The Most American of Ideas: Our Public Libraries

As the 4th of July approaches and many families are getting excited about barbecues, fireworks, and the classic red, white, and blue theme, there is also another American image that we should celebrate: our public libraries!

Our nation’s libraries unlock the gates of opportunity and success for all. Public libraries advocate for equal access and opportunity. They are constantly evolving and creating new ways to serve the community. Libraries offer services that benefit community members from internet access to health education and resources to technology training to career preparation. Their significant role in promoting literacy and helping the community learn is also a reason why libraries are one of the most American of all institutions. After all, like Frederick Douglass states, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.

Important Work Since America’s Birth

Libraries have been serving and improving the lives of Americans since the beginning of the Republic. While there is some debate over the first public library in America, one of the best-supported ideas is that the Library Company of Philadelphia was the first. This library was founded in 1731 by none other than one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. Books were not as accessible back in the day where only the wealthy or members of the clergy could use them. Franklin wanted to change this because he and other “thinkers” wanted more material for their weekly discussions. 

Since then the idea of borrowing books has grown significantly across the country. Libraries open to all classes of the community were being established in all colonies and library card catalogs, library conferences, and library organizations were created. 

Many well-known figures throughout history contributed to libraries stating that books were vital pieces of their lives. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, valued his books and grew his library collection to help him broaden his perspective of the world. When the British burned the Capitol in 1814 and the Library of Congress was destroyed, Jefferson personally offered up his collection of books to help replace the over 3,000 volumes lost to the fires. In the end, it was estimated that the Library of Congress received 6,487 volumes from Jefferson which was over double the original amount of books at the library. 

Libraries not only store important pieces of history, they are a critical part of our country’s past. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) has an online exhibition covering A History of U.S. Public Libraries. The exhibition tells the story of the American public library system touching on everything from immigrants to segregated libraries to services that libraries provide for the community. This online exhibit and additional resources can be viewed online on the DPLA site. 

Libraries Impact You & Vice Versa

Even today, reading and an appreciation for libraries is strong. Former President Barack Obama recognized the impact that obtaining knowledge through open access to reading materials has. During his time as a senator, he stated, “At the dawn of the 21st century, where knowledge is literally power, where it unlocks the gates of opportunity and success, we all have responsibilities as parents, as librarians, as educators, as politicians,  and as citizens to instill in our children a love of reading so that we can give them a chance to fulfill their dreams.” Libraries are a magical place for those that walk through its doors. With endless reading options, learning opportunities, and helpful staff, libraries can literally change peoples’ lives for the better. 

However, many libraries are facing problems of their own especially as the times are changing. Public libraries are incredible places and they need the help of caring Americans to help them continue the daily work they do. There are plenty of ways to give back to your local library and help ensure that it is there for the next generation of readers. 

Donate 

Donating is a major way of showing support for your local library. This could mean financially supporting your library, volunteering your time towards library programs, or passing on your gently used books and magazines for the next patron to use. 

Teach Others to Love the Library

The world is so rooted in technology that many younger people have forgotten or have never experienced the joy of applying for their first library card and spending hours exploring what the library has to offer. Take your kids to the library and remind your friends to visit. 

Get Involved

Exercise one of your most basic rights by getting involved and voting. Most of the time, libraries can’t help their budgets getting cut. Speak on your library’s behalf and let those in charge know how much you value the library. Voting in elections and contacting officials can make a big difference for libraries and those in your community.