Another reason libraries are vital

I finished reading one of my Christmas gifts, Educated, on Friday evening. You can read my thoughts on this memoir by Tara Westover over at bookconscious. This morning I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End of Normal” and it got me thinking about why Educated has resonated so strongly with readers of all kinds (I’ve had more people recommend this book to me than any other I can think of). And why Educated illustrates the importance of libraries, even though Westover doesn’t necessarily say so (although she mentions several libraries in the book).

I watched a brief interview Westover did with Bill Gates, where she talks a little bit about divisions in our world and describes the potential of education as “this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.” She also describes the way some schools become “an instrument of that division” because of the way “we self-segregate, and schools become reflections of people’s homogeneity.” In other words, depending on where a child grows up, they may or may not learn the same history as a child who grows up somewhere else, even in the same city or town.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should learn one official version of history. We need what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative plenitude” — where the many threads of being human in America and the world are included in the overall fabric of the history we learn, instead of the majority controlling the narrative. And education, ideally, should present that plenitude, instead of whatever the dominant narrative is. And what Westover was discussing with Gates is that if we really meant what we say about providing a good education for all, we might actually have less division. Because if you know someone’s stories, they become familiar, and you begin to see how they are also like your stories, and how they are different, and since we are born curious, you also start to wonder why.

This morning, I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End Of Normal” and I think one reason Educated is so powerful is that Westover’s experience, while extreme, explains the divisions we currently face. Knowing only one version of the story of humanity, particularly one that justifies fears in the face of a changing world, leads to what Kakutani quotes Richard Hofstadter as calling “the paranoid style” that Westover’s father embodies. If people then reinforce their views by limiting the scope of information they take in to what they agree with, as Kakutani notes that many people whose world views rely on “alternative facts” do, you can end up with extremes.

Westover provides some hope that anyone who can read and think (potentially, most people) can discover for themselves what has happened in human history and is happening in the world now. So people who are insulated from reality can potentially learn that their “truth” has been mediated and their accepted narrative controlled – but the scary flip side is that if enough people don’t ever learn that we end up where we are now with nationalism on the rise all over.  You probably know where I’m going with this if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before: libraries and librarians can help counter division because we help make it possible for people to expand their views and embrace narrative plenitude.

Information literacy, the skills and habits that allow people to find, evaluate, and use information to answer a question or solve a problem, is at the core of what academic libraries do. We teach students to consider the ways information is mediated, what mechanisms are in place to safeguard facts while still presenting persuasive arguments in journalism and academic writing, and how to recognize and critically assess those. Public libraries also foster information literacy, and they act (when they are at their best) as some of the last egalitarian public spaces, where all citizens regardless of where they live or go to school have access to the same resources. Libraries of all kinds support lifelong learning, and collect and preserve all kinds of narratives that are part of our shared human story. They can also promote civil discourse either explicitly through programming or implicitly through their collections.

So, if you want to live in a less divided, more civil world where people know how to recognize and counter “alternative facts,” support your library!