The Checkered Past of Public Libraries in America

Well, my goodness. I just read a fascinating and highly recommended article entitled A History of the American Public Library by Ariel Aberg-Riger, and I learned a great deal about libraries that I didn’t know previously. Some of the facts below are profoundly disappointing, but in an odd way, they give me hope. Because if our libraries can emerge from their dark past to become the amazing institutions that they are now, then perhaps there is hope for our government as well. Fingers crossed.

I’ve always known that one of the very first libraries in America was started by Ben Franklin in 1731. What I didn’t know was that this could hardly have been considered a public library. You had to pay an annual fee, so it was basically a collection for Franklin and his rich white male cronies. Women and African Americans weren’t welcome, and the working poor couldn’t afford a membership. This makes me think rather less of Ben. As enlightened as we’d like to think he is, without a doubt he was a product of his times.

In the wake of Ben’s library, I was pleased to see that women’s clubs cropped up as well, until I discovered that these, too, were exclusively for rich white women. They claimed to believe in the importance of having access to books, but they kept out Jewish, black, and working-class women.

So other libraries were established, each one every bit as exclusionary as the first. There were libraries for people of color, for example, and Jewish libraries. But women did seem to advocate public access to libraries long before men did. Funding was an issue, though, until Andrew Carnegie took up the torch and donated 60 million toward library construction.

It wasn’t really until the turn of the last century that libraries became truly public, but they still had to contend with segregation to a shocking degree. Many civil rights sit ins took place in libraries for that very reason.

Now libraries are a source of reliable information, internet access, education, and community gathering places, and all these services are basically free to all. That’s why I love libraries so much. Knowledge is power.

So naturally, Trump is trying to cut federal funding for libraries. Because he’s a man of the people. Sigh. Please support your public libraries, folks. They’re the last truly democratic institutions that we have, and it was a long and winding road to get them to that place.

Carnegie Library Dallas Oregon

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Hibernation

I admit it. I’m an introvert. People don’t energize me, they drain me. I’m not someone who looks forward to parties and large gatherings.

It’s not that I don’t like people. Quite the contrary. I have several dear friends. I just prefer to interact with them one on one, and I agree with Ben Franklin that fish and visitors stink after three days. I’m quite happy to see them go after a certain length of time, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less.

It is much easier to be social and an introvert in the modern era. I can keep in touch via e-mail and facebook and text messages, and I can write this blog. Then, when I want to have some “me time”, all I have to do is log off. It’s the electronic equivalent of “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I am glad I have my dogs. It’s nice to have a heartbeat in the house, someone who is happy to see me when I come home. But I’m fairly certain that if they suddenly were endowed with the ability to speak, or if they stopped feeling the need to sleep 18 hours a day, I’d probably be setting them up in their own bachelor pad on the opposite side of town. Oh, I’d call and chat daily, but I wouldn’t want to spoon with them as much as I do now.

Katherine Hepburn had a good point when she said a happy marriage would be one where the spouses were to “live nearby and visit often.” Unfortunately it would be hard to find someone who would be willing to agree to that, which is probably one of the many reasons I’ve never been married.

I actually enjoy my own company. I can entertain myself for hours on end. Some of my fondest memories of vacations have been the ones where I’ve rented a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and stayed there for a week, just me and my dogs, a good pair of hiking boots and a stack of books. Bliss.

Perhaps I was a bear in another life. The thought of crawling into a den and hibernating for months on end appeals to me greatly. But in this life I’ll just have to settle for hot baths and curling up in bed with a good book.

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[Image credit: playrific.com]

The Dinner Party

A friend and I have this little game we like to play. If you could invite 10 people, living or dead, to your house for a dinner party, who would you choose? This is an interesting thought experiment. It makes you think about the questions you’d like to ask. It makes you examine closely the issues and people that you find interesting, and most of all, it makes you see just how many amazing people there are/have been in the world.

So, for tonight, my guest list includes Peter O’Toole, Malala Yousafzai, Bill Clinton, Mary Magdalene, Nelson Mandela, Jessica Jackley, Ben Franklin, Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, and Eva Cassidy.

