Why We Need Libraries to Fight Social Inequality

In a district in Berlin among its Turkish residents stood once the Jerusalem Library, not far from the city’s Jewish Hospital. With a gloomy face, 10 year-old me walked up to the building in search of a book to read, as ordered by my mother. There was a new rule in our house at the time, that at least two hours of my day as a third grader with little to no homework was to be spent reading.

Like so many immigrants before and after them, my parents had lost a great deal of their social status, now being scientists with little to no future in their new home country. So while the German state was figuring out how to help parents with children to take care of make a living for themselves  – a pondering process that surprisingly is taking until this day- my  single mother fought my laziness and unwillingness to be curious with the power of books.

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Libreria Alta Acqua, Venice, Italy 2017

Now as an adult, I remember my first independent encounter with books like others remember meeting their romantic partners. Having been an introvert from a very young age, finding myself in a room with hundreds of books to choose from, was like having to make friends in a room full of people I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of these books. Their names, their authors even their appearance marked by several years if not decades of sitting on those shelves were alien to me. Why and how on earth should I pick one book above all others and take it home with me, allowing it into my personal space? And then, as I was about to grab something random for the sake of just taking anything home, I spotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on a metal shelf in the middle of the room. I sure knew Harry Potter, so I took that one with me for the next three weeks, happy to have found something familiar. The realization that I started with book three out of seven instead of book one did not appear to me until years later.

Not only did my library visits that followed cure me of my screen addiction, looking back at it all, this library was what helped us children of low social status keep up with kids who were, generally speaking, better off than us. While our more privileged counterparts spent their summers in their holiday homes in Italy or Greece, paid for by their hard-working parents who were either lawyers, doctors, teachers or businessmen, the kids whose parents had no money for vacation because they had to think of how to manage the grocery budget till the end of the month, had the library as a summer retreat. It was with the help of librarians and social workers giving us their time and energy, that instead of wasting our time watching trash-TV in sticky rooms, we had games and other activities to keep us busy every day of summer vacation without paying a single euro.

When school started again and our parents were not able to answer all our questions, we always knew we had the library where there was supervised homework completion.

In Germany the debate on the opportunities of working class children versus children of academics is strongly based on one argument. Summarized to its simplest form: working class children consider themselves at a disadvantage because their parents don’t have money they can spend on cultural activities. Therefore, it is argued, working class children don’t have a chance at the same intellectual development as those  of academics.

This debate is missing one essential point: it is not the amount of times you went to the opera or the art gallery that determine how smart you are. What one needs is an interest in these things and interest is something that needs to come from the person rather than being shoveled down their throats. It was at the library where we not only could cultivate said curiosity for art and music but where we could also practice it. The books, movies and  CDs showed us what the world had to offer. It provided free brain food for those who wanted it and some of us took that as an inspiration to achieve more in life, just like our companions from wealthier families.

I’ll leave it up to the rest of the world to debate whether a person’s interest or even taste in art, music or culture is something that can be bought. There are enough people in this world with money who have never set foot in a museum simply because they don’t care.

It was in this very library where children whose parents had no time or did not speak the language were read to out loud by volunteers. It was among one of those wooden shelves on the first floor where I found an exercise book to practice writing stories. Today, I have this blog to share them. Those who had no computers at home had access to the ones on the second floor in exchange for 50 cents per hour or maybe it was free, I cannot remember.

To many of us it was like a second home. We knew the staff, we met our friends there, we knew every nook and cranny. Ten years ago, I walked across the street to the light blue building only to find it shut down. Our second home, our window to the world and source of free knowledge did no longer exist. When I visit my friends in this district today, I can still see the outlines of the now empty shelves through the windows. It breaks my heart every time.

A few years later, now living in a wealthier part of Berlin, I walked to the library in the building of the town hall to return my copy of Three Comrades after weeks of being sick. I was greeted by closed doors and a note informing me of the shutting down of yet another library. All books were to be returned to somewhere else.

This is  just one story of a library being made unavailable to the public. More and more of them shut down over the years all across Germany due to insufficient funds. And while people debate about (new) ways in which one can fight inequality in a society, I wonder why it is so hard to hold on for a second and look around oneself, at the things, at the resources that we already have but don’t give enough importance to. If we want to give children a chance at curiosity and intellectual growth that shall motivate them to grow into successful adults, we need to give them a space where to start their journey free or of little charge, where everyone is welcome.

What better place can there be than a library?

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