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Benjamin Franklin, Libraries, and Literacy as Social Power January 31, 2011

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Benjamin FranklinThis winter I am teaching an American literature course that covers the period from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries:  I offer one survey course each term at Elmira College.  This first course in a three-course sequence introduces students to what might be called with “beginnings” of American literature.  We begin with the alien voices of the Puritans, especially William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Anne Bradstreet (they are alien because of their style but even more so for their lessons), and move quickly to the odd couple of Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.  Contemporaries, both offer a high contrast as they practice the Puritan “exemplum,” a literary form that is meant to give readers an example of appropriate belief and behavior.  For Edwards, whose personal narrative and sermons aim at bringing readers to embrace the sovereign power of God, literacy meant a familiarity with the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  Franklin, on the other hand, was more interested in how human beings become responsible for each other and for their own understanding of morality.  In a classic battle of worldviews, these two writers set the tone for the debates leading into the 18th century Enlightenment.

In the section of his autobiography that Franklin composed in 1784, he focused on his regimen of moral instruction and development.  He lists 13 characteristics that he worked to achieve, but he emphasizes the values of temperance and humility (of humility he simply states that he will try to “imitate Jesus and Socrates” – he also has the self-awareness to say that if he ever was to gain humility, he would, no doubt, be proud of being humble).  This ties to his description of his founding of the first lending library in Philadelphia in the 1730s and his description of its influence over both the society and, perhaps more so, on individual borrowers.  Of all Franklin’s accomplishments, he seems to celebrate heartily the starting of the library.  This is an extension of the tales from the first part of the autobiography, which he wrote for his son (at first) as an example of what it means to be “self-made.”  That first section, penned in 1771 told a variety of stories focusing on books and literacy as tools to gain social and economic power.

Throughout both early sections of his story (there are four parts in all), Franklin describes how books and reading became valuable to him because those in power (even a colony’s governor, for example) treated him as worth knowing either because he owned books or had a reputation as a reader.  He describes how Sundays became his day for uninterrupted study (replacing public worship with private reading – Edwards would be shocked); he tells of his self-education as a reader and writer as he uses borrowed books to hone his skills and rhetorical ability; he tells of being welcomed into Philadelphia’s business community because of the knowledge he gains through reading.  No doubt his early experiences as a seeker of books and a reader of all kinds of material (which started, he tells us, with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – its metaphor of the journey certainly influenced Franklin’s telling of his life’s story) made him more conscious of the need to make books available to a wider community.

Our libraries have grown from Franklin’s early creation (though the penalties for late returns are much less a challenge for us today than at a time when books were imported from England and were tremendously expensive).  I wonder, though, what he would think of how nonchalant we are when it comes to books and reading.  My students, for example, find it difficult to think of a time when they could not read.  They are also not always as curious or as accepting of the value of reading (and writing) as Franklin.  We seem today to be much less aware of the power that literacy gives and assures (in the mid-19th century teaching a slave to read was often held a capitol crime – think of Frederick Douglass’ tale of reading and writing as an extension of Franklin’s).  In an age of quick access to books (or other media), we are myopic when it comes to the worth of reading and writing.  Even when we admit that literacy can offer economic value, we seem less interested in celebrating reading and writing as a means to gain self-worth.  I wonder, in the end, whether the ubiquitous book (or even e-books, websites, and blogs) manages to camouflage the importance of reading in our lives.  We take so much for granted.  And, especially (perhaps) libraries.  Franklin would not be happy with us.

Michael J. Kiskis
Leonard Tydings Grant Professor of American Literature
Elmira College
One Park Place
Elmira, NY  14901

Dog Days January 25, 2011

Posted by macethedog in Mace.
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It’s finally happened!!  Mom is putting me to work.  But first let me introduce myself.  My name is Mace and I’m a 13-month-old golden-lab dog.  I’m in training to be a service dog some day.  My 2-footed mom has had the job of socializing me and teaching me about 30 commands for the last year.  She will continue to teach me until August when she will return me to CCI (Canine Companions for Independence) where I will have to go to school for 6-9 months.  I have had a pretty easy first year, with a lot of sleeping and just hanging out at the library.  But that is changing.  Mom explained to me tonight that I will be expected to write a blog for the library.  Does anyone know what a blog is? I think that instead of sleeping all day, I’m expected to write about what happens at the library. Maybe I’m expected to be a spy.  Wow!!  That sounds like fun.  I bet I could find out a lot of information.  People talk around me all the time because I’m always sleeping but now I will only pretend to be asleep.  First, I will have to learn how to type though.  I’m not sure my big paws can push down on those little keys.  They do offer computer classes at the library upstairs, for people that would like to learn about computers.  Do you think they will accept me as a student? If I’m going to “spy” I will have to find out what other programs are going on at the library and check them out.  Stay tuned, I will let you know next week what I find out.



