Novel helped young thief turn into judge: Case history for library system in Rockford, Illinois, to consider in mapping out e-book plans

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imageOlly Neal was a hell-raiser of a teenager and a habitual shoplifter. He applied his talents to stealing a book from his high school library—a novel with a sexy lady on the cover.

Mildred Grady, a teacher-librarian, spotted him. But she was savvy enough not to let him know at the time, and Neal himself didn’t tell classmates he was committing the sissy act of reading a novel, The Treasure of Pleasant Valley, by Frank Yerby. He later stealthily returned the book to the shelf. Magically—credit Grady—other Yerby books began to show up in the same spot. Vindicating the theory that easy literature can be a gateway to the complex, Neal would go on to appreciate not just newspapers and magazines but also fiction from Albert Camus.

Today Neal isn’t a criminal; rather, an appellant court judge in Arkansas—eager to talk up the transformative power of books. Enjoy the StoryCorps recording. The picture below shows Judge Neal with his Ph.D. daughter, who, indirectly, through her father, has likewise benefited from Grady’s dedication and ingenuity.

imageSo what are the lessons here? Exactly what does this have to do with’s persistent calls for a well-stocked national digital library system for the entire country, not just the scholarly and cultural elites? And could the Neal story be especially timely for Rockford, Illinois? Rockford laudably proposes to digitize its cash-strapped public library system but may shortchange the disadvantaged, many of whom lack the right gizmos to enjoy e-books. Should the Neal story count in the Rockford controversy? Definitely. And here’s why.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, correctly noted how the right teacher could turn students’ lives around. But so can just the right books, and not only classics and textbooks (regardless of all the ballyhoo about Apple’s textbook software). We need to get popular nonacademic books out there, too. And with the right gadgets and Internet connections and technical and other support for low-income people, e-books would be an economical way to multiply the number of titles that matched disadvantaged students’ exact needs and interests. I  most emphatically do not want ethnic or racial quotas for library collections. But in Neal’s case, it perhaps helped that Yerby, too was an African-American even if—judging by Treasure’s cover, at least—the novel seems mainly about white people and he might not even have known the race of the author. Writers’ backgrounds at times can influence how they see the world, all the more reasons to serve individual readers in keeping with the laws of library science, as well as strive for diversity.

imageIn other situations, students might cherish e-books written by local novelists mentioning neighborhoods and landmarks already dear to them. With familiar subject matter, a good book can more easily win over a reader.

The mere existence of the right books for individual students, of course, isn’t enough. Whether it’s authors’ posters on the wall or friendly nudges from dedicated teachers and librarians and parents, students need to know that books count. And a national digital library system could offer easy-to-use digital catalogs to direct students to the electronic and paper titles matching their exact needs and interests. Amazon isn’t localizing sufficiently or nurturing writers at the local level, including those who could appeal to K-12.

Here’s an opening for the Harvard-based Digital Public Library of America initiative, which, at least so far, has played up the library needs of the elite more than those of the nation at large. I’d actually like to see two separate but closely intertwined and universally accessible national digital library systems, one for academics and one for other Americans, so that the needs of people like Olly Neal won’t get lost in the shuffle. Give them the books and they’ll respond, or at least enough to make it worthwhile.

imageConsider all the benefits, beyond the absence of fines since e-books can self-expire. Whether on a tablet or a smart phone, you can read an e-book without anyone else being the wiser—either about the nature of the book, or the fact that you’re reading a book, period. The embarrassment factor is no small reason why so many teenagers, especially males, and especially members of some minority groups, don’t read or discuss books. Very much to the DPLA’s credit, its organizers want a highly interactive approach, and I can see a national digital library system as one way for students at tough schools to reach out virtually to people more open to literature. And let’s not neglect the parents, either, or even the grandparents; here’s to a genuine family-literacy approach serving all generations, from toddlers on up! Remember, parents  are most kids’ role models! That’s what I had in mind in the early 1990s when I was proposing a national digital library system for all, a concept endorsed in two “On the Right columns” by my political opposite, William F. Buckley Jr. (the image above shows one of the columns, as published in the Washington Times). But certain policymakers and academics (not all of them) so far seem to care more about a library strategy for the elite as opposed to the universal approach that WFB so much preferred.

While the DPLA is exploring the possibility of including recent books in its collections, older ones are currently its main focus, not surprising, given that a Harvard historian started the initiative. Actually we need balance—between the old and the new, between classics and popular contemporary titles. The Treasure of Pleasant Valley falls somewhat in between in vintage. The book first appeared in hardback and paperback in 1955 or almost six decades ago. When America’s copyright laws were friendlier to libraries, the copyright would have expired, but Congress over the years has legislated with content-providers rather than the public at large in mind. Most likely—I haven’t researched the issue—Treasure is not yet in the public domain. And what about more recent books, the kind most meaningful to many young people? If we’re to have long copyright terms (I personally think they should be shortened), that is all the more reason to create a national digital library system that would fairly compensate authors and publishers while at the same time making the right books available to today’s Olly Neals in digital format. Treasure, as far as I know, is not digitized yet. Given its proven value, it should be an e-book online legally and for free without any need to “steal” either atoms or electrons.

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