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In Praise of Branches

By Gertzog, Alice | American Libraries, September 1997 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Branches

Gertzog, Alice, American Libraries


As librarians, we have always considered reading an essential attribute of a civilized society and a pursuit meriting our fullest commitment. We have no doubt that books make a difference and, to that end, we have compulsively promoted reading in our libraries. We understand implicitly Lyn Sharon Schwartz's contention, in her recently published Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (Beacon, 1996), that her sense of self is linked intimately to what she has read over a lifetime.

Writers are readers

We know, also, about the important role public libraries played in the intellectual development of countless notable modern writers such as Pete Hamill, James Baldwin, and Philip Roth. Alfred Kazin, the respected literary critic, writing in The New Yorker (Mar. 7, 1994, p. 73) reported that he and his sister Pearl fraudulently obtained extra library cards in order to be sure of having enough to read. Even Albert Camus, the French writer and Nobel Prize winner, in his newly discovered and published autobiographical novel The First Man, attributes much of his early development to a public library in Algeria, where he grew up.

So it should have come as no surprise to me that a group of non-literary intellectuals, whom I have been interviewing for a book on the factors influencing their journeys into adulthood, have also awarded a seminal role to reading and to public libraries, attributing to them much of their success.

Nobel Prize-winner Robert Solow, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Vermont Congressman Bernard Sanders, along with scores of other high-achieving men and women, share a common secondary school. They are all graduates of James Madison High School, a public institution located in Brooklyn, New York, serving a discrete area with defined attendance boundaries - in short, a neighborhood school. Besides Ginsburg, Solow, and Sanders, Madison can count among its distinguished graduates other Nobel Prize winners, a judge at the International Court of Justice, additional members of Congress, several college presidents, a United Nations delegate, and scores of influential academics, Many of them attended Madison High School between 1940 and 1960 and are the sons and daughters of predominantly Jewish immigrants, first- or occasionally second-generation American.

What makes a neighborhood special

I have been exploring the world of the neighborhood in which Madison was located in an attempt to determine what enabled so many of its graduates to achieve national distinction, particularly, it seems, in the academy and in public service. Crafting a portrait of the community Madison served has entailed interviewing a number of the school's graduates who were students during those years and who have enjoyed exceptionally successful careers. Through impressionistic stories and reminiscences, I am gaining insight into the quality and fabric of life as it was lived in that neighborhood and learning how the community is represented by its offspring some 30 to 50 years later as they unpack their memories.

I use an interview schedule containing open-ended questions under eight general categories: family characteristics and interactions, neighbor.hood characteristics and behavior patterns, education, religion, the external world, culture and entertainment, trans, ion to college, and retrospective reflections. The questions are designed to elicit information about influences extant in the community - at home, in school, and on the streets - that formed the neighborhood's "moral universe."

How a community's environment influences the development of the values, aims, and goals of its young people is an enduring question. We regularly ask about the role that schools, the neighborhood, family life, and other community institutions play in framing the adolescent experience.

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In Praise of Branches


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