Monday 2nd June, 2008

Debbie Jacob
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A force for good

Librarians are more than bookworms buried in stacks of books. They are information specialists and protectors’ of individuals’ freedom to access information.

There’s no one who has explained the role of libraries and literacy better than Barack Obama, who is currently trying to be the Democratic Party’s representative in the upcoming US presidential election.

When Obama delivered the opening address to the American Library Association (ALA) in August 2005, he received a standing ovation for his speech, which was turned into an article in the August 2005 edition of American Libraries, the magazine for the ALA. Here are some excerpts from Obama’s speech:

“If you open up scripture, the Gospel according to John, it starts: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Although this has a very particular meaning in scripture, more broadly what it speaks to is the critical importance of language, of writing, or reading, of communication, of books as a means of transmitting culture and binding people.”

A library, Obama says, is more than a building. “(It) represents a window to a larger world, the place where we’ve always come to discover big ideas and profound concepts that… move… the human story forward. That’s the reason why, since ancient antiquity, whenever those who seek power would want to control the human spirit, they have gone after libraries and books.”

Obama says power-hungry people bent on stifling freedom of speech have targeted libraries throughout history.

“Whether it’s the ransacking of the great library at Alexandria, controlling information during the Middle Ages, book burnings, or the imprisonment of writers in former communist bloc countries, the idea has been that if we can control the word, if we can control what people hear and what they read and what they comprehend, then we can control and imprison them, or at least imprison their minds.

“That’s worth pondering at a time when truth and science are constantly being challenged by political agendas and ideologies, at a time when language is used not to illuminate but rather to obfuscate, at a time when there are those who would disallow the teaching of evolution in our schools, where fake science is used to beat back attempts to curb global warming or fund lifesaving research.

“At a time when book banning is back in vogue, libraries remind us that truth isn’t about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information.”

Obama points out that faith does not contradict fact and “…our liberty depends upon our ability to access the truth.

“That’s what libraries are about,” says Obama. “At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good.”

Librarians, Obama points out, have stood against the forces that seek to stifle the flow of information.

“When political groups tried to censor great works of literature, you (librarians) were the ones who put Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye back on the shelves, making sure that our access to free thought and free information were protected.”

In his speech, Obama also addresses the growing problem of illiteracy.

“Only a few generations ago it was possible to enter into the workforce with a positive attitude, a strong back, willing to work,” says Obama. “And it didn’t matter if you were a high school dropout…That economy is long gone. And it’s not coming back.”

Today’s world, he says, demands more skills. “These new jobs are not simply about working hard, they’re about what you know and how fast you can learn what you don’t know. They require innovative thinking, detailed comprehension and superior communication.”

Those skills, Obama, argues, can only be obtained through reading. “…before our children can even walk into an interview for a job… they must be able to pick up a book and read it and understand it.”

Obama calls reading “the gateway skill.” He states that reading is what makes all other learning possible, “… from complex word problems and the meaning of our history to scientific discovery and technological proficiency. And by the way, it’s what’s required to make us true citizens.”

Obama raises a startling question. “In a knowledge economy where this kind of skill is necessary for survival, how can we send our children out into the world if they’re only reading at (the level of a ten-year-old)?” Yet this, Obama says, is exactly what is happening in the US.

In a country that keeps good statistics, Obama claims one out of every five adults in the US cannot read a simple story to a child and in the last 20 years, ten million children reached graduation unable to read at a basic level. He says only 32 per cent of ten-year-olds are testing as reading proficient. And the picture gets even grimmer for low-income people. One can only wonder about the statistics in the Caribbean.

“It’s not enough just to recognise the words on the page anymore,” says Obama. “The kind of literacy necessary for the 21st century requires detailed understanding and complex comprehension.”

Obama says the problem is that as a nation Americans have not changed their whole mindset about education in general. When it comes to education, T&T has not changed its mindset either. We remain hopelessly stuck in the past, trying to teach in the way that we did 100 years ago. We are not a nation, or indeed even a region of readers, and that is having tragic consequences in our society.

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