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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.

"The word 'public' has been removed from the name of the Fort Worth Library.Why? Simply put, to keep up with the times." --From the Media release on the rebranding of the Fort Worth Library

Fort Worth, you leave me speechless. You’re certainly correct about one thing. The public library is indeed an institution that has not kept up with the times. But given what has happened to our times, why do you see that as unhealthy? In an age of greed and selfishness, the public library stands as an enduring monument to the values of cooperation and sharing. In an age where global corporations stride the earth, the public library remains firmly rooted in the local community. In an age of widespread cynicism and distrust of government, the 100 percent tax supported public library has virtually unanimous and enthusiastic support.

This is not the time to take the word “public” out of the public library. It is time to put it in capitals. s "public" now a dirty word? Fort Worth has stripped the word from its local library.

The public library is a singularly American invention. Europeans had subscription libraries for 100 years before the United States was born. But on a chilly day in April 1833 the good citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire created a radical new concept—a truly PUBLIC library. All town residents, regardless of income, had the right to freely share the community’s stored knowledge. Their only obligation was to return the information on time and in good condition, allowing others to exercise that same right.

By the 1870s 11 states boasted 188 public libraries. By 1910 all states had them. Today 9,000 central buildings plus about 7500 branches have made public libraries one of the most ubiquitous of all American institutions, exceeding Starbucks and McDonalds.

Almost two thirds of us carry library cards. At least once a year, about half of us visit a public library, many more than once. Library use varies by class and race and by age and educational level. But the majority of blacks and Latinos as well as whites, old as well as young, poor as well as rich, high school dropouts as well as university graduates, use the public library.

What Makes The Public Library Special?

When we think of libraries, we think of books and rightly so, for public libraries are by far our largest bookstores and a majority of the 2.5 billion items checked out are still books. Indeed, for every two books sold in America, one book is borrowed from the public library.

But libraries are much more than bookstores. About 30 percent of the people who visit libraries do not borrow books or DVDs. For a greater number of people than we might care to believe, the library serves as a warm and dry sanctuary, a place they can sit without fear of being bothered. For others, it is a refuge from loneliness, a place full of hustle and bustle, where they can attend a concert, or hear a lecture or read a magazine free of charge.

Since its inception the American public library’s prime directive has been to protect the public’s access to information. In 1894, the right to know led Denver’s public library to pioneer the concept of open stacks. For the first time patrons had the freedom to browse. In the 1930s, the right to know led Kentucky’s librarians to ride pack horses and mules with saddle-bags filled with books into remote sections of the state.

In 1872, the right to know led the Worcester Massachusetts Public Library to open its doors on Sunday. Many viewed that as sacrilege. Head librarian Samuel Green calmly responded that a library intended to serve the public could do so only if it were accessible when the public could use it. Six day, 60-hour workweeks meant that if libraries were to serve the majority of the community they must be open on Sundays. Referring to those who might not spend their Sundays at worship Green impishly added, “If they are not going to save their souls in the church they should improve their minds in the library.”

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