Library Truths

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Article: 50 Years of Intellectual Freedom (ALA, 2017)

By | 2017-11-11T03:38:41+00:00 November 11th, 2017|Categories: Library Truths, Philosophy/Principles|

50 Years of Intellectual Freedom
The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom celebrates its history
November 1, 2017

Extract: “When you need the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), you need it now. Many mornings in the office at the American Library Association (ALA) headquarters in Chicago begin with a panicked call or email: A school principal yanked a book from the shelf. People are protesting outside the library against a speaker. A board member objects to a display. A national coalition targets a database.

This December, OIF is celebrating 50 years of fighting for intellectual freedom: half a century of championing ­libraries, finding allies within the literary community, and aiding librarians in times of high anxiety. It’s an evolving role to be cherished and safeguarded.

At the 1965 Midwinter Meeting preconference in Washington, D.C., the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) recommended an ALA unit be established to “promote and protect the interests of intellectual freedom.” Among its interim objectives was to create “positive mechanisms” that could defend intellectual freedom, collaborate with state intellectual freedom committees, and establish relationships with other First Amendment groups.

Expectations for the new office were high, but they also allowed for creativity and experimentation. To get the project off the ground and establish it as the voice of intellectual freedom in libraries, ALA needed a headstrong, daring leader, one who could persuade would-be censors and find allies within the literary community. It was Judith Krug—a 27-year-old reference librarian from Evanston, Illinois—who would not only transform OIF from an unsettled two-person team into a thriving office, but also completely alter the landscape of intellectual freedom for the better.

Fifty years since its founding on December 1, 1967, OIF remains an indispensable resource for librarians. It has had only three directors, each bringing a new vision to the office: Judith Krug, Barbara Jones, and, currently, James LaRue. When LaRue first arrived at ALA in 2016, he delineated three distinct roles for OIF.

Case support. OIF is there for library workers and governing authorities who face challenges to their services.

Thought leadership. Intellectual freedom, whether viewed as the fight against censorship or the impassioned defense of the right to question, is a fundamental library value. OIF carries the free speech torch in publications, webinars, workshops, and keynotes. It also works with intellectual freedom allies, such as the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) and the Media Coalition, particularly in the area of litigation. OIF has played a key role in landmark decisions involving libraries and the internet, as well as patron privacy. See Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (2002), which ruled the Child Online Protection Act unconstitutional, and United States v. American Library Association (2003), which required schools and libraries receiving E-Rate discounts to install web filtering software.

Leadership development. Intellectual freedom needs a cadre of informed and skilled advocates. Those skills are developed and deployed through such ALA units as IFC, Committee on Professional Ethics, and Intellectual Freedom Round Table.
Case support

Case Support: A mere two years after its founding, OIF was receiving 250 communications each month, half of them requests for assistance. Krug’s desk became littered with piles of paperwork and case files. Although paper communication still floats around the office today, censorship incidents are now documented in a database, which tracks both challenges and the follow-up case support OIF provides. And instead of phone calls and letters—although those are still welcomed—the OIF website hosts a censorship reporting form, which allows staff members to efficiently reach out to librarians and provide next steps. In response to the spike in hate crimes in libraries after the November 2016 presidential election, the form now offers a category to report incidents of hate-based graffiti, property damage, and intimidation in libraries.

OIF provides much of the same support it has since its beginning. OIF staffers write statements of support, locate people to speak at local school board meetings, gather book reviews and library policies, consult legal authorities, and visit communities.
Shifting targets

Evolving societal values and the political landscape frequently shift the targets of challenged materials. In the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal shattered the illusion of trust between the government and its citizens, people turned their attention to local government institutions that they could control: schools and libraries.

“ In 2014, America was, for the first time, a majority nonwhite nation for children under age 5, according to the US Census Bureau estimates. In a Virginia high school, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was challenged because of “graphic sex,” but OIF Assistant Director Kristin Pekoll contends that race is a significant reason why the classic was threatened with censorship.

