Why the American Public Library is the Foundation of our Democracy

Note: The cover photo is the Exterior of the Library of Congress, the national library of the US.

Why Libraries Are Amazing

I love libraries. 

When I was a child, we didn’t have a branch library near my house, so we had to drive about 20-25 minutes down what was then still a country road, meaning that it had one lane in each direction and was curvy.  You could still get stuck behind farm vehicles too.  But every week or two, my mom faithfully packed the three of us in the car and drove us down there, especially in the summer.  That was my favorite day of the week.  I still remember how the smell of the books would hit you when you walked through the doors. 

My second biggest library memory is entering Alderman Library* as a graduate student at the University of Virginia.  First, again with the smell.  And then there is the wonderfully complicated Library of Congress cataloguing system they used (I never quite picked up on it in undergrad, but the library at James Madison University was much smaller so it was possible to browse), and just the massive nature of the thing.  There were the Old Stacks and the New Stacks, 5 levels of each tucked into what appeared to be a 3 story building…the locked floors with the really valuable stuff, Ivy Storage (when you wanted something really obscure).  Really, when I finally finished my doctorate years later, my biggest sense of regret was in giving up my graduate student borrowing rights, which were much more generous than those I was entitled to as a resident of Virginia, though as a resident of Virginia, I am still entitled to some. Just knowing that gives me a sense of calm.

Looks are deceiving in the mountains, where the University of Virginia is located…when you enter Alderman, you are at the top of the building as it goes downhill!

Looks are deceiving in the mountains, where the University of Virginia is located…when you enter Alderman, you are at the top of the building as it goes downhill!

Over the course of my adult life, my relationship with the library has ebbed and flowed depending on my personal circumstances and reading needs, but now, 20 years into the 21st century, the library has again become the center of my reading life.  To me, it seems like the America  public library system has undergone some hiccups as they shifted into the digital age, but they have done so with aplomb and in my opinion, have more than kept up with the public’s demand and need for information.

If it has been a while since you have paid attention to your public library, you need to take a second look.  If you think that you are getting great deals and access to books from Amazon, you won’t believe what is available from the library!

Amazon actually does do a great job as a commercial enterprise, but remember, if you are a tax payer, you have already paid for your library…in other words, your resident status makes you a Public Library Prime member automatically.  So if you are paying Amazon (or Apple) for services you are entitled to for free, you are actually getting ripped off.

And libraries base their purchasing not on what they want to sell you but on demand of their patrons. That’s how you say “customer” when you aren’t paying directly. Instead, we all basically “donate” a portion of our taxes to the libraries. Think of your librarian as your community’s personal shopper: he or she analyzes what people like and what books are coming out, and make their choices based on the best of both. Libraries aren’t out to make a profit, so they are most likely to listen to you and your neighbors and order what you want to read.

People act like crowd sourcing and crowd funding is a new thing, but actually we have had it in the United States for two centuries, starting with subscription libraries in the early 19th century that operated much like Netflix does today that gradually became privately supported free libraries and eventually tax-supported public libraries.

So if you want to support your local area and make good use of resources, go to the library!

*The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson…see below for more about how Thomas Jefferson contributed to the Library of Congress.

Free Read

Quick Read

5 Ways Alderman Library Will Be Transformed: An article from UVA today showing a major library from the inside out

Why Libraries are the Foundation of Democracy

If you haven’t read this classic dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury about the importance of reading, it’s a must!

I love libraries because they have all the books.  Bookstores are also interesting, but bookstores have several copies of lots of books; libraries have one (sometimes more) copies of all the books. 

The other thing I love about libraries, and why I think they are amazing, is that the are concrete, money costing, real life evidence of Americans’ commitment to maintaining some level of equality through equal access to knowledge.  And that my friends, is what democracy is all about.

I know that many people think that Americans don’t really care about equality and liberty, or that we don’t really provide it for all people.  Now, I’m not dumb enough to think that the US is the only country that cares about these things, but the US is the country in which I happened to be born, and as mad as they make me sometimes, they still haven’t revoked my citizenship.  So I’m speaking for my own here, but not for the whole world.

Where ever you are as you read this, please think about how your country supports open access to knowledge, and you will get a lot of answers about how committed your country is to its citizens. I know there there are some who do a better job than the US, and I know there are others trying to deal with life or death problems, but regardless, it’s a question worth asking.

Knowledge is power.

When I walk into a library, I know that no matter what else we do that is elitist, nationalistic, cheap, or cruel, that we continue to fund this institution that is there for all people: you don’t need a stable address to use the facilities, you don’t need to be a citizen or even in the U.S. legally.  They aren’t allowed to ask, unless you apply for a card, and then the requirements are minimal.

When I walk into my library, I see all kinds of people there: rich, middle class, & poor. Folks who have lived here for generations, and folks who are trying to learn English. Everyone. There is even a special rack of “honor system” books for anyone who wants them, but I know they are there for people who might not have the stability to be accountable for returning what they borrow. Because we recognize that everyone has the right. Right? Apparently, yes, the right to read if they want to.

That’s pretty profound to me.

The whole point of a library is for you, whoever you are, to have a chance to educate yourself and make your life better, without charge.  It’s one time that we, as Americans, have managed to get along well enough to band together across class and ethnic lines and use what is basically crowd funding to provide reading and educational materials for all.  And a surprising amount of entertainment too!

There is free Internet and computer access available for all, so that everyone has access.  There is also free wifi available for those who need that.

There is job search information and also information on how to become a US citizen, and there is tutoring available to those who want to learn to read or learn to speak English.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how many services for children there are now…it goes way beyond the toddler story times that they used to have.   For stay-at-home parents, there are enough different programs for children that you can basically use the library as a mini-preschool (for learning…not for childcare as leaving your kids isn’t allowed). 

