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The Power of Public Libraries

by Pam Smith on December 4, 2017

Contact Pam at psmith@anythink libraries.org. Pam is currently reading Talking to Animals: How You Can Understand Animals and They Can Understand You by Jon Katz.

“Every person and institution with power in our society today has it because we give it to them.”—Eric Liu, You Are More Powerful Than You Think1

The Anythink Libraries bookmobile was part of the Memorial Day parade in one of our local communities. I was surprised at how people responded with such admiration and affection as the bookmobile closed the parade. Onlookers cheered, applauded, and shouted out, “We love our library!” I know that moments like this occur for public libraries everywhere. This sense of pride and heartfelt connection brings to mind the respect that public libraries garner in our communities. Public libraries are among the most trusted institutions in the United States. With this trust, I realize that libraries have earned the responsibility—and even the power—to help create sustainable communities.

I have been thinking about the idea of power lately for several reasons. In many ways in the United States today, we are seeing a struggle for power in terms of winners and losers. In the coming months, I will use my column to talk about power and public libraries. What is power? Who has power? How can public libraries best utilize our power?

Cindy Chadwick, director of Alameda County (CA) Library, recently published her dissertation on power and public library directors. In her findings, she discovered that leading public library directors see power from a negative point of view, associating it with the abuse of power that we sometimes see in politics.

“Power is not a word typically associated with public library directors,” Chadwick writes. “Public libraries serve everyone, whereas power is about the control of resources. Power is associated with politics, and behaving politically; libraries are outside the realm of partisanship. Definitions of power vary widely, from the capacity to translate intention into reality, to the ability to influence others’ behavior.”2

In general, the public library directors that she interviewed talked about power in terms of in uence, change, integrity, and leadership. While libraries, and public libraries speci cally, rarely come to mind when I think about power, it might be time to rethink the idea of what power public libraries have in our communities to serve the common good.

First, the idea that knowledge is power. As I was passing out bookmarks to children in the parade, I handed a bookmark to one young boy. He looked at the bookmark and remarked, “Knowledge.” That image is a powerful one. Libraries are places of unfettered access to information, resulting in critical thinking, discourse, and analysis. This leads to knowledge. One mission of the American Library Association, and of librarians, is to protect the freedoms to read and view, freedoms that are critical to our democracy. Librarians consistently defend freedom of speech and fight censorship. That takes courage. These values must be continually supported and celebrated.

Public libraries are places of opportunity. This goes beyond access. Access without the option of participation is useless for anyone who does not have the funds to attend a class or to hire an expert. Libraries are cornerstones of opportunity. Our citizens may need to be resourceful and diligent in pursuing their quest for information and acquiring skills. Public libraries provide an abundance of information in all formats, including human expertise and collaboration. Opportunity opens doors for people who are naturally curious.

Public libraries are the ultimate public democratic spaces. Regardless of your occupation, your age, or your financial status, you are welcome in any of the more than 16,500 U.S. public libraries. As we become more isolated in our self-selected ideological communities, libraries are places where it is safe to be part of a larger-than-life community experience and experiment. Literally, our spaces are designed to be places where the homeless can read the paper next to the billionaire.

Public libraries represent the ultimate in diversity. Bringing people together is one of our specialties. Yes, we still have much to accomplish regarding our own diversity as a profession, but we are making significant strides in creating public spaces where everyone feels safe and welcome. Libraries create those magical opportunities where people interact with strangers, are exposed to new ideas, and connect with possibility.

As the most trusted of institutions, how do we translate that into power to stand for the good of our community? I will go out on a limb and suggest that we are places of humanity. Librarians are people of compassion. We are people who exude empathy and in most cases a sense of generosity. We are people who are on your side and try to create a sense of equilibrium. Librarians are smart problem solvers. We are analytical. We are connectors. We are resourceful. We know how to create a vision, work with our community, and then make things happen.

We don’t always realize the impact that we have. We rarely take credit for our work. We need to think about our power, our in uence, and our sense of possibil- ity.


  1. Eric Liu, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (NewYork: PublicA airs, Mar. 2017).
  2. Cynthia Chadwick, “Power and Public Libraries: How Public Library Directors Exercise Power,” PhD diss., Simmons School of Library and Information Science, 2017.