“There are so many issues in her novel that people are uncomfortable with,” said Pekoll, who is usually the first staff person educators talk to when facing a challenge. “It’s easier and less embarrassing to say ‘graphic sex.’”

On college campuses, the “right not to be offended” is causing concern. “Now we are seeing a regrettable move toward censoring speech that offends,” said Judith Platt, the recently retired director of Free Expression Advocacy for the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Recent speaker disinvitations have taken place at DePaul University, Virginia Tech, and University of California, Berkeley.
Thought leadership

OIF has several publications that educate the public about censorship. The Intellectual Freedom Manual, first published in 1974, combines all interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights, the core document for the library professional. Frequent requests for up-to-date banned book information inspired Doyle and Krug to create a resource guide on censorship. What started as scribbles on index cards evolved into a 308-page tenth edition in 2017, complete with timelines and tweetable quotes. The office also carries on its 50-year tradition of distributing Freedom to Read and Library Bill of Rights statements.

Each OIF leader brought different allies to the intellectual freedom discussion. Krug worked on national alliances, initiating coalitions that coordinated efforts between booksellers, publishers, lawyers, and editors to defend the First Amendment. She also founded FTRF, a separate 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that focuses on litigation and public education.

“Krug provided a platform to take actions that the Association isn’t willing to make, or can’t make,” said Doyle, referring to FTRF. “She invited diverse people to the table … who are thoughtful.”
The Speaker

Krug transformed the image of librarians from quiet, behind-the-desk researchers to fierce “gatekeepers of the marketplace of ideas.” This notion was put to the test with OIF’s production of The Speaker, a film that divides ALA membership today.

The Speaker is set in a high school that invites a professor to explain the “theory of genetic inferiority” of African Americans, sparking backlash from the community and principal. OIF, IFC, and the AAP Freedom to Read Committee wanted to screen the 42-minute film at the 1977 ALA Annual Conference in Detroit and distribute it to schools, libraries, and governing boards.

Before the film premiered, there was a sense of uneasiness about its future. In 1976, AAP pulled out of the project. When the ALA Executive Board previewed the film, it voted to delay its premiere date in Detroit but quickly reversed its decision.

Despite the initial reactions, the film was shown at the conference. During the 45-minute discussion that followed the applause and hisses at the rolling end credits, some attendees argued that ALA should disassociate itself with the film. ALA Council voted against the proposal, a decision that triggered tension between free speech and social justice advocates.

Then–ALA Executive Director Robert Wedgeworth told American Libraries that there was a lot of pressure on him to fire Krug. Unsurprisingly, Krug stuck by The Speaker. In the accompanying discussion guide for the film, Krug and IFC Chair Florence McMullin wrote that they were proud of a project that addresses a sensitive topic: the toleration of ideas we find offensive.

“It’s an issue that hasn’t gone away,” said Doyle. “I think Krug and others thought that the issue would stand the test of time.” Jones revived The Speaker at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, with an accompanying panel program cosponsored by the Black Caucus of the ALA and the Library History Round Table.

One of the most successful campaigns by both OIF and the publishing community is Banned Books Week. The celebration was launched in the 1980s, a time of increased challenges, organized protests, and the Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) Supreme Court case, which ruled that school officials can’t ban books in libraries simply because of their content.

Banned books were showcased at the 1982 American Booksellers Association (ABA) BookExpo America trade show in Anaheim, California. At the entrance to the convention center towered large, padlocked metal cages, with some 500 challenged books stacked inside and a large overhead sign cautioning that some people considered these books dangerous.

ALA is currently part of a national coalition to promote Banned Books Week, along with 13 other contributors and sponsors. OIF chooses its own theme each year for the initiative; this year’s theme is “Words Have Power,” to celebrate the power of readers to stand up to censorship and the power of banned books to create literary communities. Krug led the Banned Books Week efforts as OIF director until her unexpected death in 2009. Her legacy lives on in the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Judith F. Krug Memorial Fund, a grant awarded to nonprofits to host Banned Books Week events.

