Libraries have and always will be a fundamental part of American life. James Madison, America’s fourth president, said it best: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Boiled down, Madison is saying if America is to be run by The People, then The People must have access to material that will allow them to make wise, thoughtful, and balanced decisions. The library is a cornerstone and sustainer of democracy.
The institution of the library is an embodiment of Madison’s statement. It provides free access to books and other forms of information that citizens can use to better themselves, and thereby, society. The public can use the knowledge found within a library to guide decisions made during self-government. Instead of a king making decisions, Madison saw a wise, educated public guiding America.
It has been said that the library is the poor man’s university. For a library, just like a university, is a promoter of knowledge. If one wanted, and had the will, one could obtain the same knowledge gleaned in a university by studying the stacks. Granted, a diploma does not accompany such endeavors, but knowledge will have been gained, nonetheless. It is this principle that Andrew Carnegie promoted: the idea that knowledge should be free to all. Andrew Carnegie’s ideals helped to form the modern public library into what it is today.1
Today’s public libraries are incorporating advances to technology into their paradigms, making computers, e-readers, 3D printing, internet access, laser cutters, and much more available to the public. The public library has evolved beyond a bastion of democratic sustenance to include remedies to social justice issues. The services that modern public libraries provide not only encompass the distribution of knowledge that Madison imagined, but access to services and programs that fill the void in many urban and rural communities. Not all families are able to afford access to the internet. This is an especially prevalent issue in rural communities where internet can be scarce.
With the importance of libraries for a successfully functioning democracy plain to see, why then is the IMLS being threatened once again? For those that do not know, the Institute of Museum and Library Services provides federal assistance to America’s public libraries. The current administration tried in the 2018 budget to dismantle the IMLS, but Congress, thankfully, rejected the proposal.2 The White House is attempting again in the 2019 budget to dismantle the IMLS and thereby defund beneficial IMLS-funded programs. The IMLS is only 0.006 percent of the federal budget but does so much for public libraries and for the strengthening of democratic society. 3 To see a full listing of IMLS grant funded programs, visit the IMLS grant search database. https://www.imls.gov/grants/awarded-grants
We will have to wait and see how Congress votes for the 2019 budget. But, in the meantime, let’s do our part to encourage our representatives in Congress to support the IMLS, and to remind them of the importance of public libraries in a society.