Libraries as Crucibles for Democracy

Libraries are dedicated to providing a safe, welcoming space where all people are free to access the information they want.

Libraries fill a vital role through preservation, education, and maintaining safe spaces.

Nancy Kranich, former president of the American Library Association, once wrote

"Democracies need libraries. An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy; after all, democracies are about discourse — discourse among the people. If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens. It must ensure that citizens have the resources to develop the information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process. It must allow unfettered dialogue and guarantee freedom of expression." 

This view of libraries as a crucible of informed citizenship was the prevailing view in the United States for over a century. Now, I’m afraid, that view is in crisis. For several years, school and public libraries have become proving grounds for conservative ideologies. In 2023 alone, state legislatures introduced over 150 bills whose purposes were to:

  • Limit access to library databases;
  • Establish book rating systems;
  • Control collection development actions;
  • Outlaw the teaching of race, sexuality, and other “divisive” concepts; or
  • Criminalize librarians under newly expanded obscenity laws.

In April 2023, the Texas State Board of Education rejected the ALA’s stance toward privacy and ethics in rewriting its school librarian guidelines because that association “has a long history of circumventing parental rights to fill local and school library shelves with pornographic, racist, and leftist propaganda.”

Later in the year, state libraries in Montana, Missouri, and Texas dropped their ALA memberships in protest of a 2022 tweet by then-ALA President Emily Drabinski, in which she called herself a “Marxist lesbian.” Missouri made further headlines when its House of Representatives cut all funding for public libraries in the state, though that funding was later restored

How can librarians reverse this erosion of our place in American democracy? By focusing on those core services that Kranich mentioned — the services for which we are uniquely qualified.


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Preservation of Records

Public libraries began, as did so many facets of American society, with Benjamin Franklin. 

In 1790, Franklin donated a collection of books to a Massachusetts town that decided to make them freely available to everyone. Forty-three years later, the first tax-supported library was established in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The Boston Public Library opened in 1854, the New York Public Library in 1911. By 1920, there were more than 2,500 public libraries in the United States, many built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie, the Bill Gates of his day

Preservation of knowledge has always been the core of libraries’ missions. It’s why they have all those books, right? Yet the opposite posture — that libraries should get rid of certain books — has grown stronger in recent years. 

To combat this trend, librarians need to form especially close relationships with their own boards as well as local and state lawmakers, marshaling all our powers of education and advocacy to that end. “We who believe in the power of information access,” wrote then-ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall, “cannot afford to remain silent.” 


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Information Literacy

A recent Donald Trump rally in South Carolina included an unusual group of attendees: a crew from Jimmy Kimmel Live! Testing to see “just how patriotic these patriots are,” the crew asked rallygoers questions such as:

  • What is the supreme law of the land? (Best answer: “guns, liberty, and justice”) 
  • How many amendments does the Constitution contain?
  • What are the first three words of the Constitution? (Best answer: “In God we trust,” which isn’t even the right number of words) 

The story is good for a (bitter) laugh. However, information literacy goes beyond Onion-esque headlines. The ALA defines information literacy as the skill set to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” It is, in other words, the antidote to library anxiety

A crucial subset of information literacy is information quality — i.e., the fight against misinformation. One fascinating approach to this is “prebunking,” which works like this: Debunks don’t reach as many people as misinformation, and they don’t spread as quickly. When we are told that the misinformation is false, research suggests that it continues to influence our thinking. 

Better, then, to stop misinformation before it spreads. 


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Safe Spaces

Kranich, the former ALA president, also wrote that libraries: 

Provide safe spaces for public dialogue . . . serv[ing] as gathering places for the community to share interests and concerns. They provide opportunities for citizens to develop the skills needed to gain access to information of all kinds and to put information to effective use.

Sometimes, those “safe spaces” include literal safety. For example, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library became a “safe haven” amid the riots after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, staying open when other businesses had closed, to act as a community anchor. After the 2016 shooting of five police officers, the Dallas Public Library provided on-site counselors to assist city residents. 

A number of libraries now employ social workers or mental health professionals to step in when needed. Others have partnered with mental health organizations to train librarians in crisis response. In 2017, staff at the San Diego Public Library completed the Mental Health First Aid course developed by the National Council on Behavioral Health. One of the staff, Joe Miesner, tapped into that training when he deescalated a situation with a distressed patron. Three weeks after being trained to administer the opioid antidote naloxone, Matt Pfisterer, a New York librarian, revived a patron who had overdosed.

America was founded on the premise of liberty, dignity, and equality. By focusing on preservation, education, and community safe spaces, librarians can do our part to advance that mission. 



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