Do Public Libraries Promote Democracy?

In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Dr. Wiegand challenges the traditional theory that public libraries are institutions which promote an informed democracy. He correctly points out that it’s “hard to prove that American public libraries are essential to democracy.” I’m certain it’s difficult, just as it’s difficult to prove many of the intangible benefits that libraries present their patrons.

Public libraries were conceptualized in large part to provide citizens access to information and “useful knowledge” which would help them to become more informed voters and civic actors. This theoretical framework is a political version of Ben Franklin’s ideal of the “self-made man”.

But historical data of public library usage makes it abundantly clear that very few people use their library this way. The maintenance of an informed democracy via access to “useful knowledge” isn’t something our patrons are all that interested in.

So it’s appropriate and useful to question this orthodoxy.

Despite this, I still believe deeply in the essential democratic purpose of public libraries. I believe it remains important for us to offer options to assist members of our communities to become more informed voters and civic actors, as our founding fathers intended, even if people don’t utilize these resources.

Offering these resources makes a difference to the kind of society we are. I’d rather offer tools to serve explicit democratic goals and have people choose not to use them, than become the kind of society that doesn’t offer such tools at all.

Having the freedom to question authority and inform yourself is essential to democracy. Even if people don’t use this freedom, the freedom must exist. That we’re a society which offers resources to our communities for this purpose via a public library is irreducibly important.

I find, as well, that my public library fulfills its role in the maintenance of democracy through our role as public space and a hub of community engagement.

We offer lectures on political and social issues which feature voices from all sides and perspectives, on local, national, and international scales; talks from authors who write about a variety of political and social issues; “town hall”-style discussions about everything from issues of censorship, to environmental challenges, to education, to local economic, tax, and property issues. We allow civic groups of all kinds to set up tables, distribute literature, and talk to interested patrons about their positions on a variety of civic issues. We’re a popular location for voter registration. Some branch libraries function as neighborhood polling places during elections. My public library system isn’t unique in any of this.

I would argue, too, that the benefit of public libraries to democracy is analogous to the benefit of studying algebra in primary school. Very few adults ever use algebra in their daily lives—many students know this and therefore see no point in studying it. But the problem-solving skills and the mental structures of reasoning that algebra inculcates are applicable to all facets of life. It’s a method of thinking, not just a specific body of knowledge. Understanding the basic principles of mathematics makes you better at finding solutions even to problems that aren’t mathematical in nature.

Just so, engagement with the community has a direct influence on political engagement (and there’s a great deal of data out there to prove it). Public libraries are major centers of our communities. Dr. Wiegand cites several examples of people using their libraries as public forums to debate civic issues and define workable consensus.

Public libraries have made themselves loci where patrons can engage with foreign cultures, and people from other walks of life and social strata, through the written word, through art, and even face-to-face. We try to foster mutual understanding and encourage open conversations. These efforts affect how people understand and address a wide variety of social challenges.

Public libraries are central to their local cultures of reading. Evidence shows that reading teaches empathy, which directly affects how people come to understand various social and community issues. It deeply influences our concepts of justice.

Educational achievement, too, strongly correlates with political and civic engagement, and the utility of public libraries in local educational milieux is well established.

Taken all together, I’m certain we would see meaningful correlation between the political and civic engagement of a community and engagement with their local public library.

This may not be the promotion of an informed democracy via “useful knowledge” as our founding fathers envisioned, but these are services essential to the functioning of a democratic society. Library-as-community is the highest expression of the value public libraries have as a tool for democracy.

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