Do you remember getting your first library card and borrowing your first book? For many of us, it was a rite of passage guided by a human search engine—a librarian.
In school, that librarian did more than shush the loudmouths, straighten the stacks, and stamp our books. The school librarian helped with homework, taught us kids how to “look it up,” and opened pathways to critical thinking. Librarians fulfilled the vision of 25-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who established the Library Company, America’s first lending library, in Philadelphia in 1731. Initially a subscription library in which members paid a fee, the Library Company was “crowdsourced”—the first members pooled their own books to share with one another.
Franklin believed in keeping the membership fee low so that working people could afford to join. The idea caught on and spread through the colonies, making this cultural institution widely available. It became the forerunner of the public library, and when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, the Library Company served as the Library of Congress.
Convinced that libraries cultivated the spirit of democracy, Franklin later noted, “These Libraries have improved the general Conversation of Americans, made the common Tradesmen and Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries.” But he also believed that every school should have a dedicated library, because a democracy can only survive with educated citizens. According to the American Library Association, Franklin recommended in 1740 that the ideal academy should include a school library.
Today, however, public school libraries across the country are in crisis, as a Forbes article by Adam Rowe reported in 2018. According to Rowe, federal data shows that the U.S. “can’t afford librarians,” and that the ranks of librarians at school libraries have fallen sharply since 2000.
The pandemic has only worsened the crisis, even as the demand for information technology and remote learning has exploded. This has become an acute problem in the nation’s largest school system in New York City. Under state rules, every New York school is supposed to have a library and a librarian; they are not “extras.”
But guess what? There are schools with no libraries. Others have “book rooms,” sometimes staffed by untrained teachers or parent volunteers. And in the pandemic crisis, school libraries will typically be first on the chopping block.
This is not about simply lending books. Librarians are highly trained information specialists who teach students about media literacy and primary sources. “School libraries are a nucleus of learning, and school librarians build a foundation for all learners,” writes Melissa Jacobs, director of Library Services for the New York City Department of Education/New York City School Library System.
She’s right. Franklin’s belief—that libraries and education are crucial to democracy—has never been more true than in our current age of disinformation, with the threat it poses to the republic.
We are both children of the library. Books have been our life. I, Joann, began my work life as a page at the Queens Public Library in Woodside. As for me, Kenneth, libraries helped make me the reader and the writer I am. While researching my most recent book—Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy—I became acutely aware of the growing perils posed by autocracy to democracies around the world. One of the first things dictators do is start burning books.
In the current crisis of democracy, we can pin blame on a lack of knowing history and a failure to teach civics. But if we care about democracy, we need to elevate the stature of public school libraries—indeed all libraries—and recognize the essential role they play in developing inquiring minds.
Under the American Rescue Plan, money will be allocated to states. Will public school libraries be a priority? They must be.
As H.G. Wells famously noted, “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.”
To avert catastrophe, save school libraries.
Joann Davis, a former editor, is the author of The Book of the Shepherd. Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don’t Know Much About History and Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, can be found online at dontknowmuch.com.