Sci-fi genius Ray Bradbury got his education at the library. Thanks to budget cuts, too many modern students can't say the same.
Ray Bradbury’s science fiction masterpiece Farenheit 451 may be a staple of many high school and college classrooms, but I never had an English teacher assign it. Fortunately my parents are bibliophiles—there's a bookcase in almost every room in their house—so sometime during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school I came across a dog-eared copy of the book, which I read in about a day and a half. I wanted to read more Bradbury, but we didn't have any more of his novels at home. On our next weekly visit to the public library I happily checked out a copy of the Martian Chronicles. A week later, I snagged Something Wicked This Way Comes. But, thanks to cutbacks in library funding, modern students might not be able to the same.
Bradbury, who died this morning in Los Angeles at the age of 91, was an avid supporter of public libraries. In a 2010 interview with the Paris Review, he said that he’s "completely library educated." Indeed, much like the current DIY learning movement, Bradbury eschewed formal higher education, particularly for writers, in favor of a self-directed process of unbiased, library-centered discovery.
"When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week," said Bradbury. "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."
Learners of all ages don't have as much access to libraries as Bradbury did growing up. Indeed, far from being denied access to books and knowledge because they're being burned—as is the case in Farenheit 451—modern students increasingly can't get to them because of budget cuts. Over the past few years countless school libraries have been shuttered and public libraries in major cities and small towns have been battered by staff layoffs, scaled back hours of operation, or have been closed. Most recently, in Queens, New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s funding cuts mean that a third of the borough’s 62 libraries will close and the other branches will be shuttered for four or five days each week. It’s the same story coast to coast—in Chicago, Birmingham, Alabama, and Seattle.
Whether you were a fan of Bradbury or not, there's probably been at least one book that you stumbled across in a library that changed your life. That kind of discovery and independent investigation, which Bradbury believed in whole heartedly, can't happen if our libraries no longer exist. While there are many excellent obituaries paying homage to his literary genius, if you really want to honor the man, take up the cause he supported: public libraries. If we commit to showing up to city council meetings to protest proposed cuts—and make it clear that our votes will change if those budgets are slashed—elected officials will know that we care about libraries, and they need to be untouchable. What will happen if we don't preserve our libraries? Just read the cautionary tale that is Farenheit 451 to find out.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons