Not WHY?, But WHY! Libraries Are Needed

A comment to my January 27 Post Introducing: A 21st Century Library Model was of such important insight, that I felt it deserved a Post of its own. It is from a Gen X capitol city library director.

I think she has hit on the fundamental basis for establishing the library’s significance in the 21st Century, or any century. That is what the profession has been lacking – a proper explanation of the one fundamental issue on which we can base our indisputable need to exist. This may well be it. I have quoted her comment below (using some editorial license emphasizing particularly important points).

[Begin quote]
“My thought is this: part of [what] I think libraries problem is this vaguery that we attach to our purpose. I was reading on the IFLA [International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions] website and it stated; ‘The public library is a locally based service meeting the needs of the local community and operating within the context of that community.’

Seriously? What does that mean…how is that helpful? A service meeting WHAT needs? I mean, the sentence could be rewritten for the local butcher shop. “The Snyder Bro. Butcher Shop is a locally based service meeting the needs of the local community and operating within the context of that community.” It is about as useful and meaningful.

Nothing these days seems to say WHAT we do or what need we are fulfilling. Some days I feel like I am the only person still saying The purpose of the free public library is to create an informed citizenry that is capable of participating in self-governance. I thought that was what the American library was for. And, from THAT comes a whole lot of ways to provide that service and to define “What” an informed citizen is. As in, does access to the Sopranos TV show help you self govern? In my mind yes, because it allows you to participate in discussions based in popular culture that lead to communication and conversation about our society, culture, and way of life which ultimately impacts our politics and how we govern ourselves.

At another place on the IFLA website it says: ‘The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.’ (IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, 1994) Frankly I don’t agree. This mission makes us easily replaceable…which is really something we should avoid. I mean, in this definition you could replace public library with bookstore, Internet, social club, church group…you name it.

Now this statement (oddly also in IFLA–they seem to have some confusion on what they think the library is) is the best…but still not as clear and concise as the one I always use (which also makes us irreplaceable): ‘A public library is an organization established, supported and funded by the community, either through local, regional or national government or through some other form of community organization. It provides access to knowledge, information and works of the imagination through a range of resources and services and is equally available to all members of the community regardless of race, nationality, age, gender, religion, language, disability, economic and employment status and educational attainment.This one is [also] lacking because it doesn’t say WHY we do this…and THAT is the most crucial piece.

And, as a public library director I fight the constant battle with the politicians, the non-user taxpayers, the staff and frankly some days inside my own head of WHY do we do this…Are we still relevant? What is the point? And, when I consider the 21st century library, I still feel like the HOW needs grounding in the WHY.

During my MBA program they talked a lot about the sustainable business. A company that makes buggy whips or wagon wheels is going to be out of business in short order versus the business that makes accessories for things that transport people. If libraries want to last from century to century then we have to stay grounded in WHY we are unique and then HOW to provide the service in the current landscape. But don’t let the How overshadow the Why. NO ONE does what we do, IF you look at the free and equal access to information for all citizens to create a people capable of sustainable self-government. We take it for granted, but ours is a system dependant upon a populace capable of sustaining itself. The Roman republic only lasted 565 years…we are on year 235.”
[End quote]

If any additional justification for the Director’s argument is needed, it can be found in a quote from President James Madison in a letter written in 1822;
“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

In the Supreme Court case Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 438 U.S. 30-32 (1978) Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion in which he quoted Madison:
“The preservation of a full and free flow of information to the general public has long been recognized as a core objective of the First Amendment to the Constitution. . . . In addition to safeguarding the right of one individual to receive what another elects to communicate, the First Amendment serves an essential societal function. Our system of self-government assumes the existence of an informed citizenry.” [Emphasis added.]

The reason libraries are needed is because it is a fundamental right of America’s citizens to have free access to information and knowledge.

1 Comment

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One response to “Not WHY?, But WHY! Libraries Are Needed

  1. Tess

    Very good points. Thanks!

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