We know the public library makes a positive difference in our community. We know this by the large numbers of people who visit our libraries for access to information. We know it from the individual stories of how the public library changes lives. I recall one librarian’s story of a young boy who first begins to read in her presence. I call to mind another’s anecdote of a grandmother whom she helps set up her first email account to stay connected with far away family.
There are many wonderful experiences that make serving as a librarian worthwhile. But there are difficulties, too. The patron who is loud and disruptive. The vandal who leaves unseemly graffiti in the restroom. I want to share with you a recent saga.
It is Sunday afternoon. I have worked at the library six straight days but I am home today spending time with family. I am messaged on Facebook by a stranger. The exchange that follows begins with a “quick question” from the stranger. He is interested to know why Ronald McDonald is appearing at the library. I thank him for the question and explain the program is acclaimed for encouraging reading and literacy among young people. It’s Book Time with Ronald McDonald has been a positive experience in libraries coast-to-coast across the USA helping increase enthusiasm for books.
The stranger’s tone changes swiftly. He sends me a series of messages attacking the ethics and practices of McDonald’s, the public library, and me. He complains of corporations pushing unhealthy food choices to children. I respond politely to each communication. Mostly I share my experience with public-private partnerships in strengthening the library’s ability to further its mission of encouraging reading and literacy. No avail. I worry when the stranger becomes menacing: “I might just show up and make some trouble.” I take precautions by increasing security to ensure the events are safe for children and families who attend.
I am pleased to report a happy ending. The literacy programs take place without incident. A series of presentations at five libraries over two days. More than 400 people show up, but the stranger does not. Ronald McDonald is entertaining and professional. The result exceeds even my own lofty expectations for an engaging literacy promotion. There is no mention of food or eating. Importantly, hundreds of kids become more excited about reading.
I have never been very active in debates about food or allegations of corporate greed. Until now. Like a good librarian, I researched the topic. There is no doubt that McDonald’s has earned a reputation for less wholesome food over the years. It is the paragon, perhaps, of the words “fast foods” and the negative connotations these conjure. This is famously portrayed in the documentary film Super Size Me (2004). But in the last decade or so McDonald’s has been active in offering healthier food options for its customers. Eighty percent of their menu now is under 400 calories and includes several salads and fruits. A more recent counterpoint to Super Size Me is the story of Iowa high school teacher John Cisna who loses nearly sixty pounds in six months and sees his cholesterol level drop significantly while eating an all-McDonald’s diet. Cisna enlists his students to help him plan a healthy diet consisting solely of food sold by McDonald’s.
I do not advocate anyone eat exclusively at McDonald’s or any other restaurant. I do recommend individuals study things themselves and make informed choices. Which brings me back to the original purpose of the library’s Ronald McDonald program—encouraging young people to read. Literacy is a critical tool for a healthy and successful lifestyle in our modern world. Library district employees work hard on this every day, occasionally even in the face of hostility, vandalism, and other unpleasantness.
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