These are the books that defined my childhood. Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case; The Secret of the Old Clock; Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret; Flowers in the Attic; Gone with the Wind. They thrilled me. They made me feel like I wasn't alone in the world. They told me about my history. They made me want to be a writer. And they were all recommended to me by my local Jonesboro, Ga., librarians. But today, a financial tsunami is devastating our library systems. Librarians and staff are being fired. Hours are being cut, doors closed, kids left behind—and futures destroyed.
I am hard pressed to find a successful writer who doesn't have a similar story to mine—transformation through the public library. This is why I am working with the International Thriller Writer's association to develop Save the Libraries (SavetheLibraries.com), an effort to rally authors behind libraries in need. With the help of fellow authors Kathryn Stockett and Kathy Hogan Trochek (aka Mary Kay Andrews), we held our first Save the Libraries event at my local DeKalb County Library. After expenses, we raised over $50,000 for the library. As it turned out, the DeKalb County Library system is in such dire straits, the $50,000 we raised represented the only available funds with which to buy new books.
How did we raise $50,000? We're writers, so, naturally, we used our imaginations. Some of the money came from traditional avenues such as local sponsorship, ticket sales, or various silent auction items on site. But the bulk of the donations were made through eBay, where other ITW authors such as Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Neil Gaiman, and I all donated name placement in our upcoming books. Readers from New Zealand and the Netherlands to Duluth, Ga., sent in thousands of dollars that directly benefited the library.
Our second Save the Library event will be held in September at the Boston Public Library, under the leadership of author Dave Hosp. We've already exacted promises from Dennis Lehane, Linda Fairstein, Joseph Finder, Lisa Gardner, and Tess Gerritsen to attend. We plan to again tap into the kindness and generosity of not just of these authors but the entire ITW membership in order to help raise funds for the Boston system. As an added feature, ITW has generously agreed to internally promote the event to help raise not just money but awareness about the plight of libraries nationwide.
We are documenting every step—and misstep—in our journey to build a successful fund-raiser, including donation requests we've made, the letters we've written to potential sponsors, the time line we've used, the media coverage we've attained, press releases we've sent, auction items we've gathered, and all the logos, posters, invitations, and ads that were developed in support of the event. Eventually, we will combine all of these components into an "event in a box" packet that will act as a template for future fund-raisers.
All of this is being done with an eye toward our eventual goal of a nationwide raffle, where ITW will invite library systems from all four corners of the U.S. to submit a short proposal for a fund-raising event. We'll then choose one system from each quadrant and, at no expense to the library, send at least four New York Times bestselling authors to help raise money.
Why do this? From its inception, ITW has fostered an international reputation for supporting writers. And I think it's equally important that we build a reputation for supporting libraries, the places where most of us got our start. It is a textbook symbiotic relationship: what's good for libraries is good for authors. If we look at these fund-raisers as a way to help shore up a cornerstone of our industry, we can't go wrong.
Reading is not solely a pleasurable pursuit, especially for young children. Reading develops cognitive skills. It trains our minds to think critically and to question what you are told. This is why dictators censor or ban books. It's why it was illegal to teach slaves to read. It's why girls in developing countries have acid thrown in their faces when they walk to school. Reading is power. Reading is life.
For nearly 85% of kids living in rural America, the only place they have access to technology or books outside the schoolroom is at their public library. For many inner-city kids, the library is the only haven where they can study. For the millions of adults without Internet access, it is the only place to search for and apply for work. Entrepreneurs use the library to research opening their own business. And there are still children whose highlight of the week is that trip to the library. It was true when I was a kid and it's doubly true now: the library is the beating heart of any community.
As voters and taxpayers, we must demand that our local governments properly prioritize libraries. As citizens, we must invest in our library down the street so that the generations served by that library grow up to be adults who contribute not just to their local communities but to the world. We need to shift our national view of libraries from luxuries to necessities.
It's simple math: kids who read become good students. Good students go to college. College students graduate to better jobs and pay higher taxes. This is not a complicated formula. For every $1 spent on public libraries, the community receives an average return of $4. It's the sort of dividend any investment firm could get behind.
Libraries are not simply part of our guarantee to the pursuit of happiness—they are a civil right, the foundation upon which time and time again the American dream has been built. Whether it's celebrating banned book week, risking jail time in support of values like reader privacy, or just providing us access to a better life, librarians have always stood on the front lines, battling for the rights of writers and readers. It's time that we stand up for them.
Karin Slaughter is the author of numerous bestselling novels, including the Grant County series. She lives in Atlanta, Ga.
See all of the features in our ALA 2011 preview.