The power of books

I recently drove past this library in southern Colorado. The second photograph below shows a sign that was hanging on one of the side walls. It says in all caps: READING IS POWER.


Reading is power. Reading is empowering. Especially for children, be they readers or listeners. It is not surprising to me that history tells us of books burned by dictators, of writers, poets and artists imprisoned by despots, or of the banning of books and certain texts.

But it’s a complex notion. The power of books to connect, inspire, foster empathy and understanding is fierce but also fragile. In the wrong hands such power can equally be used to divide, manipulate, control and distort - sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. The issue of censorship is thorny and subjective.


And there remains a great deal of work to be done, especially within the realm of children’s literature. Many libraries have a long way to go in ensuring their shelves contain a genuine range of inclusive and diverse stories for children of all backgrounds, races, religions and orientations of every kind - progress is being made but there is still so much to do.

Nonetheless, as I drove past this small, hand-painted building a long way from anywhere, my heart grew wings. Libraries matter to people, all over the world. Great big beautiful libraries, like the Bodleian in Oxford and the Public Library in New York are well attended and much loved, with their gargoyles and majestic lions. But so are the simple Little Libraries put up in wonky boxes on street corners, the classroom libraries full of dog-eared favourites and the less formal collections that find their way into shelters, refugee camps and hospitals. Libraries like this one in Antonito may be small but they are significant to the community. Somebody had taken time to put up that sign, to think of a message.

Libraries matter to people. They matter because a library speaks to our highest instincts - that everyone from any background and any age group should have access to a world beyond the one they know. We all have a responsibility to advocate for the continued care and funding of our libraries and beyond that, for the expansion of library services. There are still too many communities that don’t have access to books, too many libraries that are struggling for funds.

The astonishing power of reading works best when it’s free and open to all. So much depends on it, especially for the next generation of readers and writers.

“If books crowbar the world open for you, then libraries are a heist on the heart. If hope is a thing with feathers, then libraries are wings.” - Katherine Rundell.

More thinking:

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell on Why We Need Libraries : an essay in pictures.

American Library Association: Advocacy

Official website: The Library Campaign in the UK

Kidlit women podcast: A conversation with Samira Ahmed about the recent controversy surrounding A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.

Official website: We Need Diverse Books.