Caroline Kennedy has been a lifelong advocate for reading, literacy, and libraries. Her career has included work with the New York City Department of Education and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Most recently, she spoke at the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting and served this year as honorary chair of National Library Week. Kennedy has written or edited 10 bestselling books on American history, politics, and poetry. Her latest work, Poems to Learn by Heart, was published in March. American Libraries spoke with Kennedy about her work, the future of libraries, and her love of poetry.
You’ve long been a strong supporter of libraries and librarians. How did you become involved in library advocacy?
CAROLINE KENNEDY: I have always loved going to the library. It’s one of those places where you always have an adventure. I loved storytime when I was young and I loved browsing the stacks when I was in college. When I started working at the New York City Department of Education in 2002, school libraries were a focus of our efforts to build private sector involvement and support for school libraries. In far too many schools, libraries were shut, antiquated, or underresourced. That’s unacceptable in a world where access to information is the key to success and libraries are the place kids go to read for fun.
Libraries are undergoing a rapid evolution. What do libraries have to do to prosper and what role(s) do you see them playing in people’s lives in the future?
Libraries have the power to create communities. Libraries can play a unique role in reaching out to people and bringing them together through programs and activities. For seniors, libraries are a social place; for kids after school, they are a safe space; and they can be a creative space for the whole community. Librarians need to make sure people know that libraries have information that is useful for job seeking, developing skills, accessing resources and benefits, and navigating complex technology, as well as books that can change lives. I think libraries will continue to play an important role in people‘s lives—but it’s a role that will change over time.
What differences are there in how your children regard/use libraries from how you do? Has technology affected their perception of what constitutes a good library?
My children have less of a need to physically go to the library than I did because so much information is now available online. They tell me they still use the library when they need to concentrate on their work and study for exams—but I suspect that they are secretly using it to socialize. The most beautiful people are all in the library.
You could purchase downloaded books instantly. Why are you still using the library?
I love looking through books at the library because I always find something I am interested in that I wasn’t expecting.
Which do you like better: print or ebooks, and why?
I like both, but I seem to remember what I read in a book better than what I read on a computer screen or e-reader.
You’ve spoken at length about your parents’ love of books and learning. How did this influence your library appreciation and your own publishing endeavors?
Our house was full of books, and I learned to read when I was very young. My father told me bedtime stories, and my mother taught us poems to learn by heart. As a parent, if you love something and share it with your child, usually they will come to love it too. I hope that’s as true for my own children as it was for me.
How did you choose the selections in your poetry anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart? Why do you think people should learn these particular ones by heart?
I wanted to make sure that the book included poems that both boys and girls would enjoy, and that there were funny poems as well as serious ones. I went back to the old poetry books my brother and I had as children and collected the ones we liked best. I wrote to my friends and family and asked them for their favorites and the ones their children liked. It was a wonderful process. I got so many incredible poems. Then I enlisted four young poets from DreamYard Preparatory School, an arts-themed high school in the Bronx, to help choose the final poems. A poem they wrote for a poetry slam as a group, called “Voices Rising,” is included in the book. Learning a poem by heart is a great way to make sure that you always have it. You can share it and not have to give it away. You can call it up when you need it, and it will give you joy, comfort, strength, and wisdom.