‘The library isn’t a building. It’s a community’

‘The library isn’t a building. It’s a community’

Merrill Silver stands with her class at the public library. (Photos courtesy Merrill Silver)
Merrill Silver stands with her class at the public library. (Photos courtesy Merrill Silver)

I have been teaching English as a Second Language to adult immigrants and refugees at Jewish Vocational Services for more than three decades.

You would think that by now I would have amassed enough materials to reuse lessons and then move on to the next topic.  But that is not the case in our ever-changing world, a world where even the “innocent” public library is fighting for its soul in an increasingly complicated political environment. I’ve always tried to make my lessons on the public library creative and practical. What could possibly be controversial about the library, I wondered.

I was naïve.

I introduce the students to the public library by showing an animated video produced by StoryCorps. In “The Temple of Knowledge,” an adult daughter interviews her father, Ronald, about growing up in an apartment on the top floor of a New York City public library in the 1940s, where his father worked as a custodian.

Ashamed of his environment and wanting to be “normal,” Ronald never invites friends over to play with him. But as he matures, he realizes the value of having books at his fingertips, especially if he has a question in the middle of the night.  Thanks to his library apartment, which gives him a thirst for learning, Ronald Clark not only becomes the first in his family to graduate from high school, and the first to graduate from college, he eventually became a professor of history at Cape Cod Community College,

One of Ms. Silver’s students shows off his library card.

Recently, Daniella from Brazil commented on how the library is described as a temple, a special, holy place. Mykola from Ukraine told us that he recognizes himself in the video.  “I grew up far away from all my friends, and it was hard to go and play with someone,” he said. “My childhood was to sit at home and read books.  Because my father has a technical education, he has many technical books. So that’s why I have become the person I am right now.”

We watch “The Bookmobile,” another StoryCorps video.  A bookmobile?  My students never heard such a word!  They examine it carefully and conclude it must mean books you read on your phone. Imagine their surprise when they see a “library on wheels” visit a migrant farm in  Washington State. The bookmobile changes the life of 12-year-old Native American Storm Reyes, who says the books she borrowed taught her “hope was not just a word.” Eventually, she became a librarian, and worked in a public library near Tacoma, Washington, for 33 years.

The students always discuss the libraries in their native countries.  Most of them are  government-run, and open only Monday through Friday. In many countries, such as Ukraine, paying an annual fee for a card entitles the patron to unlimited use of the library for that year.   No one ever mentions the variety of services that we in the United States are accustomed to get in our local libraries, including such things as free computer usage, movies, and programs for people of all ages.

Every year, I encourage students to get a library card.  “It’s free, and it’s your ticket to America,” I tell them over and over again, sounding like a scratched vinyl record. As a matter of fact, pre-pandemic, when we met in the classroom, we enjoyed a “Library Cardholder Party.”  The whole class, proud as peacocks with their new library cards, enjoyed a cake decorated like a book.

The class gets a book-shaped cake to celebrate their new library cards.

There is no party incentive with virtual classes, but so far, in this winter session, Khadidja (from France) is a proud library cardholder from the Montclair public library and Ayse (from Turkey) and her children have cards from the Westfield library.  Lukas (from China) and Regina (from Ukraine) and their children already are enjoying access to the Millburn public library. For example, Regina discovered that she can request piano sheet music from another library and pick it up at her local branch.

I am so proud of Hiwat from Ethiopia. Not only does she now have a Livingston public library card, but my heart warmed when she showed the class two books about Rosa Parks that she had borrowed.  This was not random — we had been learning about the Montgomery bus boycott in class.

I remember when the most controversial topic we discussed was overdue fines.  Are they a punishment, a deterrent, or a necessary source of income?  We mention that some libraries are eliminating them or requesting that people contribute canned foods instead of small change.  I ask my students, “If you were the director of the library, what would your policy be?”

I love it when we read a New York Times article, “She Kept a Library Book for 63 Years. It was Time to Return It” by Sasha von Oldershausen (March 17, 2021).  I want to be friends with this literature professor, who hoarded her secret book and returned it to a public library in Queens when her guilty conscience finally got the better of her.

Even during the pandemic, library lessons were straightforward and uplifting. Librarians were our heroes, who re-invented our beloved institutions and miraculously made them accessible to the public. What did it matter if we requested books online and made an appointment to pick them up? The books, in a paper bag with our names on it, sat on an outdoor table. We were still using the library, even if we never set foot in the building.

Hiwat, from Ethiopia, holds a library book about Rosa Parks.

But my lessons in today’s political environment include such vocabulary words as censorship and book banning. My students know about “culture,” but “culture war” is confusing. These words are poisoning our discussions.

In class, we talk about the marginalization of “the other.” We struggle to define what that means. Does your race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin make you different?  If that is the case, then aren’t we all “the other”?

We discuss the attacks on libraries in Ukraine. We may be fighting censorship in the United States, but Ukrainians are defending the right of libraries simply to exist. “… at its core, and from its origin, this Ukrainian conflict has been a war over language and identity,” a piece by Stephen Marche that appeared in the Guardian on December 4, 2022, tells us. “And Ukraine’s libraries are the key….”

As a matter of fact, the theme of “All Ukrainian Library Day” was that the library is unbreakable.  Similarly, in America, we celebrate “National Library Week.” This year’s theme is “For a richer, fuller life, read.”

As I encourage my students to get their library cards and embrace all that the library has to offer, I remind them to be vigilant if we want our libraries to remain “unbreakable” and to provide us with “a richer, fuller life.”

“The library isn’t a building,” says Oksana Bruy, a librarian in Kyiv, as quoted in Mr. Marche’s Guardian story. “It’s a community.”

Whether the community is around the corner or around the world, the future American citizens in my class will be on the front lines, waving their new library cards and safeguarding their freedom.

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