Hamilton 1


Buffy Hamilton

Think Piece/Response Paper

ELAN 8005

September 25, 2005



Battles, M. (2003). Library: An ...
Hamilton 2


Chapter 1: “Reading the Library”

   Battles begins his “unquiet history” of the library by stating his thesi...
Hamilton 3


hundred years, most librarians would have followed Seneca‟s creed, “It does not matter

how many books you ha...
Hamilton 4


10). What could we learn by examining the histories of books in any given library?

What might a study of the...
Hamilton 5


libraries‟ collections are maintained and developed affect the ways that libraries act as

sponsors of litera...
Hamilton 6


program as part of the library‟s mission and purpose was a benefit to scholars who

eagerly sought to study a...
Hamilton 7


university of the modern era”(pp. 29-30). Literacy and the use of libraries as a place of

scholarly thinking...
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door to democracy and equality for all Americans, a steppingstone to learning and

success for every American...
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full time certified media specialists; in some impoverished areas, schools may not have a

school library at ...
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the intellectual world for a time. One can only wonder what a library of this nature, a

“think tank” create...
Hamilton 11


could demonstrate their intellectual integrity, their curatorial acumen, and their alignment

with Renaissan...
Hamilton 12


of the printing press, larger libraries were increasing because dukes, popes, and

merchants saw the opportu...
Hamilton 13


materials should be organized. Although some librarians like Richard Bentley of

England were visionary in c...
Hamilton 14


librarian is reminiscent of Prometheus: “The tragic flaws of Promethean impulse, pity

and hubris, are the e...
Hamilton 15


–tended library…each book‟s value to society increases as more people gain access to

and use it. Unlike the...
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Conclusions/Final Thoughts

   Although this text was not what I expected it to be, it has been an invaluabl...
Hamilton 17


the messy questions that we have explored in my Reading and English Education

courses here at UGA:

   What...
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Thought Paper Reading Four: Library, An Unquiet History (Matthew Battles) Buffy Hamilton September 25 2005

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Battles, M. (2003). Library: An unquiet history. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

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Thought Paper Reading Four: Library, An Unquiet History (Matthew Battles) Buffy Hamilton September 25 2005

