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Libraries need more books

By Tom Isenhour

Libraries need books, and I am concerned about the disappearance of books from the Suffolk Library System. The internet is wonderful but it is no substitute for what can be learned, even by small children, from books they can hold in their hands.

When I was 6 years old, I failed the first grade because I couldn’t read. I may have been dyslexic and had other problems, but the fact is that I didn’t learn to read. I remember my teacher telling my parents that I was “slow” and would never be able to keep up with other children, so they were promoting me to keep me with my age group but I would never be able to keep up academically.

That summer, my father took us to the library regularly, and one night I discovered a book on aeronautical engineering. At checkout time, my father told me the book was too old for me. I loved airplanes more than anything at 6, and the pictures in the book had my full attention even though the book was about 500 pages long, in very small type, and had the kinds of diagrams that encyclopedias print.

When I told my father I wanted to read it, he said go ahead. The lady behind the counter refused to check it out for me as it was from the adult section, so my father checked it out and shoved it into my hands saying, “Go read it.”

For the next two weeks, while the other kids played outside every day, I sat in my room with that book on my lap. I just read the words I knew. The first sentence went “The … the … and … the …” But I still remember somewhere around page 400 the book said: “Internal combustion engines with conventional valves have heat transfer problems so air-cooled engines require special designs.”

Twenty years later when I graduated from Cornell University, Phi Beta Kappa with a doctorate degree in chemistry, I tried to find my first-grade teacher so I could tell her that I did learn to read after all. It was because I found an interesting book in the library.

Our libraries are becoming more and more recreation centers. We need recreation centers, and I am happy we are building them. But, we also need libraries so that children can learn and discover “ex libres,” which is Latin for out of books.

I think it is possible for one facility to serve both purposes, but it does not serve the library function if we remove all the books and the opportunity for browsing and accidental discovery. The internet has greatly supplemented our learning systems, but it has not replaced the role books have played to advance humankind.

Thomas L. Isenhour has retired from Old Dominion University after serving as dean and provost. Contact him at tisenhou@odu.edu.