Another successful OIF initiative is Choose Privacy Week. Held annually May 1–7, the initiative encourages libraries to be champions of privacy rights in the digital age by highlighting tools they can use to protect the privacy of their patrons.
Team ALA

“OIF was seen as the North Star,” said Jones. “When I was there, the US was post–Patriot Act. Librarians would come up to me at international meetings and say, ‘The US cannot fail at this. You can’t fail. We look to you to argue to our governments that we need the freedom to read.’”

OIF consists of five staff members who operate on an annual budget of about $500,000. The office is supported by a vibrant community of Association leaders, guest bloggers, and front-line librarians who speak out in publications, library board meetings, and courtrooms when First Amendment rights are challenged.

Leadership development begins with awareness. All librarians, staff, trustees, and interested parties can subscribe to the Intellectual Freedom Blog and receive a free e-newsletter on intellectual freedom.

LaRue contends that intellectual freedom is not the absence of dissent; success is not measured by silence. “Like every deep value,” he says, “intellectual freedom must be poked, tested, and reapplied to the circumstances of each generation.”

As Krug once said, “It is our responsibility and indeed our privilege to stand on the First Amendment, to challenge censorship, to keep the light of liberty alive and by doing so, to push back a new dark age.”

ELEANOR DIAZ is a program officer with the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. JAMES LARUE is director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation.

Full article here.

Libraries: An American Value (Principles, 1999)

By | 2017-11-03T02:29:10+00:00 November 3rd, 2017|Categories: Library Truths, Philosophy/Principles|

Libraries in America are cornerstones of the communities they serve. Free access to the books, ideas, resources, and information in America’s libraries is imperative for education, employment, enjoyment, and self-government.

Libraries are a legacy to each generation, offering the heritage of the past and the promise of the future. To ensure that libraries flourish and have the freedom to promote and protect the public good in the 21st century, we believe certain principles must be guaranteed.

To that end, we affirm this contract with the people we serve:

  • We defend the constitutional rights of all individuals, including children and teenagers, to use the library’s resources and services;
  • We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve;
  • We affirm the responsibility and the right of all parents and guardians to guide their own children’s use of the library and its resources and services;
  • We connect people and ideas by helping each person select from and effectively use the library’s resources;
  • We protect each individual’s privacy and confidentiality in the use of library resources and services;
  • We protect the rights of individuals to express their opinions about library resources and services;
  • We celebrate and preserve our democratic society by making available the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions and ideas, so that all individuals have the opportunity to become lifelong learners – informed, literate, educated, and culturally enriched.

Change is constant, but these principles transcend change and endure in a dynamic technological, social, and political environment.

By embracing these principles, libraries in the United States can contribute to a future that values and protects freedom of speech in a world that celebrates both our similarities and our differences, respects individuals and their beliefs, and holds all persons truly equal and free.

Adopted February 3, 1999, by the
Council of the American Library Association


Preserving Our Values
Libraries as social change agents
May 31, 2016

In 1999, the American Library Association (ALA) Council adopted the statement “Libraries: An American Value.” The principles in that document, in the Library Bill of Rights, and in our mission all speak to the importance of libraries as agents of change and protectors of our heritage. These books speak to those principles.

The Intellectual Freedom Manual is a guide to providing library service in support of First Amendment rights. For the manual’s 9th edition, the background information on its policies has been pulled into a separate volume, A History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom: A Supplement to the 0616-librarians1Intellectual Freedom Manual, compiled by editor Trina Magi and assistant editor Martin Garnar for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The essays on these core intellectual freedom documents and their interpretations provide insights on why they were developed, as well as narratives on events that precipitated discussions that led to agreed-upon practices for dealing with issues. Two of the three core documents, the Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics, both adopted by ALA Council in 1939, informed the third, the Freedom to Read Statement, which was adopted in 1953. These were documents of their time, and the histories of their evolution are important reading. ALA Editions, 2015. 172 P. $85. PBK. 978-0-8389-1325-3. (Also available as an ebook.)