  1. 1. Hamilton 1 Buffy Hamilton Think Piece/Response Paper ELAN 8005 September 25, 2005 Battles, M. (2003). Library: An unquiet history. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Introduction Two lines of inquiry guided my selection of this reading, Library: An unquiet history by librarian Matthew Battles. First, I hoped to read some sort of “definitive” history of libraries. More importantly, I hoped to learn more about the role of libraries as sponsors of literacy, particularly in the United States. In all of the literature I have read or sought to find in my exploration of sponsors of literacy in America, the roles of the public library and the public school library as sponsors of literacy has been hauntingly silent. While this book did not provide all the answers I sought, Library: An unquiet history did provide insights, and of course, more questions for research and investigation. The text itself is a bit of rambling history of libraries in our world organized by theme rather than chronological facts or order. Although I did read all seven chapters of this 200-page text, I have chosen to focus on the first five chapters, as they are the heart of the text. My responses are organized by chapter and a final response section that will offer some conclusions and ideas about this text‟s relation to my research questions and findings.
  2. 2. Hamilton 2 Chapter 1: “Reading the Library” Battles begins his “unquiet history” of the library by stating his thesis and essential questions: “I am looking for the library where it lives. Of course, a complete history of the library…would run to many volumes. What I‟m looking for are points of transformation, those moments where readers, authors, and librarians question the meaning of the library itself”(Battles, 2003, pp. 20-21). While Battles does not specifically seek to analyze the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacy, asking a the deceptively simple question, “What is the purpose of libraries?” is a closely related line of inquiry that can help expose the ways libraries function or fail to function as sponsors of literacy. Battles views a library and the history of libraries as analogous to a physical world, asserting that the library is, “…a world, complete and uncompletable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers‟ desires, books flow in and out of the library like tides”( pp. 5-6). Libraries are often viewed as the keepers of knowledge, information, and all that is worth remembering; libraries are institutions that are perceived as static, authoritative, unchanging, and impervious to time‟s winds of change. However, Battles envisions the library as a reflection of its time and place in world history: the library is a living and breathing entity. As print and text have proliferated over the last two thousand years, particularly in the last one hundred years and with the rise of technology in the last decade, Battles raises a significant question that is at the heart of every library program around the world: “This flood of print forces us to ask, „How do we sort it all out?‟”( p. 9). Until the last two
  3. 3. Hamilton 3 hundred years, most librarians would have followed Seneca‟s creed, “It does not matter how many books you have, but how good they are”; this school of thought produced libraries that did not hold everything printed but rather only the best works printed, or those that were esteemed to be part of a literary canon (p. 9). However, the model of a universal library that rose in popularity about two hundred years ago embraces each book as important and of value in a library collection. Ultimately, libraries are about the values that books and words represent to a culture. Battles believes that each library is, “…an argument about the nature of books, distilling their social, cultural, and mystical functions. And what the Word means to society…this is what the library enshrines”(p. 9). If this principle is true, then libraries are a microcosm of a culture‟s literacy values and how literacy is used in that particular culture. While I traditionally think of a library as a place that advances diverse viewpoints and thinking through the titles in its collection, Battles causes me to wonder if libraries truly represent balanced viewpoints, or if they merely reflect the beliefs and values that shape literacy access and literacy experiences in a given culture or community. How do libraries, whether public or school-based, balance the desire for diversity with the needs and values of the community they serve? This question is continually debated in the fields of library science and school library media. Battles also asserts that libraries and the books they hold are living proof of Derrida‟s belief that writing is “its own thing” (p. 10), not just mere symbols for spoken words. Battles portrays books as living objects that have a life of their own, stating, “Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world”(p.
  4. 4. Hamilton 4 10). What could we learn by examining the histories of books in any given library? What might a study of the history of a library‟s books reveal about its readers and the library‟s role as a sponsor of literacy? Battles also shows how the history of libraries reflects the debate that has existed for thousands of years and continues to be debated in contemporary society: What is worth reading, and why is it worth reading? Battles‟ history of libraries clearly reflects that the age-old debate of what constitutes highbrow and lowbrow reading, and on a larger scale, high and low culture. This debate has influenced and continues to influence the mission, purpose, and collection of any given library. In examining the tension between the “literary canon” school of thought and the “universal library” school of thought, Battles observes that, “Reading the library, we quickly come to an obvious conclusion: most books are bad, very bad in fact. It‟s understandable then, that we spend so much energy ferreting out the exceptional books, the ones that shatter paradigms. But we shouldn‟t forget that the unremarkable books have much to teach us about cultural history--- ultimately more, perhaps, than our cherished Great Books”(pp. 16-17). Perhaps this point is why so many librarians are reluctant to weed their collections, for they fear removing some work that may seem old and obsolete, yet that work may still hold some value. How is a librarian to truly know which books are important to add and keep in a collection, and which ones should slip quietly into the library‟s past history? Can a librarian ever truly “know” which books should be acquired, kept, and discarded? Librarians study principles of collection development that are seemingly logical and simple, yet the question of what belongs and does not belong in a library really speaks to a librarian‟s philosophy and beliefs about books, reading, and culture. How do the ways
