Guest Column: What does RPL stand for?

By Tim Hughes

Earlier this summer, librarians who read my letter in The Rock River Times criticizing the Rockford Public Library’s lavish “kickoff” party for its summer reading program asked how I could not support such a worthy program. I offered that criticism because I do support the value and worthiness of such a program and feel in its present form, the library is failing too many kids. Why, I asked, could the library not stage a kickoff party that actually takes place inside the library, where kids can learn about a library and all it can do for them and then get a T-shirt? Just to prove I’m not a grumpy old man (not yet, anyway), the library could serve snacks and refreshments and create a celebratory mood without staging what amounts to a mini carnival that has nothing to do with libraries nor summer reading programs. The answer was swift in coming. We wouldn’t get as many kids that way, I was bluntly told. So, that brings me to my question, what does RPL stand for? Well, Rockford Public Library, you might logically answer. But I submit RPL has at various times stood for Racist Pandering Library, and the summer club is an example.

There is already the sickeningly violent “fighting video games” the library serves up in the so-called Young Adult Zone, games with such lovely titles as No Mercy, in which you get points for pummeling or killing a story character; games that educators have cited as the leading cause of the decline in literacy among adolescents; games Library Board President Paul Logli has justified as a way for librarians to bond with adolescents. Whatever happened to staff bonding with adolescents in helping them in their quest for knowledge and information, or is that just too old-fashioned?

A similar rationale appears to be the motive behind the summer reading club kickoff party, in which kids can play in bouncy tents, traverse obstacle courses, climb rock-climbing walls, take a dive on a water slide, dance to DJ music, get a free T-shirt and never have to set foot inside a library.

Such diversions are offered as a way to draw so-called “reluctant readers” to use the library, but I would like to know what evidence there is to suggest children and adolescents become readers when the library panders to their senses at the exclusion of appealing to their minds? The current library board seems to think children and adolescents are interested only in gratifying their senses.

Numerous successful and high-profile minority men and women have given public testimony to their neighborhood library as an island of civilization in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested neighborhoods in which they grew up.

Our library board seems determined to turn Rockford’s library into Gilligan’s Island. The underlying principles for how a library should function are being sacrificed to the misguided notion that you “have to speak the language” of the adolescents, so they’ll know you’re relating to them.

The Rockford Public Library has played a vital, historic role as a center of knowledge and information for the city and its neighborhoods, but will that continue to be the case if the city’s youth grows up thinking the library’s primary purpose is to provide groovy entertainment? Prizes are one thing, but chauffeured limousines for you and your friends to go to movies and favorite restaurants, leaving patrons choking on its exhaust fumes while recalling Board President Logli’s announcement that his No. 1 priority was to get the library open on Sundays? Having the library open on Sunday afternoons would benefit not only public and private school youngsters and adults, but Rockford University and Rock Valley College students as well.

The summer reading club finished nearly a full month before area public schools opened, so why couldn’t it have remained operational right up to time for school to start, or were the funds to pay for it already spent on the summer reading club kickoff party? All young people in the city are being denied meaningful library services one way or another. Will they be left with a lifelong T-shirt of limited opportunities because the library did not do for them what it should have done? When I stopped by at this year’s kickoff party, the longest line I observed was not one to sign up for the summer reading club, but for a bouncing tent with a sign over its door proclaiming “You Gotta Jump.” The line waiting to jump consisted almost entirely of minority kids. RPL, anyone?

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 Oct. 22-28, 2014, issue

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