opinion: Young people deserve access to resources a new library could make available
It was books that saved him. Books for Diaz were, and are, “friends; they are companions; they are mentors; they are warnings; they clown; they entertain; they hearten and they make me stronger.” He further elaborates on the influence of books on his childhood by saying, “All that deprivation and pain - abuse, broken home, a runaway sister, a brother with cancer - the books allowed me to withstand. They sustained me. I read still, prolifically, with great passion, but never like I read in those days: in those days it was life or death.”
And where did Junot Diaz find all these books? The public library, of course.
In less than two weeks, we in Ann Arbor will have the opportunity to vote on building a new public library downtown — a sparkling jewel that could become a centerpiece of our vibrant community, and I hope with all my heart, and for the sake of every kid in our city who has a chance to one day better his or her own life through reading, that we take it.
I work with close to 150 students a day, many of whom insist they don’t like reading. I don’t believe them. What I believe is they haven’t yet found the right books. I have hundreds of books in my classroom that I try to interest them in, but that is not enough.
Photo by Flickr user ionntag
We live in a culture that often communicates that reading for pleasure is not valued. Sure, everyone needs to read to be able to understand information, but what’s sexy among educational reformers isn’t literature, it’s math and science and data-driven data and standardized tests. The harsh truth is that our next generation of students will not find the literature they need in school. They need a dynamic library that can offer them thousands of books — vast multitudes of books — and we as a community can make a definitive statement about how important we believe it is to engage our own collective literary imagination by supporting the construction of the best possible public space for books we can build.
Contrary to the misleading “Save our library” and “Protect our Libraries” campaigns, building a new library is not about replacing books with computers or demolishing an architectural wonder that deserves to be designated an historic landmark. The current library has served our community well. My kids have grown up there and came to love reading through the wonderful storyteller Laura Raynor, through the summer reading program, and through all the terrific librarians who have guided them to the stories that have made their minds breathe. But I want their kids to have the same experience and I want all the kids in Ann Arbor for the next 50 years to have access to all the literature they can get their eyes on - for free - the way libraries always have been able to offer it.
When I imagine what a new library can offer, I am overjoyed by the possibilities - a beautiful grand reading room where anyone can come to enjoy a book amidst the company of other people enjoying books; a 400-seat auditorium where we can come to see readings, lectures, poetry slams, panel discussions, performances; public meeting facilities for book clubs, community groups and writing workshops; enhanced amenities like better bathrooms. It all sounds exactly like what I want the center of our city to be able to provide.
Believe me when I tell you, I have organized hundreds of literary arts events in Ann Arbor over the past decade and a new performance space that size is absolutely vital. At the Neutral Zone, we can fit about 250 people. The next smallest venue, which is only sometimes available and costs a lot to rent, is the Mendelssohn Theater and that seats 680. After that, the next space is the Rackham Auditorium, also expensive, and seats more than 900. We have many events that draw around 300 people. To be able to hold them in a new public library would be a godsend.
Last, let me say this - I have spent much of the past two decades traveling throughout North America reading poetry and teaching Creative Writing workshops. In every city where there is a vibrant, beautiful-looking and often brand new downtown library, there is also a vibrant and beautiful-looking overall downtown, a feel of the kind of place that promises to commit itself to its future growth and to imaginative, intellectual public discourse. We are that kind of community too and sooner or later - probably sooner - we will have to build a new library because the one we have simply will no longer be able to function effectively. Why not build it now? Interest rates and construction costs are lower now than they will be in a few years and our state needs the jobs that the construction will bring. So I vote yes. With enthusiasm. Let’s make a jewel dedicated to language and literacy right in the middle of our city. Let’s open its doors and let the public - all of us - come flooding in. For so many people, reading is life or death. Let’s vote for life.
English teacher at Pioneer High School
Literary Arts Director at the Neutral Zone
Programming Director for the Ann Arbor Book Festival