A Sense of Our Future

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“I’ve had wonderful experiences just calling up libraries and asking questions and getting the answers.”

A political commentator for ABC News and senior news analyst for National Public Radio, Cokie Roberts, along with Sam Donaldson, co-anchored the ABC interview program This Week from 1996 to 2002. With her husband Steven V. Roberts, she writes a syndicated weekly column that appears in newspapers around the country. She and her husband also coauthored From This Day Forward, an account of their decades-long marriage (now more than 40 years) and other marriages in American history. Cokie Roberts is also the author of the best-sellers Founding Mothers and its companion volume Ladies of Liberty. In 2008 HarperCollins published We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, a 10th-anniversary edition of Roberts’s New York Times best-seller.

I interviewed Roberts by telephone and again in the green room before her program at the 2009 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. I told her over the telephone that I was nervous about interviewing one of America’s legendary interviewers. Super cool and confident, she laughed and said, “Let’s just have a conversation.”


In We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, Roberts writes about women succeeding in professions that were traditionally considered the domain of men. I asked how she was able to develop the confidence and determination it took to do so.

“I was raised by parents who thought you could do anything you wanted to do,” she said, “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.”

Considering Roberts’s successful career devoted to the human record, I wanted to know what she thought about its future. “What do you think are the implications for the human record as more of it moves online and more newspapers are in trouble?” I asked.

“It’s something that we spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out,” she said. “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. If people are not buying advertising in newspapers then the newspapers are not going to be able to pay for that and the record will not be complete because we won’t know what’s going on everywhere, and that is a terrible problem that we’re all trying to figure out how to deal with, both the newspapers and broadcast media. 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.”

She added, “A lot of people think, ‘well I don’t depend on the mainstream media, no, I go to the blogs’ or whatever. Well the blogs depend on the mainstream media. Now, you’ve got to actually get the information from someplace before you start commenting on it, that’s all.” 

There is a strong connection between librarians and journalists, I suggested; that is, journalists create a record of what happens and librarians preserve and disseminate that record. I asked Roberts if she saw that connection.

“Absolutely!” she said. “It’s kind of interwoven. As you say, it’s 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. I mean, the library of today might be in your cell phone instead of going to the building itself, but we need the people who are in the building to get it to the cell phones. It’s just the delivery system that’s different. But the people actually doing the work and the research are still in libraries.”

At the time of the interview, librarian Laura Bush, one of the women Roberts profiles in We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, was also First Lady. I asked Roberts how Mrs. Bush was handling her dual roles.

Roberts quipped, “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.”

How like a librarian, I thought. Besides the atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military government, the junta severely restricted internet access, blocking foreign news sites.

The crisis in the American economy was beginning to trickle down to libraries at the time I interviewed Roberts, so I asked her what she thought nonprofits and philanthropic organizations of all kinds should do to make it through the recession in one piece.

“Well, if I had the answer to that I would be making a whole lot of money,” she said laughing, “and making it available to other people. But I think that all anybody can do is help it end sooner rather than later and be sensible in terms of what you spend and what you commit to in this period of time. On the other hand, you can’t just eviscerate your institution either because that’s not a long-haul answer. No, people just have to be very careful and look for as many sources of revenue as they can possibly find.” 

Part of what libraries are doing is trying to demonstrate their worth and come across as part of the solution to this crisis, I noted.

“In what way?” she asked.

People are going to libraries to look for jobs and learn new skills, I said, and for entertainment and knowledge and information that’s free, instead of running out and paying for it. 

“That’s a very good point,” she replied. “If libraries can get that message out, that’s a very useful one. It’s also useful that libraries have become community institutions, community gathering places. 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. I mean anytime 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, there’s 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.”

When we talk about libraries we tend to think of public libraries, but I told her we have a lot of surveys and studies that show that children who attend schools with well-stocked and well-staffed school library media centers are higher achievers than those who don’t.

