Interview with First Lady Laura Bush
By Leonard Kniffel, American Libraries
In an exclusive interview at the White House March 19, First Lady Laura Bush told American Libraries that she would definitely play a role in the establishment of her husband’s presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I’m really looking forward to being actively involved in the building of it,” she said. “I think there will be a very good opportunity for me to continue all the things I’ve already done around libraries and literacy.” The first librarian ever to be First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Bush also talked about how her profession influenced her own initiatives and will continue to do so when President George W. Bush’s term ends next January 20.
White House Library, March 19, 2008, 8:54 a.m., Eastern time
Q.: I sometimes joke that I was born a librarian. Were you born a librarian?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I was born to love to read, I think, partly because my mother read to me from when I was, as she says, from when my eyes opened. And that made a huge difference in my life, an unbelievable difference. I mean, my favorite thing to do is to read.
Q.: Can you talk about when the decision happened that you were going to become a librarian?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I decided in the 2nd grade I wanted to be a teacher, and I loved my 2nd-grade teacher so much I wanted to be just like her. So I literally made the decision to be a teacher in the 2nd grade and stuck with that all the way through. It was a very, very satisfying life to be a schoolteacher. I loved kids; I loved being with them. But what I loved best was sharing literature with them—reading with them and reading stories with them and teaching them to read.
And so I decided after three years of teaching to go back to graduate school. I went to Texas and got a degree in library science, and then I worked for a year for Houston Public Library, and then went back—moved to Austin and went back to a school library, just really wanting to be in a school with kids all the time.
Q.: Did your training and experience as a librarian and teacher translate into the White House? Did it help prepare you in any way?
Mrs. Bush: It really did, and I would have never really thought of it before, but both the experience I had of reading to children over and over and over, and storytelling, were really excellent training for giving speeches. And I would have never thought of that or translated it that way.
But then also, both when George was governor and now since he’s been President, all the issues that surround literacy—education, even economic power, economic advantage—all the advantages that a good reader has over a nonreader end up being very, very important issues in our country, both for school policy issues as well as so many other issues, including international issues: the rights of women to go to school, to be educated—all the things that we’ve seen over the last few years in other countries where people are denied an education and we know how important they are.
So all of that experience has been hugely helpful to me.
Q.: Can you talk about the 21st-century library education grants, and why the recruitment of new library and information science professionals is so important?
Mrs. Bush: Well, we know, really, from the numbers that as the Boomers age, we’re going to lose a lot of librarians. And it’s very important for us to reach out to young people, to let them know what working in the library is really like. We know that we suffer from the very worst stereotype, and it’s always been that way.
Q.: Okay, so pretend I’m a 20-something graduate from college. Convince me that I should be one.
Mrs. Bush: Well, I think there’s a really exciting case to make for libraries. First, they’re filled with all information. They’re filled with any kind of information you might want. Second, they are now very high-tech. And if you are a high-tech kid, young person, and want to think about a job where you could use that to a big advantage, and really to expand people’s access to knowledge, then a library is that place to be.
If you’re a people person, libraries are a great place to be, because you work with people all day. You’re working with people and information. And one of the things I loved best when I was an intern at Austin Public Library in graduate school was just working the reference desk at night and having people come in and ask about whatever their interest was. And that always interested me. And in many cases, it would be something I knew nothing about. But just helping them find the research materials on it gave me one other really interesting topic that I could be interested in myself.
Q.: That was certainly my experience, too. Reading is the foundation for all learning, as you have said. So how can we, as librarians, better leverage the empirical evidence—what we know are the facts, and the studies that have shown that reading is good exercise for the brain, as you’ve also said?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I think especially school librarians have a role to play in getting that message out. But I think librarians—and I know you all discuss this probably, at different conferences—really need to do a lot more outreach. They need to let people know both how important libraries are, and how important reading is.
And I got a letter once, when George was governor, from a person in San Angelo, who said the advantages of a reader are so profound, so many over the nonreader, that people ought to be demanding to learn to read. And I think that really is true, and I think we see it in countries where people are denied an education, that they’re desperate for an education, they’re desperate to learn to read.
So I think that’s what we need to get out. That not only should we offer, in every library if we can, literacy classes or literacy—different vehicles for learning to read, because of all the people in our country—immigrants who maybe don’t read English or the people who’ve made it through school without learning to read—one thing we know, all of us know, is that there are plenty of people out there who don’t read. And we should really do whatever we can to reach out to people and let them know that there are ways to learn to read.
Q.: When did you become a reader? Do you remember the moment? For me it was Laura Ingalls Wilder in the 3rd grade. And I’ve heard that Laura Ingalls Wilder was an important—
Mrs. Bush: She was a favorite of mine, for sure. And my mother started reading The Little House on the Prairie to me before I could read. But I do remember when I first read it. And actually, the book that I remember first being able to read for myself was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. I don’t know if you remember the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. [Laughter.] They’re sort of not in fashion any more. But I had a very good friend who was an excellent reader, a better reader than I was. I was younger, I started school at 5, started school early, and really hadn’t, I think—as I look back on it, I was a little bit behind in development compared to, not everyone, but many of my classmates. And she and I would lie on the couch and she would read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. And then all of a sudden I realized I could read. And it probably was the 2nd or 3rd grade.
