Leading into her Sunday keynote address at ALA Midwinter in Seattle, Caroline Kennedy recalled a story told to her by Harry Belafonte, at a 50th Anniversary commemoration for the Civil Rights movement. Belafonte recalled how after a rousing speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King during a 1960s Civil Rights rally, he turned to King, and asked what was the point of speaking to these people, wasn’t it just preaching to the choir? “Someone has to preach to the choir,” King replied “Otherwise, they might stop singing.” With that, Kennedy preached on the importance of libraries and literacy.
“Whether personal, academic, or public, libraries are intimate places for self-discovery and inspiration,” Kennedy said, calling a love of reading one of the greatest gifts she received from her family. “As we look at the titles lined up on the shelves, we can imagine how we might be different if we knew about all these things. And that sense of curiosity and possibility gives us a life-enhancing sense of hope.” In the world of “words and ideas,” she added, “we are never really alone.”
Kennedy charmed the audience with anecdotes from her iconic family, noting that her famous father loved to read history, and looked to the “heroes of the past to teach lessons of courage, patriotism, and service.” Her mother, Jackie, who would later become an editor for Doubleday, loved poetry, literature, art and ancient civilizations. “Our house was full of books,” she recalled, “and I spent much of my childhood exploring them. My parents and grandparents understood the importance of setting children free to discover the world of words, but also how great works of literature can knit us together, a process that can happen in schools and in the community just as it can in a family.”
She went on to praise libraries as “one of the hallmarks” of a great civilization, but noted that libraries have historically faced attack. “Why did the Germans target Medieval libraries throughout Europe in World War II? Why did Serbs destroy the multicultural Bosnian national library? Why were people arrested in 1961 at a library in Mississippi? And why did the Patriot Act seek to obtain the records of library borrowers?,” she asked. “Not only because libraries are important symbols of a civil society, but because they are in a sense tabernacles of personal freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of expression. Freedom of opportunity. And the truest test of liberty, the freedom to dissent.”
Currently, however, libraries are facing new foes. “In the last year, 77 million people used a public library,” she said, “yet despite their importance, I don’t have to tell you, libraries are under attack today from insidious adversaries: indifference, the notion that libraries may be obsolete, and lack of funds.” The average state outlay is just $8 per resident, she noted, not enough to buy one book per year. “When times are tough, access to knowledge is seen as a luxury though we know in difficult time economic times people need libraries more than ever.”
She closed by calling librarians “levers for positive change in their communities,” and rallied them to fight back. “You are on the front lines of a battle that will shape the future of our country,” She said. “It is a battle that is fought out of view, and the heroes are people who didn’t seek a career of confrontation, but who live lives of principle and meaning, and understand that the gift of knowledge is the greatest gift we can give to one another.”