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Why Is One US City Stripping the Word 'Public' from Public Library?

The public library is a uniquely American creation. Now we have to fight to keep it public.

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More than 125 years later Sundays remain the busiest day of the week for public libraries and Sunday closings are the first sign of fiscal distress.

By 1935 public libraries were serving 60 percent of the population. They had so proven their value that not a single library closed its doors during the Great Depression! To keep their doors open, the Cleveland public library sponsored “overdue weeks”, encouraging patrons who could afford it to keep their library books until they were overdue, allowing the library to collect the 12 cents per week fine. In a time of soup lines and economic destitution, the library was known as the “bread line of the spirit”.

Its mission of protecting our access to information has often led the public library to confront authorities that would obstruct that access.

In 1953 at the height of McCarthism, when magazine like the Nation were banned in many places and William Faulkner’s novels were seized as pornographic literature, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted a Library Bill of Rights. “The freedom to read is of little consequence when expended on the trivia,” it insisted, “Ideas can be dangerous…Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the federal government began giving taxpayer-financed data to private companies who then copyrighted the information and charged higher prices for access, the library community expressed its displeasure. Then ALA President Patricia Shuman declared, “privatization has resulted in less access and higher cost for the America public. If we accept the commodization of information…we will diminish the public’s right to know.”

Just as fiercely as public librarians fight to protect our access to information they fight to protect our personal information from prying eyes. In the 1980s when the FBI tried to turn librarians into spies by asking them to identify those who checked out military or subversive books or who simply fit the terrorist profile Americans librarians firmly rejected the request.

Sometimes protecting the people’s right to information means not only confronting the authority of government but of parents. A few years ago the Director of the Elkhart Indiana Public Library explained, “Sometimes a parent will get angry at a book a kid has brought home. And the parent will bring in the kid’s card and tell us he’s returning it. We mail the card back to the child. It’s his card. The child can return it, but no one can return it for the child.”

Libraries make citizens of us all.

Of us all. This month the Queens Public Library, located in one of the most ethnically diverse and immigrant rich communities in the world---its web site and phone answering system are in six languages—will begin allowing the "matricula consular" - a personal identification card issued to immigrants by their consulates – to be used as a valid document to obtain a library card.

"At Queens Library, we strive to make our collections and services available to all," said Maureen O'Connor, director of programs and services for the Queens Library. They’ve succeeded admirably. The Queens Library has the highest circulation rate of any public library system in the country.

The Best Deal In Town

Despite the enormous popularity and widespread use of public libraries have rarely been well funded. Robert Reagan, then Public Information Director of the City of Los Angeles Public Library offers one reason, “Everybody loves libraries, but mostly they are mute about it.” “(L)ibraries are plagued by the image that we are nice, but not essential” one librarian complained to the Washington Post. People will defend their libraries, but only when the lights are about to go out.

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