While the War on Women and Chick-fil-A might be getting all the juicy headlines lately, there’s another issue quietly smoldering in the background noise of this election season. It’s buried under all the campaign rhetoric and doom-and-gloom forecasts about the economy.
"We need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. "John F. Kennedy
But I have yet to see a demonstration to save the libraries. Or read national news coverage about the potential collapse of one society’s most valuable resources. Indeed, it wasn’t by accident that our nation’s founding fathers established the first American lending library.
But the truth is that the state of our public libraries is a kind of litmus test of not only our economic health but that of our democracy, too. After all, libraries are the free, democratization of education, unbiased research, and uncensored enlightenment.
It was President John F. Kennedy who made this plea for the sanctity of our libraries:
If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.
Here are some reasons why our libraries are still the place where we as a nation will achieve our destiny:
- The house of the 99%: The foundation of democracy is an educated electorate. When the economy is down, it is all the more vital that we the people have access to information, education, news… and now in modern times the internet, computers, and other sources of media tools as well. Libraries do that. For everyone.
- Libraries build equity: Research shows that depressed neighborhoods and declining communities are not just culturally enriched by libraries. The institutions serve as a community focal point, like a town square, and communities that have that resource rebound.
- Community hope chest: Libraries don’t just curate the Harry Potter series and lend copies of the latest blockbusters on DVD, they also house special collections based on the needs and unique identities of the communities they serve. The library district where I live houses a special collection on a World War II magnesium plant that helped turned the tide of the war (as well as establishing the second largest city in Nevada). That’s living history that gets lost without a public space to keep it alive.
- Renewable resource: How much do you save by being able to borrow materials from the library? How helpful is it to have this resource — especially now that even retail bookstores, movie rental shops, and record stores are closing? There’s a calculator for that.
- Literacy: Studies show (PDF) that children’s literacy is greatly improved by access to summer reading programs and preschool reading programs at public libraries. And children’s literacy is a building-block of adult literacy. When I was in college I interned at a non-profit that worked on illiteracy, targeting at-risk youth. I worked in their summer reading program at an elementary school with one of the lowest rates of economic depression in the state (Oregon). This meant that most of the kids who went to that school were enrolled in summer school — even if they were good students — simply because it was a cheaper alternative to child care. At the end of the program each child got to pick out one brand-new book to keep. For all but just a few of the children, it was the first book they ever owned. Maybe you don’t “own” the books at the library (although, as a tax-payer I would argue we do), but the libraries are a place where the socio-economic realities that push the starting line so far back for so many can be equalized. And that’s like a small miracle in the life of a child who has already had to learn how to be hard in the face of a world that cuts them no breaks. There are very few individuals who could buy every child a book and start them on the road to literacy. (And it’s been shown that access to books in childhood is one of the biggest predictors of literacy.) But all of us together can buy a kid a building full of books. That is a miracle.
- Leveling the playing field: Libraries offer vital resources for communities that might not otherwise be served or feel integrated. People learning English (or other languages), the elderly, deaf people, the homeless… the list goes on.
- Safe space: In some communities, the public library may be the only free space available that is also a safe space. Young victims of bullying, kids who live with domestic violence, LGBT youth, and many more can find a safe place (and often a caring librarian) at the library. I know from personal experience — having spent time camped at my local library when I had no other safe place to go as a teenager.
- Cultural touchstone: Many libraries showcase art — often by local artists. Likewise, the buildings themselves are often architecturally significant and enhance the beauty and character of the communities they serve.
- Drop in or drop out: Libraries can also be a place that means the difference between a child’s success or failure in school. Many libraries offer tutoring programs, free classes, as well as access to volumes of information and technology that a kid might not have anywhere else. Believe it or not, even in these modern times there are kids who don’t have computers at home who need to type their papers for school. There are kids who can’t afford the expensive private tutor to get through Algebra. Libraries can make the difference to a kid teetering on the edge. And high school dropout rates have a direct correlation to the health of a community.
These days, there are a lot of people talking about how nobody reads anymore. But that’s just wrong. People are reading ALL THE TIME. People are on Facebook, on Wikipedia, on blogs… They are using e-readers to read virtual copies of books. They are downloading newspapers to their tablet devices. People still read. And people read books — with pages and paper and bindings — too. But the fact is, there’s all kinds of other stuff besides books that libraries do for people in our community every day. Book programs for shut-ins. After-school and summer programs for youth. Did I mention toddler story time?
But more than that, it may just be the last free space that is truly free and there for everyone — homeless, young, old, rich, poor, and any race under the sun. We are all welcome there. We are all equal there.
Doesn’t that seem like a space too valuable to lose?
Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.
I would be lost without my Library, being an avid reader I always know that I can go and sit quietly and read about my favorite characters, my kids can borrow books and dream of a brighter future and i can reisit my favorite destinations without having to leave the comfort of my well used leather chair
Lloyd: Everybody knows that taxes exist. Like it or not, we live in a world of nation-states, so I'd much rather see those states spending their ill-gotten gains on libraries open to the public than internet surveillance networks or military equipment for police forces. Even if you're into the whole "smash the state" thing I still think libraries ought to be among the lowest priority targets for the shrinking of government.
Yes, we should. The biggest reason for their decline has been a failure of our education system to teach reading in such a way as to encourage their use.
