The value of owning books

Looking at the legacy of Margaret McNamara and her Reading is Fundamental program.

Mike Selby

Robert McNamara tried to do a lot of good in his life. As president of the World Bank, he spent 13 years and billions of dollars trying to eradicate poverty in 100 countries. He fought long and hard against countries stockpiling nuclear weapons, and—way back in 1963—he sought to eradicate racial and gender discrimination in the American military. As Secretary of Defence under both JFK and Lyndon Johnson, McNamara was a critical player in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis, earning him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During a stint at Ford Motors he was the first to implement the seatbelt, and worked tirelessly to create a less lethal steering wheel.

None of this has earned him an ounce of forgiveness for the millions of people who were maimed and killed during the Vietnam War—a war McNamara not only helped engineer, but also sustained by increasing troops and tonnage of bombs dropped to no end. Although he remained deeply haunted by his decisions for the rest of his life, he actions remain nothing short of evil.

Anyway, it is not McNamara we are interested in today—but his wife.

Margaret McNamara (maiden name Craig) was born in 1915 in Spokane, Washington. A gifted student, she studied education at the University of California in Berkeley (it was here where she first met her husband). After graduation she spent 20 years teaching biology and health in public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

After her husband was appointed Secretary of State, she tutored part time at Marymount College, and was heavily involved with President Johnson’s advisory council on antipoverty programs. This is where she first noticed the devastating effects generational poverty was having on student’s basic literacy skills. She began to visit schools as a reading-aide, where she found the problem was more widespread than anyone realized.  One entire grade fifth-grade class she visited could only read at a grade two level.

And it all began there, in that class, in November of 1966.  The fifth-grader Margaret was helping was 14-years old, having been held back year after year.  She was helping him read Jules Verne’s ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ which she had brought from home with her. When their time was up the student asked if he could take that book home. Margaret said he could keep the book, which made the young man burst into tears.

He had never owned a book.

Not only had he never owned one, but no one in his family did. Margaret surveyed the class to discover the majority of them had no books in their homes, let alone personally own one.

That evening Margaret called everyone she could think of to meet at her house. She wanted to start a new program that would “provide free books to children to choose and keep.” The following week a group of volunteers and Margaret visited two elementary schools, and distributed 60 books to the students.

Word spread immediately, and by the end of the week 60 elementary schools requested Margaret’s help. Realizing this would take far more volunteers and funding as well, she registered her group as a non-profit entity, calling it Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF for short.

Before Christmas, RIF had distributed 200,000 books to 41,000 students. The Ford Foundation gave RIF $285,000 to help expand its service outside of DC. By the end of 1967, millions were being given by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Scholastic, the Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, as well as from two celebrities: Carol Burnett and Ed Asner.

RIF became most well-known in the 1970s, when a series of television ads were aired around the world (the best known featured a young boy kicking a can through the streets of an abandon housing project, spotting a RIF truck, and someone giving him his first book).  This exposure lead the United States Congress to match dollar for dollar any donations. This enabled RIF to spread to underserved populations, such as American Indian reservations and juvenile detention centres.

Ownership of a book a child chooses themselves was Margaret’s unchanging mission for RIF.  ’’We feel if they choose and own some books, something will happen…they’ll be motivated to read. We don’t teach reading. We create the desire to read.”

Before her death in 1981, Margaret McNamara saw RIF distribute 163 million books. President Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year, which she deserved much more than her husband ever did.

Mike Selby is a reference librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library.