If there is one moment at the start of our country that probably ensured our ongoing freedom more than any other it was when Ben Franklin talked everyone else into building and opening libraries to the masses. Books were too expensive for most people in those days and therefore a lot of information was being held by a small number of people.
However, Franklin knew that discussion, debate and even heated arguments based on as much information and facts as possible were the best prevention of anarchy and the best step toward invention and creation of new ideas. If voting rights were going to be opened wide beyond landowners, and therefore beyond book buyers, then the flow of information needed to somehow get to more people too.
A system of libraries across the newly found America was his solution to making sure the ideal of democracy was kept alive for generations to come. He set the tone by not requiring that libraries leave out other ideas, and in particular political views, therefore making it possible for people to form their own opinions. That’s what countries like Iran fear most.
Libraries made it possible for those who couldn’t afford an expensive education to still be able to gain access to a rich wealth of information. There have even been studies in recent years that show a correlation between an active and healthy library and a lower crime rate in a neighborhood.
I already had a love affair going with words when I was five and when I first saw the vast children’s room in the Philadelphia Library I felt a chill that started at my red Buster Browns and rose right up to my pixie haircut. I was overwhelmed with a five-year-old size of gratitude that the adults had been smart enough to dream up a place like this.
Before that moment I had sensed that the world was largely a practical place. Taxes were collected to make sure that there were firemen to protect us, schools to educate us and highway crews to pave the roads. They were all necessities that keep a community running smoothly and benefit everyone equally.
But luxuries of any kind that weren’t a requirement to keep a body going were only for special occasions. I had thought books fell into that category and took great care with the hand-me-down Dr. Seuss books.
Then I found out about libraries.
Libraries are still a place that are completely open to the interpretation of the warm body holding the library card and the books they check out. We can choose to learn more about history or sink into a thriller or just read about a celebrity we admire. There’s no one asking us why we picked that book and so no judgment and we are free to gather a little more information and even be entertained for a little while.
But then there are also moments when a book can save our life. I remember listening to a new author talk about what had been a very oppressive childhood that by the time she was 13 had lead to a deep sense of hopelessness till the day she found a book at her small local library. The novel had a protagonist that mirrored her experience and for the first time in her young life she realized she wasn’t alone and there were choices to be made. It changed everything and opened up her limited vision beyond the stifling neighborhood where she lived.
It may seem in the age of the internet and hand-held reading devices that both books and libraries are becoming quaint and a thing of the past. However, libraries still hold two very important things that neither Google nor a Kindle will ever be able to offer us.
The first is that libraries give everyone regardless of income the chance to participate and learn to their heart’s content. No computer or internet service required. The second is they provide the anonymity to do it. Just after 9/11 when the Federal Government demanded libraries turn over lists of what patrons were reading in order to better fix, manage and control the rest of us, librarians stood firm and said no.
They understood that coming to a place of fairness and balance requires actually learning about opposing viewpoints without the threat of interrogation or arrest. They chose to protect the flow of information for all of us rather than limit a basic freedom based on a fear of a few of us. They upheld the ideal first created by Franklin and in some small way defeated the aim of terrorists. In return we can go check out a book this week and on our way out, thank a librarian for her service.