We should always support these essential institutions of history and knowledge. To do otherwise is just wrong
People wouldn't know the philosophy of ethics unless books were available to read. Since not everyone can afford the books or a college classes specifically discussing ethics, one has the opportunity to read about ethics for free in a library
Send your money to [email protected] via PayPal. One reason: ETHICS
Public libraries are neither desired nor required. How can you tell? People are not willingly funding them, but are forced at gun-point via taxation to pay for them.
I'll give someone a dollar if they could give a viable reason not to save public libraries (i.e. something other than saving a little money, which wouldn't amount to much anyways)
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RALLY TO SAVE OUR LIBRARIES!!
Saturday, July 27th 2:00pm at Concord Library,
(get there by 1:30!) 112th Ave/SW 40th St (Bird Rd)
Between Sally Beauty & YouFit Gym; in strip mall in front of Winn Dixie)
Bring posters, noisemakers, friends.
Please let the TV news cameras know!!! (If you have any way of
contacting any, or all, forms of media, PLEASE do so)
If WE don't speak up and let the Commissioners know about the things that we value, they will naturally use our tax monies for whatever they see fit. (So don’t complain later!)
Spread the word! AND SHOW UP!
LIBRARIES equal LIBERTY!!!
sign the petition at:
Offer any thing significantly more distinct?
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Libraries in the US are such a personal and cultural touchstone. I just drove past my old elementary school and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the school had recently undergone significant remodeling. The library is in a new building, but it's been renamed for the librarian who served that school for decades and was the person who taught me how to use a card-catalog almost 30 years ago.
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This is the best article I've seen about why we need to save and preserve our libraries. I'm not in the US, but the reasons are the same in any country. I divide my time between the UK and Australia, and they're having the same problems about short-sighed people trying to cut library services. Well done, Emmily Bristol
Great article. I remember as a very young student in the early 1950s going to the childrens section of our library. I would get books that just dazzled me and incidently get me to read the vast panorama of reading material available even today. Although I never graduated from college, I feel just as educated from this reading (Homer to Steinbeck to Algebra) as a person with a Masters degree. New with grandchildren, more than ever I want the libraries to stay open to all. Get involved with your library. Now I know what one of the things I will be doing in retirement.
Bravo to the writer of the article who linked to the research to support these assertions. And bravo to Amanda Le for pointing out a crucial addition to the 9 wonderful uses of libraries -- how they use and promote technology and distribute digital resources, reaching a much wider audience than those who actually go through the doors. Homebound seniors or working people can borrow books on their e-readers, students can gather articles from the article databases, and take notes from digital encyclopedias, knowing the sources are authoritative and vetted by librarians; home mechanics can look up repair manuals for vehicles, career changers can study for civil service exams, and much much more!!!! And a final point -- it is the people in charge, not just tradition, that makes the library uniquely suited to serve their particular community. Due to their skill sets, sensitivity, and passion for their work, as well as knowledge of the patrons, the librarians, and the team that supports them, tailor the collection and services to the community. The potential to serve is vast, (the need is bottomless) and the budget cuts tragically curtail this enormous potential.
Thank you Emmily!
Your nine reasons and quotes and references will be used to help us as as we go for an assessment- Measure L!!!
Great article that is worth sharing. Since my training is for school libraries and now I run a church library and help support a children's hospital library, I will add that their importance goes along with the public libraries. Cuts are made all the time to all kinds of libraries, and some folks see them as nonessential in today's world, but it is not so. I applaud this list and all those fighting to keep libraries alive and well.
Great points, but you forgot a major one--that libraries are oftentimes the only place the unemployed can search and apply for jobs. As a library assistant in a public library, we see dozens of people per day doing just this. Also, libraries offer free access to entertainment sources such as DVDs, CDs and video games. It's not just the "literate" that are served by libraries nowadays; on the contrary, the majority of our patrons are low-to-middle income folks seeking access to public computers and free entertainment materials.
The democratic spirit is under threat right now. Libraries, free and open libraries, have long been the backbone of the democratic spirit. They are essential as community centers and all things mentioned in the ten points. They are also in transition, a moment in history the commercially oriented American Library Association rarely mentions. Yes, I had a wonderful career as a librarian, but I worry a lot about the survival of the public library.
The link to this story was posted on the I Love Libraries Facebook Page - https://www.facebook.com/ILoveLibraries/posts/453733264667390 - where it has received many likes! Also, some make note of the demonstrations and protests and campaigns that have previously and are currently taking place to save libraries in their communities.
I feel that libraries aren't really promoted... I understand that it is hard enough now a days to keep them open, so the added cost of promoting them can't be covered. But what could be some low to no cost ideas??
I think the role of technology also plays an important role in public libraries. I know as a university student, a lot of the traditional resources a library offers is now available through their online database making it way more convenient to not have to physically be in a library but to be able to find the resources you need much faster by just utilizing the search bar. But besides the use of libraries solely for research needs, the points you mention I think are still crucial and hold values that can't be replaced by technology.
Don't worry, there are a handful of us out here who specialize in teaching librarians how to do better marketing & promotion. Many of us have written books, and we give webinars, etc. Those who want to learn can find us... But then they need the time & money to get the training, as well as permission to implement ideas & campaigns.
Libraries already do so much with so little... they need all the help they can get. You can check my website or ILoveLibraries dot com to get ideas on what you can do to help.