Public libraries | Democracy | Activism | Library services
by Brendan Howley
Fifty-six years ago, on Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy put millions of Americans to a very particular test: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s call to action has the feel of a different time—of a different America—when libraries were reverential places where books came and went in silence, except for the soft thump of the librarian’s rubber stamp on the due date card.
Welcome to the battered U.S. social compact of 2017, the centenary of Kennedy’s birth. Perhaps never since the chaos of the civil rights movement slamming into the nascent resistance of the Vietnam War has America been so darkly, damagingly split. Culturally, politically, emotionally, and even spiritually, the country has precious little common ground.
Libraries are that common ground. Moreover, they at once stand apart from their communities—as trusted repositories of a community’s past and intellectually honest resources for the community’s future—and couldn’t be closer to the day-to-day pulse of community life. They aren’t alone as essential services: Museums and hospitals, each in their own ways, serve vital needs of identity and care. But libraries are custodians of the very fabric of society, because they nurture discovery, self-worth, and belief in possibility, and they share the tools to make social goods manifest.
And libraries share something else, something intangible that needs to be made tangible: inclusivity. Libraries serve everyone without distinction. Standing up to the Department of Homeland Security, which Edward Snowden cheered in a now-famous tweet, a New Hampshire public library and its community—with the help of the Library Freedom Project—protected their patrons’ privacy by installing an anonymous internet browsing network. This is no small thing—and I write this as someone who, in his past life, was an investigative journalist specializing in intelligence and counterintelligence matters. Read more…