Of the People, for the People: Public Libraries Serve Democracy

By Tyckoson, David A. | American Libraries, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Of the People, for the People: Public Libraries Serve Democracy


Tyckoson, David A., American Libraries


THE PUBLIC LIBRARY IS OFTEN THE SINGLE MOST DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTION IN THE COMMUNITY

It's an election year, and it seems that despite all the political, economic, social, and military abuses that have been inflicted on our system for more than two centuries, democracy has survived and grown stronger. Libraries and librarians have a lot to do with that, of course; as librarians, we work to promote and preserve the concept of democracy every day. The three basic elements of democracy--that power is derived from the people, that the majority rules, and that rights of the individuals and the principles of social equality should be respected--are part of daily practice in the public library, which is often the single most democratic institution in the community.

Now it's time to unwrap the red, white, and blue and look more closely at how libraries and librarians contribute to and support a democratic society.

Where we come from

The founders of the public library movement had a mission. They believed that by providing books to all members of the community, they would elevate the status and production of the community as a whole. To those founders, a community with a public library was better off--intellectually, culturally, morally, and (they hoped) economically--than a community without one.

Still, it's important to remember that the free public library as we know it today is the relatively recent product of a long evolution. According to library educator Jesse Shera, this evolution had three stages, each of which provided significantly greater democratic access than the previous one.

* Social libraries--The earliest libraries in this country date from the mid-18th century and were called "social libraries." These institutions were essentially rooms of books available to members of the sponsoring organizations. Membership costs were high (thus only the elite class of the community could join), and books were not allowed to leave the room. Those social libraries were essentially men-only clubs disguised as intellectual establishments, but they planted the idea that a library was a positive and desired force within a community.

* Subscription libraries--The next stage was the creation shortly thereafter of subscription (or circulating) libraries, which were intended to fill the needs of members of the community who were excluded from the social libraries. Subscription libraries still operated under a membership system, but at much lower costs than the social libraries. Members could either buy an annual membership or pay a small amount for each book read. (Does this sound familiar? Think of the membership options offered by today's commercial Internet service providers.) Access was increased, and members could take books out for specified periods.

* The free library--Seeing the democratic and civic value of libraries for all people, a few New England visionaries had the idea of establishing a "free library" that would be open to all members of the community. By replacing membership or use fees with community funding sources (usually taxes), they developed the concept of the public library that we know today. The Boston Public Library, founded in 1854, become the first such institution. Within a few decades, a library became the benchmark for any civilized community--a source of pride and a symbol of learning and culture. Today, there are 16,213 public libraries in the United States--more than there are McDonald's restaurants! Virtually everyone in this country lives within a free public library's jurisdiction.

Think globally, fund locally

Communities are able to support many private services, from schools to day-care centers to transportation; but there are very few private libraries and none that compete with public libraries.

Funding for public libraries is almost entirely local. Funding formulas differ tremendously, however, and libraries vary widely in size and scope. …

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