I must confess that Peter O’Toole has always appeared on my guest list. Not only has he met a lot of amazing people and done a lot of amazing things, but he was a brilliant raconteur, so he could tell you all about it in delightful ways. I have no doubt that I could listen to him for hours. I wouldn’t really have any specific questions for him. I’d just enjoy hearing anything he wanted to say.

Malala Yousafzai is a new guest, but I have no doubt she’ll be invited to my dinner parties for years to come. Just 16 years old, this girl has already been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Inexplicably, she did not win. She is an advocate for the education of women, not just in her native Pakistan, but worldwide. At age 14, she was shot in the head for her trouble, but that hasn’t even slowed her down. I would love to ask her what it is like to be so clear in your convictions at such a young age, and also what it is like to be thrust headlong onto the international stage when you started off just a humble young lady who simply wanted to go to school.

I’d love to have a chat with Bill Clinton, because I miss his presidency greatly. I would like to ask him about the one thing in it that disappointed me, though. No, not the whole Monica debacle. As far as I’m concerned, his inability to keep it in his pocket is strictly between him and his wife, since Monica wasn’t a minor. No. What I’d like to talk to him about is Rwanda. Why, why, WHY, Bill, did you look the other way and let all those people get slaughtered? I’ll never understand that.

Mary Magdalene was an outspoken female community leader at a time when that wasn’t as uncommon as you might think, but she is one of the few whose name has filtered down to us. Sadly over the years her reputation has been warped to seem as though she was a prostitute, but historians have found that not to be the case. It is probably a function of not wanting women to have powerful roles in Christianity. I would love to hear her thoughts on the subject. I’d love to know the truth about who she was, what she believed, and what she witnessed.

I can think of a million things I’d like to ask Nelson Mandela, but the primary one is how on earth he could emerge from 28 years of imprisonment and not only avoid bitterness and anger but also become someone who is known for reconciling his people.

I wrote about Jessica Jackley a few days ago. She is one of the founders of Kiva.org, a microloan organization that now benefits small businesses throughout the world to the tune of over 150 million dollars a year. I’d love to hear more about how she came up with her vision and brought it to life to such a degree that it has changed the world. She’s amazing.

Ben Franklin is my hero. I find him amazing. Not only is he an inventor, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist, but he’s a fascinating politician and historical figure. He’s also quite the ladies man, and his one fatal flaw, I think, is that he treated his family abominably. I’d love to examine that contradiction further.

Maya Angelou is, among many other things, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which is a wonderful book. She is an amazing and inspirational writer. In her life, she’s been everything from a prostitute to a foreign correspondent to an actor, and she recited a poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I’d have to put her at the opposite end of the table from Peter O’Toole, because they’d be able to match each other, story for story, I’m sure.

Mahatma Gandhi, I think, is one of the most determined individuals who has ever lived. I would love to talk to him about how he managed not to give up on his goals despite all the obstacles that were thrust in his path, as it’s something I struggle with daily. I can not think of a way to tactfully discuss his fatal flaw with him: the fact that he refused Western medicine for his wife, resulting in her death, and yet he accepted that same medicine for himself, resulting in his recovery, but it’s something I’d dearly love to know more about.

And last but not least, I would invite the incredible singer Eva Cassidy. I wrote about her recently as well. She died at age 33, her wonderful talent cut short. This is truly a tragedy. I’d love to know what her hopes and dreams and plans would have been had she been able to live to be 100. I can’t even imagine the beauty that she could have given the world. I definitely wouldn’t be able to sit her next to Ben Franklin, though, because his saucy comments to this gorgeous woman would probably disrupt the flow of the entire event.

I think this party would stretch on to the wee hours of the night, and it would be a most fascinating experience indeed.

Who would you invite to your dinner party?

dinner party

My Trip in the Wayback Machine

When I was a kid I used to love a segment on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show featuring a dog named Peabody and his pet human, Sherman. They would take trips in the Wayback Machine and go to various points in history. This always intrigued me.

If I had a Wayback Machine, where and when would I go? Would I watch Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address? Witness the crucifixion? Walk with Gandhi to gather salt?

