Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the Benefits of Public Libraries to a Free Society

This is what I prepared to deliver to the Red Lake Falls City Council and the Red Lake County Commissioners. I was asked by my branch librarian to prepare something for these groups, to solicit their continued support for the local library during these difficult economic times.  I also prepared a brief outline for the members to follow, highlighting the quotes and summarizing the point for which I was using each.

All quotes except the last, are readily available on the internet, on any quote page, and some biographical pages. The final quotation is from a discussion of the trend toward library programs, at the expense of providing more traditional library services.
Hello. My name is Mary Abrahamson. I’m a mother of ten. My husband is a pastor of four churches, east and north of here. Until a year ago, I taught most of our children at home. They are currently enrolled at RLCC, both in Plummer and in Oklee. We are avid library patrons. We use many of library services, and also try to pay back a fraction of what we receive by helping with summer programs when we can.

I’m going to share with you three brief quotes, one each from three of America’s founding fathers and early presidents.

"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right...and a desire to know." ~  John Adams, in his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." ~ Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey in 1816

"A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." ~ James Madison wrote to W. T. Barry, in 1822

We are blessed to live in communities and a country that allow us to have a say in our government. We elect officials at all levels of government. If we choose, we may attend caucuses. We can sign petitions and call our representatives. Our systems of government allow us many opportunities to be involved with the process of governing.

But in order to arm ourselves for this responsibility, we need access to information. The public library is an important source of information, whether in the form of internet access, books on the local shelves, books ordered through the broader regional system or throughout the entire state. Through our Red Lake Falls branch library, that little building just across the way, regular people like myself have access to all the knowledge in the world.

We, the people, make our society what it is. Regular people in our communities, our neighbors and friends, perhaps even some of you, serve on boards and committees within a variety of service, civic, and business entities.

Even if not in any official capacity, most of us are in a position to set an example for the youth in our communities, as parents or friends of the young people in our neighborhoods.  This too is leadership.

But in order to do all these things well, we need access to the means of self-improvement. Perhaps John F. Kennedy said it most succinctly...or I ought to say, he planned to say it, since this quote is from a speech that was to be delivered in Dallas, TX, on the day of his assassination, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

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Libraries in one form or another, have been in existence from ancient times. It’s fairly common knowledge that there was a library in ancient Alexandria during the Greek empire,  Archaeologists have found evidence of libraries throughout the ancient middle east from as early as 2500BC, and onward. These were collections of manuscripts, and repositories of information.

The the modern public library in America is something different. The Straight Dope website had the best definition of the modern library that I could find. The author used these marks to distinguish the idea of the modern public library. It
1) is publicly owned and supported by taxes;
2) is open to any citizen who desires to use it, and
3) contains a wide range of material, both popular and scholarly.

Using that definition, public libraries in America got their start in the early to mid 1800s. By the early 1900s, the idea had flourished and libraries were making their way into communities across the country.  Andrew Carnegie, who donated so much of his own money to promote and build libraries throughout the country said, “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 public libraries in our communities today have changed a bit in the last 200 years, and even since the time of Andrew Carnegie. But they still fall into those same three points mentioned above. The library systems have changed. The inter-connectedness to each other around the state, country and even globe has increased markedly. The manner of accessing the materials, and even sometimes the format of the materials themselves have changed. But our public libraries still offer for anyone who chooses to use it, an immensely wide opportunity for learning and improving oneself, and also for leisure time enjoyment of the written word.

“The student has his Rome, his Florence, his whole glowing Italy, within the four walls of his library. He has in his books the ruins of an antique world and the glories of a modern one.” ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Your local library offers fiction and non-fiction books and magazines for all age levels. There is internet access for online research and pleasure. Audio books and DVDs; downloadable e-books for those who have the proper readers.  If a local child is interested in aviation or gardening, beekeeping or pet care, he or she can find help and learning at the library. A retiree can check out the latest book from a best selling novelist or research his or her family tree. A person can read about fixing the roof or building a chicken coop. A teen can get the information he needs to decide whether or not to attempt to replace the head gasket on his car’s motor. And a sports fan can keep up with the achievements of her favorite college teams.

