Dancing with Speeches #25 Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1936 Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech to the US on the meaning of libraries. The love of books and the health of a democracy are inextricably bound. We know that what was ahead was the burning of books in WW2 was a sign of the rise of fascism and the Grim Reaper’s call of death to dangerous ideas. Stimulating the reading of the same book by large groups of people can build the foundations of a movement and create public discourse. The health of libraries is a barometer for the health of democracy.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech talks about receiving a letter from a man in his late 70s who together with his neighbour in his 80s, had learnt to read their last winter at their local library and in doing so had new worlds open to them. He was writing to the First Lady because he was disturbed to find out that in the time of depression the adult education classes funding had been cut and this winter there would not be such classes. The winter had provided a safe, warm comfortable place to gather with neighbours to learn and connect. It had built a future where before they felt there wasn’t one.

I saw on facebook last night a friend of mine who is a librarian in Sydney was hosting a session for Mandarin speaking people on what the Australian electoral system was all about and how to vote as preparation for the upcoming Federal election. In the safety and security of the library questions were asked, ideas explored, participation in democracy enabled. I had a conversation with a co-worker during the week, where she shared a story of being a child on an island off the coast of Britain and that a few doors down from her house was the local library. It was the place she could be found at least once a week soaking up new books, discovering new ideas and building a life long love of reading. Yet another person told me on public transport what book their Book Club was reading and how they had waited for a while as their local library had the book they wanted on a wait list as it was in so much demand by other book clubs.

Libraries are in the baseline of our communal expression – a place to learn to read, to love books, to meet others, to join in with decision-making, to come in from the cold of old ideas and real time warmth in winter.

I had the amazing good fortune to work on Tomorrow’s Libraries a study and recommendations for South Australia and the same messages of literacy, social cohesion, tolerance, informed decision-making and a better start in life for children came out over and over again. The place of libraries still front and centre of these pillars of democracy.

The future of public libraries lies in the value they create from the nexus of people, place, knowledge and technology to create a platform for learning, participation, creativity, innovation and well-being.

Although there are other community and commercial places that provide opportunities for meeting and activity, the public library is the only institution that brings these things together for community and society’s benefit. Through the library people can engage, learn and participate and be introduced to new ideas and technologies in a safe and supportive environment. The value of this mix of assets and resources should not be underestimated.

The future of public library services is underpinned by the following values:

  • Equity of access: anyone regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, age or ability is welcom
  • Freedom of expression: a diversity of points of view is represented in a library’s collections
  • Right to know: learning and access to ideas and knowledge is a universal right
  • Trust: in the quality of the information, services and staff

matilda mrs phelpsI recently got to see the Melbourne production of Tim Minchin’s musical of the Roald Dahl book “Matilda” it was an amazing set and framed by words and a library, a receptacle of music, dancing, discovery, and great story telling! Row of books hid villains, held secrets, offered listening ears and audiences to wild and wonderful tales. The librarian’s role of witness was a still point for reflection and hosted the story and its teller. Mrs Phelps the librarian gives the right of passage ticket – a library card – to enable the Reader (Matilda) to take books home! This simple act is the first time an adult gifts the child,  and from then on there is no stopping Matilda taking up her power. This delivers to her rights, responsibilities and capacity to recognised for her genius. Just imagine all  the librarians who have done this for other children throughout the ages!

There is a generous and gorgeous collection of photos from the USA about the power of public libraries from Robert Dawson. In the foreward of this book Bill Moyers says: “When the library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology and changing needs . . . Dawson shows us . . . what is at stake—when the library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.”

It was in the depression that Eleanor Roosevelt found the power of libraries so vital that she spoke to the nation, and it is a message as relevant today for the USA and rest of the world. Hatred and fear comes from infertile soil. There has never been a more important time for the power of the institution of the public library to rise and shine and mobilise and heal. I fear if I did research on the places where there is mayhem and division I might find a direct correlation with non-existent or seriously under funded libraries.

Eleanor_Roosevelt_and_Nikita_Khrushchev_at_the_Franklin_D._Roosevelt_Library_in_Hyde_Park_-_NARA_-_195416

Eleanor Roosevelt and Nikita Khruschchev at the Franklin D Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park 1959

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