0616-librarians2In Ethics and Values in Librarianship: A History, Wallace Koehler digs into more areas where shared values have evolved, sometimes over centuries and often across cultures. Koehler takes a thematic approach, covering stewardship, classification, librarian qualifications, freedom of expression, and libraries and democracy. For an essay on intellectual property, he notes how there was no copyright law when manuscripts were unique objects copied by hand—Great Britain’s Statute of Anne, which was passed in 1710, changed that. The essay on qualifications begins with the status quo and explores models from other countries before analyzing the elements of past practices and beliefs that have informed our current understanding. He also links libraries and democracy to freedom of expression in a pair of essays. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. 292 P. $80. 978-1-4422-5426-8. (Also available as an ebook.)

0616-librarians3Using decades of research on public libraries, Paul T. Jaeger, Ursula Gorham, John Carlo Bertot, and Lindsay C. Sarin examine how libraries both influence and are influenced by public policies in Public Libraries, Public Policies, and Political Processes: Serving and Transforming Communities in Times of Economic and Political Constraint. The authors make the distinction between politics and policies as they look at the evolution of public libraries as a public good; explore the evolution of policies for public libraries; examine how libraries have changed their communities and have been changed by the communities; and seek to demonstrate the value of libraries in the face of economic and political challenges. They conclude that “public libraries mean far too much to their patrons and their communities for libraries and their supporters to not throw everything they can at advocacy and engagement.” Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 198 P. $61. PBK. 978-1-4422-3346-1. (Also available as an ebook.)

0616-librarians4Additional essays on the role of libraries as social change agents are found in Perspectives on Libraries As Institutions of Human Rights and Social Justice, the 41st volume in the Advances in Librarianship series, edited by Ursula Gorham, Natalie Greene Taylor, and Paul T. Jaeger. The 19 essays cover such topics as conceptualizing libraries as institutions of human rights and social justice, providing service to marginalized populations, and how these issues are presented in LIS professions and curricula. Examples of services and social change from North American models are included, as well as case studies from India, New Zealand, Nigeria, and South Africa. As noted in the book’s wrap-up essay, the library is sometimes the only institution in a community able to assume a role in resolving human rights issues or extending needed services. But our professional mindset, and even the education being offered, may not equip new practitioners to assume these important community roles. Emerald Group Publishing, 2016. 456 P. $155. 978-1-7863-5058-9. (Also available as an ebook.)

0616-librarians5Elaine Harger’s Which Side Are You On?: Seven Social Responsibility Debates in American Librarianship, 1990–2015 documents debates that led to changes in ALA policy statements and the ways we perceive ALA’s community role. Harger, an active ALA member and participant in the discussions, reports on seven watershed debates—just the catchwords will trigger memories: The Speaker, antiapartheid actions, censorship in Israel and disputed territories, partnerships with the Boy Scouts and McDonald’s, Snowden, and climate crisis. The issues underlying these debates are contentious and not easy to grasp quickly. Harger’s essays on her route to learning about the issues and understanding their impact, along with excerpts from the debates, provide useful insights to ALA’s social conscience. McFarland, 2016. 236 P. $25. 978-0-7864-9455-2. (Also available as an ebook.)

The Freedom to Read Statement (1953)

By | 2017-11-02T23:42:06+00:00 November 2nd, 2017|Categories: Exciting Ideas, Library Truths, Philosophy/Principles|

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label “controversial” views, to distribute lists of “objectionable” books or authors, and to purge libraries. These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals. We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read.

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.

These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media, and the Internet. The problem is not only one of actual censorship. The shadow of fear cast by these pressures leads, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy or unwelcome scrutiny by government officials.

Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension. Freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.

Now as always in our history, reading is among our greatest freedoms. The freedom to read and write is almost the only means for making generally available ideas or manners of expression that can initially command only a small audience. The written word is the natural medium for the new idea and the untried voice from which come the original contributions to social growth. It is essential to the extended discussion that serious thought requires, and to the accumulation of knowledge and ideas into organized collections.

We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. We believe that these pressures toward conformity present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend. We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and to circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read. We believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings.

The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution. Those with faith in free people will stand firm on these constitutional guarantees of essential rights and will exercise the responsibilities that accompany these rights.

