In our highly connected digital world, libraries are more important than ever. I can hear you saying, “Of course you say that! You’re a librarian and want to protect your job!” Yes, that’s true, but hear me out. Libraries have been a part of civilizations since the birth of writing itself as places to house, preserve, and disseminate information and as meeting grounds for information seekers. They have evolved continually over time to meet the changing needs of not just scholars, but all people seeking access to information. Libraries, in conjunction with widespread public education, have created a far more level playing field for modern societies. And as societies have grown and evolved, so too have libraries. With exponential increases in information available and developments in technology, they have continued to support access and opportunity for all citizens, arguably better and more efficiently than any other time period. The Internet alone cannot provide such support; it only creates the connectivity. Libraries with space for collaboration, access to the most innovative technology, and yes, information, in all of its various formats, and staffed by people highly skilled in finding the right information for individual needs and teaching skills for finding, evaluating, and using information independently, are an essential need in today’s modern societies. Indeed without libraries and information professionals who can curate, cultivate, and make accessible quality information, the Internet and its connectivity become useless.
I can hear the naysayers; “Public education? What a broken mess! And my library has nothing for me!” While neither is perfect, they are shifting in the right direction. And I would argue that they should never truly be perfect. What we have now should be completely different 5, 10, 15, or 20 years from now. Both libraries and public education are in the business of creating and supporting life-long learners and should continually seek to evolve as society learns and grows. Neither profession should wake up one day and say “Well, we’re perfect now. Time to stop evolving and keep doing what we’re doing for the next 2 decades.” And I do believe that the vast majority of schools and libraries are not only doing good things, but amazing things today. But those darned naysayers are loud and squawky. They grab headlines – over and over and over again. It is libraries and educators, however, who have been the voice for open access to scholarly research and equal access to literature, technology, and the Internet. They have spoken up on behalf of all of us in the battle against censorship. They have been a voice arguing for privacy and individual rights in balance with societal needs. They have been the protectors and preservers of our cultural heritage and history – in all of its formats.
So what can we do? Advocate to keep and expand libraries – and for finding ways to properly fund them. Who should speak up for libraries? Everyone, because that’s who they serve. There are few professions that truly speak for each and every one of us, even among the variety of public services. The mission of libraries has always been to meet the needs of the communities they serve, whether school, public, academic, or specialty. They are driven by a sense of equal access. In recent surveys of public opinion, more than 80% of respondents place high value of the role of libraries – and yet they have been voraciously cut back and eliminated in schools and communities. In conversations with parents, teachers, and community members over the last few years, I regularly hear the lament, “They just don’t have the money for libraries anymore.” The blame is almost always on a nebulous “they” who are cutting the funding. Ultimately, we are our public servants, whether elected or hired. Advocating for improving and evolving public services, for finding and ensuring adequate funding, falls on the shoulders of each and every citizen. It is not “us” versus the nebulous “them” but rather a “we the people”. We all need to act to preserve libraries. Not doing so will just send us reeling back to the dark ages of vast inequity.
How and for what should we advocate? First, ask lawmakers and leaders to stop trying to find magical solutions in the for profit world for services that are public in nature. Keeping schools and libraries in the public non-profit sector does several things; it reduces the likelihood of individual gains taking precedence over public good and needs, it keeps hierarchy to a minimum allowing more collective (and patron driven) decision-making, it ensures that these institutions remain committed to equal access for all rather than shifting to a pay-for-play model that increases class inequity. If public services have to follow the mighty dollar, they cannot serve everyone equally. Rather than serving the public, they become servants to those that can pay the most. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be fiscally responsible with the funding they receive, just that the funding should not be tied to individual profit and gain.
Second, ask lawmakers and philanthropists to invest heavily in both libraries and education. Each and every school in America should have a school library with appropriately trained administrative assistance and a minimum of one full-time certified teacher librarian who collaboratively teaches information literacy with other teachers. Less than that and the school library is ineffective. Well-funded libraries deliver enormous value for each dollar spent. In schools, they not only prepare students with the skills for self-motivated independent learning, but connect each and every subject and discipline to encourage true interdisciplinary learning. They foster school cultures and environments where serendipitous discovery can happen naturally and in conjunction with the educative process. They are a bridge between academic, archival, and public libraries and a link between each grade through elementary, middle, and high school. How do we know this? Solid data from two decades of more than 60 state studies show a definitive correlation between school libraries and student achievement. That kind of data is unequivocal.
Finally, vote. Vote in every election. And understand that good politicians have to balance their decisions based upon not just your voice, but the voices of thousands of constituents, some of whom are very vocal and have substantial financial backing. Wealthy squeaky wheels, however, drown in a sea of less-well-off masses. You will never agree with every choice that elected official has to make, but if you are a passive grumbler who never votes and never communicates with elected officials, then your voice is merely static. Choose to be an educated, informed, part of “we the people.” And support widespread educated and informed citizenship through well-funded, accessible, professionally staffed, quality American libraries.