This interview first appeared in American Libraries’ May 2009 issue. Roberts died September 17.
Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and senior news analyst for National Public Radio. From 1996 to 2002, she and Sam Donaldson coanchored the ABC interview program This Week. Along with her husband Steven V. Roberts, she writes a weekly column syndicated in newspapers around the country. She and her husband also coauthored From This Day Forward, an account of their now more-than-40-year marriage and other marriages in American history. Roberts is also author of the bestsellers Founding Mothers and its companion volume Ladies of Liberty. Her latest book, from HarperCollins, is We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, a 10th-anniversary edition of the New York Times bestseller. She is scheduled to speak July 13 at the 2009 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago.
In We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, you write about women succeeding in professions that were traditionally considered the domain of men. How were you able to develop the confidence and determination it took for you to do so?
I was raised by parents who thought you could do anything you wanted to do, and I also was lucky as a girl in the 1950s—when a lot of people were basically telling girls they couldn’t do much of anything—to be educated by a very intellectual order of nuns who also had made it very clear that not only could you do anything, but you were expected to do a good deal.
One of the women you profile in the new book is Laura Bush. As a librarian and First Lady she was saddled with two stereotypically female roles. How well do you think she handled them?
I think if you woke her up in the middle of the night and tickled her and said “What are you?” she’d say “a librarian.” But she also found in the White House that there were a lot of other roles that opened up to her, and she became a really energetic and effective fighter for human rights, particularly women’s rights, around the world. It’s funny because people think of her much more as kind of the “little lady at home,” but she’s the only First Lady ever to go to the White House press room and take the microphone herself. And, when she did, it was to call for the overthrow of the Burmese regime.
Do you see a strong connection between librarians and journalists?
Absolutely. It’s kind of interwoven. Not only are journalists finding out what’s going on and librarians preserving it and making it available, but also journalists depend on libraries and librarians for information and facts. The library of today might be in your cellphone instead of going to the building itself, but we need the people who are in the building to get it to the cellphones. It’s just the delivery system that’s different. But the people actually doing the work and the research are still in libraries.
What do you think are the implications for the human record as more and more of it moves online?
It’s not just the preservation of the record, it’s the creation of the record. It costs a great deal of money to be all over the world gathering news, and somebody’s got to pay for that. Until we find a way to get a financial stream going for the information that people receive on the internet, it’s going to be very difficult to keep the actual gathering of the record going.
How well are libraries fulfilling their role in society?
I have been really amazed and heartened by how well, at least to the naked eye, libraries seem to be doing, given the whole age of the internet. Any time I walk into a library it is lively and full of people and lots of kids and there’s all kinds of notices tacked up to the bulletin board, community gatherings that will take place there, so I think they have become a huge resource for the community for all kinds of things beyond what’s on the shelf.
What do you want your librarians to do to protect the freedom to read?
I want my librarians to try to do their very best to stand up to the people who are generally posturing for political reasons when they start talking about banning books in libraries. I understand that that can be politically difficult for the librarians who are dependent on state funding and dependent on the goodwill of the public. I don’t want my librarians to commit suicide in this mission, but I do want them to do the best they can.