There are a wide variety of programs going on all the time at the library. The regular things The Red Lake Falls branch library lists on its website include a preschool story time, a writer’s group, family nights, and craft days. Each summer the library sponsors a program that offers extra enrichment, such as presentations by artisans, dancers, singers, and a variety of other entertainers. Within the last year there have been several “Meet an Author” events, which include a brief talk on some aspect of her trade and craft, and also, usually, a writer’s workshop, for local writers to learn from the experts. The library, through the Minnesota history legacy grant has been able to offer, at no cost, to anyone in the community, a wider variety of cultural events which celebrate and highlight the rich cultural diversity of our state. These are things many small towns are not able to offer their people, things such as concerts by a harpist and a hardanger fiddler, and performances by a ventriloquist, singing groups, and storytellers.

“The richest person in the world - in fact all the riches in the world - couldn't provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.” ~Malcolm Forbes

I’ve read that at times of economic downturn, such as during the Great Depression, library use increases markedly. I asked our local librarian about this, and she affirmed that they have definitely seen this to be true during our recent economic woes.

I understand that the government entities that support the public libraries are also experiencing hard times. And I am not fully comfortable with asking everyone in the community to support with their tax dollars a service of which not everyone chooses to make use.

However, for the enrichment of your community, you have in the past supported, and probably will continue to support a variety of none-essential services. I am here today to make a plea that the local branch library be one of those none-essential services that you choose to continue to support.

I was given a stack of information on the local library and also on the regional system. I am not a professional researcher, so things like statistics, and pie charts, and cost comparisons, these things go in through my eyes and hide away in a dark corner of my brain. I read through the materials I was given. I tried to prepare a clean and crisp analysis of the library’s needs. And I couldn’t do it.

But I am a library user. I love my library and the many things it offers. I believe in the idea of an educated citizenry. I believe the services offered by our Red Lake Falls branch library play an integral role in offering educational and leisure opportunities to the people of Red Lake Falls and the surrounding communities.

I understand that our local branch is struggling financially. I’ve noticed that the hours of operation have been re-arranged and cut several times in the last few years. Various services have been cut

I’ve been told that the library is short $4,874, just to maintain the services they currently offer. There is a certain amount of patron demand to reinstate the hours and days of operation that have been cut. The total anticipated operational cost of $54,276 would not allow for that. It would only sustain the current operation.

If you flip to the back page of the paper I handed out, you can see the numbers presented clearly before you.

I don’t know what you spend on other none-essential programming, such as ECFE, summer rec, and theater programs. But I agree with the sentiment in this nugget I found from Walter Cronkite, “Whatever the costs of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.“

And I’ll leave you now, with a final quote, it actually appears on the front flap of your paper. It is an excerpt from Darwin, a researcher at the Askville question and answer forum at Amazon.com regarding Andrew Carnegie‘s vision.

“[Andrew] Carnegie had two main reasons
for donating money to the founding of libraries.
First, he believed that libraries added
to the meritocratic nature of America.
Anyone with the right inclination
and desire could educate himself.
Second, Carnegie believed that immigrants like himself
needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America
which the library allowed immigrants to do.
Libraries for Carnegie were the ultimate extension
of democracy to the people.

He felt that the sheer existence of a library
and the individual’s right to use it was essential.
He did not see the library as needing to reach out,
but rather to allow in anyone who wished to come.
His formal education ended at the age of 12,
and he was exceedingly affected by being unable to afford
the $2.00 per week fee to join the "free" library,
so he resolved that libraries should be free and open to everyone.
That is why over the doors
of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh,
carved in stone,
are his own words,
"Free to the People."

As a self-made man
he believed anyone could do likewise
as long as the tool (the library)
was there to be used.”

Thank you for your time.

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