Director’s Corner January 2017
What is the Value of a Public Library?
In 1942, speaking to the American Library Association, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides the world, and for two reasons: first, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society; second, because the contemporary conflict touches the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the mind and even the survival of culture—and libraries are the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.” More than seventy years ago, these were heady words, but do they still have relevance today? Let’s unpack.
Ultimately, a society rests upon the communities that comprise it, and today’s libraries act as hubs for those communities. They provide a space for public forums where community groups can meet, where community issues can be discussed, and where community voices can connect and be heard in a civil and equitable environment.
A community begins, however, with the people inhabiting it, and libraries play a significant role in helping people to more effectively participate in their communities. “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote, and libraries engage in a lifelong commitment to helping people develop themselves as informed citizens in order to more effectively participate in their communities. In fact, librarians are information specialists, connecting people to the wealth of information resources (in print and audio-visual form, or even online), selecting material to fit the community’s needs, and creating helpful programming and extensions of educational work.
The library’s role in this process starts early in our lives, as children can attend story hours and early reading classes, awakening them to the power of literacy. Later, they will find that the library is a place where they can receive help on homework after school, join clubs to find and discuss their favorite books, or even play games. As Laura Bush put it, “Libraries allow children to ask questions about the world and find the answers. And the wonderful thing is that once a child learns to use a library, the doors to learning are always open.”
For adults, libraries continue to provide information resources; the 68% of Americans who carry library cards borrow more than 2 billion items per year. But they find other uses for their libraries, as well. They find the means to stay engaged in a digital world, honing their skills in the computer classes the library offers. They find assistance with job applications in their search for productive work. And senior citizens find out how to best take advantage of their social security benefits. Perhaps that’s why Maya Angelou opined, “I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.”
As for libraries being “symbols of the freedom of mind” … standing as they do at the crossroads between information and communities, libraries have become important advocates for Americans’ constitutional rights. The rights to read, to think, to discuss and listen to ideas in a public forum, as well as the right to individual privacy, are essential to an open society, and have been vigorously championed by library professionals. Libraries must also consider equality, which has an enormous impact on our customer’s quality of life. Our libraries have always served to level the playing field by providing free and equal access to materials, and so we must design our programs to be inclusive and adaptable.
The Public Library is one of the most diverse resources, and one of the most inclusive environments, in our community. By being committed to helping adults and kids to thrive in a global information society, it helps bring the principles of democracy and the American dream to everyone’s life. “A library,” to quote Henry Ward Beecher, “is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.”
Edited by Bryce Berggren and Bryant Berggren,
See you at the library. – Kathy Berggren, Library Director