Libraries, Liberty and the Pursuit of Public Information

Date: 6 Jan 2001 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, information, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

 This article was originally published in the Winter 2001 issue of our New Rules Journal.

Libraries, Liberty and the Pursuit of Public Information

Far from becoming obsolete, public libraries still operate at the heart of their communities. In addition, they’ve taken on new roles such as"Guide to the Internet," and "Champion of Equal Access." Now they’re struggling, on behalf of their patrons, to prevent private companies from passing legislation that restricts the right to read free of charge.

By Harriet Barlow, Karen Hering and Stacy Mitchell

The public library seems like an institution out of time. In an age of raging individualism and privatization, the public library stands as an enduring monument to the values of cooperation and sharing. In an era of globalization and gigantism, it remains firmly rooted and in scale with its community. One could simply dismiss the public library as an anachronism, an idea whose time is past. Except for one thing. It works.

TheU.S. claims the most extensive library system in the world. With 8,923 central libraries and 7,124 branches, our public libraries are used by almost two-thirds (65 percent) of all households at least once each year; they loan 1.6 billion items and answer 284 million reference questions annually by telephone alone.

Considered by many "the great democratic bargain," public libraries are among the most efficient and popular of tax-supported services, serving 66 percent of adults for less than 1 percent of all tax dollars. The average cost of public library service nationwide today is about $24.50 per person annually, or roughly the price of a single hardcover book. Almost 80 percent of the funding for libraries comes from localities. Only 1 percent comes from the federal government. For less than $25, a cardholder in a typical public library gains access not only to the items shelved in that particular building, but to billions of items cataloged by libraries throughout the world.

Whenpoliticians forget how valuable the local library is, their constituents remind them. Consider the Riverview Branch Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, a tidy red brick Carnegie library with graceful arched windows set on a quiet street in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood. One of 13 branches in a city of only 272,000, the small library serves a population of approximately 15,000, about half the size of the average library service area nationwide. Its small population and the neighborhood’s high proportion of non-English speaking residents and new immigrants have for many years left Riverview with the lowest circulation rate of any library in the city of St. Paul.

Itwas not entirely a surprise, then, in 1982 that the mayor of St. Paul recommended closing the branch to cut expense during lean financial times. What did come as a surprise, to the mayor and others, was the overwhelming hue and cry that arose from the neighborhood in response. When a local community organization called a meeting at the library to protest the closure, over 600 people showed up – enough to fill the small library’s meeting room six times over, requiring the meeting to be moved to a nearby church. Mayor George Latimer quickly rescinded his proposal, joining the scores of other public officials nationwide who have learned the hard way that the local library may be the last thing you want to close. As one library director from a major suburban library system in Maryland puts it, closing a branch library is tantamount to cutting the heart out of a neighborhood.

Community connection

Inthe present-day infatuation with all things private and amidst the growing number of chain bookstores masquerading as libraries, it is nothing short of a miracle that public libraries remain such a cherished, well-used and fiercely protected public institution.

It’s the building, say some – the sense of place provided by a public building accessible to all and with something to offer everyone, including the growing number of people who are home schooling, telecommuting or facing early retirement. "Where do communities see their gathering place?" asks Norman Maas, library director in Saginaw, Michigan. "It’s the library."

But the building is only one of many reasons people are attached to their public libraries. Another is libraries’ high level of citizen involvement – from the local boards that govern most public libraries to the "Friends of the Library" groups whose members volunteer time and sometimes money to support their local libraries. Altogether, about 60,000 citizen trustees sit on public library boards, which Sarah Long, past president of the American Library Association, calls, "the essence of the partnership between civil society and government."

HarrietHenderson, past president of the Public Libraries Association, says it is the library users themselves – "from immigrants to school kids, from someone looking for a new career to 70-year-old retirees" – who elicit community support for libraries. "The wide variety of users makes [a public library] reflective of the community as a whole," says Henderson. In a world increasingly divided by education, income and profession, she says, "It helps you remember what your community is."

"Libraries have been listening more closely to community needs than any other public institution," says Maas.

