Chatting with Arne Duncan

June 23, 2009

Fresh from the launch of "United We Serve" at the Fanwood Memorial Library in New Jersey, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took time to do a "Newsmaker" interview for American Libraries yesterday afternoon.

Arne Duncan I chatted with Duncan for about 20 minutes, and he talked with conviction about the value of libraries and about the threats to funding they are facing across the country. He noted that funding cuts are ironically in inverse proportion to the rising demand for their services, which are essential to solving America's financial and social problems. The father of a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, Duncan's faith in libraries and education is firm, but "our children today need more than we are giving them," he said. Collaboration with other social service and nonprofit organizations is the key to library success, he believes. What a lot of young people need more than money, he added, "is our time." Calling it "a 19th-century concept . . . based on the agrarian economy," Duncan talked about what a waste it is for schools to be in use only during the six-hour school day and the nine-month school year. What are schools trying to accomplish? he asked. "We have schools in every community in the country; they all have libraries, computer labs, gyms, some have pools," and "they don't belong to me or the principal, they belong to the community." Summer reading, as Duncan sees it, is a large part of the "Summer of Service" volunteering concept embodied in "United We Serve," to avoid the "reading loss" that students typically experience over the summer months. Duncan spoke eloquently about the value of libraries and the commitment of the Department of Education to supporting them, but when I pressed him about specific ways the Department of Education can really prevent plug-pulling on the state and local level, the best answer he could give was a sort of "we'll do all we can." There's no denying that the federal agency has no real control over local decisions, and Duncan characterized the "tough economic times" as "a real test of leadership at every level" that would bring out innovation as well as struggle. I asked Duncan how librarians and teachers can lobby for library services without seeming self-serving. "It's not about being selfish or self-serving," he responded. "It's about demonstrating the difference you are making our students' lives . . . in the lives of families and the community." He said the Department of Education would "do whatever we can to let folks know that we have to keep . . . libraries open and staffed." A transcript of the interview will be published on American Libraries Online; the Newsmaker Q&A is scheduled for the August-September print issue of American Libraries.


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