Dr. King’s library inspires too

I think that Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. would be pleased to see how we celebrate his life and legacy each year.

Many Americans gather for interfaith and interracial worship services, engage in community service projects and spend time examining our progress in eliminating poverty, racism and violence. Ever since Dr. King’s birthday has became a national holiday, I have done all of these.

But this year will be different. I plan to honor Dr. King by starting to give away most of my library one book at a time. And, I’d like to urge others to join me by sharing the gift of knowledge and literacy with young people. After 40 years of building a personal library comprising thousands of books, I will begin to deconstruct it by sharing those books and inscribing each one with a personal note to my former students, friends, and other interested people. It would be easier to pack them into boxes and donate them to an institution. And, my wife would be thrilled by this stroke of instant decluttering. But, I want this gesture to be more than philanthropy or housecleaning. I want it to be a transfer of knowledge and of my love of learning. Harvard professor Helen Vendler said that it is the job of teachers and adults to teach our students to love the things that we have loved.

My decision to do this came after spending time with Dr. King’s library and his personal papers at Morehouse College, Stanford University, and the King Center in Atlanta. It was a privilege to read his notes, questions, disagreements, favorite quotes and new ideas scribbled in the margins of special books and handwritten manuscripts.

Soon, the world will be able to see those inspiring and wise documents on exhibition at the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. King’s library is important because it offers clues about the making of a great mind and a courageous leader. His ideas about the world, about race, war, and even God evolved and changed over time, and it is exciting and interesting to follow that movement.

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 80 percent of American households did not purchase a single book last year. As traditional bookstores are vanishing, this trend will grow worse, contributing to a crisis of literacy for many young people especially the four-fifths of Americans who have never read an e-book. The unsettling thing is that I may be part of the problem.

I have nearly stopped buying hard copy books and begun to purchase electronic books. My new library is now increasingly inside the cyber cloud and available on my mobile devices. Also, I almost never write a note by hand. Emails and texts have become my compositional currency.

Despite the Pew Research Center’s finding that 20 percent of Americans have read an e-book and e-book readers read more than print book readers, I don’t think that losing printed books is a very good trend for the future of civilization. What texts will archeologists look for in a thousand years?

So, until I can figure out a way to change the tide, I’m doing my best to keep the printed books I love in circulation, and transforming them into gems that I hope others will cherish. The King Holiday is a time for every American to do something tangible to reduce violence, eliminate prejudice and eradicate poverty. But, it is also a time to be inspired to share books, support literacy and preserve the ancient glory of the printed word.

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. is the director of Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion and President Emeritus of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He will be guest speaker at the Erie Bayfront Convention Center today for the Martin Luther King Center’s Fourth Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Awards Dinner. Franklin will also be a guest speaker during the Chautauqua community’s annual celebration of King’s legacy at Hurlbut Memorial Community Church, located on the Institution grounds, at 11 a.m. Monday.