Breadlines of the spirit

Thepublic library has been always been a repository for the social imagination of both public and private figures. It was Benjamin Franklin, working toward his vision of an "even distribution of intellectual wealth, the establishment of an intellectual democracy" who founded the first public subscription library in 1731. Franklin conceived the library to "improve the general conversation" as a means of protecting political rights. Franklin’s instinct was correct. One contemporary Philadelphian wrote, "You would be astonished at the general taste for books which prevailed among all orders in the city. The librarian assured me that for one person of distinction and fortune there were 20 tradesmen that frequented the library."(1)

In1833, Rev. Abiel Abbott convinced the citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire, to appropriate state monies to found what is now generally considered the oldest tax-supported library in the U.S. In the 1850s, New Hampshire and Massachusetts permitted localities to collect taxes for libraries, leading to the dedication of the nation’s first metropolitan library in Boston in 1853.

Otherinnovations, such as open stacks and the introduction of children’s sections, cast the library in the camp of nineteenth-century social radicals. One librarian who wore that mantle proudly was Melvil Dewey, the founder of the Dewey Decimal System. He argued that the library should be "less a reservoir than a fountain": that it should reach out to its users and become a force for mass education. Dewey’s summation of the library’s mission, "the best reading for the greatest number at the least cost," became the slogan for the American Library Association.

By1896, the number of public libraries with collections of 1,000 books or more grew to 971. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who said his own life had been transformed by a library for working boys, donated over $40 million – or about $443 million in 2000 dollars – to finance the construction of 1,679 libraries in 1,412 U.S. communities between 1886 and 1919.

About half of these buildings are still in use as libraries today. Even more lasting, perhaps, is Carnegie’s influence on local funding and governance of public libraries. Carnegie conditioned his gifts on a promise of sustaining support from local governments, requiring at least 10 percent of his original gift to be committed as annual operating support. He foresaw that voters would support government expenditure for libraries, "because no class in the community is to be benefited so clearly and so fully as the great mass of the people, the wage earners, the laborers, the manual toilers."(2)

Carnegie’s influence contributed greatly to the states’ acceptance of the importance of libraries – and to the formation of local library boards to govern and raise funding for the new libraries. By the end of the nineteenth century, every state had authorized localities to raise taxes for libraries.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, libraries began to realize Melvil Dewey’s vision by bringing books into immigrant neighborhoods in horse-drawn wagons, introducing library carts onto factory floors and building multilingual collections.

During the Great Depression libraries were nicknamed "breadlines of the spirit." According to the U.S. Education Department, from 1929 to 1933 in 77 cities of more than 100,000 people, circulation in public libraries rose by 33 percent while budgets declined by the same percentage.(3)Librarians turned to creative measures to cover their costs. In Cleveland, for example, the library sponsored "overdue weeks" when affluent citizens were urged to keep their books at home so that their fines could keep the lights on for others.

Declining funding, rising costs & a citizen rally

Inthe 1980s, as the financial picture was darkening in the public sector, many public libraries struggled to support their rising costs. Soaring inflation doubled the price of books, and the cost of periodical subscriptions rose 400 percent between 1975 and 1990. Meanwhile, California’s Proposition 13 and its property tax cap triggered similar initiatives around the nation. By 1992, the Chicago Public Library had lost over 50 percent of its staff. Even as demand for services rose, San Francisco was forced to cut library services by 24 percent over eight years. This decline, matched in most urban systems, was implemented in most cases without closing a single library branch, thanks to a surge of local support.

Bolstered by this groundswell of public support, some library systems turned directly to the electorate to secure their own taxing authority. In 1996 (the most recent numbers available), 717, or 8 percent, of all library systems had become independent districts, raising their per capita funding to an average 25 percent higher than public libraries in general.

Agrowing constituency of library users and citizens began forming community councils that worked hand-in-hand with librarians, not just to support their libraries but to actually redefine community library services in sometimes surprising ways. Defying old stereotypes of libraries as dusty, quiet repositories, they began a process of reinvention that library advocate and visionary Diantha Schull likes to call "shaking off the dust."

Schull heads Libraries for the Future(LFF), a national organization promoting both the reinvention of public libraries and greater citizen involvement in library advocacy. Her organization works nationally to assist local libraries in building stronger ties to their communities. In New York, LFF worked with the Brooklyn Public Library to bring together over 30 organizations and form the Brooklyn Health Information Access Coalition. The coalition has coordinated health fairs and offers an extensive schedule of free health care programs in the library, presenting information on everything from breast health to diabetes to HIV. In the Riverview Branch of the St. Paul Public Library, an LFF-sponsored project formed a neighborhood council and hired a community organizer to increase awareness and use of the library among new immigrants. With funding and assistance from the library’s Friends group, the branch hosted an annual Chicano/Latino Literature Festival featuring local teenage poets in the same series as author Isabel Allende. And in the rust-belt city of Saginaw, Michigan, plagued by unemployment after losing more than half of its GM plants, the library developed a career and small business assistance center where each month 30 to 60 people attend free workshops.

