Libraries Are Essential To Democracy

Nicholas Johnson was a Presidential Advisor, White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, 1979.  Follow Nicholas Johnson on Facebook, Twitter  and his blog

Live Through All Time Or Die

by Nicholas Johnson 

At least some Americans may be slowly awakening to the demise of their democracy.

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1838, and others emphasized since, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Well, it has now “sprung up amongst us.”

As a stew is the result of its ingredients, so is a democracy the result of the civic organizations and institutions that support its shaky structure: a courageous, trusted mass media; a wise, respected non-partisan judiciary; citizens who vote and honorable officials who count those votes.

Central is the cluster of efforts to prepare all citizens to be their own governors. Elections. Public schools. First Amendment protections and reduced postal rates for newspapers and books. Local and national elections. The roads and rail to turn “e pluribus” into “unum.”

And public libraries.

Although the Nazis’ book burnings are perhaps the most notorious, authoritarians have been burning books for 2,000 years.

The U.S. is no exception. When the British burned the 3,000 books in the Capitol during the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell the Congress his near-7,000 book library. Because Federalists argued his books would spread his “infidel philosophy,” the appropriation to buy them only passed by a narrow margin along party lines. Sound familiar?

Forcing librarians to leave, and a library to close, while less dramatic than book burning, produces the same result. As it did in Vinton, Iowa, earlier this year – even though Americans overwhelmingly oppose removal of books from libraries (70 percent Republicans, 75 percent Democrats).

Libraries have been a part of Homo Sapiens’ culture since our agricultural age. One of the first, in the seventh century BC, well before Dewey decimal classification, held 30,000 cuneiform tablets organized by topic.

Not surprisingly, it was political organizing by members of women’s clubs that led the establishment of 75-80 percent of U.S. libraries in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 1896 the Cedar Rapids Federation of Ladies Literacy Clubs generated enough public pressure for a library that the City Council scheduled a vote. Iowa was then one of two states that allowed women to vote on limited tax issues, including libraries.

It was approved by 59 votes (1,105 to 1,046).

The Gazette reported that “Had it not been for the efforts of the women themselves who voted in every ward in the city, the proposition would undoubtedly have been lost” – noting that half the men who voted didn’t bother to vote on the library proposal.

Today’s Iowa public libraries, and their personnel, still offer books and “information desks,” but oh, so much more. Never have they been more essential if our democracy is to “live through all time.”

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