“I’m grateful and excited and, most of all, ready to get to work with you!”
US First Lady Jill Biden opened her talk at the Closing Session of ALA’s Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits Virtual on Monday with enthusiasm. A lifelong educator, Biden seemed genuinely excited to address an audience of people who share her belief in the power of literature and learning.
Following an introduction by youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, who read from her upcoming children’s book, Change Sings (Viking Books for Young Readers), Biden reminisced about her childhood experiences at the library and with reading.
“When I was a little girl, I’d walk to our local library every two weeks and take out as many books as I could carry in my arms,” she said. “I’ll never forget the summer nights my mom would let me stay up way too late so that I could finish just one more chapter.”
Biden said that literature changed her life. She recalled how, as a college student, she encountered young people who couldn’t read. It led her to pursue education as a career.
“That’s when I knew I had to become a teacher,” she said. “I wanted to help people learn to read. I wanted to show students the joy and the beauty that I found in books.”
Biden stressed the importance of learning for youth and how it helps kids grow into kind, compassionate people. She said that libraries and librarians are instrumental to that growth.
“What you do matters so much,” she said. “In big cities and small towns, libraries fulfill a purpose that almost nothing else does. They’re a place of information for all; a place where people can come together as a community. It’s the aisles of books, the knowledge of generations collected and open to anyone. In a world where this is so much information to wade through, you help students develop their critical thinking skills.”
Libraries have played a central role for students and their communities during the pandemic, Biden said.
“Though so many buildings have had to close, the care, creativity, and guidance that you offer became more important than ever as you supported schools and families who depend on you,” she said. “That’s what community is all about.”
ALA President Julius C. Jefferson Jr. joined Biden during her talk for a brief Q&A session. He asked her why she identifies so strongly with teaching.
“Being an educator, it’s just part of who I am,” she said. “And most all of you probably agree. If you’re anything like me, there’s always a part of you that’s thinking about your students. Everywhere you go, you carry them with you.”
She admitted that being an educator can be challenging, especially during a pandemic, but the end results are worth it.
“Over and over, we use every talent, every skill, every tool we have to make a difference. Watching our students grow and finding their confidence—those are the moments that make the work worth it.”
Biden implored librarians to always remember that mission.
“My message to you is to never forget what you’re doing matters,” she said. “Right now, someone out there is a better thinker because of you. Someone is standing a little taller, because you helped them find the confidence they need. Someone is working harder, because you pushed them to try. And someone is kinder, because you showed them what that meant.”