"We started asking not just ‘what do you need from your library,’" says Maas, "but ‘what are the issues that concern you?’"

Thelibrary’s responsiveness has led to strong public support in Saginaw. Despite high unemployment and poverty in the independent library district, a ballot initiative for increased library funding was passed with 78 percent approval in 1994, raising the library’s annual per capita funding to approximately $35, more than 40 percent higher than average funding levels nationwide.

The technological advantage

Duringthe same period, public libraries were turned inside out by the introduction of new information technologies. It began with computerized circulation in the 1970s and 1980s, an advancement that required one-time funding increases for barcoding and equipment but brought new advantages and efficiencies as well. With automated circulation, library systems could track materials instantly, allowing more rapid exchange of materials from branch to branch as well as from city to city.

Freed from the need to replicate the general core collection of the central library, neighborhood branches in many cities began to develop specialized collections reflecting their community’s language, culture, interests and concerns. The Queens Borough Public Library in New York started its New Americans Program in 1977 and has been custom tailoring the collections of its 62 branches ever since. The branches now offer materials for new immigrants in 16 languages. (Systemwide, the collection includes materials in 50-60 languages.) Five years ago, the library system created a new librarian/demographer position just to keep up with the borough’s evolving immigration patterns. When the demographer recently collected statistics on how many babies were born to immigrant mothers in Queens in 1997, the numbers were correlated by census track and branch service area. The branch collections were then adjusted to assure a sufficient supply of culturally appropriate picture books for the now three-year-old library visitors.

New technologies have also enabled librarians to spend less time on routine clerical tasks and more time addressing the needs of their patrons. The Ironwood branch of the Richmond Public Library in British Columbia is one of a number of libraries that have installed automated check-out services that users operate much like an ATM. This has allowed the library to devote more staff resources to answering reference questions, running a daily children’s reading program, and teach courses on research techniques.

The internet

Althoughlibraries have been adapting to internal technological changes for decades, these experiences offered little preparation for the revolution that swept the world in the 1990s. By now it is a tired clich’, but the internet and the world wide web have changed everything, especially the way people gain knowledge and access information. The implications for libraries are far-reaching. Their future role in our communities will largely be determined by their ability not only to adapt to this new technology, but to harness its powers to expand their own capacity and reach.

Initially,the rise of the internet brought predictions that public libraries would soon be a thing of the past, rendered unnecessary by the Information Highway and its ability to deliver vast quantities of information to even the most remote rural areas. By now, however, the on-line world has become better traveled and several realizations have checked the notion that libraries are on their way out.

Asuse of e-mail and the world wide web has opened the floodgates to free-flowing electronic information, it has become apparent that one could easily drown in the sheer volume of information. Sifting through the hundreds of web pages typically returned by a search engine query in order to locate the answer to a specific question is no easy task. Determining whether the source is accurate and authoritative poses even greater challenges. Enter librarians, newly nicknamed "the ultimate search engines," to help manage the floods, directing information-seekers to the quickest routes and the most up-to-date and reliable information.

A group of libraries in California recently conducted an informal test of, a commercial search engine that reportedly receives 20 million questions per day. The libraries posed twelve questions – no tricks and no arcane subject matter – that they had received from patrons and answered. failed on every question, unable to return sites with the necessary information. Search engines will improve over time, but much as translation programs have fallen far short of mastering the nuances of language, it seems doubtful that search engines will ever match the skilled services of a librarian.

Notonly are librarians enhancing the value of the web as a research tool, but they are beginning to harness the internet to vastly expand the scope of library reference services. Through a project coordinated by the Library of Congress, libraries from around the world are pooling their expertise and developing a free on-line reference service. Scheduled to debut in June, the Collaborative Digital Reference Service(CDRS) will match users’ queries with the library best equipped to handle their question. The 60 libraries participating in the recently launched trial range from small public libraries to the world’s largest academic and specialty libraries. They include institutions in Sydney, Ottawa, Berlin, Hong Kong, and London.

