Still perceived by some as harmless backwaters, public libraries in Connecticut are on the way to proving that image outdated. A recent undertaking of the Connecticut Library Association, dealing with international studies, provides a compelling example of the public library as a cultural and educational center for its community.
"It was the first of its kind for us in Connecticut," said Ami Weber, codirector of the month long "Foreign Cultures Month" undertaken jointly by the usually fiercely separate public libraries in Connecticut. A pile of clippings from newspapers around the state, flyers, schedules, posters, bookmarks, and evaluation sheets spoke of success.
The idea was proposed early in 1980 by Jody Newmyer, then president of the Connecticut Library Association (CLA). Mrs. Newmyer had seen the report of the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies.
The report, a critique of US capability to deal with worldwide political and economic realignments, identified the lack of Americans who are able to use other languages and an inadequate understanding of world events as "threats to America's security and economic viability."
The presidential commission called on all segments of society, including local communities, to "initiate corrective action" in response to this national inadequacy.
To Jody Newmyer the logical resource center to study the world within reach of people in every community was their public library. She thought that public libraries have a responsibility to spearhead efforts to raise the information level of their communities. The board of the CLA agreed.
With further encouragement and funding through a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, the state-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the CLA designated October 1980 as "Foreign Cultures Month."
Teams of scholars from Connecticut institutions of higher learning were formed on national and thematic lines and organized into programs on China, Japan, the Soviet Union, Iran, the Islamic world, Spain. Speakers were asked to help audiences understand the different perspectives of people formed by other cultural traditions.
(To the Japanese of shogun times, it seems, Europeans were a sorry kind of human being: with round eyes like those of animals, homely huge noses, creatures totally devoid of culture, that is, ignorant of Chinese classics!)
Individual libraries supplemented the sponsored speakers with experts from their own communities: a rug dealer explained the cultural reasons for specific colors and designs in Persian rugs (the talk was illustrated by slides and by an exhibit of Persian rugs), a professional chef traced cultural reasons for the development of specific cuisines in China.
There were lectures on Afghanistan, excerpts from Chinese opera, several weeks of Chinese language lessons, exhibits of artifacts, of correspondence with foreign notables. Many libraries displayed books on other countries, some showed films on international themes available on loan from the state library. A pertinent filmography was compiled by the CLA for the occasion.
In appreciation for their statewide pioneering effort at public education, the Berlitz Schools of Languages, with assistance from the Connecticut Humanities Council, have given all 204 public libraries of the state the gift of a book. It is "The Tongue Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis" by Paul Simon (D) of Illinois. Representative Simon documents the diplomatic and economic dangers stemming from our outdated cultural isolationism. Now residents of every Connecticut town can go to their local library and read all about it .