More than a Coffee Shop:  How Libraries Support Civil Liberties

General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues

by:  Andrea Jamison

Recently, Forbes posted (and subsequently removed) an opinion editorial that sent librarians and library supporters on a social media tirade.  The now archived article, written by Panos Mourdoukoutas, attempts to argue the irrelevance of libraries and the potential tax benefits to residents should public libraries close.  Mourdoukoutas contends that libraries “once offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money.”   Among the services offered by libraries, Mourdoukoutas specifically highlights book borrowing, video rentals, free internet access, and community spaces.  He also seems to be of the opinion that these services are no longer useful, noting that ‘modern’ libraries still provide these services but the value is gone.

According to Mourdoukoutas, the dispensability of libraries is due to the fact that other agencies are able to perform these services.  He recommends that, in lieu of libraries, Amazon open bookstores in all local communities and that Starbucks continue serving as community hubs.  Now, I could easily veer into an opposing rant about the absurdities mentioned here but I’d rather focus on a much more pressing issue that libraries face.  That is, the notion that a lot of people don’t really understand the core function of a library.  Sure, libraries are known for providing access to books and other ancillary resources but those services do not encapsulate the timeless purpose of the profession.

Libraries and Information Freedom

Libraries are dedicated to supporting the principles of a democratic society by ensuring access to a wide range of information, services, and ideas.  Philanthropist and business tycoon, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) once wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”  The idea that libraries just provide access to books is one dimensional. Libraries provide access to the enterprise of knowledge, the exchange of ideas, enlightenment and free expression. Libraries also help close social and digital divides that exist between those who are privileged and those who are marginalized.

According to the American Library Association, libraries “advocate and educate in defense of intellectual freedom—the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”  Libraries are vocal against legislation that may adversely impact education, privacy, cyber-security, telecommunication, open access, copyright, and workforce innovation. I’m pretty sure neither Amazon nor Starbucks can freely provide these services and still manage to keep their investors happy.  Although Forbes acknowledged that the article “was outside of the contributor’s specific area of expertise,” Mourdoukoutas’ opinion is just another reminder that librarians must continue rallying against this kind of public ignorance.  The reality is that librarians have to be diligent in communicating to the public our role and value to the betterment of a free society. The real issue here is not about communities saving money, it’s about communities investing in their own civil liberties.

“Overall, 44 percent of people in households living below the federal poverty line ($22,000 a year for a family of four) used public library computers and Internet access. Among young adults (14–24 years of age) in households below the federal poverty line, 61 percent used public library computers and Internet for educational purposes. Among seniors (65 and older) living in poverty, 54 percent used public library computers for health or wellness needs.” – 2010 Institute of Museum and Library Science Report sponsored by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation


Andrea JamisonAndrea Q. Jamison is a professional librarian, writer, and current Ph.D. student whose research involves examining the pervasive lack of diversity in literature. She has more than 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries, and she is the author of two books: Against the Waterfalls and Super Sonja. In addition to her full-time duties in librarianship, she is a mom, board member for ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, chair for the EMIERT Multicultural Awards, reviewer for the School Library Journal, reviewer for Indieview, freelance writer, avid blogger and social justice advocate. She also works with the Illinois School Library Media Association as a member of the advocacy and conference planning committees. Andrea thoroughly enjoys working with children and speaks nationally on issues related to creating diverse and inclusive learning spaces for youth. Find her on Twitter @achitownj.




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