The most valuable gift


By Mike Kroll


Literacy is one of the most important and useful skills a person can have. In fact, the ability to read and write can quite properly be classified as a critical survival skill in the modern world. Like most useful skills literacy improves with practice and the stronger one's literacy skills the better equipped you are to learn almost anything else. Among the first priorities in schools it to teach our young how to read and write and worldwide literacy rates are used to judge the quality of education from place-to-place. While we regularly lament the quality of America's schools today literacy data from a major study released in 2003 show that among U.S. Residents 16 and over basic and intermediate levels of literacy are actually increasing!

Public education in America is far from perfect and there remains much room for improvement but between 1993 and 2003 the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the U.S. Department of Education gives us reason for mild optimism. As parents we must instill a passion for reading in our sons and daughters and the best way to accomplish this is by being passionate about reading ourselves and creating opportunities for our children to read. When we presume that schools will handle all the educational needs of our children we fail in our role as parents. When we model reading for enjoyment or personal learning we enrich the educational environment for our children as we improve ourselves, for literacy is truly a skill that one never entirely masters and one that will not maintain without exercise.

As a child I was hardly a model student and I didn't come from an advantaged background. My family climbed from working class into the middle class as I went through grade school. Whereas neither of my parents went to college and my mother had been a high school dropout both of them plus many of my other adult relatives were regular readers for both enjoyment and self-improvement. I remember well how had my mother worked to master the material and earn her GED when I was a kid and I cannot recall a time when there were not a variety of books and magazines around our home.

Both of my parents developed in their own careers through lots of self-study even when time was precious. I learned at an early age that reading was not only an inexpensive and very accessible form of entertainment but also the best way to control ones own educational opportunities. As a child I read just about anything I could get my hands on. Magazines from TV Guide to National Geographic (something my father has subscribed to for as long as I can remember), newspapers and books ranging from the Hardy Boys to encyclopedias.

As a boy growing up my family did not have air conditioning and Chicago summers were frequently stifling. Soon after I was able to get out of my own neighborhood and explore I discovered that most public buildings were air conditioned. This included libraries and I found myself escaping the summer heat in various libraries during my youth. I would like to think that I have grown into a literate adult and much of the credit for that accomplishment must be shared by my parents and public libraries.

I graduated high school with less than stellar grades and went on to college to the surprise of many of my former teachers. I loved college and it was undoubtedly four of my best years. Perhaps that is why graduate school was such a disappointment for me. When I finished my formal education I found that my most valuable and prized skills were not those I was taught but those I taught myself. Beyond the basic skills we all learn in school and the intellectual disciple I learned in college, I would hazard a guess that the informal self-education I have received by reading at my own behest is responsible for much of what I am today.

Today I make my living repairing computers, something I have had little formal education or training in but where I find my most marketable skills. This is a lesson that flies in the face of the many who think that formal educational degrees must be a prerequisite to any high skilled job. My experience demonstrates that while even the highest degrees do not always lead to a rewarding career it is always possible to teach yourself new or additional skills at low cost if you are motivated and literate. Anyone with sufficient resources can purchase books to learn almost anything without ever taking a formal class but this presumes one has those resources. For the ambitious lacking such resources the most accessible form of knowledge and education in America is your local public library.

Galesburg is indeed fortunate that we have such a fine public library for a city our size. I am very proud to serve as a board member for the Galesburg Public Library, a role that enables me to see just how big a community influence a library can be. Our local library attracts as many or more annual visitors than the most ambitious tourist attractions and beginning in 2008 we will again be open seven days per week during the school-year.

I am now serving my third term on the Library Board and we have seen steadily increased usage of the library since I joined the board even as the Galesburg economy has faltered and our city population has declined. The fact is our local library is a victim of its own success. Even as our collection has increased and we have expanded services to include computers, Internet access and a much broader array of audio-video materials the available space within the library itself has remained constant and constrained. More users and more material but no more space means that today the Galesburg Public Library is much too small for the needs of our community.

As I look forward to the many challenges facing the Galesburg community I cannot help but be reminded of the largely unrecognized contribution that is made by the Galesburg Public Library. As we seek out ways to improve the quality of life in this town and as we seek ways to better serve our population as they adjust to changing economic realities we would do well to consider just how valuable an investment in the library could be.

Based upon research that has already been done by the Library Board we know that our current facility is about half the size of what a community like Galesburg really needs. We have run out of room to add to the collection so that today older books must be removed to make room for new materials. Even as usage of the library has increased the space available to sit and read or study has decreased so that today the library is regularly over crowded with patrons. Modern electronics have caught up with the antiquated design of the current library facility where we do not have room to add additional computers or to house a fast growing collection of audio books and other digital materials. One area that has actually decreased in needed space thanks to computers is reference.

It is my holiday wish that somehow someone in this community beyond the Library Board itself will recognize just how badly Galesburg needs a new library. The present economic state of the Galesburg community makes it appear highly unlikely that the necessary tax money will be available to construct a new library anytime soon unless there is a major public demand for such an investment.

To my mind the solution to this dilemma is to create a matching challenge. The citizens of Galesburg need to demonstrate just how much we value the public library by pledging money toward replacement of the present building. If we presume a cost of roughly $12-15 million to construct a new public library (less than the cost of one railroad overpass) it would seem a convincing demonstration of public support would be raising at least a third of that in voluntary contributions. If the Galesburg community can see fit to support the library with $4-5 million in donations I am confident that the Galesburg City Council will find a way to help raise the remaining $8-10 million to get the job done. This is a dream I would love to see fulfilled before I leave the Library Board. Let me get this started by personally pledging an annual $250 gift toward construction of a new Galesburg Public Library over the next ten years. Won't you join me?