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Libraries hold the power to transform lives and break down barriers — so it’s no wonder they often come under attack, Caroline Kennedy told a packed house Sunday at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association (ALA).

“They are, in a sense, tabernacles of personal freedom … and freedom to dissent,” said Kennedy, a longtime library booster, the author of several books and the daughter of two famous readers: President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

Intellectual freedom can be threatening to those in power, which is why the Germans destroyed libraries in World War II and why the post-9/11 Patriot Act sought access to individuals’ library records, Kennedy said.

The threats facing the nation’s libraries today are in some ways more insidious, she said, from doubts about relevance in the digital era to the constant erosion of budgets. The average investment in libraries across the country is $8 per resident, not enough to buy one book, she pointed out.

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“In difficult economic times, people need libraries more than ever,” she said.

The meeting of the world’s largest and oldest library association drew more than 10,000 people to Seattle, one American city where use of, and support for, libraries is on the rise.

Voters approved a $123 million levy in 2012 that is allowing the Seattle Public Library to rebuild collections and expand hours after several years of cuts. According to the ALA’s 2012 “State of America’s Libraries” report, Seattle led the nation with a 50 percent increase in library circulation over the past six years.

But nationwide, libraries are grappling with fast-changing digital technology at the same time many face dwindling budgets, said ALA President Maureen Sullivan. Library users are clamoring for more e-books, but some publishers refuse to sell them to libraries. Those that do often restrict the number of times e-books can be loaned, or charge libraries five to 10 times the average cost, Sullivan said.

Modern libraries don’t bear much resemblance to the hushed halls of the past, Kennedy said. They serve as community hubs, where new immigrants learn their way around, where people develop new job skills, and where anyone can gain access to the Internet — even if it’s just to play games.

Kennedy credited her love for books to her parents, who encouraged her and her brother, the late John F. Kennedy Jr., to read widely. “I am descended from a long line of bookworms and amateur librarians,” she said.

Every Mother’s Day, the youngsters each selected a poem and copied it out for their mother, who kept the offerings in a scrapbook. Caroline Kennedy still has that book, and she continued the tradition with her own children.

Not all the entries are lofty. Kennedy recited a four-line selection from her brother about a boy named Willie who nailed his sister to the door.

But short, funny poems are one way to hook reluctant readers, she pointed out.

Kennedy’s newest book is an anthology called “Poems to Learn by Heart,” which will be released in March. Among her upcoming projects is serving as honorary chair of National Library Week in April.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or

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