Q.: The National Book Festival and many of your initiatives focus on books. Can you talk about why these initiatives do focus on books? And what is the future of the book, in your view?
Mrs. Bush: Well, books are so important to me, and I think they’re so important to a democracy and so important to our society that it just seems natural that we would try to promote books in any way we could. I mean, it’s just been the cause of my life, as you know. It’s been the pleasure of my life, reading. And I made what I like to do best into my job, which was become a librarian, a teacher and a librarian.
So the book festivals themselves are really a celebration of what I like best and what I hope, because I like it so much, I hope every American, and especially young people, will also learn to like to read and like books.
But we started the Texas Book Festival after an author brought the idea to me. An author from El Paso, Texas, came to the Texas capital, and he had been invited to a book festival in Kentucky some number of years ago, and when he did, the First Lady of Kentucky had a coffee or a reception for the authors. And so he thought it was a great idea. And so we put together a very great committee, a lot of Texas writers on the committee, and developed the Texas Book Festival. And it was just fun. I mean, it was really one of the most pleasurable activities I had—both the chance to meet authors whose works I’d read and admired for years, and then the Texas Book Festival is a fundraiser for Texas public libraries, which is difficult. It’s difficult to raise the amount of money you need to produce a big festival and have money left over to be able to give away. But we’ve been very successful at it, and I think the Texas Book Festival will be in its 13th year, and next week, after Easter, my Texas Book Festival friends are all coming to stay here with me. And I think they’ll be making the rounds, like they have to do for the fundraising for the book festival.
But all of those things are great fun, and the National Book Festival has been a huge success. More than 120,000 people came to the National Book Festival last year on the mall, and that’s more people that are in the town where I grew up.
Q.: I’ve attended several and they were wonderful.
Mrs. Bush: Yes, they’re great.
Q.: Your daughter Jenna has also just published a book, Ana’s Story. How is it doing?
Mrs. Bush: It’s doing very well, actually. She was 12 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list for children’s chapter books, and of course that makes me very proud as a mother. She’s still giving speeches. She’s off the book tour, but she gave a speech yesterday here. And she’s been invited—I don’t know if she’s going to be able to go—to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Her book comes out in German next fall. So I’m very proud of her.
Q.: I’ll bet. And can you tell us a little bit about the Bush picture book?
Mrs. Bush: She and I have written a children’s book together. It’s about a little boy who loves everything, he rules the school, but he doesn’t particularly like to read. And it’s dedicated to all little boys like that and to the teachers who just persistently keep reading those stories and sharing those books with them until children find out they do love those stories and they do love to read.
Q.: As librarians, what do we say to parents who want to keep their children from what they think is inappropriate material?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I think parents have a very important role, as we know. The books that our mothers or our fathers chose to read to us when we were little shaped our lives, they really do. And I think that’s what parents should think about is, what can they pick. First, be sure they do read to their children every day, especially their preschool children, but keep reading the center of your family life for your whole life. And if you think there are books that are inappropriate, there are certainly things you can do. You could go to your child’s school if you think it’s something that’s in the child’s school, or talk, I would suggest in private, with the librarian or with the teacher.
But I also think that parents can have a very profound effect on what their children choose to read, and teachers and librarians can too, and that is by offering a wide variety of interesting books that really make a difference, that have made a difference in their own lives. I also think you have to offer a wide variety of books on motorcycles and dinosaurs, too, for those boys who think they don’t want to read. [Laughter.]
Q.: Absolutely. The President’s budget has included an increase for libraries every year. Have you had any influence on this?
Mrs. Bush: Well, no, I would say no. I probably really haven’t. But I have stayed very close and interested with both of our IMLS—Institute of Museum and Library Services—directors. We’ve had terrific ones: Robert Martin, who is a librarian himself, for the first four years, and then Anne Radice, who is the IMLS Director now, whose background is more with museums. And that’s actually the way the heads of this agency are chosen, with a librarian first, and then a—
Mrs. Bush: Yes, alternating, library and museum person. But also I hosted a summit, early on in George’s first term, on school libraries and how important they are to schools. And so I’ve had a very effective and close relationship with IMLS, which has been good. And then of course, it’s always very important to have people on the Hill, because that’s where the money is actually appropriated. And both the President and I have friends on the Hill who take libraries very seriously and believe that they should have more money.
Q.: What do you think needs to happen for the success of No Child Left Behind?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I hope, and I know now, in fact, it was in the newspaper today, that because No Child wasn’t reauthorized, which I’m disappointed about, and maybe that will happen later this year; I hope so—but Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education, is working on some rules of flexibility for school districts that will take care of some of the things we were hoping would be in a reauthorization.