Participatinglibraries submit detailed profiles describing the strengths and weaknesses of their collections. An automated system routes questions to the most appropriate library. A question from an entrepreneur in rural North Dakota might be routed to the library serving Harvard’s business school. A user in Manhattan with a question about grizzly bears might be sent to an Alaskan public library that has an extensive collection of wildlife materials. The system keeps track of hours of operation, so a person with a burning middle-of-the-night information need can log on and communicate with a librarian on the other side of the world. Librarians will email the user directly and can attach files, including digital images of manuscripts, pictures, and sound clips. It’s English only for now, but plans call for the system to be able to handle up to 20 languages.

The digital divide

Ina world increasingly driven by, dependent on, and overwhelmed by information, libraries and librarians may well prove to be more valuable now than ever. This is especially true for low-income communities. Libraries have done more than any other public institution to close the "digital divide" that has threatened to leave behind those who cannot afford access. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that lower income and rural Americans are about 20 times less likely to be connected to the internet. Without equal access to information, these communities face diminished economic opportunities and further marginalization from public decision-making. As James Madison noted in 1822, "Popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

Public libraries are meeting the challenge. More than 90 percent are web connected and nearly all of them provide free public access to the internet. Many also offer formal training and assistance to new users. In remote areas, libraries have often been the key to unlocking the web for an entire population. In Montana’s Lincoln County, access to the internet was prohibitively expensive for most residents. In the words of Greta Chapman, former director of the public library, Lincoln County is a "utility provider’s nightmare and a lone eagle’s paradise." With public and private funding, the library established KooteNet, a combined community network and Internet service provider. Connecting to KooteNet is a local call from anywhere in the county, an area three times the size of Rhode Island with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

Althoughwe can envision a world where computers are as common as telephones, this will by no means eliminate the information divide and the role of libraries in bridging the gap. A large number of magazines and newspapers are now available for free on the web, but many more are not. A broad array of information resources—journals, especially academic and scientific publications, encyclopedias, databases of all kinds, digital image and audio files, topographical maps, tools for searching multiple sources at once—are available on the web, but subscriptions are costly. Libraries will continue to be the only place where people can gain free access to this information.

Footing the bill

Oneof the biggest challenges facing libraries is figuring out how to cover all of these new costs on already stretched budgets. The information age is expensive: computers, software, rewiring, access fees, staff training, and electronic publications that are often more costly than their discontinued print versions.

Some libraries have been able to tap into new public and private funding. The Bill and Melinda Gates Library Foundation has installed computers with internet access in 2,671 library buildings, with priority given to low-income and rural communities. A number of states have provided one-time grants for new technology. Last year, the federal government chipped in $156 million through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). Unfortunately, a single injection of funds for technology will not cut it. Computers may seem like capital equipment at first blush, but they’re not. Unlike Carnegie’s buildings, computers have a limited lifespan. How libraries will manage to fund regular upgrades is a source of much concern.

While public and private funds have emerged to help pay for new technology, most libraries have had to foot some, if not all, of the bill themselves. This has forced hard choices in already slim budgets. There is a danger that libraries could become little more than an on-ramp to the information highway. Buying computers means less money for books, yet although the demand for internet access at libraries has proven to be almost insatiable, surveys show that about two-thirds of library trips are still aimed at borrowing a book.


Muchhas been written about the problems of funding new technology and redesigning library services around the internet, but what is shaping up to be the most daunting challenge facing libraries in the digital age are the rules that govern how libraries share information resources with the public.

Traditionally, copyright law has balanced the interests of publishers against society’s right to maintain a robust public discourse. The first-sale doctrine, long enshrined in copyright law, enables the owner of a work to read it multiple times; resell, lend, or donate it to anyone; and make copies for archival purposes. The fair use doctrine protects the right to copy and quote sections of copyrighted works without permission for teaching, criticism, research, and journalism. Nonprofit educational institutions, like libraries and schools, are given the most leeway under copyright law, because the free flow of information is essential to scientific research, the progress of new ideas, and democracy itself.

