The Public Library as the 21st Century Agora


Last week I spent an amazing eight days in the birthplace of democracy – Athens, Greece.
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Along with the wonderful people, the amazing food (Thanks for the extra 8 pounds moussaka and tzatziki!), to be surrounded by that much history was inspiring. I had the opportunity to see so many ancient wonders including the Parthenon, Hadrian’s library (the emperors gift to one of his favorite cities), and magnificent Temple of Zeus. I was particularly taken with the ancient Agora.

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This was the place of Socrates and Plato. Where conversations birthed new ideas and new worlds.

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Socrates in the Agora Harry Bates

From Heather Whipps in LiveScience
http://www.livescience.com/4861-greek-agora-changed-world.html

What went on at the agora went beyond the simple daily transactions of the market. The conversations that happened there and the ideas that they bore continue to affect us to this day, from the way scientists carry out their work to how we pass our laws.
Nearly every city of ancient Greece had an agora – meaning meeting place – by about 600 B.C., when the classical period of Greek civilization began to flourish. Usually located near the center of town, the agora was easily accessible to every citizen…
The agora of Athens – the hub of ancient Greek civilization – was the size of several football fields and saw heavy traffic every single day of the week. Women didn’t often frequent the agora, but every other character in ancient Greece passed through its columns: politicians, criminals, philosophers and traders, aristocrats, scientists, officials and slaves….
Some of the world’s most important ideas were born and perfected within the confines of the Athenian agora including, famously, the concept of democracy….
The Athenian democratic process, whereby issues were discussed in a forum and then voted on, is the basis for most modern systems of governance.
Scientific theory also got its start in the agora, where the city’s greatest minds regularly met informally to socialize. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all frequented the Athenian agora, discussed philosophy and instructed pupils there.
Aristotle, in particular, is known for his contributions to science, and may have developed his important theories on the empirical method, zoology and physics, among others, while chatting in the agora’s food stalls or sitting by its fountains.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and its Hippocratic Oath, and Pythagoras, a mathematician who developed the geometric theory of a triangle’s sides, were both highly public figures who taught and shared ideas in their own hometown agoras.

So this set me to pondering…where is our Agora today? Some might say it can be found on our university campuses and certainly there is great thought and conversation happening in those spaces. However, when looked at critically, we can agree that these are not common areas where any and all citizens are welcome to freely wander and participate in discussions as they please. So where do these conversations on any and all topics between random citizens occur?
I know we can all see how vital these spaces and conversations were in ancient times to advance society and human knowledge among ALL citizens and not simply a select few – thus the basis for a democratic process and society. But are these conversations still necessary today?

In my time in Athens I noticed many heavily armed police. I have traveled extensively and this is not an unusual sight in my experience.  That said – this still felt like more than normal.
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My hotel was perfectly situated on Syntagma Square just catty-corner to the Greek parliament building, and during my stay I witnessed several small non-violent demonstrations.

My companion and I asked our hotel concierge what the signs said and what the protests were about, and they simply shrugged it off as “students being students” and “unhappy with various issues in the government”. Again nothing that was surprising! Certainly we are used to seeing signs and demonstrations in front of our own capital building in Washington DC. In fact, I thought to myself it was fascinating to see democracy in action in the “birthplace of democracy”.
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Unfortunately, what we witnessed was not the end and mere hours after leaving our hotel those simple demonstrations took a much more drastic turn:
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Shocking to say the least and certainly grateful that I had booked my return flight for that day, the entire episode left me thinking. How a city known as the birthplace of democracy home of the ancient Agora can turn so dramatically to a place where individuals feel their only option for change is that type of demonstration. Where have the days of the ancient Agora and the conversations that shaped civilization gone?

This is not a political blog nor would I ever dream of tackling the immensely difficult and complex issues that brought about the images in those photos- my world is Libraries- specifically Public Libraries. The culmination of a week spent walking among these ancient places steeped in the ideals of what a democratic society should and can be left me pondering the role of the public library. As I have repeatedly asserted that mission of the Public Library should be to provide the open and equal access to information that is necessary for the existence of an informed citizenry able to participate in their government, Part and Parcel with that information comes the conversations that it generates, and that in turn generate new information. The very same type of conversations that the Ancient Agora enabled. We talk about the public library as a community gathering place or living room. We talk often about the public library as a space for open conversation. In truth, there are not many of those such places left in our society. If that is the case, then it becomes even more important for the public library to actively promote the use of our spaces for such conversations. Bearing in mind that I am not suggesting the library and staff as facilitators or creators of content, simply creators of a space that is open to all, free of judgment or restriction, where the access to information we provide can be utilized as an inspiration and jumping off point for conversations about the very serious issues we face as a society.

We talked about how our programming, maker spaces, gathering spaces, books, digital content, and community conversations fit together and define the library of tomorrow. Perhaps it can be summed up most perfectly in the simple notion that all those offerings combine to make the 21st Century Public Library the 21st Century Agora.

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