Enjoy the freedom to dream at your nearest public library
Last month saw two major events in literary history. Jan. 1 was the 200th anniversary of the publication of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley; then, on Jan. 23, famed American novelist Ursula Le Guin passed away. Other than happening in the same month, one event seems to have very little to do with the other. However, taken together, they give us a way to think about education, science and the amazing power that the imagination has to guide us into the technological future.
In 1818, Mary Shelley published her novel anonymously at age 20 at the urging of her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their frequent companion Lord Byron. They had been on a trip to Geneva, and on a cold and rainy night challenged each other to write a story in the style of the German ghost stories they encountered while traveling. Far from being the horror story that we see in Hollywood movies, Shelley’s novel is informed by great works of literature, like Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the cutting-edge science of the day.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s anniversary edition of the book (www.frankenbook.org) shows that Mary’s father was friends of Erasmus Darwin, scientist and an early proponent of ideas that would find their way into his son Charles’ theory of natural selection. Mary’s mother died shortly after she was born and she was raised by her father who provided her with an expansive education not available to even the wealthiest of women of the time. So when Mary was introduced to the newly introduced theory of galvanism – that our muscles move because of electric currents in the body – she had a fertile mental ground in which to sow the seeds of the new science.
Science and a rich intellectual heritage was also a key part of Ursula Le Guin’s upbringing. She wrote numerous works of science fiction and fantasy, the most well-known of which are the six “Wizard of Earthsea” novels. Unlike many science fiction novels, Le Guin’s stories focused on cultural and ethical issues (rather than interstellar conflict) and usually had people of color as main characters.
Panoply of ideas
Le Guin’s parents – an anthropologist and a writer – were friends with a wide range of scholars and scientists. Many of them, including physicist Robert Oppenheimer, were frequent visitors to the family’s summer home and surrounded young Ursula with a panoply of ideas. Even as a child, she used writing science fiction and fantasy stories as “a method” for understanding the world. In a 2014 interview with Smithsonian magazine, Le Guin described the future as “... a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas” where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native.” It is, she said, “a means of thinking about reality.”
With both great women, it was the combination of education, science and the freedom to dream they had while young that allowed them to produce some of the greatest literature of our time. Today education is a much more practical matter – we strive to make limited tax dollars as effective as possible in training our young people to be successful in a world of rapid technological change. There is often very little space left to dream.
This is why STEM education fits so well in the Library environment. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math focused education is the latest effort to prepare students for the changes that are fundamentally changing the world of work. The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, like libraries nationwide, is working side by side with schools and colleges to give students and adults the skills they need to be successful in the future.
Expand your horizons
But unlike other places, when you’re in the library and take a break from reprogramming your robot or uploading your code to the 3D printer, you will find millions of other worlds close at hand. Whether it is Earthsea or a mad scientist’s laboratory; the bridge of the Starship Enterprise or the hold of the Millennium Falcon; possibilities undreamt of in your imagination are available for the taking – all with a simple free card. Libraries offer everyone the opportunity to visit these other worlds, and the time and space to dream. As author Cory Doctorow puts it, “Science fiction does something better than predict the future: it influences it.”
At the library, we hope that, one day, a few of your dreams might find their way into reality and make our world a better place. I like to think that Mary Shelley and Ursula Le Guin would approve.
Aimee Fifarek is the new executive director of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.