On the Importance of Libraries

One of the more pleasant unintended consequences of my dissertation research was unearthing how the values of privacy, autonomy, and freedom of inquiry are central to the institution of the public library. I argue that libraries serve as spheres of intellectual mobility, where citizens enjoy the ability to read, inquire, and learn free from undue answerability and oversight.

Excellent starting points for these arguments include:

  • American Library Association. (2006). Intellectual freedom manual (7th ed.). Chicago: American Library Association. (link)
  • Foerstel, H. N. (1991). Surveillance in the stacks: The FBI’s library awareness program. New York: Greenwood Press. (link)
  • Foerstel, H. (2004). Refuge of a scoundrel: The Patriot Act in libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. (link)

Library Juice’s “Library Paradigm” sums up the importance of libraries best:

Libraries are special because they are at once communitarian, libertarian, and models for sustainability.

They are communitarian in the economic sense because they are built on solidarity. A community pools its resources in order to share them.

Libraries are libertarian in the social/intellectual sense (civil libertarian) because of the ethic of intellectual freedom, which says that all ideas should be included and nothing censored.

This combination of economic communitarianism and social/intellectual libertarianism creates the ideal support system for a democratic society, because the library provides everyone with access to ideas and provides access to every idea.

In addition, libraries are models for sustainable systems. By following the “borrow, don’t buy” ethic, libraries provide an alternative to consumerism, an alternative to environmentally unsound overproduction and spiritually unsound overconsumption.

And libraries are further exciting because they need to be changed. They tend to leave out alternative or street-level materials; there is presently a tendency toward privatization of services and functions (with attendant barriers to access); libraries and library organizations need their decision-making processes democratized; access to local community information in libraries needs to be improved; in general, libraries tend to depart routinely from their founding principles as they struggle for a handhold in the environment of an increasingly neoliberal political economy and an increasingly reactionary social climate. We need to advance the Library Paradigm of information organization, preservation and access, to freshly propagate the idea of the library in society in terms of its underlying principles.

Notwithstanding their imperfections, libraries serve as a rare example of beautiful ideals actually functioning successfully in the world. This means that libraries should serve as a model for other institutions and endeavors. We need to spread the Library Spirit across society and teach it, as a model for positive change beyond the walls of libraries and throughout all contexts of information, communication, and learning. This is the Library Paradigm, and we can make it grow.

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