Schoonering Through Nebraska

A Blog of Sorts

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Kwame Dawes and Marianne Kunkel are embarking on a goodwill tour across Nebraska, from public library to public library to connect people with the journal and to celebrate the value of the literary arts in the states. Along the way, they are blogging about their journey. This is Kwame’s seventh blog entry after a visit to Neligh, Nebraska.

Neligh, Nebraska
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The fields along the 77 were covered with a thin layer of snow. The air had the sharp conviction of snowfall. Somewhere a few miles before Grand Island, just before we headed northward towards Neligh, a light flurry of snow spattered on the windshield. But it remained brightly sunny, and soon we turned onto the pink tarmac of the road heading into even more open fields that gradually turned into the undulating landscape that one expects in places like Iowa and Illinois—stretches that I imagine in the summer and spring are postcard bucolic, farmland, rolling hills, you know the clichés. And yet the clichés are there for a reason. This is a lovely landscape and the culture of American standardization, as coined by Langston Hughes, is a culture that celebrates the peacefulness of these places. Nothing bad happens here. When bad things happen here, we are shocked. We are appalled. It was a sleepy town, say the neatly-dressed reporters, as they prepare to describe some horror. We know these narratives, and perhaps we perpetuate them because we all want there to be a paradise somewhere.

The fact is that Nebraska is facing a drought right now, and the farmers are not seeing paradise, but another kind of violence—the violence of bankruptcy or the end of farms. They are concerned. And no doubt, farmers do stand on the crest of their properties at sunrise and stare across the vast expanse of their land at the growing sun—the splendid drama of colors—think, “Ahh, how beautiful.” But they also smell the heavy reek of manure, the sweat of labor, the risk of sudden death under some motorized vehicle, and on and on. This is not paradise.

I don’t know a great deal about living in small, rural, farm-based towns, but over the past week or so driving through Nebraska, I get the feeling that folks find their paradises in the most unlikely of places. I am now convinced that on winter days, many find their paradise in libraries. The libraries are shelters from the cold, and as the folks I met in Neligh said to me, they find a certain kind of paradise, a certain refuge, in the intellectual stimulation of conversation, of talking about literature, or reading. They find refuge in being able to think about the world and what it means, in being able to explore their own brains and the knowledge they have carried in those brains for years. They find refuge in being stimulated by ideas, by language, by discussions of beauty.

When someone thanks you for coming into their small town and for allowing them to enjoy such a pleasure, it is extremely gratifying. The people who attended our presentation in Neligh were not just engaged, but knowledgeable. Many had ties to the University of Nebraska, some having attended undergraduate classes there as far back as the early fifties, and others planning to complete graduate school there in the future. One patron asked about the editors of Prairie Schooner “because there were some quite important and famous people in that position,” and I made an effort to chart the progression of the editors and their contributions. At one point I was asked if the journal was always called Prairie Schooner. I said yes. A woman in the audience said, “No, it wasn’t.” I began to dig into my memory of the narrative of the starting of the journal I had read in that wonderful book about Prairie Schooner published in the late fifties. “I am almost certain,” I said, “Sigma Upsilon” was the student organization from which the journal emerged, but I believe it was always called Prairie Schooner.” She looked skeptical. I was impressed by the sense of ownership and knowledge. I vowed to get even better at trotting out the history of the editors of the journal. And yet, as we were driving out of town, I was rehearsing what I do know, and I realized I know a great deal, which was reassuring.

The library was designed in what I now call the classic public library style. A long bungalow, one large room divided by shelves into effective spaces for wifi and computers, for children, for reading spaces, and so on. The design is towards warmth and comfort. A welcoming space. And this library was no exception.

The fact, though, is that libraries, even these small rural libraries, are dealing with difficult questions. Keep in mind that I have been doing ALL my readings from my I-Pad. There is an obvious question waiting to be asked of me that has to do with technology. At Neligh, I was asked what my view about digital technology and the library was. I spoke about the history of libraries, the contract that libraries made with publishers over the past two hundred years, and the way that contract is changing greatly now. Essentially, I rehearsed the ideas I had written in my last Oxcart column. And then I explained that I am not panicked by the advent of technology, and how much I believe that libraries will continue to thrive if they adapt to the changes. I believe this.

But adaptation will be necessary. This morning I read a story that an outfit in Belgium, I think, had designed a contact lens that is a computer screen. The technology has not advanced to the point where someone can view the contents of a computer on the screen. Right now the screen just allows the wearer to change the image that is shown to the world on their eyes. But it is a screen, and the aim is to have people read their computers on their corneas. If such technology does emerge it will be years before everyone will be able to have access to it, and in the meantime libraries will continue to be the places of refuge and possibility for people who still like the idea of thinking and talking about thinking, and learning more and more about the world.