The Norman Transcript


October 14, 2008

Today's public library

In the past week, I've visited with Norman citizens to discuss expanded public library service in our community. Our conversations have included enthusiasm for new possibilities. Often, however, I heard the statement, "Today's public library is much different than the library I grew up with."

I want to address this sentiment because beyond the nostalgia -- missing the look, smell and feel of your childhood library -- is something important. As American citizens, we often don't consider the silent gears that move forward the powerful machinery of democracy -- public schools and libraries in particular.

I believe that the reasons public libraries continue to enjoy public support are the same today as they were more than 100 years ago. In order for democracies to thrive, citizens must have free access to information, education, cultural and community history, humanitarian ideals, and community pride.

Why were American public libraries established in the 19th century? Are their reasons still valid today? What is the role of the public library in the 21st century? These are all critical questions to consider, particularly as we consider the future of our own public library.

According to Sidney Ditzio in "Arsenals of a Democratic Culture," the growth of public libraries was more rapid in the United States than in England because the working man in America was better educated, in general, than his English counterpart. In the U.S. there was an expectation of political participation and economic equity that made education more compelling.

Here are some of the reasons that public libraries were embraced by American communities in the late 19th century. Decide for yourself if they are still valid today.

· Democracy requires informed voters. The idea of participation by all citizens in decision making meant the country needed an informed populace.

· Democracy calls for equality of educational and economic opportunity. Free sources of knowledge were required to support these democratic beliefs.

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