Even though I’ve lived in Minnesota for over three decades and have been involved with myriad literacy and reading programs, I didn’t know that Minnesota had a state librarian until about a month ago. I knew we had a state demographer, a state economist, a state forester, and a state climatologist, but it took Elmo from Sesame Street to introduce me to Jennifer Nelson, Minnesota’s State Librarian.
It was after an event at the Brookdale Library highlighting what Sesame Street was doing to address the needs of children of incarcerated parents that I had a chance to tour the library and hear about the roles that libraries play in protecting and creating health in our communities. I saw firsthand that libraries are much more than a place to just store and check out books. They are places where one can go for personal and professional development while, among numerous other things, also providing meeting spaces, enhancing cultural engagement, supporting literacy for all ages, encouraging community involvement, and improving the overall quality of life in a neighborhood. I learned that there are more libraries in the U.S., than McDonald’s restaurants. There are over 350 public libraries in Minnesota which are available to everyone regardless of socio-economic circumstances. And you can use them even if you don’t have a library card. The card is needed only if you check out something.
Recognizing the role that libraries play in public health in our state, I invited the State Librarian to be a guest on my cable TV show – A Public Health Journal. At last week’s taping we discussed the history of libraries, their current activities, and their changing role in our increasingly diverse and digital world. I learned that libraries remain crucial to the health of our state and are providing a broader range of services today than ever before. It was during that conversation that I also learned that the position of State Librarian is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
I end every episode of my show with a closing comment. Here is my closing for the show that featured the State Librarian:
When I was a practicing pediatrician, I would ask three questions of every parent: does your child know how to swim, have you visited the state capitol, and do you and your child have a library card?
You may wonder what those questions have to do with the health of a child. Knowing how to swim should be obvious, it is a life-saving skill. It fits in the same category as wearing your seat belt and bicycle helmet and looking both ways before crossing a street. It’s a personal behavior that protects you from harm.
Visiting the capitol on the other hand highlights the community aspects of health. We all live in a community and the health of our community affects our health. Only by actively participating in how our communities are built and governed will we be able to assure that our communities are healthy. Visiting the capitol underscores for children the importance of community engagement and that engaged communities are healthy communities.
The library card is about opportunities. It offers the opportunity for education and learning, for growth and development, for exploration and discovery. A library card provides opportunities to examine the past, explore the present, and create the future
More importantly, the library card is about dreams. It stimulates dreams about the future, about a child’s place in the world, about possibilities.
Kids need to know how to swim. They really should visit the capitol. But most of all they need to dream and have the opportunities for those dreams to come true. Do you and your child have a library card?
I ask you the same question.