  5. 5. Hamilton 5 libraries‟ collections are maintained and developed affect the ways that libraries act as sponsors of literacy? Although Battles cites that, “Librarians wander in tribes or as lonely mendicants…” (p. 18), he believes that libraries ultimately undergo repeated changes that reflect the shifting beliefs and values of those who keep the library and those who patronize the library. Jorge Luis Borges, former director of Argentina‟s National Library, believes that, “…the library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)”(p. 19). If libraries are a world, do they and their histories reflect the old adage that “History repeats itself”? What lessons can librarians learn by examining this history and asking that essential questions, “Where does the library live? What are the points of transformation? What is the meaning of the library itself?” By asking these questions, librarians and those interested in the ways literacy plays out in American lives can better examine how libraries function as sponsors of literacy. Chapter 2: “Burning Alexandria” In this chapter, Battles extensively explores the nature of the world‟s first libraries: the mediums of texts, the kinds of texts or genres, the storage and organization of texts, and the patrons of these libraries. While these factual pieces of information are enlightening and interesting, I was most intrigued by the Alexandrian model of a library and the value of libraries as booty for plundering invaders. The great library of Alexandria, first conceived in 331 B.C., was designed to attract scholars and thinkers. Unlike the great Greek libraries, though, no formal program of teaching was implemented (p. 27). According to Battles, this exclusion of a teaching
  6. 6. Hamilton 6 program as part of the library‟s mission and purpose was a benefit to scholars who eagerly sought to study at Alexandria, for “….then as now, intellectuals found teaching as much a burden as a calling. The royal pension freed scholars…while the heaps of scrolls offered them inexhaustible opportunities for their work”(p. 27). This fact resonated with me as a public school librarian as the once revered principle of school media specialists as teachers who collaboratively plan with other teachers and teach students is now being challenged as the role of school libraries is changing in the face of standardized testing, technology, and on a larger scale, the use of libraries by students and society. Many school librarians would like to have enough staffing so that one person was not expected to master the four daunting roles of program administrator, instructional partner, teacher, and information specialist. Are today‟s librarians to be gatekeepers who meticulously research, catalog, and develop their collections, or is their greater role that of keymaster, one who teaches and emphasizes access to information, literacy, and learning in the library? In Alexandria, the library as a place of scholarly thought rather than as a point of access to literacy for the general public was founded out of a desire to build the power and prestige of Alexandria. Battles contends the library was a crucial cornerstone of Alexandria‟s power, citing that, “By bringing scholars to Alexandria and inviting them to live and work, at royal expense, among an enormous store of books, the Ptolemies mad the library into a think tank under the control of the royal house. The strategic implications of a monopoly on knowledge---especially in medicine, engineering, and theology…were not lost on the Ptolemies...Thus was Alexandria‟s the first library with universal aspirations; with its community of scholars, it became a prototype of the
  7. 7. Hamilton 7 university of the modern era”(pp. 29-30). Literacy and the use of libraries as a place of scholarly thinking were essential to Alexandria‟s success and power in the region. A result of this desire to acquire knowledge was a sea-change in library philosophy. Whereas Greek libraries had carefully selected and collected only the “best” works, the library at Alexandria sought to hold every work possible, whether it was a classical work by Homer or some obscure text (p. 30). However, even Alexandria‟s library could not completely fulfill its mission to be universal in scope; according to Battles, they faced difficult choices in what to keep and what to discard because of the high costs of manuscript scroll production (p. 31). Contemporary libraries in the United States face similar challenges as funding from the government and private sources continues to be slashed. Battles warns that, “…great libraries are problematic in times of war, disaster or decay, for their fate become the fate of the literature they contain. Much of what comes down to us from antiquity survived because it was held in the small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters of the ancient world, where it was more likely to escape the notice of zealots as well as princes…the needs and tastes or private readers and collectors---that determines what survives”(p. 31). What cultural heritage and literary culture may be lost and/or privileged as libraries across the United States are forced to make hard decisions about what to acquire, keep, and discard from their collections? Battles warns his readers that, “What we face is not a loss of books but the loss of a world”(p. 213). How do these decisions affect access to literacy and literacy learning experiences? On a larger scale, how does the library as a sponsor of literacy shape the culture, values, and uses of literacy in all segments of United States society? Although the library is often celebrated as a
