Libraries: The Foundation for a Democratic Society

Today’s blog post comes from VftL team member Ian Clark, who also blogs here.

I have long believed that librarians are vital to a fully functioning democracy. In fact, in the so-called ‘information age’ they are perhaps more important than ever. We live in an age where there is such a wealth of information it is very difficult for the average person to navigate around it. After all do we really all have the time to sift through the mass of information out there to keep up to speed with current affairs and world events? Not only does this information need to be ‘sifted’, it also needs to be evaluated and analysed to determine its accuracy.  How can anyone be expected to spare the time to analyse and evaluate the plethora of information that is out there?

This is why librarians are so important. Acting as a conduit between the library user and the wealth of information out there is a big responsibility. Libraries and librarians have an important role in ensuring that all sections of society are brought into the democratic process. Indeed, in 1990, the American Library Association adopted a policy entitled ‘Library Services for the Poor’ which stated:

…it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.

Former US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, also underlined the importance of public libraries in a democratic society, describing them as

the great symbols of the freedom of the mind….essential to the functioning of a democratic society.

Libraries ensure that everyone can gain access to information and thus partake fully in the democratic process. The role of a librarian is, therefore, absolutely crucial in a democracy. Without this access, constituents can become ignorant of the actions of their representatives and are consequently unable to partake in the democratic process. This is particularly a concern for the poorest in society who cannot afford books, let alone internet connections. Whilst the affluent are engaged with the democratic process, the poor are left isolated and disenfranchised.

And it is not just though lack of ownership of materials that leave the disadvantaged isolated from the democratic system.  Only last year, The Guardian revealed that:

…..75% of the working-age adult population had numeracy skills below the level of a good pass at GCSE and 56% had similar literacy skills. At that time, the OECD ranked the UK 14th in international literacy and numeracy league tables.

Such levels of illiteracy underline the importance of the need of professionals to act as the aforementioned conduit to information.  How can we realistically expect this section of society to be able to navigate the internet, even if they could afford a computer and an internet connection?  Closure of libraries and undermining of professionals will only isolate them further, cutting them adrift from democracy and the political process. And who knows where this may lead?

A while back I came across a journal article by John Abdul Kargbo [sub required], a librarian at the University of Sierra Leone. Coming from the perspective of a nation that, at the time of writing (1999), had only recently restored a democratic system and was at the centre of a bitter conflict, it was interesting to see how much importance was placed on the library service. Kargbo writes passionately about how simply installing a civilian government is not enough to create a democracy. As he states:

For democracy to succeed it is crucial that the institutions to support and invigorate the democratic process or ideals must exist.

These institutions, he reasons, include public libraries:

Libraries are powerful instruments of social and political change; they can help in the demands of democracy and the spread of literacy.

Given the current levels of literacy in the UK, the last point seems particularly pertinent.

Kargbo goes on to reflect on just how important equality of access to information is in the democratic decision making process and the importance of librarians in that process. It is very easy for people in the West to forget just what an important role libraries play in society. Politicians (and elements of the media) have become obsessed with targets and tangible outcomes. The number of books that are issued by a public library, or the number of visits to the physical building, have become the yardstick by which many measure the success or failure of the service. However, the contribution a library makes to local society goes way beyond how many books are issued over the course of the year. There are certain intangible elements that need to be considered that cannot just be assessed in terms of supposedly solid statistics.

Furthermore, not only do they provide an important function in democracies, they are also essential in times of economic hardship. During a recession, libraries can support the unemployed in gaining new skills and finding employment.  And with literacy rates as low as The Guardian’s report suggests, a great many people will struggle to adapt to the changing economic circumstances.  The library service is the best opportunity they have to escape the turmoil that appears to be around the corner.  We devastate these at our peril.

Public libraries do play an important role in our society. They help to bring people into the democratic process and keep them informed as citizens about the actions of their representatives. They also play a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable during a recession and provide them with the tools they need to develop their skills and gain employment. In times of affluence these facts are easily forgotten. In times of recession we are reminded of their value to the community. Public libraries have not lost their relevance, maybe some of us have just forgotten what made them relevant in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Libraries: The Foundation for a Democratic Society

  1. Angela

    I’ve forgotten the name of the author of THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, but I love his mother telling him as a poor African American boy that libraries are dangerous places (in a good way), because they are full of information and ideas. What an exciting concept!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Top Ten Links Week 38 – Positive Feedback, Library Trends, TechnoLiteracy and More | Librarian by Day

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