Public Libraries and Democracy

I am currently in the middle of reading Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman and yesterday I watched the re-released documentary on DVD. Given the subject matter of this work (Chomsky and Herman argue that as media outlets are run by corporations, they are under the same pressures as corporations leading to what they call the ‘propaganda model’), it got me thinking about our role in the exchange of ideas and information in a democratic society.

I have long been interested in the idea that librarians are a vital element in a democracy. Perhaps never more so than now, in the ‘information age’. An age where there is such a wealth of information out there, it is very difficult for the average person to navigate through it. After all do we really all have the time to sift through the mass of information out there to keep up to speed with current affairs and world events? Not only does this information need to be ‘sifted’, it also needs to be evaluated and analysed to determine its accuracy. How can anyone be expected to spare the time to analyse and evaluate the plethora of information that is out there?

And that is, I guess, where we step in (to a certain degree). Acting as a conduit between the library user and the wealth of information out there is a big responsibility. Libraries have an important role in ensuring that all sections of society are brought into the democratic process. Indeed, in 1990, the American Library Association adopted a policy entitled ‘Library Services for the Poor’ which stated:

…it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.

Former US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, also underlined the importance of public libraries in a democratic society, describing them as

the great symbols of the freedom of the mind….essential to the functioning of a democratic society.

Libraries ensure that everyone can gain access to information and thus partake fully in the democratic process. The role of a librarian is, therefore, absolutely crucial in a democracy. Without this access, the electorate become ill-informed in the actions of their representatives and are unable to partake in the democratic process. This is particularly a concern for the poorest in society who cannot afford books, let alone internet connections. Whilst the affluent can keep in touch with the democratic process with ease, the poor are left isolated and effectively disenfranchised.

Whilst I was having a think about the role of a librarian in democracies, I came across a journal article by John Abdul Kargbo [sub required], a librarian at the University of Sierra Leone. Coming from the perspective of a nation that, at the time of writing (1999), had only recently restored a democratic system and was at the centre of a bitter conflict, it was quite interesting to see the importance that they feel libraries have in such a system. Kargbo writes passionately about how simply installing a civilian government is not enough to create a democracy. As he states:

For democracy to succeed it is crucial that the institutions to support and invigorate the democratic process or ideals must exist.

These institutions, he reasons, include public libraries:

Libraries are powerful instruments of social and political change; they can help in the demands of democracy and the spread of literacy.

He goes on to reflect on just how important equality of access to information is in the democratic decision making process and the importance of the librarians role in that process. I think it is very easy for people in the West to forget just what an important role libraries play in society. Politicians (and elements of the media) have become obsessed with targets and tangible outcomes. The number of books that are issued by a public library has become the yardstick by which many measure the success or failure of a public library. However, the contribution a library makes to local society goes way beyond how many books are issued over the course of the year. There are certain intangible elements that need to be considered that cannot just be assessed in terms of concrete figures.

Furthermore, not only do they provide an important function in democracies, they are also essential in times of economic hardship. During a recession, libraries can support the unemployed in gaining new skills and finding employment. This certainly appears to be reflected in the news that library usage has increased in some authorities. Cumbria, for example, has recently announced that they have seen a 39% increase in new joins between September and December. Even then, however, there was still talk of the authority closing libraries – proof that even when the tangibles are impressive, authorities still consider closure.

Public libraries do play an important role in our society. They help to bring people into the democratic process and keep them informed as citizens about the actions of their representatives. They also play a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable during a recession and provide them with the tools they need to develop their skills and gain employment. In times of affluence these facts are easily forgotten. In times of recession we are reminded of their value to the community. Public libraries have not lost their relevance, maybe some of us have just forgotten what made them relevant.

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9 thoughts on “Public Libraries and Democracy

  1. “Chomsky and Herman argue that as media outlets are run by corporations, they are under the same pressures as corporations leading to what they call the ‘propaganda model’”

    That’s not a new observation, either – witness Belloc, “The Free Press” almost 100 years ago now! http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/166368929

    I don’t know how important public libraries are in democracy. Ranganathan thought they were essential; his famous 5 laws actually read like an evangelical polemic on education, democracy and so on: http://dlist.sir.arizona.edu/1220/

    I think if they support education, then yes, they are key. Plus for so many they can be a source of free Web access, which is taken for granted by us in the West.

  2. I think the importance of web access is so often forgotten about. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard dismissive comments about libraries having computers. As far as I am concerned, they are an information source that is otherwise expensive to gain access to and is essential to provide free of charge. Despite what some people think, not everyone has a computer with internet access at home.

    Oh and thanks for providing the Ranganathan link. Will bookmark it and add it to my reading list straight away!

  3. Pingback: Dissertation Stations « Walk You Home

  4. I like to think of democracy as what it is not – facism, feudalism, etc. Fundamentally in a democracy we are free (in theory at least, crime not-withstanding). There is a union of values between what it is to be human and happiness and libraries:

    “the universal desire for an increase of human happiness” http://bit.ly/bdtK0J

    With libraries we are freer, in many ways, including to define the social organisation that is all important to our lives.

    G.

  5. As a further thought 🙂 and on the subject of the media itself. It’s funny that capitalism was born of democracy[1], yet it can be an enemy of freedom and democracy[2].

    [1] Am I correct in saying this, or is capitalism baggage carried over from earlier times?
    [2] What else in our society is an enemy of freedom and democracy?

  6. I could get into that here but best not! It’s an interesting question though. And I think you’re dead on…libraries do make you free-er!

  7. Pingback: Sonderbooks » Blog Archive » Fairfax County Public Library Budget Cuts

  8. Pingback: Free choice without free information? | thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian…

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