When I had to drive long distance a lot, I used to check out books on CD from the library.  I liked them because they were full text, and at the time, commercially available recorded books were all abridged.  Sure, they were mainly there for the blind, but anyone could use them.  Now,  you don’t even need to go into the library as you can just download recorded books through the library’s website, and they are the same versions that are available through services such as Audible.

It used to be that you had to choose from the books that the library had available at any given time, or go through a bit of a hassle to place a book on hold.  The Internet, and the library’s effective use of it, means that you should be able to easily log in at home with your library card and pin number, and place books on hold through there.  Usually, if the book is not at your branch, you can have it delivered there within a day or two and just go in and pick it up.  If the book is out, it will be held for you when it returns.  Some libraries are even starting to text people to let them know when their books are in!

Now, the most exciting thing about current libraries for me is the use they have made of e-books.  It has taken a while for them to get the kinks out of the system, but now it works seamlessly with the main library catalog or with e-book specific apps.

I can’t quite imagine someone who doesn’t want to read, either for fun or information, but if you are more of a “hands on” person, some libraries offer items such as tools and specialty bakeware.  One library I frequent has a “seed catalog” which is a big cabinet with free garden seeds available for patrons.  Some also have specialty facilities available, such as music studios and film production studios, if your dream is to be the next Youtube star.

Nearly all libraries offer music and video, either in DVD/CD format or, more and more, digitally.

And really, there is no reason to pay for digital magazines: you can find almost all your favorite periodicals available for check out through the library.

Free Listen

A Revolutionary Act’: The Power Of A 21st Century Library Card from NPR


How Do I Access Resources?

If you know one thing about the United States, you should know that rarely is anything done one way.  There are as many different ways to do things in libraries as there are systems.  I will explain some general guidelines based on what I know as a library patron and experienced user to help you figure out what to do.

1.     Getting a card: If you don’t have a library card, that is the first thing you need to do.  Go to the library in your town, city, county, or region.  The exact organization of your local library can vary.  Rural areas sometimes combine their resources into “regional” libraries to increase the variety of books available.  Larger cities might have multiple systems across their boroughs if the boroughs were once independent cities.  It just depends, but you should have access to some library through your residency.

Usually you just need a photo ID showing your address to get a card.  If you don’t have that, a photo ID (such as your passport) combined with a utility bill with your name and address printed on it will work.

You don’t necessarily need any ID to use library facilities, you just won’t be able to check anything out.

If you are wondering if you might be embarrassed by people’s knowing what you read, you should know that in American libraries, you have rights protecting you, and usually no one can get access to the record of the books you have checked out with out a court order. So if you are being investigated for a crime, an attorney has to go to court to get your records, but otherwise, that information is considered private. You have a right to read what you want.

Here are the guidelines from the ALA, the American Library Association. Like most things in the US, they vary a little from state to state. 

2.     Once you have a card, you can log in to the library’s online system.  Libraries usually have their catalogs (all of their materials) in the system along with the materials from the external services they use.

They will give you a PIN when you get your card. If you don’t have it, give your local branch a call.

3.     When you find the materials you want in the catalog, you will usually have an option to place the item on hold.  You want to do that so you don’t waste a trip. When you put the item on hold, be sure that you ask to have it delivered to the “branch” nearest your house.  Most systems have a Main or Central library that is the largest, then they smaller “branch” libraries in different neighborhoods across the city.  You can pick which library you want the materials sent to, but just make sure you’re consistent!  The library will either e-mail you or text you (if they have that capability) when the item is available, and they will tell you how long they will hold it.

4.     If the item is electronic, you then have to figure out how to access it.  You may be able to get it directly from the library’s site, or you may have to create an account for another service.

So there you have it: that should be enough to get you started.  Take some time now to go to your library’s site and see what you can find, and check back next week for information on how to access libraries’ electronic resources.

More from The Lois Level

A Nation of Readers: The Lois Level’s visit to the 2019 National Festival of the Book, sponsored by the Library of Congress

5 Books about Books to Enhance your Reading Life

Check back next week for more on how to get full use of the library in the digital age!

Free Read

What is the Purpose of a Public Library? and much more from publiclibraries.com

The books purchased from Thomas Jefferson, on special display in the current Library of Congress .

The books purchased from Thomas Jefferson, on special display in the current Library of Congress .

Free Resource

The Library of Congress, which should actually be called the National Library of the United States.

The current collection was founded by Thomas Jefferson’s selling his collection to the US after the British* burned the previous collection during the War of 1812, when the UK tried to win the US back after the Revolution.

*My Canadian friends seem to feel it’s important for people to know that the actual fighting forces were Canadian. That’s not what they told me in school (or what it says in the link), but you know, full disclosure, and I don’t want them mad at me. Probably we don’t like to think about war with Canada because Americans generally like Canadians, and we also share a really, really long border with them that is located in a lot of cold wilderness. If they had won, I guess we’d be South Canada today!

Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Free Resource

The first library in the United States was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, more than 30 years before the US became a sovereign country!

This library, the Library Company of Pennsylvania, still operates today as a nonprofit center for research and culture.

Here’s a quick history of libraries around the world from PBS; watch this just for the awesome book setting.

History of the Library of Congress

The pace of this is a little slow, but the content is fascinating.

Photo credits:

Main Reading Room: [[File:LOC Main Reading Room Highsmith.jpg|LOC Main Reading Room Highsmith]]

Jefferson Library in the LOC: https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/08078/detail/news2.html

Alderman Library: Boston Public Library historic postcards collection

Cover photo: https://www.needpix.com/photo/719912/washington-dc-c-library-of-congress-thomas-jefferson-building-night-nighttime-evening-lights-panorama