by Stan Cutler

Our library is a beautiful, iconic place on the 8700 hundred block of the Avenue. I was there last week when a whole bunch of second-graders from Jenks School walked in through the front door. They were quiet, as if in church, marching in single file, wide-eyed and well-behaved, around the checkout desk, through the collection, past the computer workstations, to the Community Room way in the back, where Cynthia and Alyssa Kreilick would read aloud from one of their bilingual, illustrated books.

Some neighbors had persuaded me to go to an evening meeting of the Friends Chestnut Hill Library. The morning the kids showed up — a few days later — I was wondering whether I was wasting my time. I was at the library for a follow-up chat with folks who want to persuade the Mural Arts Society to decorate a wall. And then the kids came in and reminded me. If the library fails, our American community loses a vital organ. Preserving the library, honoring its purpose, making it better as America evolves, are efforts worthy of my time and yours.

I felt a joy as the children filed by, all clean and tidy and serious-faced, so beautiful, our future. At the library, we are on our very, very best behavior. To be in such a wonderful place is our right. And it is a privilege that we honor lest we be unwelcome there. I needed to be reminded.

I lead a seminar group focused on media and politics. We discuss how the ways we communicate influence how we vote, the news we seek, and the state of our culture. A historian in the room told us a surprising fact about literacy in America; we were once the most literate country on the planet. “Common Sense,” read by half the American Colonial population, summarized in the Declaration of Independence, was a hot spark of the Revolution. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” energized caring Americans and legitimized the Civil War for universal freedom. Our Presidents were enlightened men who regarded love of knowledge as proof of character. We are Americans because we can read. America is America because of the written word.

The tides of technology and economics are relentless. Our public schools, community newspapers, and public libraries anchor us to our finest heritage. In the 21st Century, libraries, public schools and newspapers are threatened as never before. We have a duty to do whatever we can to empower the institutions of literacy, to stand for them against the tides.

Another idea I heard at the meeting was to place a regular column of library news in the Chestnut Hill Local. As you can see, the editors and publisher have agreed. This is the first installment. We will keep you posted about what folks like us are doing. The title of Cynthia and Alyssa Kreilick’s book is “Lucha and Lola.” As the kids filed quietly out to return to Jenks, I could tell that they’d had a great lesson. (By the way, of 220 Philadelphia public schools, only eight have librarians. Jenks is not one of them.)

Hill resident Stan Cutler is a member of the Friends of Chestnut Hill Library. He’s also a novelist who has written political opinions for the Local in the past.