I stopped by a public library in Mississippi, in a town that had been described in a guidebook as so beautiful that Ulysses S. Grant ordered it not to be burnt. It was a pretty little example of an old deep south town—tulip and magnolia trees, giant Georgian houses, a town square that featured two drugstores with real soda fountains and a hardware store with an old proprietor sitting on the porch.
(One side of the square had a memorial to the town’s first African American sheriff, killed in the line of duty nearly 20 years ago; the other side had six memorials and historical markers honoring the Confederacy. The library was on the Confederate, giant-beautiful-homes side of the square.)
The library was dark, heavy, and small, featuring a circulating collection heavy on paperback romances, an extensive local and southern history collection, and a prominent and heavily used job hunting section. Five behemoth computers hulked on the only available desks; three were designated specifically for job hunters. All the patrons were young and African American; the two visible staff members were older white ladies, who did not say a word to the patrons or to me during the half hour I spent browsing, entirely within arm’s length of their service desk. I finally introduced myself and asked a few questions about the building, the town population (around 8,000), and the services. Youth services? “We’ve got some games and toys over there,” one of the ladies said. They’d also had an Easter coloring contest. What about teens? Basically, she said, we let them use the computers, as long as nobody else is waiting. Otherwise, the school handles it. “We don’t have the budget,” she said. Yep, I agreed. It’s hard to fit programming in a shoestring budget.
But it was on the way back north that I saw truly grinding poverty. The January 31 ice storm that left parts of Kentucky without power for three weeks destroyed trees for hundreds of miles. Nearly two months later, broken trees littered the entire route from Memphis to Carbondale; in some places, limbs still protruded through broken ceilings and walls of clearly inhabited homes and trailers. My brother, who works in the forest in Southern Illinois, took me on a tour of the area; he pointed out caves and birds and way more trees than I want to know about, but also showed me the courthouse in Thebes where Dred Scott was once held. It is now boarded up, neglected, crumbling, and condemned on the hillside, overlooking the municipal “park”—a weedy patch of floodplain with a couple of motorhomes parked in continuous broken-down residence. The lone swingset had been knocked over and lay, rusting, on its side. My brother talked about the crime and drug problems they’d had down here, the things they’d found dumped or burned or abandoned in the forest. It was heartbreaking. And it went on and on and on, in homes and courthouses and schools and gas stations. “Do they even have a library here?,” I asked. My brother just laughed. I looked it up when I got back home; the closest library is 21 miles away. And it’s only open three and a half days a week.
That got me thinking. You hear a lot of libraries say “we don’t have money,” but that can mean very different things. There’s a big difference between “we can’t buy a Wii system for the library” and “we only turn on the lights in the stacks if somebody needs something.” As the recession grinds on, it’s certainly possible that more libraries will have to turn to desperation measures to stay open at all; in these cases, how do you maintain media literacy programming? How do you operate when you can’t even afford shoestrings?
I started brainstorming truly cheap media literacy ideas. Some things I came up with:
- Board games, as we know, can be great group activities. Library doesn’t have games? Games with missing pieces are easy to find in libraries (and in our homes, garage sales, thrift shops…). Use the boards to create new games, or—better yet—have the kids invent games for younger kids. Find out what the local HeadStart or school is working on and get to work. Got a Candyland board but no dice? Make cards with words like “ice,” “cat,” and “on.” Each player takes a card on her turn and gets to move one space for each rhyming word they can think of. Got dice but no board? Multiplication, probabilities, secret codes, hangman—numbers make good games, too.
- The most ubiquitous of the new media is probably the cell phone; even in poor communities, many families have one. The cheapest options come with few extras, though, and things like texting may cost users a comparative fortune in fees. Hold a financial literacy session to teach teens how to read cell phone packages, how to compare options, and how services work. They might even find a better option than they have now.
- Got an outdated globe or atlas? Teach geographic information by getting GPS coordinates for places that exist now, but aren’t on the old map. Give students the latitude and longitude of, say,
Rangoon, Burma; leave it to them to figure out that Burmais now . Ask users to annotate the atlas. What teen wouldn’t relish writing in a library book? Myanmar
- Recycle. Is there a city or better-off town nearby who might be better able to buy new resources? If so, what happens to the old ones? Even seriously outdated materials could be useful; imagine the zines students could make from old magazines or World Book encyclopedias. Use the characters from newspaper comics to pastiche new comics. “Publish” teen comics by posting them in the library or, if possible, on the library’s web site.
- Network. Maybe the police department would be willing to co-host a teen night. Maybe the schools would collaborate. Cultivate the talents of local residents. Reach out to universities within a day’s drive and suggest community engagement programs. And by all means, contact the librarians in all the nearby towns. They may have great ideas or resources; they may help collaborate on grant applications. Most of all, though, they’ll understand the situation and may be in need of support themselves.
It feels ridiculous for me, a fortunate student, to advise working librarians who are dealing with problems way beyond my ken. My hat’s off to you, underserved rural librarians of America; you deserve support and encouragement, and I do hope you are praised and appreciated—and that you keep finding creative ways to keep kids engaged in their lives and their libraries.
Now come on, 590MLL. Anybody got fantastic cheap, cheaparific programming ideas? Let’s have ‘em in the comments!