Oh! Obama!

(n.b. Man oh man, you LITA bloggers rock!)

If it weren’t for Heidi I know I wouldn’t be sitting here live-blogging the Opening General Session, because my brain wanted to be here but my body was telling me otherwise. “Go to the hotel bar and get a glass of wine,” my feet were saying, even though my mind said “But it’s BARACK, and don’t you want to say someday you remember when President Obama spoke to ALA?”

Time for a little help from my friends. With Heidi’s encouragement, just a cab ride later we were in the huge cave of the McCormick’s North Hall, soaking up the mounting excitement and basking in Mayor Daley’s library-uxurious comments (“The federal government should not interfere with libraries. The federal government should be helping libraries!”).

The Senator is up on the stage now. He’s cracking jokes about being a rambunctious kid who had to be given “time outs” from the library, a much better way to warm up this crowd than the usual “libraries meant everything to me” formulas we typically hear from speakers from outside our profession. He then talks about intellectual freedom, referring to authoritarians who want to “control the word,” and now he’s being frank about the attempts to suppress information about evolution and global warming. The crowd cheers when he says, “Our liberty depends on our ability to access the truth.”

Now he is talking about the importance of libraries in his life, but it’s concrete and fresh: talking about the way libraries were a comfort to him as a youth when he was “lost and confused.”

He says to us that we’ve been there to be “full-time defenders” of intellectual freedom, and he says in turn he’s worked to protect us so that we have a Patriot Act that helps us catch terrorists but doesn’t trample on our freedoms. He emphasizes that this is not an either/or proposition: we can fight terrorism while protecting the freedoms we fought for in the first place.

On to literacy and reading. “Literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy we’re entering today.” He points out that in old times, an education wasn’t absolutely essential to make a decent living, but those days are gone. Now he’s back on the need for reading. “How can we send our children out into the world when they’re only reading at the fourth grade level?” Kids aren’t served by high schools that close at 1:30 because they don’t have the funding to stay open later. Kids need early education so they are not behind the first day they start school.

We’ve had some great Opening General Session speakers during my 13 years in ALA, but Barack Obama came here, spoke our language, showed he understood our values, thanked us for our work, and promised to continue supporting us. He’s my “patriot act.”