November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Libraries Are Essential to a City” | SLJ Talks to Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean remembers his childhood public library as a place where “you could go to dream,” he says. Recreating that experience resulted in Limitless Libraries, which launched as a pilot in 2009. Today, the program brings the city’s public library resources into Nashville schools so that all Nashville students have access to materials they need to pursue their dreams. School Library Journal (SLJ) caught up with Dean, who retired from office September 25 after eight years in office, to discuss his passion for libraries, and his next pursuit.

Outgoing Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

Outgoing Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

Why have libraries resonated with you?

I grew up in Gardner, MA, a small, factory town. My favorite building was the public library. It was in an old house, a mansion, I assumed was owned by factory owners. There was a reference room with encyclopedias, a reading room with newspapers. It was a great place, where the world seemed to open up to you. I always wanted to create schools where the school library could be that, the coolest place.

As cities de-emphasize school libraries, you believed the opposite needed to happen in Nashville. Why?

If you’re a sophomore or a junior in high school and you suddenly develop a passion for cinema, and you want to see all of Marlon Brando’s movies, the best way to access that is through a library collection, and you can do that at no cost. I don’t think you can maintain a high level of intellectual curiosity without giving [young people] access to information. If they develop those habits when their young, and maintain the course through high school, then you’ve created a lifelong learner, and that’s a good thing for society and for the city.

Why do you believe private funding was necessary for Limitless Libraries’ success?

In terms of the politics of going to Nashville’s Metropolitan Council to ask them for $1,000,000 in funding, if you have a private source who is paying a portion, it’s much easier. If you ask, “Give us $1,000,000 or $500,000,” and at the same time have a [private] match that’s too good to turn down, you can say, “Why miss this opportunity?” The private groups rightfully look at parks, music organization, libraries and say they have a public function, but the public has to do its part.

Why did you believe it was important to grant access to public libraries materials on school grounds?

It’s my belief that if you want a city of lifelong learners who value education, nothing encourages that more than access to books in whatever form. You have to have a first-rate library that encourages everyone, but especially young people, to pursue intellectual excellence. If they don’t have access at the school-level to write a history paper or do the research, then you’re not helping them. If a kid’s passionate about history, a school can only have [a limited number of] volumes, But if you can access the public library system, then everything is available to them. I think libraries are so fundamental to success at any school, elementary, high school, middle school. Universities too. Libraries are essential to a city.

What is next for you?

After taking a vacation, I am going to teach history and political science at Belmont University here in Nashville, and the second semester I am going to be the first Initiative on Cities Mayor in Residence at Boston University. I’ll also be doing some nonprofit work related to education. And I’ll probably see the [Boston] Red Sox play.

 

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. I appreciate this article, but it has a number of copy errors.
    “If they develop those habits when their young, and maintain the course through high school, then you’ve created a longlong learner, and that’s a good thing for society and for the city.”
    In the above quote, their should be they’re and longlong, I’m assuming, is meant to be lifelong.

  2. Louella Smith-Rabsatt says:

    I’m a former GED instructor and we believed that literacy is a lifelong learning process. I agree with the Mayor and if I may add, literacy , education of our citizens are important in the community. Also, I worked with Friends of the Library organization, in my community, to ensure the survival of the library. The organization advocates but raises funds for programs, especially for the children’. Children are our future and their leadership will continue the work for generations to come. They will be our future Mayors, Council Members, Senators, Governors, Public Servants, and even President of the U. S. A few years ago, Save Our Library, attracted my attention when I discovered plans to close the one, in my community, due to the economic times. The rest is history!