We therefore affirm these propositions:

  1. It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.Creative thought is by definition new, and what is new is different. The bearer of every new thought is a rebel until that idea is refined and tested. Totalitarian systems attempt to maintain themselves in power by the ruthless suppression of any concept that challenges the established orthodoxy. The power of a democratic system to adapt to change is vastly strengthened by the freedom of its citizens to choose widely from among conflicting opinions offered freely to them. To stifle every nonconformist idea at birth would mark the end of the democratic process. Furthermore, only through the constant activity of weighing and selecting can the democratic mind attain the strength demanded by times like these. We need to know not only what we believe but why we believe it.
  2. Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.Publishers and librarians serve the educational process by helping to make available knowledge and ideas required for the growth of the mind and the increase of learning. They do not foster education by imposing as mentors the patterns of their own thought. The people should have the freedom to read and consider a broader range of ideas than those that may be held by any single librarian or publisher or government or church. It is wrong that what one can read should be confined to what another thinks proper.
  3. It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.No art or literature can flourish if it is to be measured by the political views or private lives of its creators. No society of free people can flourish that draws up lists of writers to whom it will not listen, whatever they may have to say.
  4. There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.To some, much of modern expression is shocking. But is not much of life itself shocking? We cut off literature at the source if we prevent writers from dealing with the stuff of life. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves. These are affirmative responsibilities, not to be discharged simply by preventing them from reading works for which they are not yet prepared. In these matters values differ, and values cannot be legislated; nor can machinery be devised that will suit the demands of one group without limiting the freedom of others.
  5. It is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous.The ideal of labeling presupposes the existence of individuals or groups with wisdom to determine by authority what is good or bad for others. It presupposes that individuals must be directed in making up their minds about the ideas they examine. But Americans do not need others to do their thinking for them.
  6. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information.It is inevitable in the give and take of the democratic process that the political, the moral, or the aesthetic concepts of an individual or group will occasionally collide with those of another individual or group. In a free society individuals are free to determine for themselves what they wish to read, and each group is free to determine what it will recommend to its freely associated members. But no group has the right to take the law into its own hands, and to impose its own concept of politics or morality upon other members of a democratic society. Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the inoffensive. Further, democratic societies are more safe, free, and creative when the free flow of public information is not restricted by governmental prerogative or self-censorship.
  7. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a “bad” book is a good one, the answer to a “bad” idea is a good one.The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader’s purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said. Books are the major channel by which the intellectual inheritance is handed down, and the principal means of its testing and growth. The defense of the freedom to read requires of all publishers and librarians the utmost of their faculties, and deserves of all Americans the fullest of their support.

We state these propositions neither lightly nor as easy generalizations. We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.

This statement was originally issued in May of 1953 by the Westchester Conference of the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council, which in 1970 consolidated with the American Educational Publishers Institute to become the Association of American Publishers.

Adopted June 25, 1953, by the ALA Council and the AAP Freedom to Read Committee; amended January 28, 1972; January 16, 1991; July 12, 2000; June 30, 2004.

A Joint Statement by:

American Library Association
Association of American Publishers

“The Freedom to Read Statement”, American Library Association, July 26, 2006 . (Accessed November 2, 2017) Document ID: aaac95d4-2988-0024-6573-10a5ce6b21b2

Jeff Bezos Should Put His Billions Into Libraries [Wired mag]

By | 2017-10-18T20:13:49+00:00 October 18th, 2017|Categories: Library Truths, Marketing, Philosophy/Principles|

Very good words on the value of today’s library…

Jeff Bezos Should Put His Billions Into Libraries
by Susan Crawford, a columnist for Backchannel and a professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the author of The Responsive City and Captive Audience.

Imagine that you are Jeff Bezos. For four hours two weeks ago, you were the richest person in the world. And though Wall Street knocked you down a notch, pretty much everyone thinks it’s inevitable that you’re going to be number one again. You’re starting to be aware of the smell of the tar pits and you’re casting about for a way to put all that loot to some good. You’re eying the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge and thinking that if you donate half your fortune it should make a difference. You’re comfortable with making older but meaningful institutions great again.