Annual Book Sale Returns to the Arnot Mall (Feb 10-19) January 19, 2011

Posted by CCLD in Community, District News, Friends, Steele.
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Elmira, N.Y. — Calling all book lovers! The Arnot Mall will host a massive book sale over two weekends in February: Feb. 10-13 and Feb. 17-19, 2011. The annual sale, a favorite community tradition for nearly 40 years, is sponsored by the Friends of the Steele Memorial Library. All proceeds from the sale will go toward library materials and programs, as well as community literacy initiatives.

Dates and times of the sale are:


Thursday, Feb. 10: 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.

Friday, Feb. 11 10 a.m.- 9;30 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 12: 10 a.m.- 9;30 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 13: 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.


Thursday, Feb. 17: 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.

Friday, Feb. 18: 10 a.m.- 9;30 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 19: 10 a.m.- 9;30 p.m.

Thousands of hardcover and paperback books, CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, LPs, and audiobooks — all donated by members of the community — will be offered for sale. Items will be available in a huge range of categories including fiction, biography, cooking, children’s, home repair, sports, antiques, poetry, religion, self-improvement, and much, much more.

The best part is that everything will be sold for $3 or less! Saturday, Feb. 19, will close out the sale with a special “bag sale”, where $3 buys all that you can fit into a shopping bag. Cash and checks will be accepted as payment on all days of the sale.

The full schedule and more information may be found at:


Donations of used books may be dropped off at the Steele Memorial Library, located at 101 East Church Street in downtown Elmira. Please note: books should be in good condition; textbooks, magazines, Reader’s Digest condensed books, and encyclopedias will NOT be accepted.

The Friends of the Steele Memorial Library have hosted an annual book sale for nearly 40 years. Though it came from humble beginnings — books were once stored in volunteers’ garages between sales — the sale now has its own dedicated storage area and books are transported by the tractor-trailer load.

The Friends of the Steele Memorial Library is a group of over 350 committed local volunteers who help stimulate public support and use of the Steele Memorial Library and its branches. In addition to the annual book sales, the Friends also sponsor a variety of activities — including read-aloud programs, book review events, and the Kinderbook program — and host an annual poetry festival.

The Arnot Mall is located at 3300 Chambers Road South between Horseheads and Big Flats. Visitors can take I-86/Route 17 to exit 51A. For a map of the mall, please visit http://www.arnotmall.com.

For more information on the book sale, the public may contact the Steele Memorial Library business office at 607-733-8607 or visit the library’s website at http://www.ccld.lib.ny.us.

January Reads January 11, 2011

Posted by CCLD in Recommendations.
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The Big ReadThese cold days in January are ideal for curling up by the fire with a good book. We have a list of 100 best novels at the reference desk that we would be happy to show you, to give you some ideas if you stop in and see us at Steele.  We also have a display of National Endowment for the Arts Book Selections for “The Big Read” on the second floor. Or you might want to read something true about our own area.

Our area has been mentioned in a couple of books lately that you might want to check out. The latest is Company Town: the Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy by Hardy Green. In this book, the author mentions Corning as a beneficial company for the town of Corning. Read it to see if you agree. It’s on the shelf under call number 307.76 G796

ZebratownIs there anyone out there who hasn’t heard about Zebratown by Greg Donaldson? The whole title is Zebratown: the true story of a Black Ex-Con and a White Single Mother in Small Town America. That small town is Elmira. Donaldson is a professor who follows an inmate from Elmira Correctional Facility in his first year out of prison. It was well-written, easy to read, and interesting, if a little discouraging. You’ll need to call 733-9173 or go to our website, to put a hold on this book, as all copies are currently charged out.

The Family Silver by Sharon O’Brien is an older (2004) memoir where another college professor reminisces about visiting her grandparents in Elmira, in the summer when she was growing up. She has a picture of their house on Clinton Street in the book and talks about enjoying Grove Park, and other Elmira Landmarks.

If you would like to be more active we also have books about trails or places to walk in our area. Whether you just want to read where to hike in the spring or cross country ski on the trails, check out Take a Hike: Family walks in New York’s Finger Lakes Region by Rich Freeman or 25 Walks in the Finger lakes by William Ehling.

Whatever you do in January enjoy!

Phyllis Rogan, Reference Librarian

Steele Memorial Library

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