Monday, March 29, 2010

What is it about libraries? Part II

Why are people so generous with their time and resources to help us out? As I mentioned, I’ve never had a response to a project that I’ve been working on like the one we are having with this library. A friend joked that it was because librarians are naturally helpful, and asking them for advice about libraries is something they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. But actually this is something a bit different—it’s not just librarians who are interested in this project, it’s everyone we tell about it.

Ariel and I like to quote Benjamin Franklin in our fundraising spiels. Franklin started the first library in America, saying it was essential for a democracy. We also like to quote Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, and the importance of public spaces. I think all of that is right, but I don’t think that people have primarily reacted to this project on an intellectual level. It’s been personal. So here is my hypothesis about why this project has been so universally appealing (and why so many people are putting themselves out for us!).

I’m going to posit a couple of answers. First, in the States, everyone understands the importance of libraries. We all have used them, and there are famous examples of writers who really developed their literary selves (and escaped poverty!) at public libraries—for me Jack Kerouac and Jack London stand out. We also probably all have some sort of personal connection to someone for whom access to libraries was or is life changing. For me, that person is my mother. She grew up in rural Louisiana and often got in trouble for reading in school during class—a joke among her siblings is to scream at each other “Quit reading!” DeQuincy, Louisiana was, and is, a typical American lower-class town where people were expected to end up not far from where they were. The library for my mother was a haven from her chaotic household, and a window to the outside world. My mother still considers the DeQuincy Public Library a sacred haven, a space that was actually home to her in her childhood. So this theory is safe public space cum gateway to another world.

I think stories like that resonate well with Americans, in a sense we have these stories in our blood. We may not explicitly realize it, but in America libraries are everywhere. I looked up the number of public libraries some time back to see how many libraries we would have to build in Kenya to equal the number per capita in the US. Taking into account the 54 Kenya National Library Services libraries, we would need to build over 2,000 libraries.

Given this dirth, I’m not sure if Kenyans have the same association with libraries that Americans who have universally had experiences with them have. However, the support here has at least matched the support we’ve had back at home. So there’s got to be something there. What is it?

Ok, so partially the public space thing is relevant. When we visit libraries here, they are full of people studying and reading newspapers. When I say full, I mean these libraries are clearly not big enough—they are chock full of people. These people may not be using the library to it’s full potential—I am told users are primarily studying for exams. But it’s a place to sit and read, and people need that.

But I think primarily the button that this pushes in both the US and Kenya is the same, and again it’s something different. This project inspires people’s imaginations—here, I’m not talking about any particular book. I’m talking about the idea of thousands of books, on all different topics, available to people for free. The possibilities are endless and you don’t have to think about any one thing to be inspired. That is the point, you think of millions of things, things you don’t even know to think about.

Whatever the reason that we’ve had so much positive response for this project, I love being a part of it.

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