Emily Articulated: Public libraries

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

My childhood library was a squat brick building with two sentry-like willow trees and a view of the sediment-stained Tomorrow River — a sleepy stream that winds its way through my 1,000-person hometown. Inside were rows of long shelves, all lined with colorful bindings, and handwritten labels.

This little library was a neat plot point on my walking route to and from school, making a visit to the children and fantasy sections a near-daily occurrence for my siblings and me. I’d run my fingers over paperback book covers, plucking a new Magic Treehouse book for myself, and the latest Goosebumps edition for my brother.

Years later, I’d shuffle through card catalogs, pull large volumes off the shelves, and use community computers to type up research papers or print off my latest homework assignments in the bank of copy and print machines at my disposal. 

Emily Erickson.

The library was a cornerstone of my upbringing and my community; a hub of entertainment, of usefulness, of gathering and learning — which is exactly what it was designed to be.

Public lending libraries in the United States began as centralized spaces from which books could be borrowed and returned, like Benjamin Franklin’s donated collection to the community of Franklin, Mass., in 1790.

These spaces blossomed in cities and towns all over the country after the Civil War and shifted largely to tax-funded public commodities that prioritized bringing educational opportunity to the masses in the late 1800s. 

Today, the American Library Association estimates 116,000 libraries of all kinds are active in the U.S., offering expanded free services like wifi, movie rentals, continuing education programs, children’s activities, social services and more.

Lately, the controversy surrounding the East Bonner County Library District’s policy of requiring face coverings — per CDC-recommendation — and the upcoming Tuesday, May 18 election for the board of trustees has prompted me to think more about libraries and their role in a community.

Public libraries are neutral spaces in which everyone who follows simple rules has the freedom to pursue knowledge, research their ideas, satiate their curiosity and gather resources — no matter who they are, what they believe or how they contribute to their community. 

They are houses of history, entertainment and budding innovation, and serve as pieces of social infrastructure — sturdy public commodities — that are outside the whirling whims of private interests and politics. 

A library is a place for the inception of perspectives, where viewpoints can be researched, and where arguments can be honed and strengthened, no matter if a person is advocating for the Second Amendment, homeopathic remedies, off-grid living or civil rights. 

But it is also a place that must be impervious to, or neutral in, the agendas of the wide array of people entitled to use it.

This neutrality ensures that the library remains a space in which the opportunity to learn and explore is accessible to everyone within a community — and should be protected by the people whose job it is to maintain the best interests of both the library and the public. 

We need spaces free from, or outside of, political influence, especially when considering an institution designed to facilitate learning. We need leaders of these spaces to hold their jobs, and the critical role of their institution within a community, to the highest regard, reserving their personal agendas for the arenas in which they’re appropriate.

At a time where we are served news and information based on the political party we subscribe to — and in which it’s becoming increasingly difficult to decipher whether our ideas are our own or clever marketing from other people’s campaigns — we need to protect the unbiased places where we can go to learn about the world around us.

Everyone, regardless of who they are or what they believe, deserves the opportunity to learn from the biography of a scientist, to be inspired by the recipes of a travel writer, to be challenged by the musings of a contemporary philosopher, to be roused by the exposes of an activist or even to escape into a world of adventure through a magic treehouse.

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