Although TV talking heads discuss trillion-dollar bailouts for broken industries as if you might trip over one on your way to the unemployment office, libraries—which aren’t broken—struggle to make our case. I sometimes worry that librarians’ language only addresses the left side of the political aisle, leaving the right’s opinions to be shaped by people like the regional talk radio host who refers to libraries as “welfare bookstores” and calls our users “freeloaders.” This attitude fails to account for how well libraries align with basic conservative principles—a message we must better communicate.
Conservatives from Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan oppose enforced equality of outcome but champion equality of opportunity. They should likewise champion libraries, which do not redistribute wealth, as in a monetary dole gifted by the government, but make loans. Facilitators of literacy, education, and job-seeking, libraries do not guarantee success, but equip users to pursue opportunities on their own. Prototypical capitalist Andrew Carnegie experienced this personally, and for this reason helped thousands of communities establish public libraries.
Advocates of democratic capitalism must also remember that free markets need transparency to function. Libraries can reduce information asymmetry, allowing more people to participate effectively in our market-based economy.
The conservative’s litmus test is adherence to the nation’s founding principles. Although the modern concept of public libraries did not emerge until the mid–19th century, several Founding Fathers exercised seminal influence. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson can each stake claim to founding the Library of Congress. Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731; in 1778 he donated a collection of books to Exeter, Massachusetts, which residents voted to make freely available.
Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers believed an informed citizenry was necessary for the preservation of liberty and the function of democracy. James Madison argued “a popular government, without popular information . . . is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.” Jefferson placed the “diffusion of information” among the “essential principles of our Government.” He said, “I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county.”
Given the political waters ALA sometimes dips its toes in, it’s easy to see why our profession is perceived as liberal. But there is potential within librarianship for a diversity of viewpoints, and core values like privacy and intellectual freedom resonate at least as well with libertarians as progressives.
Libraries are justified in the conservative worldview when we help users participate in our democracy. Public libraries should become research centers for voters and local policymakers, like mini–Libraries of Congress. We can host debates and town hall meetings. Our displays and book clubs should feature biographies of candidates or books they have written or endorsed. We must help immigrants access America’s opportunities, whether they are seeking citizenship, starting a business, or learning English.
We are champions for literacy and should also be champions of enterprise and support fledgling entrepreneurs, join chambers of commerce, and partner with Small Business Development Centers. If libraries make allies of local businesses we may find local governments more supportive.
Conservatives correlate liberty and prosperity with limited government. To govern ourselves and participate effectively in the economy, we must be knowledgeable. By making this possible, public libraries play a key role in the success of the American endeavor.
ANDY SPACKMAN is business and economics librarian at Brigham Young University and president-elect of the Utah Library Association.