Themigration of information to digital formats has rendered the future of these protections uncertain. Many electronic information products are not purchased outright, but rather licensed. These private contracts may contain provisions that contradict the principles of public copyright law and restrict the ability of library patrons to access, borrow, and make fair use of electronic works. Publishers have installed a variety of "padlocks" (passwords, encryption, etc.) that enable them to limit and even monitor access and use of their products. Such protections are designed to prevent unauthorized copying and distribution, but media companies also view them as a means of moving society toward a pay-per-view information world, a scenario at odds with the very philosophical foundation of libraries.

Thesechanges impact library functions in a variety of ways. The license and access controls that accompany a subscription to the electronic version of Nature, for example, limit it to one computer in the library. A single user viewing one issue will prevent everyone else from accessing any of the other issues. Once the contract expires, unlike a print version, the library no longer has access to the back issues. Libraries are barred from copying and archiving works for future generations. Electronic products typically cannot be shared through inter-library loan or made available for distance learning. Libraries are not even allowed to lend many of these products to their own patrons. Padlocks may prevent users from copying portions of electronic works for legitimate, protected uses. They may also limit the duration or number of times a work may be accessed. In many cases, there is no choice but the electronic version, as print products are being discontinued.

"The widespread deployment of pay-per-use systems could effectively reduce libraries from repositories of valuable knowledge to mere marketing platforms for content distributors," contends the ALA. The association has petitioned Congress to enact ground rules to ensure that the traditional rights of the public under copyright law are carried over into the digital age.

ButCongress has instead chosen to move in the opposite direction. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act contained an anti-circumvention provision that bars users from circumventing the padlock on digital products. Under the law, libraries and library users could face civil and criminal penalties for accessing or making fair use of material that the library has lawfully acquired if doing so involves side-stepping the padlock. The provision was so contentious that Congress delayed its enforcement until the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress could determine whether to exempt certain products or uses. Its final ruling was issued in October and contains only two narrow exceptions involving malfunctions and filtering software.

Atthe state level, major software manufacturers and media companies are moving to further enclose and meter the information commons through the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA). This generic state law has already been adopted in Maryland and Virginia. Proponents are working to enact it in every state. UCITA makes "shrink-wrap" contracts on packages and "click-through" contracts that precede electronic products legally binding.

Under UCITA, these contracts possess the full force of the law. They may contain any number of provisions that restrict users’ rights. Some, for example, prohibit users from quoting, reviewing, or publicly criticizing the product. Others absolve companies of all liability in the case of malfunction. These contracts generally stipulate that purchasers are licensees and not owners, and therefore cannot alter, lend, donate, or resell the product.

Although the courts have begun to waiver in recent years, for the most part judges have been reluctant to enforce these non-negotiated, take-it-or-leave-it contracts. They have typically held that these contracts are trumped by consumer protection and copyright law.

Libraries have fought UCITA and demanded that it be amended in states where it has already passed to protect the ability of a library and its patrons to use electronic products in ways that are protected by copyright law. One state, Iowa, has passed an anti-UCITA law that shields the state’s residents and businesses from prosecution under UCITA laws in other states.

Protecting public access

Respondingto local needs, funded by local dollars, governed by local boards, with a deep philosophical commitment to public service, the public library continues to be a critical part of the community. Libraries have stepped in to act as guides to the flood of electronic information available via the internet. Even more importantly, libraries are becoming defenders of the public’s physical and legal access to that information. In a time of increasing commercialization, the library’s work – everything from providing free hook-up for low-income or rural patrons to struggling against legislation that curtails their patrons’right to read free of charge – is directed by the mandate to educate rather than to profit.

It is no surprise that the library, a 200-year-old American innovation, remains widely revered. As rules for the information age are developed, the library’s voice continues to speak out for the community.


1) Rose, Ernestine. 1954. The Public Library in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

2) Cramer, C. H. 1972. Open Shelves and Open Minds: A History of the Cleveland Public Library. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University. Quoted in Paul Dickson. 1986. The Library in America: A Celebration in Words and Pictures. New York: Facts on File Publications.

3) Monroe, Margaret E. and Kathleen M. Heim. 1991. Partners for Lifelong Learning Microform: Public Libraries & Adult Education. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Educational Resources Information Center.

Harriet Barlow is the director of Blue Mountain Center and the founder of Libraries for the Future.

Karen Hering is the membership director of The Loft Literary Center and author of two novels.

Stacy Mitchell is a researcher with The New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 

© 2001 Institute for Local Self-Reliance