U.S. Senator Barack Obama addresses the American Library Association

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: June 27, 2005
Location: Washington, DC


"Literacy and Education in a 21st-Century Economy"
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Saturday, June 25th, 2005

Thank you. It's an honor to be here with the hundreds of dedicated librarians who make up the American Library Association. Before we begin, I'd like to say a special hello to ALA member Nancy Gibbs, who is the mother of my communications director, Robert Gibbs. Believe me, I have no idea how the biggest mouth in our office came from a family of two librarians, but we're proud to have him on board and I'm sure you are too.

I'd also like to give a shout-out to my librarians from the Punahou School in Hawaii - Molly Lyman, Joan Kaaua, and Lillian Hiratani. I'd like to offer them an apology too, for all those times I couldn't keep myself out of trouble and ended up sitting in their library on a timeout, trying to cause even more trouble there. Sorry ladies.

It is a pleasure to address you today because of what libraries represent. More than a building that houses books and data, the library has always been a window to a larger world - a place where we've always come to discover big ideas and profound concepts that help move the American story forward.

And at a time when truth and science are constantly being challenged by political agendas and ideologies; a time where so many refuse to teach evolution in our schools, where fake science is used to beat back attempts to curb global warming or fund life-saving research; libraries remind us that truth isn't about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information. Because even as we're the most religious of people, America's innovative genius has always been preserved because we also have a deep faith in facts.

And so the moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold into a library, we've changed their lives forever, and for the better. This is an enormous force for good.

So I'm here to gratefully acknowledge the importance of libraries and the work you do. I also want to work with you to insure that libraries continue to be sanctuaries for learning, where we are free to read and consider what we please, without the fear of Big Brother peering menacingly over our shoulders.

Now, some of you might have heard about this speech I gave at the Democratic Convention last summer. It ended up making some news here and there, and one of the lines that people seem to remember was when I said that "We don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States."

What many people don't remember is that for years, librarians are the ones who've been on the frontlines of this fight for privacy and freedom. There have always been dark times in our history where America has strayed from the ideals that make us a great nation. But the question has always been, can we overcome? And you have always been a group of Americans who have answered a resounding "yes" to that question.

When political groups try to censor great works of literature, you're the ones putting Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye back on the shelves, making sure that our right to free thought and free information is protected. And ever since we've had to worry about our own government looking over our shoulders in the library, you've been there to stand up and speak out on privacy issues. You're full-time defenders of the most fundamental American liberties, and for that, you deserve America's deepest gratitude.

You also deserve our protection. That's why I've been working with Republicans and Democrats to make sure we have a Patriot Act that helps us track down terrorists without trampling on our civil liberties. This is an issue that Washington always tries to make "either-or." Either we protect our people from terror or we protect our most cherished principles. But this kind of choice asks too little of us and assumes too little about America. We can harness new technologies and a new toughness to find terrorists before they strike while still protecting the very freedoms we're fighting for in the first place.

I know that some of you here have been subject to FBI or other law enforcement orders asking for reading records. And so I hope we can pass a provision like the House of Representatives did that would require federal agents to get these kinds of search warrants from a real judge in a real court, just like everyone else does. In the Senate, the bipartisan bill that we're working on, known as the SAFE Act, will prevent the federal government from freely rifling through emails and library records without first obtaining such a warrant. Giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate suspicious activity is one thing; but doing it without the approval of our judicial system seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for.

Now, in addition to the line about federal agents poking around in our libraries, there was also another line in the convention speech that received a lot of attention - a line I'd like to talk more about today. At one point in the speech, I mentioned that the people I've met all across Illinois know that government can't solve all their problems. They know that, quote, "...parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

I included this line in the speech because I believe that we have a serious challenge to meet. I believe that if we want to give our children the best possible chance in life; if we want to open doors of opportunity while they're young and teach them the skills they'll need to succeed later on, then one of our greatest responsibilities as citizens, as educators, and as parents is to ensure that every American child can read and read well.

This isn't just another education debate where the answer lies somewhere between more money and less bureaucracy. It's a responsibility that begins at home - one that we need to take on before our kids ever step foot in a classroom; one that we need to carry through well into their teenage years.

That's because literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy we're living in today. Only a few generations ago, it was okay to enter the workforce as a high school dropout who could only read at a third-grade level. Whether it was on a farm or in a factory, you could still hope to find a job that would allow you to pay the bills and raise your family.

But that economy is long gone. As revolutions in technology and communication began breaking down barriers between countries and connecting people all over the world, new jobs and industries that require more skill and knowledge have come to dominate the economy. Whether it's software design or computer engineering or financial analysis, corporations can locate these jobs anywhere there's an internet connection. And so as countries like China and India continue to modernize their economies and educate their children longer and better, the competition American workers face will grow more intense; the necessary skills more demanding.

These new jobs are about what you know and how fast you can learn what you don't know. They require innovative thinking, detailed comprehension, and superior communication.

But before our children can even walk into an interview for one of these jobs; before they can ever fill out an application or earn the required college degree; they have to be able to pick up a book, read it, and understand it. Nothing is more basic; no ability more fundamental.

Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible, from complex word problems and the meaning of our history to scientific discovery and technological proficiency. In a knowledge economy where this kind of learning is necessary for survival, how can we send our kids out into the world if they're only reading at a fourth grade level?