So far, you’ve concentrated on things that might benefit our distant successors—space travel, cancer treatments, AI, and a clock that will keep running for 10,000 years. But you want to do something more immediate. You say you want your philanthropic activity “to be helping people in the here and now—short term—at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” You are open to suggestions–so much so that you even recently tweeted a “request for ideas.

Though you don’t mention it, I suspect you’re thinking of stepping into an area that traditionally government might have addressed—but now, in an era in which the wealthy are doing better and better, benefits seem to go toward the top while the “urgent needs” of just plain people are left to the grace of a harsh marketplace. Like it or not, citizens are increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers with billions of dollars,

I have a suggestion for you, Jeff Bezos. How would you like to become the Andrew Carnegie of our time?

Yes, I am talking about libraries. Those places where books sit on shelves, not delivered by FedEx. And so much more. Carnegie made them the center of his philanthropy, and almost became synonymous with them. More importantly, he changed countless lives with his investments in libraries. I have heard that you’re looking for big ideas, and this is one.

Today, local libraries are thought of as slightly retro public institutions. For some reason, major donors don’t get excited about them. OK, there are some notable exceptions to this rule—in my adopted city of New York, for instance, Stephen Schwarzman has his name engraved on the main branch building of the public library; in Kansas City, the Kemper family has donated millions to the downtown branch and a Kemper scion, R. Crosby Kemper III, has been the executive director of the library for more than 12 years.

But the real impact—the one that changes lives and transforms communities—has yet to be made. It turns out that libraries are the very model of the more-than-shovel-ready, here-and-now, urgent-need-and-lasting-impact places that you as a tech philanthropist claim to be interested in supporting in a big way. And libraries’ needs are dire.

You, Mr. Bezos, may not have been inside a library in a while. Things have changed. Today, libraries are serving as essential civic places. Trusted by every part of American society, they’re the only noncommercial places other than city squares where people meet across genders and ages. They provide all kinds of services and programming—just visit the glorious Madison, WI Central Library, where a first-rate makerspace is under the same LEED-certified roof as local service agencies helping people sign up for health care and food assistance.

Librarians are not shushing people, and libraries are no longer only silent cathedrals for solo reading. (They still have reading rooms—don’t worry.) Instead, these great pieces of civic architecture are being repurposed: They’re places that offer classes in computer skills and thousands of other subjects, provide internet access to millions of Americans who can’t afford it, and host innumerable neighborhood meetings.

Libraries these days are providing meals to kids and adults through local food banks, working with local immigrant agencies, offering homework help, and loaning out an amazing array of things, from musical instruments to microscopes. (Yes: the Library of Things.) What they’re up to is dazzling. And in 2013, 94 percent of Americans said that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community. As America gets older and more unequal, its people need new forms of education to thrive—and libraries are ground zero for every public value the country cares about.

The American Library Association says that America’s more than 120,000 public, school, academic, and special libraries are visited more than 1.4 billion times a year by hundreds of millions of Americans in every corner of the nation and from every walk of life. They complement but do not compete with your mighty commercial bookselling venture, Mr. Bezos. At the same time, libraries are chronically under-resourced. Limited hours. Limited staff. Low pay. Constant need for renovation. Overcrowding.

Libraries are attempting to serve people in an era of thin government support, increasing need, and staggering inequality—much like the era that gave us Andrew Carnegie. His response to the problems of his time was to build thousands of public libraries across the country, starting in 1886. Most of those beloved community libraries are still functioning. Carnegie aimed high, wanting to make the world better than he found it. And he succeeded.

Here’s the twist in the story that you, Mr. Bezos, may not know: Carnegie’s money was given on the condition that local public authorities step up with pledges to support and maintain the institutions that he launched. For Carnegie, this structure fit with the idea that communities were being helped to help themselves—a pillar for him. Many cities turned down Carnegie’s offer, and later regretted it.

