The Importance of Public Libraries

"From fearing Mrs. Ruffner I soon learned to look upon her as one of my best friends. When she found that she could trust me she did so implicitly. During the one or two winters that at I was with her she gave me an opportunity to go to school for an hour in the day during a portion of the winter months, but most of my studying was done at night, sometimes alone, sometimes under some one whom I could hire to teach me. Mrs. Ruffner always encouraged and sympathized with me in all my efforts to get an education. It was while living with her that I began to get together my first library. I secured a dry-goods box, knocked out one side of it, put some shelves in it, and began putting into it every kind of book that I could get my hands upon, and called it my 'library.'"

Booker T. Washington
Up From Slavery

"Many years before author Richard Wright achieved international acclaim for his classic novel, Native Son, he lived in Memphis and worked for an optical company where he swept floors and ran errands for his white employers. It was 1926, and the 18-year-old Wright loved to read; but he could not afford to buy any books and as a black man, he was not allowed into the public library.

Fortunately, Wright worked for a generous man named Jim Falk. Falk cared more about Richard Wright's intelligence and his desire to learn than he did about the color of his skin. Falk lent the young black man his library card and Wright began checking out books for himself, all the while telling the librarian that the books were for Mr. Falk. The world of literature was suddenly opened and in all-night reading sprees Wright devoured the masterworks of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Stephan Crane, and other writers. His life would never be the same again.

Richard Wright himself wrote about this episode in his autobiography, Black Boy. Here, Gregory Christie's illustrations of the young man and his life in Memphis are personal and touching, and make Wright's hunger for words almost palpable. William Miller manages to retain all the power of the original story even as he makes it accessible to younger readers. Between the illustrations and the story, what certainly comes through is the injustice of ignorance and the power and hope education can provide."

On William Miller's Book Richard Wright and the Library Card

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