Guest Column: Why can’t our library be just a library?

By Tim Hughes

In a speech before the American Library Association, President Obama observed that the opening line of the Gospel according to John reads: “In the beginning was the Word.” The President went on to discuss the importance of words in creating a library.

So what is the word adolescents first hear upon entering the main library’s “Young Adult Zone”? “Pow! Biff! Bam!” emanating from fighting video games thundering away. And that is just one aspect of what our public library has become in one form or another, a junk yard pandering to high-interest garbage on the assumption this is what patrons really want in the way of library services. The only purpose of these games, for example, is to get adolescents into the library so self-serving administrators can give themselves a pat on the back for the great job they’re doing. “We’ve gotten adolescents into the library that have never been in a library before,” an angry library official told me after reading one of my columns criticizing these fighting video games as a legitimate library service. Well, there’s one thing I do understand. An adolescent who has never been in a library before needs to be handed something better than a fighting video game when they get there, or the library is failing in its responsibility to that adolescent. It’s about time our library board shows a little backbone and stands up to this nonsense, especially in the wake of the Newtown massacre, which has led both the Left and the Right to demand that the issue of violent video games be addressed.

But the problem doesn’t end there. “Libraries aren’t just about books anymore,” board president Paul Logli keeps reminding us. I would ask, however, what if libraries were, in fact, just about books? What would be so terribly wrong with the library setting an inspirational example through the power of reading and studying the printed word? And why must everything be geared toward the latest in cyberspace technology and ongoing plans for Broadway at the library? The new technology is, of course, a library game changer, and up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with that. But why should that technology be served up in place of what libraries have always stood for, a sanctuary of knowledge and civilization?

Here’s an example of what I mean. At the board’s January open meeting, Logli read off a list of repairs and renovations to the newly-acquired Sulliven Center “gift.” Some gift that is, as the costs keep adding up! Later in the meeting, Logli lamented that circulation is down, and the public isn’t aware of what the library offers. Not long ago, Logli admitted to me he was unaware of one of the library’s treasures, the prestigious Potter collection of exceedingly rare Civil War books that the library has housed for more than a century. With the Civil War Sesquicentennial in full swing and the added impetus of the current hit movie Lincoln in theaters, there have been numerous concerns expressed by many patrons involving the upkeep and condition of that large collection. Several members of the Rock River Valley Civil War Roundtable, which routinely draws upward of 60 and more members to its monthly meetings, told me that library staff have told them no money is available for helping preserve and rebind the collection. Yet, $100,000 is apparently being budgeted for the current library marketing campaign, much of which, I’m told, is earmarked for showcasing Sullivan Center events! Board president Logli told me not long ago that he was of the opinion that not enough is done in recognizing and honoring Rockford’s Civil War heritage. Here would be a great opportunity for him to use his influence in allocating some of that $100,000 to maintain and preserve that important collection for future generations.

As for increasing circulation. Hmmmm. Let’s see. Maybe instead of adolescents coming to the Young Adult Zone loaded down with bags of burgers and trays full of french fries and soda pop from fast-food restaurants, they could show evidence instead of having checked out a book before playing video games. Just a thought.

Speaking of that, why couldn’t kids signing up for the summer reading program and getting a complimentary reading program T-shirt, actually have to go into a library to sign up? I was told it’s not necessary for kids to go anywhere near a library to be considered part of the summer reading program. Just come to the summer reading kick-off party, wallow around in a Kids’ Kastle, munch on cotton candy, dance to a DJ’s music, then sign up to be counted as a member of the summer reading program, without actually setting foot inside a library. I asked twice to be sure I was hearing correctly. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Max, the library dog mascot, for a long time. Poor pooch! He must have been wagged to death by his tail trying to make sense of that one. No wonder Emily Hartzog, the library’s marketing director, is seen holding up a T-shirt instead of a book in a video promoting the summer reading program.

Then, of course, had the library board followed through on Logli’s widely-publicized announcement that his number one priority was getting the library open on Sunday, there would be a lot more opportunity to circulate books. In the beginning was the Word, we are told by President Obama as he spoke of libraries. Let’s hope that the last words heard in the Rockford Public Library aren’t “Pow! Biff! Bam! Take that, you no-good Dewey Decimal System! You’re soooooo out of date!”

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 Feb. 13-19, 2013, issue

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