  8. 8. Hamilton 8 door to democracy and equality for all Americans, a steppingstone to learning and success for every American, Battles warns us, “Libraries are as much about losing the truth---satisfying the inner barbarians of princes, presidents, and pretenders---as about discovering it”(p. 31). It is in these ancient roots of Alexandria‟s library that we see a distant and dim reflection of America‟s value of literacy as an economic commodity to be acquired, molded, and maintained for nation and culture building. Battles points out that Alexandrians perceived “…knowledge [as] a resource, a commodity, a form of capital to be acquired and hoarded at the pleasure of the regime. The centralization and consolidation of libraries serves the convenience of scholars and princes alike”(p. 31). As a sponsor of literacy, the great library of Alexandria helped to build and maintain the political power of the city of Alexandria. The city and library officials had the power to seize and make copies (and conveniently fail to return) books from any visitor, and the city officials even banned the export of papyrus in an effort to stop the growth of libraries in competing cities (p. 30). The Ptolemies did not view the library as a vehicle for universal and liberal learning (p. 31). While the United States government does attempt to control and use knowledge (specifically literacy) as an economic resource, it does not do so through public or government sponsored libraries. Instead, the United States replicates the behaviors of Alexandria‟s leaders through its public school system and their public school libraries. Children who attend schools in predominantly lower socioeconomic areas do not have access to the same depth, breadth, and quality of materials in their school libraries as children who attend public schools in more affluent attendance zones. In many parts of the United States, public schools do not even have
  9. 9. Hamilton 9 full time certified media specialists; in some impoverished areas, schools may not have a school library at all. These children are the very ones who would depend on a public school library for access to literacy and books as they generally do not have the means to visit a public library or to purchase books for their home library. How can the United States remain a nation of independent, thinking individuals who cherish democracy when increasing numbers of its citizens do not have the means to acquire the kinds of literacy needed to survive socially, economically, politically, and intellectually in today‟s society? Chapter 3: “The House of Wisdom” This chapter examines how extensive library building and the use of libraries as places of learning were vital to the flourishing of Islamic culture over a thousand-year period. One library in particular, known as the royal House of Wisdom in Baghdad, was an extraordinary place where young men were groomed to cultivate and hone their intellectual talents. Whereas only young men from elite or privileged families had access to libraries in medieval Europe, it was possible for any young man of any background to attend the House of Wisdom as long as he showed intellectual promise (pp. 62-63). The House of Wisdom took in the Banu Musa, three young brothers who served the royal court with their scientific and mathematical talents. Remarkably, these three young brothers came into care of the House of Wisdom after the death of their father, a lifelong thief and criminal. The House of Wisdom, a combination of a library, research center, and school, enabled these three brothers to grow into young men who would change the world with their advancements in geometry, astronomy, and engineering (pp. 63-64). By embracing scholars from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the Muslims came to dominate
  10. 10. Hamilton 10 the intellectual world for a time. One can only wonder what a library of this nature, a “think tank” created and sponsored by the government, could accomplish in terms of improving the lives of Americans and creating more democratic opportunities for all. Muslims valued libraries and books during this time not just as means for learning and knowledge, but also for social status among the elite. In 976 A.D., the library in Muslim Cordova had approximately 400,000 to 600,000 books or two to three books for every household. Europe‟s largest non-Muslim cities libraries‟ holdings paled in comparison with volumes only in the hundreds (p. 65). In addition, Muslims elevated the art of book making to new heights because people collected books for their beauty as well as their contents. Whereas in Christian Europe, only members of the upper class could afford the high cost of producing illustrated and illuminated texts, merchants could not keep up with the demand for sumptuous and beautifully created books (p. 64). Sadly, this great flourishing of books and libraries came to a devastating end between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries as Mongols, Turks, and Crusaders destroyed the Islamic East (p. 67). Although some books “flowed into Europe as the booty of war”(p. 67), the wars in the Islamic East and purging of Arabic culture in Europe destroyed the network of public libraries that sprang up and burgeoned during the golden days of medieval Islamic culture. Another historical point of interested explored in this chapter was the use of public libraries as “cultural capital” by the Medici family in Florence. They established a “public library” at San Marco where scholars would work and study, but the Medicis primarily patronized and built the library for positive publicity and to build their power in Florence (pp. 67-68). Historian Lisa Jardine maintains that in the library, “The Medicis