“That doesn’t surprise me a bit. We know that children’s success rates, as studies for decades now have shown, that children who do well in school, it’s directly tied to the number of books their parents have in the home,” Roberts said, “and I am sure the same thing is true about the number of books in the school. I work a lot with Save the Children, and one of the programs we have going in this country is a literacy program where we not only work hard with the children who are having trouble like trouble reading, but we also stock the libraries because it’s terribly important to do so.

“That’s the main thing Mrs. Bush has done through the Laura Bush Foundation, but particularly in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged area she has managed to stock entire children’s libraries because she understands how terribly important that is.”

I noted that it’s been very difficult for the American Library Association to lobby for this at the state level because a lot of times the school library is the first thing to be cut. I asked what she thought was the best way to convey that fundamental piece of information to the public. 

“I think the way you have to do that is through the business community,” she said. “One of the things that I have learned over the last few years is that the business community has come to understand that if American children are not better educated, they are not going to be competitive. And thank God they’ve come to understand, because it’s so essential for them to do so. Start working with those people and show them good, solid data to corroborate what you’re talking about because I think that’s the way you start to get the state legislatures involved. It’s not just public libraries and it’s not just school libraries, it’s all kinds of institutions like university libraries or the libraries that are part of historical societies or of historic homes or, of course, the wonderful private libraries like the Huntington. All these places are just incredible resources that we need to nurture and promote because without them we would just not have any direct knowledge, a sense of our history, or a sense of our future, which we can only have some real understanding of if we do have a good grasp of the past.” 

What do you want your librarians to do to protect the freedom to read? I asked.

“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 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.”I asked Roberts to recall a library moment, that is “a time when a library or a librarian made a significant difference in your life (or at least your day), or with your children or your grandchildren.”

“There are so many of them,” she said. “I mean I’ve now written two extensive history books where I spent a huge amount of time in libraries, with librarians suggesting things and finding things. At the Huntington Library in California, which is a fabulous place, they suggested to me the papers―and I would have never known about them―of a woman named Elizabeth Barlow, who was the wife the American ambassador to France at the time leading up to the War of 1812. Their correspondence was quite fabulous, and in this batch of letters I found all of the invitations that they had received from Napoleon’s court. I mean, it was just a fabulous library moment, you know, just seeing them; it was beautiful reading them. And it was all I could do not to just leap and just scare the hell out of my fellow researchers,” she laughed.

“But I also have wonderful moments with the children, my grandchildren at this point, when we go to the library and they find something that they’re excited about, and what I love is that they can lead you to sections of the library. My twin grandsons, who are seven, who live nearby, they say, ‘Come on, Cokie, come over here; here’s where the biographies are,’ you know. So that’s great. But I will tell you my first big library moment was when I was five and I went to the public library in my hometown of New Orleans and went to get a library card and they told me I couldn’t because I had to be six or something. And so I did protest and so then there was an agreement that if I could sign my name I could have a card. And I did my whole name, my real name, which is Corinne, so it’s longer, but I did my name and I got my library card, and that was great.

“One of the things that I should say is that I’ve had wonderful experiences just calling up libraries, including the Library of Congress, and asking questions and getting the answers. And that’s the other thing that I would encourage everyone to understand: These are living, breathing places with living, breathing people who can help you through a difficult set of questions or a search. They can direct you in ways that Mr. Google cannot, and I think that is a very useful thing for people who are writing, either in school or in grown-up life.

“Librarians should rejoice in the great tradition out of which they come, dating back at least to Alexander, if not before, and the wonderful, wonderful places that they’ve made in the world and in the country, places where people can find not only wonderful things to read but a sense of belonging and comfort. When you say the word ‘library,’ it conveys a sense of a place, a good place, a place with meaning, and I think that is a wonderful tradition to be part of.”


LEONARD KNIFFEL is publisher of the @ your library website at the American Library Association. He was on the editorial staff of American Libraries from 1988 to January 2011, the last 14 years as editor in chief. This article is adapted from his book Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries, copublished in April by ALA Editions and Skyhorse Publishing.