Community forum: Libraries are vital to democracy
This week’s writer is Muir Haman, adult services librarian at Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes.
“We know that censorship, ignorance and manipulation are the tools of tyrants and profiteers.” So states the American Library Association’s (ALA) “The Universal Right to Free Expression,” a support document for the ALA “Library Bill of Rights.” Our library Board of Trustees recently reaffirmed our commitment to the “Library Bill of Rights” and over the last few weeks as the staff of the library has discussed our professional values, it has been reassuring to me to hear our library’s commitment to our place within a democratic community. Democracy is just one of many values libraries, and the ALA, identify as important and relevant.
Institutions like libraries are central to the proper functioning of a democracy. As safe havens for ideas, libraries can be community centers that enable discussion based in secure free expression. As you see in the tradition of town meeting, discussion where free expression is protected and safe, becomes a cooperation, a joining of individuals into community. An additional sense of the meaning of community, beyond a group of people living in the same place, is fellowship. Fellows share objectives even when they are distinct individuals.
Libraries are American in a way that harks back to our nation’s earliest days when our founding fathers formed a fellowship to achieve the common goal of defeating tyranny. Informed citizens can make the best decisions and support a government that works for them, ensuring the proper functioning of self-representation. Free expression allows for the bonding of individual interest into the shared, communal objectives of democracy.
Libraries highlight the fact that we are a human community. They are places that can share the best ideas to the benefit of all who hold stakes in the library or the community. At the library, your curiosity can be nourished and fortified. You can find access to information that will answer your questions and inspire you. Sharing ideas encourages diversity of thought and, through that diversity, strengthens communities. Tyrants weaken the group by driving out difference, using censorship, ignorance and manipulation. Celebrate, protect and encourage different voices. Be curious about difference.
Libraries can help teach the skills needed to better understand our world to people of all ages. I’ve seen several discussions on Front Porch Forum recently where participants have quoted information sources and argued against those sources without understanding bias. It is incredibly easy for an individual to create a website or other publication that looks official or authoritative or unbiased, and part of an informed citizen’s responsibilities include being able to understand how an information source might skew its expression according to its objectives. Understanding this bias allows an individual to navigate the diversity of voices in the world without simply assigning a right/wrong label. Understanding your own bias is one of the biggest challenges of participating in democracy, and empathizing with your fellow human to realize their bias without simply rejecting their view is equally challenging.
I hope you’ll join me in celebrating libraries, in general, and Bixby Library, in particular, as central to our democratic ideals by informing yourself, asking questions, sharing ideas and passions, and fighting censorship, ignorance and manipulation. The library is a resource for your information seeking, your learning, your curiosity feeding, your discussion, your fact checking, your skill building. Helping to foster this safe haven is a true joy.