Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “Libraries are … essential to the functioning of a democratic society … libraries are the great symbols of the freedom of the mind”. In a time of great change, when the relevance of libraries is under fire, his words still ring true. We need to remember that the support of a free, democratic society is perhaps the primary purpose of a public library.
Writing in the New York Times, Luis Herrera, city librarian of San Francisco, said that the library, more than any other place, captures the values of freedom of expression and democracy. “Libraries represent what we should never take for granted: the freedom to read, the freedom to choose and the freedom to share our ideas. The library’s mission to provide free and open access to information in all its myriad formats remains constant.”
The American Library Association has always been a strong champion of freedom of the press and the freedom to read. ALA's Banned Books Week helps raise public awareness of the ongoing threats to intellectual freedom. The Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is an ongoing source of information about the first amendment, censorship, academic freedom, and freedom of information. This work of the ALA and of libraries is particularly important in the current political climate of polarization; we need libraries as a place of neutrality, where information is available on every side of an issue, and where opposite views are equally respected.
Much of the current debate about the relevance of libraries focuses on the availability of information from the Internet. Why spend scarce tax dollars on libraries when we can get what we need on our computers at home or at McDonald’s? Of course this begs the question of Internet access for those who don’t have it at home because they can’t afford it.
According to a recent Pew survey, more than a quarter of all adults in the U. S. used the Internet at a library during the last year. The survey results show that this Internet availability is especially important to minorities, who may be less likely to have personal access to computers at home. In the survey, 92% of African Americans and 86% of Latinos said it was very important for libraries to offer free access to computers and the Internet, while 72% of whites felt it was very important. Our country is facing the greatest disparity between the haves and the have-nots in living memory. The digital divide is a part of that disparity and it is the role of libraries to close the gap as much as possible.
In his book, “The Great Good Place”, Ray Oldenburg puts forth the premise that third places are important for democracy in a civil society because they provide a venue for civic engagement. The first place is home, the second place is the workplace, but there is a need for a third space to serve as a place to relax and exchange ideas. Libraries, especially those with comfortable reading areas and community meeting rooms, are an ideal third space. At one of our community meetings to learn what Eastern Shore citizens wanted in a new main library, a patron said we need the library to be our community’s “third space”, an accessible place where people can meet on neutral ground and exchange ideas. When we consider the importance of libraries to our society, we should keep in mind the words of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison: “Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this.”