Guest opinion: Founding fathers knew the power of libraries; visit your public library today
The recent death of Elizabeth Johnson comes as a great loss to the community, but is especially felt by the Douglas County Public Library staff. During the 1960s, Liz worked for many years with a group of citizens to raise the money, build the facility, hire the librarian, and establish a public library for Douglas County. Why did she devote so many years to this cause?
Libraries were valued by the Founding Fathers of our country, with Jefferson and Franklin being the most avid supporters. Structured so that the United States government relies on the consent of the people to operate, our system of representative democracy requires a free and informed citizenry to function. The Founding Fathers were able to establish a level of freedom in society but systems external to the government are necessary to ensure the informed citizenry. These systems include a free press, public schools, and public libraries.
The public library as it exists today is the product of an evolutionary process that started some 6,000 years ago with the first libraries in Sumeria, established soon after a system of writing developed. Originating as record storehouses for taxes owed and collected, libraries eventually became the repositories of all recorded history.
Often undervalued by the people being served, libraries have never been underestimated by the world’s tyrants. If you look at what Genghis Khan, Shi Huang, Torquemada, Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Pinochet had in common you find that one of the first things each did in his rise to power was to burn libraries. Libraries have been censored and sacked by kings and emperors, priests and preachers, rabbis and ayatollahs, commissioners and commissars, Republicans and Democrats. Despots know how much power resides in information and know that restricting information from the public shifts power away from the public.
In the United States, book burnings are anomalies, but increasing censorship attempts are disguised as ways in which to “protect” others from immoral, illegal, harmful material. This is no protection for any American. Our history shows us that we, as a people, will not allow anyone to close our library, ban our books, muzzle our voices, brainwash our children, or lock us up for voicing our opinions. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were guaranteed by the Founding Fathers and are guaranteed today. It is a true paradox that some of our citizens demand their right to speak freely and decry the right of others to do the same.
It is important to remember that the recorded history preserved in your local public library is a record of people achieving an increasing freedom of expression. It was the educated, the wealthy, the privileged who envisioned libraries as a way to provide books and education to the economically disadvantaged. It is the free, educated individual who demands the right of people to be heard and afforded access to information.
The public library in America is considered to be the most democratic of all institutions. In order to educate the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, the disabled, the young, the elderly, the homebound in the community, your public library advocates for every member of the community.
The American public library is a remarkable establishment, and one that is not duplicated in any other country of the world. Anyone can walk into any public library in the nation and receive service for no direct cost from a staff of highly educated persons. The patron does not have to be a citizen and the information needed does not have to be easily available or politically correct. Help is provided to all and information is available covering all points of view on virtually any topic.
The World War II generation remembers the days when the future of democracy anywhere was in grave danger. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of the role of the library:
“Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides our world, and for two reasons. First, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society. Second, because the contemporary conflict touches the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the mind, and even the survival of culture, and libraries are the great tools of scholarship, the great repositories of culture, and the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.”
This is the cause to which Liz Johnson devoted years of effort. Your public library, with locations in Minden, Lake Tahoe, and China Spring Youth Camp, is here to provide you with access to information, recreation and culture. And we would like you to visit our expanded Minden facility to see where the information you need is available and to celebrate more than 30 years of operation in Douglas County.
Please join us for the Grand Opening of the Minden Library expansion at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 3.
n Linda Deacy is the Douglas County library director.