I don't know, but we do. Day after day, year after year.

Right now, one out of every five adults in the United States can't read a simple story to their child. During the last twenty years or so, over ten million Americans reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level.

But these literacy problems start far before high school. In 2000, only 32% of all fourth graders tested as reading proficient. And the story gets worse when you take race and income into consideration. Children from low-income families score 27 points below the average reading level, while students from wealthy families score fifteen points above the average. And while only one in twelve white seventeen-year-olds has the ability to pick up the newspaper and understand the science section, for Hispanics the number jumps to one in fifty; for African Americans it's one in one hundred.

In this new economy, teaching our kids just enough so that they can get through Dick and Jane isn't going to cut it. Over the last ten years, the average literacy required for all American occupations is projected to rise by 14%. It's not enough just to recognize the words on the page anymore - the kind of literacy necessary for 21st century employment requires detailed understanding and complex comprehension. But too many kids simply aren't learning at that level.

And yet, every year we pass more of these kids through school or watch as more dropout. These kids who will pour through the Help Wanted section and cross off job and after job that requires skills they just don't have. And others who will have to take that Help Wanted section, walk it over to someone else, and find the courage to ask, "Will you read this for me?"

We have to change our whole mindset in this country. We're living in a 21st century knowledge economy, but our schools, our homes, and our culture are still based around 20th century expectations. It might seem like we're doing kids a favor by teaching them just enough to count change and read a food label, but in this economy, it's doing them a huge disservice. Instead, we need to start setting high standards and inspirational examples for our children to follow. While there's plenty that can be done to improve our schools and reform education in America, this isn't just an issue where we can turn to the government and ask for help. Reading has to begin at home.

We know that children who start Kindergarten with an awareness of letters and basic language sounds become better readers and face fewer challenges in the years ahead. We also know that the more reading material kids are exposed to at home, the better they score on reading tests throughout their lives. So we need to make investments in family literacy programs and early childhood education so that kids aren't left behind before they even go to school. And we need to get books in our kids' hands early and often.

I know that this is often easier said than done. Parents today still have the toughest job in the world - and no one ever thanks you enough for doing it. You're working longer and harder than ever, juggling job and family responsibilities, and trying to be everywhere at once. When you're home, you might try to get your kids to read, but you're competing with the other byproducts of the technological revolution: video games and DVDs that they just have to have; TVs in every room of the household. Children eight to eighteen now spend three hours a day watching TV, while they only spend 43 minutes reading.

Our kids aren't just seeing these temptations at home - they're everywhere. Whether it's their friends or the people they see on TV or a general culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism, it's too easy for kids today to put down a book and turn their attention elsewhere. And it's too easy for the rest of us to make excuses for it - pretending that putting a baby in front of a DVD is educational, letting a twelve-year-old skip reading as long as he's playing good video games, or substituting dinner in front of the TV for family conversation.

We know that's not what our kids need. We know that's not what's best for them. And so as parents, we need to find the time and the energy to step in and find ways to help our kids love reading. We can read to them, talk to them about what they're reading and make time for this by turning off the TV ourselves.

Libraries can help parents with this. Knowing the constraints we face from busy schedules and a TV culture, we need to think outside the box here - to dream big like we always have in America. Right now, children come home from their first doctor's appointment with an extra bottle of formula. But imagine if they came home with their first library card or their first copy of Goodnight Moon?

What if it was as easy to get a book as it is to rent a DVD or pick up McDonalds? What if instead of a toy in every Happy Meal, there was a book? What if there were portable libraries that rolled through parks and playgrounds like ice cream trucks? Or kiosks in stores where you could borrow books? What if during the summer, when kids often lose much of the reading progress they've made during the year, every child had a list of books they had to read and talk about and an invitation to a summer reading club at the local library?

Libraries have a special role to play in our knowledge economy. Your institution has been and should be the place where parents and kids come to read together and learn together. We should take our kids here more, and we should make sure politicians aren't closing libraries down because they had to spend a few extra bucks on tax cuts instead.

Each of you has a role here too. You can get more kids to walk through your doors by building on the ideas so many of you are already pursuing - book clubs and contests, homework help and advertising your services throughout the community.
In the years ahead, this is our challenge - and this must be our responsibility.

As a librarian or as a parent, every one of you here today can probably remember the look on a child's face after finishing a first book. They turn that last page and stare up at you with those wide eyes, and in that look you find such a sense of accomplishment and pride; of great potential and so much possibility.

And in that moment, there's nothing we want more than to nurture that hope; to make all those possibilities and all those opportunities real for our children; to have the ability to answer the question, "What can I be when I grow up?" with "Anything you want - anything you can dream of."

It's a hope that's as old as the American story itself. From the moment the first immigrants arrived on these shores, generations of parents have worked hard and sacrificed whatever is necessary so that their children could have the same chances they had; or the chances they never had. Because while we could never ensure that our children would be rich or successful; while we could never be positive that they would do better than their parents, America is about making it possible to give them the chance. To give every child the opportunity to try.

Education is still the foundation of this opportunity. And the most basic building block that holds that foundation together is still reading. At the dawn of the 21st century, in a world where knowledge truly is power and literacy is the skill that unlocks the gates of opportunity and success, we all have a responsibility as parents and librarians, educators and citizens, to instill in our children a love of reading so that we can give them the chance to fulfill their dreams. Thank you.

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