  11. 11. Hamilton 11 could demonstrate their intellectual integrity, their curatorial acumen, and their alignment with Renaissance values---they could perform these things publicly. The private acquisition of important books by a powerful is the performance of their intellectual authority; the building of that collection into a library translates their actions…. into an attempt to foster and influence a public sphere in the modern sense”(p. 69). In other words, the library was a tool for power building by the powerful Medici family rather than an altruistic gesture designed to provide greater access to books through a library. Although the Medicis attempted to guise their patronage of a public library as a Humanist movement, the Humanist movement in Renaissance Europe sowed the seeds of real change with the purposes and means of literacy uses and access. Whereas the government had been the benefactor of tightly controlled libraries in the past, private and prominent individuals began to contribute their collections for the creation of public libraries. These individuals who would have collected rare and important books for their own pleasure in the past now were the ones to collect them for the purpose of creating a public library (p. 70). Why was this shift in library sponsorship important? Battles asserts that the fundamental nature of reading and books was changing, and this change was expressed through library building. Battles cites that, “Suddenly it became important to bring lots of books together in one place, to make them accessible, not only to friends, family, and sponsored artists and writers---the denizens of the private home---but to a public, to translate all those private acts of reading into public performances”(p. 70). This desire to make reading and the reading of books a social event and activity was part of the larger desire for knowledge that characterized the Renaissance period in Europe. While we tend to believe that libraries proliferated during this time because of the advent
  12. 12. Hamilton 12 of the printing press, larger libraries were increasing because dukes, popes, and merchants saw the opportunity for power in the control of “massed knowledge”(p. 72). Chapters 4 and 5: “The Battle of the Books” and “Books for All” In Chapter 4, Battles examines the cultural and intellectual wars during the 1600s in England and America and how these philosophical battles affected the contents and purpose of libraries. At the heart of this debate was a familiar battle: the question of what texts were worthy of reading and inclusion in a library. As the number of published books exploded with the spread of the printing press, so did the arguments against the quality of the texts being produced by the economic printing press (p. 90). Some scholars, like Sir William Temple, felt that the primary problem with modern learning was its reliance on books; he felt that scholars did not need more books, but instead, scholars needed to look to the classics of the Homeric golden age for reading that would provide the best knowledge that was of good taste (pp. 88-89). However, other scholars, such as William Wotton felt that the proliferation of new books provided opportunities for dialogue and progressive thought as people disputed and debated the ideas set forth in these new books (p. 89-91). In a larger sense, this debate was really about the threat to the “genteel” tradition of education in which the nobility were reared in the tradition of classicism to help perpetuate their place in society and the upper class as the class of economic and cultural power. Even literary greats like Jonathan Swift perceived the mushrooming of “lowbrow” texts and “middling books” as “…a torrent that threatened to engulf everything he believed in”(p. 102). This cultural war over books extended to the library as intellectuals, scholars, and librarians debated what books should be included in libraries that were limited in space and how those
  13. 13. Hamilton 13 materials should be organized. Although some librarians like Richard Bentley of England were visionary in conceptualizing the work of the librarian as that of someone who was “intellectually strong and unhindered” and who would focus on, “…finding, keeping, and organizing a scholarly collection of books”(p. 116), the traditional view of librarians as mere “custodians” of books would dominate the profession until the late 1800s. The focus of Chapter 5, “Books for All”, is on the shift of the role of the librarian and how the paradigm shift affected the development and purposes of libraries. Prior to the last 1800s, the “…librarian had been animated by his relationship with books---relatively small numbers of books, organized into canons, consumed in the main by readers already intimate with them. The librarian‟s role, then was largely custodial…. but with the efflorescence of printed matter and its increased consumption by a reading public, the librarian‟s relations with readers began to supplant his connection with the books in his charge”(p. 120). Now librarians were charged to “…shape the tastes of their patrons, to conduct them through the pitfalls of the cheap, the tawdry, and the „highly seasoned‟ reading found in novels and newspapers toward a redeeming vision of high literary culture”(p. 120). This change in the role of librarians reflected the culture war that was accelerating in America and Europe between high culture and low culture; books and reading were the primary weapons of this war. This culture war thrust the librarian into a role as an arbiter of what is good to read and what is not. Consequently, this cultural war forced librarians into a “ruptured universe” where the movement for a body of recognized literature fought against the call for “a book for every person”(p. 121). For Battles, the image of nineteenth century