If you are looking to have your name be kept alive in the memories of generations—or if you simply want a legacy worthy of the fortune you have reaped—you don’t need to start something new or even have it named after you. (You didn’t rename the Washington Post, either, and yet it’s becoming one of the handful of great news sources in the world.) Hidden in plain sight, the local libraries of America are patiently waiting for your attention. (They’re also often really beautiful spaces, and I can tell that you like design. Just down the street from your headquarters is Rem Koolhaas’s terrific Seattle main library, with areas named after donors and relatives of Paul Allen, Microsoft, Charles Simonyi, and Boeing.)

Whether or not the local library a random American uses today was actually built by Carnegie, he or she knows what that philanthropist did. More important, if a philanthropist was someone who wanted to get a glimpse of what his money did, he would be proud of what his money had accomplished.

Tragically, the federal government and the states are constantly cutting back on library funding. You would almost think that politicians don’t want members of the public to have access to the very knowledge that would lead them to make informed decisions! But those politicians are ignoring the fact libraries are citadels of civilization and economic ladders for those otherwise stuck on the bottom rungs. Why not use the lever of your money, Mr. Bezos, to spur public authorities to do their part? Just like Carnegie did. It is hard to imagine a better use of billions.

 8/9/2017 – Backchannel is a digital magazine that delivers readers the most revealing technology stories in a single weekly dispatch: no fluff. Learn more here.

Transcendance: When Libraries Really Provide Value

By | 2017-09-30T19:07:12+00:00 September 29th, 2017|Categories: Library Truths, Marketing, Philosophy/Principles|

Researcher Eric Almquist and colleagues have identified The 30 Things Customers Really Value” covering most fundamental human needs. These 30 “elements of value” are fundamental attributes in their most essential and discrete forms.

They fall into four categories: functional, emotional, life changing, social impact.

In a blog post, Steven Bell explains the four categories:

“At the base of the value pyramid is functional value. These are fairly basic services such as save people time, simplify things for them or facilitate their organization (think the Container Store).

The next highest order value is emotion. When a company like CVS offers wellness services or Disney offer fun experiences it appeals to our sense of emotional well being. When community members express affection for their library (e.g. “I love my library”) that signals an emotional connection. Engaging community members in ways that connect them to our libraries emotionally provides a unique value element.

Beyond emotion lies life changing value. Educational organizations offer the value of acquiring new skills or abilities that can lead to life changing opportunity. Offering a community to which members can belong is valued by those who with to be a part of something bigger then themselves – and it can be life changing. A library literacy program volunteer achieves life changing value by contributing to an organization that does change lives and improves the quality of the community.

At the top of the value pyramid is social impact. There is only one value associated with this category, self-transcendance. This is comparable to Maslow’s self-actualization on the hierarchy of needs. Few of us achieve it, and far fewer organizations can deliver this type of value.”

Bell says that it appears libraries “mostly deliver functional value,” and asks the important question,  “how do we deliver higher levels of value that get community members emotionally engaged with the library?”

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University.

LIBRARY ANXIETY: Strange Affliction

By | 2017-09-28T22:00:04+00:00 September 28th, 2017|Categories: Library Truths|

“Library anxiety is real. The phenomenon, which involves feeling intimidated, embarrassed, and overwhelmed by libraries and librarians, was first identified by Constance A. Mellon in 1986. Her paper, “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development,” reported that college students in particular are prone to library anxiety because they believe their research skills are inadequate, which makes them feel ashamed and unwilling to talk to the very librarians who might be able to ease their worries.”

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BOOK: This Is What A Librarian Looks Like

By | 2017-09-26T17:19:56+00:00 September 25th, 2017|Categories: Library Truths, Trends|

Huffington Post by Claire Fallon Books & Culture Writer:

“In Kyle Cassidy’s new book This Is What a Librarian Looks Like, the photographer reveals portraits of hundreds of librarians, sharing both their sunny faces and their thoughts on the value of libraries. The result: a colorful tapestry of men and women of all ages, races and ethnicity, some dressed conservatively and some with tattoos and brightly dyed hair, but all bursting with smiles and enthusiasm for their life missions.”






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