The role of public libraries in the Brave New World of Truth


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

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

When you think of your community’s public library, do you picture a political nexus that holds the power to influence the future of our country? If not, we don’t blame you. The picture of the demure librarian that still circulates in our collective imagination barely matches up to the volatile exchange of money and power that we call politics. As a beacon of public knowledge, though, librarians are tasked with nurturing an educated, literate electorate, essentially situating itself as a gateway of democratic activity. The inherently democratic space, the support of intellectual freedom, and the access to information literacy skills, make libraries a natural underpinning of our democracy, as has been the case for the last 150 years (Nix, n.d.). The democratic principles of public libraries remain constant throughout time, but the value of these tools and the ways they are employed transform as rapidly as our present information environments. TASCHA’s Future of Libraries project study these novel interplays between libraries, technology and people surrounding the same enduring tenets like education, literacy, and social and political engagement around the world.

The public library as an essential aspect of democracy is built on the pretense that open access to information from all points of view, and all expressions of an idea, (“Intellectual Freedom Manual,” 2010) are necessitated by a functioning democracy (Balkin, 2004). As concisely corroborated in Roosevelt’s quote that opened this essay, a democratic government provides the tools, such as public libraries and schools, to foster an educated electorate, advertently to keep legislation and legislators in check. Where else will you find a random assortment of citizens, from every range of age, education, socio-economical status and race, in one public space? Libraries are a gathering place for communities to convene and individuals to share concerns, thoughts, and ideas. They are “career counselors, homeless shelters and Internet cafes,” (Kipen, 2016) for many citizens that would have a much harder time affording to be an active democratic member.

A previous post in this series deliberated on the current state of our Post-truth world— importantly the degradation of information literacy skills and the increasing proliferation of non-credible news. As new information contexts give rise to different demands of the user, our current landscape shifts intellectual freedom practices away from information seeking and towards information decoding. As members of a democracy, it is a fundamental right to understand the tumult of information intended to keep us “informed” and be afforded to opportunity to develop skills to parse out our truth in this information. In a developed democracy, it has evolved to a question of equal accessibility through information literacy skills not information availability.

The Mobile Information Literacy curriculum developed by TASCHA, which is contingent upon librarians providing information literacy training for their community, is designed to adapt to different countries and contexts. While this curriculum are specifically implemented in the communities that need change the most, included are information literacy skills that can be applied to any community, even in a developed democracy, one that experiences a deluge of information and strained attention spans. Clearly, tools for making sense and thinking critically about the source and quality of information presented on the internet, skills that ensure “any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored,” (“Intellectual Freedom Manual,” 2010) are the most applicable to this society’s current information state. And there is no better democratic space to freely provide the skills to access equitable information than the institution that has had “information literacy at the core of its missions since inception” (Berman, 2015).

Our libraries adapt and transform to the needs of their communities. From the physical to the conceptual, this space is filled with ideas and information that nourish our right to intellectual freedom, no matter what the current information environment demands of its user. So long as a literate electorate is considered a key to democracy, this will remain that case. Efforts to provide librarians with information literacy curriculum, such as LibGuide, developed by librarians at Indiana University, are more vital than ever. The prerogative of this institution ensures no matter a citizen’s background, no matter the information environment of the time, if there is a public bus and library nearby, the opportunity to skillfully research a politician or policy and voice a constructive opinion in a public sphere is always available. And there is nothing more democratic than that.

 

  1. Nix, L.T. (n.d.) “The Boston Public Library.” The Library History Buff. Retrieved from http://www.libraryhistorybuff.org/boston.htm
  2. “Intellectual Freedom Manual.” (2010, January). American Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/iftoolkits/ifmanual/intellectual
  3. Balkin, J. M. (2004). Digital speech and democratic culture: A theory of freedom of expression for the information society. New York University Law Review, 79(1), 1–58.
  4. Kipen, D. (2016, November 10). “How to weather the Trump administration: Head to the library.” L.A. Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-kipen-essay-20161110-story.html
  5. Berman, E. (2016, March 15). “How libraries can guide people through the maze of information available in the digital age.” Knight foundation. Retrieved from http://www.knightfoundation.org/articles/how-libraries-can-guide-people-through-maze-information-available-digital-age

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