10 June 2012

The library thing*

A couple of weeks ago, I sang the praises of libraries in general and British libraries of the 1960s in particular. In a comment just up, Julie Heyward directs my attention (thank you, Julie) to the following extract from a Paris Review interview with the recently departed master story teller Ray Bradbury...


You’re self-educated, aren’t you?


Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

I wouldn't go quite as far as Bradbury. At its very best, school (and teachers such as Mr Cooper and Mr Cothey, the inspirational biologist and mathematician I mentioned in the previous post) can be as valuable as any other component of education. My experience of school from the mid fifties to the beginning of the seventies was generally pretty dire ... but was from time to time shot through with occasional transcendent meteor streaks which always trailed a particularly good teacher.

And there are perils to self education. Without reference to outside teachers, and other fixed touchstones, there is nothing to test and refine one's own learning against. However ...

... I do believe that the very best education starts with self education, draws on good teachers, and finishes with self education. And the library (which these days includes, is enhanced by, but is in no way replaced by, the internet) is the crucible within which that self education can fire itself without shackles.

The best education contains many components; but curiosity and fuel for it are, as Bradbury says, key to it.

*Title ripped off, in case you didn't know, from the web site of the same name)


Geoff Powell said...

"I went to the Whiteness Manor School for Crippled Boys and a college for disabled ex-servicemen at the age of 16. I learned nothing other than how to be a mindless bookkeeper and what my mother had taught me - I could read, write and do arithmetic very well by the age of 3.
Later in life when I realised that " I know nothing " I learned by using libraries. My best teacher was John Moruzzi, a local cafe owner who taught me that " Intelligence is the application of knowledge." I know and have known a lot of well educated people who cannot apply their selves to living.
Now at the age of an "old fart|" - I was called that some years ago now - I realise how little I do know. Yet it is all I need to know and is what I have chosen to know. I do still add to my knowledge though more via the internet as books are far too expensive for me to buy and our local library, closed for refurbishment, doesn't carry much in the way of educational books.

Ray Girvan said...

@Felix: And there are perils to self education.

Yes, and one of them is crankery, and I go with your assessment of needing some kind of guiding influence at some point.

In my early teens, I devoured the library, but among good stuff (SF, any kind of technical/historical) I read and believed a large amount of - to a geeky early teenager - plausible bollocks: Von Däniken style mysteries, ley lines, Lethbridge pendulums, dubious 'unlocking your inner powers' books, Colin Wilson's more flaky output, etc.

I only got off that track through Mr Wistance (sp?) who taught Humanities (the watered-down ecumenical RE we had in the later years of the school I went to). He was very strong on critical thinking, and introduced me to the radical idea that something being stated in an authoritative tone in a well-produced book doesn't make it an established fact. "What counts as evidence?" "What are the criteria for trusting or mistrusting a source?"

I don't recall anyone else ever explicitly stating such issues. School science never raised the possibility of uncertainty. We learned what we were told, and experiments were about getting the expected result.

Jasmine said...

I view libraries as an essential part of every community which enhance self education and give the opportunity to explore different areas and works that might otherwise not be available.

My parents had a vast collection of books as I was growing up, and frequently encouraged me to look up answers to questions I had about life, the universe and everything. (while I suspect that this may have been a way to keep me quiet and occupied for half an hour, a by-product was a curious nature, a love of books and the skills to hunt down the answers I wanted).

However I agree with Mr Girvan that I needed formal education to teach me critical thinking skills. We're raised to listen, accept and obey, and I remember finding it a revelation to be taught to question the source, even teachers! But it's an essential lesson that all too often seems to be missed.

I see Bradbury's point about being forced to read books you might not enjoy while at school, but then again I was 'forced' to read Flowers for Algernon while at school and it had a huge impact on me. Now back in higher education I was 'forced' to read Kate Chopin and discovered a writer I'd never heard of before, but whose work I now seek out.

I adore the line Felix wrote about his own education: "but was from time to time shot through with occasional transcendent meteor streaks which always trailed a particularly good teacher"

I have been fortunate enough to have known a few teachers like this. Felix himself is one of these meteors, who is able to inspire a student such as myself to not only participate but actively enjoy a subject they would otherwise avoid at all costs. The value of this kind of inspiration is beyond measure.

Ray Girvan said...

@Jasmin: But it's an essential lesson that all too often seems to be missed.

It's interesting that it's taken the Internet - where the need for that kind of critical assessment is more urgent - to get the concept properly on the table in schools.

It should've always been.

Julie Heyward said...

Felix, I can't help it, I've been biting my tongue since you posted this topic ...

This, "fixed touchstones" ... [shaking my head it total dismay] ...

How could you? Turtles, turtles, down, and down; as far as the eye can see.

Turtles, Gödels, the book and The Book; teachers and preachers ...

Felix said...

Julie: stop making your tongue bleed ... it's not funny and it's not clever, it's just attention seeking. Now ... have you not heard of A turtle called Touchstone?

Julie Heyward said...

Attention is bad?

Thank you for the tongue lashing. I've put a Band-Aid on it (mine, not yours; it wouldn't stick so I used a stapler).

Felix said...

Julie ... after much thought, I have to cautiously ask ... why have you put a Band Aid on your stapler??

Be careful to keep the tongue lashing moist, or it will lose its suppleness and not do it's job come that crucial moment when you need to lash a tongue to ... ummm ... whatever one lashes tongues to ... the mainmast, perhaps?

Felix said...

Ray (sorry - Mr Girvan!): agree with everything you've said ... and would add that a teacher who requires blind acceptance (oh dear, I had several of them) is as bad as no teacher at all.

Felix said...

Jasmine: agreed with everything you said as well (but have to point out that, while your second to last sentence is worth a fiver, I have no influence over your assignment grade! [grin])

Jasmine said...

You can't influence my final grade?? I take it all back then. ;)

I would stick my tongue out at you but I'm afraid I might end up getting the same treatment as Julie, and wind up stapled.

Dr. C said...

Interesting article about libraries in England:


Unfortunately subscription only.

Dr. C said...

Interesting commentary on libraries in England:


subscription only, unfortunately but interesting.