Berkeley library gala will feature Pulitzer-winning author
By Lou Fancher
If reading, writing and archival records form the backbone of civilization, then public libraries are the central nervous system of society.
Sending signals on physical and digital books to reach branches and far-flung communities beyond the core “body” of knowledge, a library system broadcasts energy and information and inspires the materials with which to replenish and restock its resources.
So it’s not a surprise that two-time Pulitzer Prize winning biographer and writer T.J. Stiles, the honorary chairman Feb. 11 at Berkeley Public Library Foundation’s 15th annual Authors Dinner, expresses a lifelong attachment to libraries. The Berkeley resident grew up near the town of Foley, Minnesota, population about 1,000.
“I lived a mile out of town. The library was absolutely important. It was one large room in the same building that housed the city hall, town jail, police and fire departments. Every time we went to town, I loved to spend hours at the library.”
Before Stiles held odd jobs that included janitor and gas station attendant, wrote advertising copy for Oxford University Press and Ballantine Books, and penned his award-winning biographies, he was a country boy who “lived in books” and says his parents would beg him to spend time outdoors.
“I grew up in a time when there wasn’t a lot of electronic entertainment. I remember reading about Theodore Roosevelt. I was like him; I was living inside other worlds through books. I loved history from early on and learned that history is information and a grand narrative combined.”
A grand narrative not in his books but reverberating since the advent of the Internet, e-books and all things digital — that people will soon no longer crave and create physical books or need libraries — he says is dwindling. “For a time, (the narrative was) that digital was going to overtake the bound books. But it’s not true: data shows that millennials actually prefer physical books. Reading e-books is very much alive and I think that’s a good thing. I’m not against reading in any format: I’m very encouraged by the reading itself. It fosters the demand for libraries, for the physical space of bookstores. That says something about the centrality of reading and writing in our culture.”
So too, do the 450 authors who have attended the Authors Dinner during its 15-year lifetime. “We’ve had only a handful of repeats over all that time,” says event co-host Linda Schacht Gage. “The Bay Area is rich with writers. It’s been an honor every year to be able to support the library and through that, all of these fantastic authors and poets.”
The annual event features a dinner held in the library, at which authors “host” tables. Ticket sales and an online, mobile auction raise funds for library programs and facility improvements.
“The authors don’t have to do anything other than come and enjoy being honored. (Co-host) Bill Schechner and I read anecdotal, not standard biographies about each author,” says Gage.
Stiles says he’s been warned that he won’t have time to give a long speech. But the few words he chooses to say at the dinner are likely to be more about libraries than about his life as a writer. “No one can fence off literature as long as libraries exist,” Stiles says. “You don’t have to be rich, or a collector. In a library, you can just walk in and pull off the shelf the greatest literature ever written — at no cost. Libraries are more important now than ever.”
If nothing else, he adds, libraries confirm his belief in books and they store the archives that keep him writing.
“I’ve been fortunate to win the Pulitzers, so when I publish my next book it will get published even if it’s terrible,” he says. “But we need new writers and where discovery happens is browsing in stacks at booksellers’ tables and libraries. It doesn’t translate to digital sourcing, which tends to funnel people to more of what they came for.”
Stiles says crucial knowledge is in jeopardy without funding to support physical spaces that preserve, digitize and index archives essential to scholars, fiction and nonfiction writers, and everyday people interested in personal and public histories.
“People underestimate the ongoing needs of libraries: going digital doesn’t replace the needs, it’s just a new format.” Literary culture and books are at the center of our communities and are an ecosystem worth protecting, he concludes.
At this year’s dinner, Gage will receive the Fred and Pat Cody Award, given in honor of her 20-years of service with the Foundation.
Asked to whom she’d pass the award, if not receiving it herself, she says, “The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library as a group. They’ve been around for 65 years and are the mainstay. Or, I’d give it to the people of Berkeley, who gave $3.5 million to refurbish the downtown library.”