A 2000 revision of the list that originally appeared in American Libraries in December 1995.
MOST AMERICANS KNOW what they can expect from a library. And librarians know what it takes to provide comprehensive access to every recorded detail of human existence. It takes support.
Libraries are ready when they are needed, ready to enrich our minds and defend our right to know, just as other institutions protect our safety and property. Without sound minds, however, the American dream of safe streets and secure homes will never be fulfilled.
Libraries safeguard our freedom and keep democracy healthy. To library advocates everywhere—Friends, trustees, board members, patrons, and volunteers—American Libraries offers this gift of 12 ideals toward which we strive. It will take all of us, in a spirit of pride and freedom, to maintain libraries as a living reality in a free nation into the 21st century.
1. Libraries inform citizens. Democracy vests supreme power in the people. Libraries make democracy work by providing access to information so that citizens can make the decisions necessary to govern themselves. The public library is the only institution in American society whose purpose is to guard against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity, and its existence indicates the extent to which a democratic society values knowledge, truth, justice, books, and culture.
2. Libraries break down boundaries. Libraries provide free family literacy programs for low-literate, illiterate, and non-English-speaking people. In addition, hundreds of librarians across America lead outreach programs that teach citizenship and develop multilingual and multicultural materials for their patrons. Libraries serve the homebound elderly, prisoners, and other institutionalized individuals, the homeless, and the blind and hearing-impaired.
3. Libraries level the playing field. Economists have cited a growing income inequity in America, with the gap between the richest and poorest citizens becoming wider year by year. By making all its resources equally available to all members of its community, regardless of income, class, or other factors, the library levels the playing field. Once users have access to the library’s materials, they have the opportunity to level the playing field outside the library by learning to read, gaining employment, or starting a business.
4. Libraries value the individual. Library doors swing open for independent thinking without prejudgment. Libraries offer alternatives to the manipulations of commercialism, from the excellence of public-television productions to the freethinking of renegade publishers and the vision of poets and artists outside the mainstream business of art and literature.
5. Libraries nourish creativity. In the library we are all children. By stimulating curiosity—parent to the twin forces of creativity and imagination—even the most focused and specialized library serves the purpose of lifting the mind beyond its horizons. Libraries store ideas that may no longer work but can serve as the raw material that, cross-fertilized in the innovative mind, may produce answers to questions not yet asked.
6. Libraries open kids’ minds. Bringing children into a library can transport them from the commonplace to the extraordinary. From story hours for preschoolers to career planning for high schoolers, children’s librarians make a difference because they care about the unique developmental needs of every individual who comes to them for help. Children get a handle on personal responsibility by holding a library card of their own, a card that gives them access to new worlds in books, videos, audiotapes, computers, games, toys, and more.
7. Libraries return high dividends. What do Gallo wines, the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt chain, and billboard-sign giant Metromedia have in common? Libraries made millionaires out of each of these companies’ grateful owners by providing crucial start-up information when they were no more than wannabe business titans. Libraries are there to help people with more personal goals, too. The seed money expended for these and other success stories? Less than $20 per capita per year in tax dollars.
8. Libraries build communities. No narrow definition of community will work in a library. Each community has its libraries and its special collections. Libraries validate and unify; they save lives, literally and by preserving the record of those lives. Community-building means libraries link people with information. Librarians have become experts at helping others navigate the Internet. Before there was talk of cyberspace, there were libraries, paving the way for the superhighway.
9. Libraries make families friendlier. The American family’s best friend, the library, offers services guaranteed to hone coping skills. Homework centers, literacy training, parenting materials, after-school activities, summer reading programs, outreach—like the families they serve, libraries everywhere are adapting to meet new challenges.
10. Libraries offend everyone. Children’s librarian Dorothy Broderick contends that every library in the country ought to have a sign on the door reading: “This library has something offensive to everyone. If you are not offended by something we own, please complain.” This willingness and duty to offend connotes a tolerance and a willingness to look at all sides of an issue that would be good for the nation in any context; it is particularly valuable when combined with the egalitarianism and openness that characterize libraries.
11. Libraries offer sanctuary. Like synagogues, churches, mosques, and other sacred spaces, libraries can create a physical reaction, a feeling of peace, respect, humility, and honor that throws the mind wide open and suffuses the body with a near-spiritual pleasure. But why? Perhaps it is because in the library we are answerable to no one; alone with our private thoughts, fantasies, and hopes, we are free to nourish what is most precious to us with the silent companionship of others we do not know.
12. Libraries preserve the past. Libraries preserve the record; a nation, a culture, a community that does not understand its own past is mired in its own mistakes. Libraries enable us to communicate through distance and time with the living and the dead. It is a miracle kept available by the meticulous sorting, storing, indexing, and preservation that still characterizes library work—work that will carry, in the electronic environment, challenges and a price tag yet unknown.
Adapted from “12 Ways Libraries Are Good for the Country,” American Libraries 26 (December 1995): 1113–19.