Libraries are cool; students should get to explore them

My son Ben recently asked me how people learned to fly.  We live in North Carolina, and our license plates advertise that we are “First in Flight,” referring to Orville and Wilbur’s famous 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, NC.


I thought it would be cool for Ben to see a book about the Wright Brothers, so I looked in the Durham Public Library.  Surprisingly, there were not many books on the shelves about the famous brothers (perhaps I looked in the wrong section), but I did find this book:


It’s not about what I thought it would be about.  It mentions that the Wright Brothers first flew in December of 1903 and that they became famous around the world.

But the rest of the book is all about what happened six years later, in 1909, when Wilbur flew over New York City.  Here’s a short excerpt from the first pages of the book:


I’d never heard of this two-week party before — it fascinated me.  So I took the time to satisfy my own curiosity and read more of the book.

I learned that in 1909, New York was the second largest city in the world (to London), and that it was a melting pot.  According to the book I found by chance in the library, here are more details about New York in 1909:

A quick online search took me to the Wikipedia Page for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, as well as a page on a New York City history website called The Bowery Boys.  Here’s a quote from the second source, describing the two-week party:

A state-wide soiree, it was New York’s own unofficial world’s fair, a chance to trumpet its innovations and riches via a celebration of its history and the central role of the Hudson River.

Make no mistake: as much as this was a celebration of New York, it was also a celebration of New York’s wealthy. This was the height of the Gilded Age, after all. The original plan was forged by Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle Robert, and the planning committee included Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, former vice president Levi Morton, Macys co-owner Oscar Straus, and members of the Rockefeller and Van Rensselaer families. They were celebrating New York; by extension, they were celebrating themselves.

So now, having started with a look for the basics about the Wright Brothers (which I could have found on Wikipedia), my foray into the library led me to learn about a very cool Gilded Age period in New York City’s history that I’d never heard of before.

So libraries are cool.  Browsing the stacks to find related books is a fun thing to do, and can often yield surprising and valuable results.  Online searching is a good skill to develop, but there are times when books — and libraries — are the way to go.

But here’s the sad thing — most students don’t get time to explore the stacks. The curriculum and the lesson plans won’t allow for it.

Imagine a class of students who had been assigned by their teacher to learn about the Wright Brothers and how they flew for the first time.  If a student had found the book I found, Touching The Sky, he/she likely would have determined that it was not “on topic” and would have looked for a more “on topic” book.

Worse yet, the teacher might have made the “on topic” determination in advance, by selecting the “most appropriate” books and arranging those books on a cart, so students in all five of the teacher’s classes could have easy access to the same materials.

What we need is more individualized instruction that lets curious students have time to wander around and find something that they connect with and want to learn more about.

I’m fascinated with the idea that New York closed down for two weeks of celebrations.  I want to learn more about that time period, and I might even pull some primary resources, such as newspaper accounts of that week.

Libraries are cool, and we have to design learning environments so that students have the opportunity (and the time) to explore libraries in all of their coolness.

This does not mean students would not learn to write a paper — it just means the student might actually write a paper about something he/she cares about more than the Wright Brothers, such as New York’s big party in 1909.

P.S.  Ben also wants to know when the first paper airplanes were made.  I told him I imagined it would not be until paper became inexpensive, so some time after the industrial revolution.  I’m not sure when paper airplanes became common.

Again, a quick Wikipedia search about paper airplanes points me in the right (or should I say wright?) direction:

[The Wright Brothers] built numerous paper models, and tested them within their wind tunnel. By observing the forces produced by flexing the heavy paper models within the wind tunnel, the Wrights determined that control through flight surfaces by warping would be most effective, and in action identical to the later hinged aileron and elevator surfaces used today. Their paper models were very important in the process of moving on to progressively larger models, kites, gliders and ultimately on to the powered Flyer…

It would be fun to go back to the library to see what’s on the stacks in the paper airplanes section 🙂

P.P.S.  My wife just tipped me off that a little less than a month ago, on March 21, 2012, the world’s largest paper airplane flew for six seconds in Arizona.  Wives are cool, too.  Even cooler than libraries…


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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