One of the reasons I love using both public and academic libraries is that I feel safe in them. I don't just mean safe from bodily harm; I mean safe to pursue my thoughts wherever they lead me. In medieval times, churches offered sanctuary to fugitives from the law. It didn't matter if you were guilty as sin or innocent: As long as you were physically in the church you were immune from arrest. In a figurative sense, free libraries, especially in the United States, have always offered intellectual sanctuary to their users. Within the privileged, quasi-sacred space of a library, users and the library staff who serve them have traditionally felt free to think, imagine, question, dream, and debate to their minds' as well as their hearts' content.
There are some risks associated with offering such sanctuary. Some of our patrons will test the limits not only of good taste but good sense. One of my earliest memories of the reading room of the central library in Gary, Indiana, where I grew up, was of an obsessed chess player who always played alone, and when he argued with his imaginary opponents he disturbed other patrons. Invariably, some library staff member would walk over to this man and say a few quiet, but firm words to him, calming him down by calling his attention to the fact that he was sharing space with other people. The rest of us then went on with our reading, having our own equally impassioned debates with our books, different from the chess player only because we chose not to talk aloud while we read.
Sure, if patrons truly are disruptive, not simply occasionally annoying, we have to show them the door. But what most of us mean by library sanctuary is not as dramatic as offering a criminal like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables safe haven from the law, let alone giving an eccentric chess player a place and permission to be alone with his imaginary opponents. What library sanctuary usually comes down to is the assurance each individual user has that he or she is not going to be the victim of a snoop.
Without the sanctuary of a library numerous books would never have been written. We would not have had Das Kapital if Karl Marx had not enjoyed the privilege of using the reading room of the British Museum. Without the resources of free public libraries in San Francisco an independent researcher like the longshoreman Eric Hoffer could never have written and published, in 1951, his odd but influential work of popular sociology, The True Believer. …