Li­braries fight money woes, need to bal­ance the books

Chicago Sun-Times - - Easy - BY SHARON RAN­DALL

Smil­ing faces al­ways seem fa­mil­iar some­how. But th­ese were fa­mil­iar for a rea­son.

Be­tween the moun­tains where I was born, and the desert I now call home, I spent most of my life in Pa­cific Grove, a small town on the coast of Cal­i­for­nia.

My three chil­dren walked to school, to the beach, to the ball­park and the li­brary. At night they fell asleep to a lul­laby of surf and sea lions and foghorn.

Two of the three grew up to be teach­ers in the area. We scat­tered their fa­ther’s ashes in Mon­terey Bay. As much as any place, Pa­cific Grove is home.

So I was not sur­prised re­cently, speak­ing at a ben­e­fit for the li­brary, to look out at a room­ful of smil­ing faces and re­al­ize I knew most of the au­di­ence by name. I even knew the names of their dogs.

The rea­son for the talk was sim­ple: As in other places around the coun­try, a lack of fund­ing has forced the li­brary to cut ser­vices and limit hours.

I was among friends, pass­ing the hat, preach­ing to the choir. So I told a story about read­ing, the dif­fer­ence it has made in my life and the lives of those I love. Here’s the short ver­sion. My grand­mother taught me to love read­ing by read­ing to me and mak­ing me read to my­self. By the age of 9, I was hooked.

The prob­lem was, out­side my grand­mother’s farm, I had lit­tle ac­cess to books. It’s hard to read

www.saveilli­nois­li­ without books.

Imag­ine my de­light to dis­cover the pub­lic li­brary and the li­brar­ian, Mrs. Mary Jane Christo­pher, who said that any­one, rich or poor, could bor­row books for free. For the first time in my life, I felt rich.

My mother was not a big reader. She dropped out of school at 15 to get mar­ried and have ba­bies. But she knew the im­por­tance of read­ing. She in­sisted my blind brother learn to read Braille, though it meant he had to leave home and live at the school for the blind.

My step­fa­ther never learned to read. I found a pa­per once where his name was writ­ten re­peat­edly. When I showed it to my mother, she said she’d been teach­ing him to write it.

“Don’t let on that you know,” she said. “He’s ashamed.”

Years passed. I went to col­lege, moved to Cal­i­for­nia, got mar­ried and had ba­bies.

Ev­ery week, I’d take them to the Pa­cific Grove Li­brary for a new stack of books. Then I’d read to them and make them read, just as my grand­mother had done for me. I did it for them, so they’d learn to love read­ing, but mostly I did it for me. Read­ing was my sal­va­tion.

My late hus­band loved hik­ing in Yosemite. At the end of his bat­tle with can­cer, barely able to walk, he’d lie on the couch read­ing John Muir’s ad­ven­tures in Yosemite. It wasn’t quite the same as be­ing there, he said, but it was close, and he didn’t have to worry about bears.

Two years later, I wrote a book and was asked to speak at the li­brary in my home­town. In the au­di­ence, along with my old Sun­dayschool teacher, my high-school English teacher and a few sheep­ish-looking mem­bers of my fam­ily, was 93-year-old Mary Jane Christo­pher, who didn’t go out much any­more but in­sisted on hear­ing me read.

The next day, when I gave a copy of the book to my step­fa­ther and showed him where I had signed it for him, his eyes welled up like lakes.

“I can’t read a word of it,” he said. “You know that, don’t you? But I’ll surely trea­sure it.”

Af­ter I told that story for my friends and for­mer neigh­bors, they stopped smil­ing and be­gan nod­ding, as if to say amen. I hope you are nod­ding, too. I hope you will dream, along with me and every­one who loves read­ing, of a world in which ev­ery child will learn to read, ev­ery adult will read for plea­sure and li­braries won’t need fund-rais­ers to re­main free.


Sue Madorin reads a book to chil­dren dur­ing a pro­gram at the Oak Brook Li­brary. Some li­braries face fund­ing trou­bles.|

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