I’ve had many years to think about this, and have decided that being part of a large crowd is not the way to go. If I really want to learn amazing things and truly get to know an historical figure, the best way to do it would be during a long, isolated, leisurely, yet historically significant event.

So if I could only take one trip in the Wayback Machine, I would set it to March 21, 1775. Location: London, on the ship setting sail for Philadelphia. One of my fellow passengers would be Benjamin Franklin. Since he liked the ladies, I’d like to flatter myself that I could draw his attention away from his grandson Temple long enough to have some really interesting conversations during the journey. The trip would take 46 days, so there’d be plenty of time.

Mr. Franklin could often be found up on deck despite the chill in the air. During this trip, his 6th across the Atlantic, he decided to occupy his time by measuring the temperature of the Gulf Stream, so he would have been quite easy to approach.

I’d break the ice by asking him what he was doing. He could tell me about his fascination with the Gulf Stream ever since he’d noticed that westbound mail packets that fought their way across it took two weeks longer to arrive in America than those that skirted its edges. With the help of his cousin Timothy Folger, the captain of a Nantucket merchant vessel, he produced the first chart of the Gulf Stream, which was then promptly ignored by the general populous, and that’s ironic because this chart is still extremely accurate to this day, and can and does save vessels millions of dollars in their travels.

From there we could chat about some of the things he had invented to date that had changed people’s lives, such as the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the flexible urinary catheter, the odometer, and swim fins.

And since I’d be coming from the future, I might give him some suggestions regarding his future inventions, such as the bifocal and the pole and claw for reaching things on high shelves.

We could also discuss his many services to humanity, such as the volunteer fire department, the public library, and his refusal to patent his inventions so that everyone could benefit from them.

And as a fellow writer, I’d love to learn about his many inspirations for Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Naturally we’d discuss politics, because on the eve of the American Revolution in which he would play a very decisive role, I’m quite sure he would have a great deal to say.

Upon taking my leave of this amazing man, I’d ask him if he might play me a tune on the Glass Armonica someday, and since we’d have become fast friends at that point and could therefore say anything to each other, I might suggest to him that he consider being a little kinder and more considerate of his wife and family, as that would be the only flaw in him that I would be able to detect.

Now that would be one heck of a way to take advantage of that Wayback Machine!

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Hypocrisy 2.0

I’ve been caught up in a debate this week about hypocrites. It is my stance that just because someone is hypocritical does not mean you should necessarily discount their message and by association, every other thing that comes out of their mouth.

For example, if someone speaks out about animal rights and yet wears leather, does that mean that their animal rights message is wrong? Or If Al Gore’s carbon footprint is larger than it should be, does that mean that global climate change doesn’t exist? I know a scary number of people who believe this.

My opinion is that painting people and their opinions in either black or white, with absolutely no shades of grey, is actually rather simplistic and, frankly, childish. Black and white thinking limits your sources of knowledge and wisdom to a ridiculous degree. If only non-hypocrites should be entertained, then no one on this planet will be able to teach you anything or even render an opinion. After all, even Gandhi cheated on his wife. Does that mean we discount his philosophy of non-violence? Then who would Martin Luther King have modeled himself after? Ben Franklin treated his wife and son like crap, but he’s still my hero, and I still love the wit and wisdom of Poor Richard’s Almanac.

We’re all human. We all have flaws. But I also believe we all have things to teach, even if our only lesson happens to be, “Don’t be like me.”

The reason people of the past seemed so perfect to their contemporaries was that they weren’t speeding merrily along the information highway at the time. Nowadays it’s much easier to find the skeletons in people’s closets. In fact, many people delight in doing so. My theory is that because our skeletons are no longer hidden, and because some people seem hell-bent on discounting others entirely based on those very skeletons, we often feel as if we’re adrift without a moral compass or spiritual direction. I find this depressing.

Instead of discounting a message based on the messenger, or even worse, spending an inordinate amount of time trying to discredit the messenger, perhaps it would be wiser to focus our energy on the message, and form our opinions based on what we, the message receivers, discover. Then maybe life wouldn’t feel so out of our control.

Judging people as a whole should be reserved for elections and court cases. Life’s just too freakin’ short to do otherwise.