But also I think it’s really important for the accountability piece to stay there. I know that there are some parts of No Child Left Behind that have been hugely successful—the Reading First part, where school districts offer reading instruction for all their kindergarten teachers, for instance, or all their 1st-grade teachers or all their 2nd-grade teachers, in the new research that we now have on how people learn to read. And actually, scores are up. They’re higher than they’ve ever been in reading and math among 4th-graders, among the young people who have been learning to read and do math since No Child Left Behind has been in effect.
Q.: How do you respond to the critics who say that it fosters teaching to the test?
Mrs. Bush: Well, you know, if what you want your children to know is to read and to do math, then that’s what you should test them over.
Q.: The curriculum.
Mrs. Bush: And I think that is what the curriculum should be. And in fact—and I don’t know that everyone knows this—each state writes their own curriculum. And that’s what they want their children in the state to know. And if your curriculum is what you want your children to know, and that’s what you teach, then that’s—then your children should do well on the accountability test.
Another criticism I’ve heard is that all the teachers are doing is teaching reading. Well, what are you having children read? If you have a really rich curriculum with a lot of really good subjects in it and books in it, and you’re teaching children to read them, then that is a good basic education, and that’s what we want. And it turns out that most teachers in elementary school and all the way through high school need to teach reading. If you’re a history teacher, you’re teaching vocabulary, you’re teaching words that have to do with your subject. If you’re a science teacher, you’re doing the same thing. And I think that, if people and teachers are all aware of that, children end up with a much richer and broader education.
Q.: Can you talk a little bit about the priorities of the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries and how those are set, including the fact that the Foundation has awarded I think $3.7 million for hurricane-stricken schools and the rebuilding of those libraries in those schools?
Mrs. Bush: That’s right. Well, all during the presidential campaign, and really while George was governor as well, when I visited schools, it was—usually if you visited a school in a more affluent area, you visited a great school library. But I remember one in particular in Newark, where the school library had half a dozen books. And they were all the same atlas that was totally out of date, or a reference book that was 10 years old. And so it made me aware of how important it was for school libraries to have money to buy materials.
So we started the Laura Bush Foundation. We give to over a hundred schools a year. I think the first grants were in 2002, if I’m not mistaken. And those go to school libraries. They’re not big grants; they’re $5,000 to $10,000, but in many cases they double the school library budget for books for that year. And the grants are written to ask for something specific, whatever they might need that supports the curriculum or supports the school body population, maybe books in Spanish.
Q.: What about the importance of technology?
Mrs. Bush: That is just not what this role is. I mean, there are many other foundations—as you know, the Gates Foundation—and many others that give technology. This is for books and materials for schools, and that’s the whole point of it, is to give books. It’s not for school library shelves, it’s just for books.
And then we were about to disband the committee that had been the fundraisers for the Foundation, and we had our last meeting in October, I think it was, of 2005, right after the hurricane. And so one of the members that—we had raised the endowment, the amount we wanted for the endowment for the campaign—and so I said, you know, I’m just thinking about these libraries that have been destroyed. And so one of the foundation members said, well, why don’t we raise cash for cash? We’ll just start raising money for schools across the Gulf Coast to rebuild their collections, and whatever we raise, we’ll give away; it won’t be part of the endowment, because we didn’t need more for the endowment.
So we have, and we’ve now given over $3 million, as you said, to I think it’s 52 schools across the Gulf Coast. And these are big amounts of money, from $50,000 to $150,000 for whole collections, because people don’t realize how expensive a whole library collection is. And a basic elementary collection probably costs about $50,000, a start-up collection. And, of course, a high school library could cost $150,000 or more.
Q.: I have one final question for you, and that’s about the future. What comes after the White House? Are you going to have a role in your husband’s presidential library? Are you going to do some writing?
Mrs. Bush: Oh, I will have a role in his presidential library. I’m really looking forward to being actively involved in the building of it. We have a very good architect. And as you know, presidential libraries work with NARA, the National Archives, to develop everything that surrounds the papers, both including the conservation and the temperature control that any archivist knows about, and then of course also the regular access to it, and the ways that the papers are cataloged and put together.
And so I’m interested in that, just because that’s what I’m interested in. But I’m also interested in the ideas that he has behind the library, which is this institute for freedom; having the chance to have people from around the world that we’ve met that we admire—like Vaclav Havel is one, a freedom fighter from the Czech Republic, from the former Czechoslovakia—to come and have a chance to work there and work on their own papers and write about it.
So I think there will be a very good opportunity for me to continue all the things I’ve already done around libraries and literacy, working out of that library, and continuing to work in the U.S., and then on the international issues that I think are also very important—the ideas of international global literacy and especially the gender differences that have kept many women from being educated.
Q.: Have you thought about running for public office?
Mrs. Bush: No, I won’t be running for public office. But I look forward to working in our new hometown—our old hometown that we’re going to go back to—on a lot of different issues.
Q.: Is there anything that you’d like to say that I haven’t brought up?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I just want to thank all your readership. I want to thank librarians who work every single day to make sure people have access to every kind of information—for free. And I think that’s just very, very important. It’s important for our country, and it’s important for democracy, and it’s just very personally important for individuals.
Q.: Thank you. It’s been a privilege.
Mrs. Bush: Thanks so much. Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.