Taking something for granted is a mistake we all make – a relationship, our health. Until the pandemic, toilet paper. Another thing some people fail to appreciate is the role of public libraries in the health of our democracy.
Civic health includes not only political engagement, but participation in all kinds of activities that improve the quality of life of a community. Libraries can play a key role. I remembered this last night while attending a book discussion. For the first time since the pandemic began, my library’s lending desk was open in the evenings and there were flyers everywhere about upcoming events. Some of the planned activities will be online or outdoors or with masks, but they are happening.
As a library trustee and later a foundation board member, I was thrilled to hear about what was going on at our local institution. At the time, the Baker Free Library in Bow offered children’s story hours, adult book talks, art exhibits, craft workshops, and cultural programs. It has hosted teenage public speaking competitions and local contestants’ parties.
Groups devoted to robotics, quilting, car shows and conservation have gathered in the building. Customers could borrow books and media; get computer help; submit a passport application; make copies or just make conversation. Staff answered questions and handled crises (roof leaks, technical issues, even medical events) while using their library training to grow the collection and organize programming for all ages. Acquaintances still come to see me and say: “We met at the library when our children were children.
Public libraries are not just places, however. They play a huge role in protecting our First Amendment rights to free expression of ideas and access to information. The American Library Association and the New Hampshire Library Association strongly condemn attempts to censor books and other media.
Local librarians stand up in person for freedom of expression. I saw this while working at New Hampshire Humanities providing lecturers to libraries across the state. Sometimes a participant objected to the material presented. “Liar! You are a liar!” we shouted at a professor describing Islam as a religion that teaches peace. It turned out that he was part of an anti-Muslim group based in New Hampshire. For security reasons, I informed the other libraries that had booked this presentation of what had happened. Although happy to be alerted, the librarians all maintained their reservations – and added a fierce reminder of free speech and civility to their presentations.
In New Hampshire, the roots of public libraries run deep. In commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the New Hampshire State Library, Michael York has written a series of articles on all things library. New Hampshire is home to the first state library (1717), the first library funded by municipal taxation as opposed to membership fees and private subscriptions (1833), and the first state law allowing cities to collect funds to establish and maintain their own libraries (1849).
An article describes a cool tool to determine the monetary value of your annual library usage. Another explains how, in the early 2000s, the advent of the Internet was seen as a serious threat to books. But libraries have pivoted, embracing and sharing digital tools and skills in pursuit of their mission to share information. These tools and skills, along with the knowledge to discern sources, have proven crucial to participation in today’s society.
Overall, New Hampshire residents are well-educated and interact regularly with friends and family, according to the 2020 New Hampshire Civic Health Index. But our trust in government, the media, and even our neighbors is on the decline. decrease. Such a disconnect threatens democracy itself, commentators warn.
Can libraries help? Yes. They provide physical and intellectual space for the community to grow. In small towns, the library is one of the few places where adults can get together, meet and share experiences and ideas. In rural areas, this may be the closest thing to a museum a few miles away. For some, a library is their only Internet access. Even during the COVID shutdown, libraries have managed to inform and entertain through e-newsletters, online programs, and free audiobooks and movies.
As frugal as the taxpayers who support them, libraries complement their own work by collaborating with other organizations. Starting in March, the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education and New Hampshire Public Radio are teaming up for a series of community conversations hosted by Laura Knoy on the topic of “Building Civic Strength.”
UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy has a new “Coffee & Conversations” series on “Political Education for Civic Engagement” available free online. New Hampshire Humanities, ahead of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, is launching programs and grants on what it means to “build a more perfect union” and to be an “informed citizen.”
You can bet New Hamp Libraries will be on the front line. As places and in their practices, libraries make room for democracy.
(Susan Hatem is an attorney and former director of programs and grants at New Hampshire Humanities.)