Like many of you, I give thanks for our public schools and their teachers, but I suggest we give also thanks for our public libraries. Full disclosure, I have skin in this game because I wrote portions of my new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, at our own Edgartown Public Library during the 2016 heat wave.

But I have been a fan of libraries for a long time, probably because when we were kids our Mom was a regular patron of our local public library, and because my older sister grew up to be a librarian in our Connecticut hometown.

Public libraries are everywhere.

Emily Badger wrote in Atlantic Cities, in June of 2013: “If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the ubiquity of McDonald’s, this stat may make your day: There are more public libraries (about 17,000) in America than outposts of the burger mega-chain (about 14,000). The same is true of Starbucks, which has about 11,000 coffee shops nationally.” She added that libraries serve 96.4 per cent of the U.S. population.

While that does not mean that nearly everyone uses a public library, they could if they wanted to. Public libraries are aggressive because they have to be; they need people coming through their doors and so they provide internet access, loans of DVDs and more, all with the endgame of promoting literacy.

The strategy of meeting the public’s needs seems to be working. Library membership and usage are up in most parts of the country, even though public financial support has been declining. According to officials at the Edgartown Public library, last year the visits more than doubled, attendance at programs tripled, and circulation of books and other items nearly tripled.

At the West Tisbury Library, where I will be speaking on Sunday, Oct. 29, the number of items circulated has tripled since 2014, when the new library opened. The number of visitors has gone from just under 100,000 to over 160,000, and program attendance has more than tripled. In New York city (where we live when we aren’t on-Island), circulation, participation in educational programs, and the number of visitors are up by 45 per cent on average, although funding from the city is down nearly 20 per cent, according to the library’s president, Tony Marx.

New York’s public library system could be a national model for how to work with schools. NYPL main library and its branch libraries deliver books to about 600 of the city’s 1700 public schools, when requested by students and teachers. The aim, Dr. Marx told me, is to supplement school libraries “ that those libraries can also circulate from our 17 million books and better meet needs, rather than forcing students and teachers to rely only on the books they have in their own small collections.”

His goal, he said, is to support school libraries and learning everywhere—and to give every child a (free) library card.

Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge—on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge. We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.

Not any more.

Today, knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the internet. Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world. Most have become multi-purpose centers with internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD’s. Libraries have children’s story hours, movie nights, and book talks by authors, all to attract the public. Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.

By contrast, public schools remain a monopoly, places where, all too often, children are expected to answer questions by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.

This can be condensed into a (long) bumper sticker: “We go to libraries to find answers to our own questions, but we make kids go to school to answer someone else’s questions.” 

It’s not that simple, of course, because, happily, some schools and teachers insist on students taking control of their own education, and some teachers pose questions that they themselves do not know the answers to, and then enlist their students in figuring it out.

But schools in general aren’t changing fast enough. It’s time to recognize that, because our children are growing up swimming in a sea of information, it’s incumbent upon adults to make certain that the institutions we force kids to attend are teaching them how to formulate questions, not merely regurgitate answers to the questions we pose. Meeting that challenge will require a sea change by the people in charge. All the talk about ‘deeper learning,’ ‘blended learning’ and ‘flipped classrooms’ won’t amount to much if we don’t make that fundamental change.

The old saying, “If you can read this, thank a teacher,” still resonates, but I would add, “If you are a reader, thank a library.”

John Merrow is a resident of Edgartown. He is the author of Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, published by The New Press.