funds to open the library on Sundays so our city’s youth can further their education!

And what happens if the Sullivan Center bellies up? We’ve been assured the library’s expenditures for the Sullivan will break even in three years, but remember that the New American Theater left behind a debt of some $62,000. During my presentation, I said the board’s decision might be one more nail in the library’s coffin of what a library should be. Considering the perils the Sullivan acquisition represents, it may well be the last nail.

Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.

From the Sept. 5-11, 2012, issue

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