  14. 14. Hamilton 14 librarian is reminiscent of Prometheus: “The tragic flaws of Promethean impulse, pity and hubris, are the emotional poles of the librarian in the nineteenth century as well: pity for the low station of the reader, and hubris for the possibilities the library offers for the reformation of culture and society”(p. 120). Unfortunately, these images are still associated with modern librarians, librarians who make readers feel as though they are too stupid to make a sensible judgment about what books are good to read. In addition, I am struck by Battles‟ use of the word hubris, which is pride carried to the point of excess or folly. Are we as academic librarians and in particular, public school librarians, foolish to think that we can or should reform culture and society through our work? If we are to help guide readers, how do we balance our values about reading with a healthy respect for the needs and values of the readers we serve? It was during the mid and late 1800s that the notion of librarians as agencies of cultural change began to take hold. The philosopher John Stuart Mill felt that “greater access to information would benefit society as a whole”(p. 136), a belief that is still widely held today in modern America. The American Library Association prides itself on their efforts to provide “equal and open access to information”, and programs that train public and school librarians constantly emphasize the important of access to information and information literacy as essential to improving society and educating students. While many proponents of this belief are motivated by altruistic motives, there were those who felt that access to information would enhance people‟s understanding of the principles of rationality and reason. Librarian historian Alistair Black points out that some philosophers believed, “…through assimilation of the powers of reason fostered by education, the masses would come ego accept capitalist principles as truth. For in a well
  15. 15. Hamilton 15 –tended library…each book‟s value to society increases as more people gain access to and use it. Unlike the private book, whose functional use ends when it is read and placed on the shelf for the last time, a library books may continue to open doors”(p. 136). Hence, the emphasis and mythology of the library as the “great equalizer” began in American and European society in the mid 1800s. A few, like John Stuart Mill, did feel that libraries could offer more than just capital and cultural clout; he felt that libraries could offer the greater good of happiness, reflection, and dialogue that would lead to more altruistic citizens. Although not everyone viewed libraries and books as tools for nation building and literacy as an economic commodity, the sponsors of the 1850 public library bill in England “…hoped that libraries would channel the subversive urges of an underclass traditionally denied access to cultural means”(p. 137). The political interests of nations like England and America began to dominate the mission and purpose of public libraries as they sought to create citizens and a national culture that would solidify each country‟s political and economic interests. Indeed, librarians were to use their talents to set, “…. a whole culture of readers right. All his tools are put to use in the pursuit of a single ideal, to make all reading serve an overarching purpose: the coordinated progress of society and the individual within it”(p. 149). Again, these issues from a hundred years ago still speak to the ways that libraries sponsored literacy in America and continue to sponsor literacy in contemporary America. The role of the libraries in the lives of Americans still speaks to essential questions, “How do we use reading in our lives? What counts as reading? What does it mean to be a lifelong reader? Why be a lifelong reader?”
  16. 16. Hamilton 16 Conclusions/Final Thoughts Although this text was not what I expected it to be, it has been an invaluable reading for disrupting some of my previous conceptions about libraries. In addition, as you can see in the chapter responses, this text, Library: An unquiet history, has raised several troubling and challenging questions that I have not entertained or at least contemplated to this degree. This reading has caused me to wonder why there is so little, if any, existing research literature on these questions: How have public and school libraries functioned as sponsors of literacy? How do public and school libraries continue to function (in varying ways) as sponsors of literacy? How may public and school libraries function in the future in the digital age as sponsors of literacy at the public school and general public levels? Is no one asking this question because they simply haven‟t thought of it, or are people afraid to ask this question? In addition, this reading about the history of libraries has caused me to wonder why this information has never been studied or even discussed in any of my school library courses here at UGA. In fact, I honestly am embarrassed to admit that I do not have a sense of the history of public school libraries in America and in other countries. It actually makes me feel a bit angry and shortchanged as I think this information is critical for any future librarian to contemplate as he/she forms his/her philosophy about the roles and missions of libraries rather than blindly accepting whatever the American Library Association and school administrators hand down from their ivory towers. They are messy questions, but they go to the heart of
  17. 17. Hamilton 17 the messy questions that we have explored in my Reading and English Education courses here at UGA: What is the purpose of education? What does it mean to be a lifelong reader? What counts as reading? As my other readings have given me increased motivation to carry out my studies and fieldwork with my research questions, so has this book by Matthew Battles. Again, I am left with more questions than answers, but my excitement at continuing to pursue answers to these questions continues to grow. As I am now immersing myself interviews in my efforts to replicate the work of Deborah Brandt (Literacy in American Lives) on a small scale, I look forward to seeing what answers about the kinds of sponsors of literacy I find in the lives of my research participants and how those findings can help me as an English educator and librarian.

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