One of the least known roles of the public library is its staunch defense of the public's right to read. This role is so closely related to the educational and informational functions of the library as to be practically indistinguishable. Yet this institution is being threatened as never before.
Tax initiatives throughout the nation, reducing property taxes which fund libraries, are affecting the public library's survival directly and immediately. Rapidly rising costs of books and other materials are lowering its capacity to provide the wide variety of subject matter and opinions necessary to sustain an informed, free society. Librarians, who ensure that collections represent a balanced picture of the world we live in, are losing their jobs, being demoted, or forced into early retirement. Some are leaving to retrain for other careers.
The library cannot be divorced from the people who serve it. The librarian today is indebted to those who came before, largely women, who shaped the commitment and established the principles upon which the library now builds. Theirs was not a sophisticated world, dominated by today's pressures, issues, controversies, and advanced technology. It was, however, a world of discipline and objectivity with the deepest kind of understanding and respect for the searching mind, whatever its age, color, or creed, and a desire to serve it.
There is among librarians today an abiding faith that the individual has the capacity to make up his own mind, and that access to information, not fear, makes for an informed citizenry, ready to solve today's social problems.
Librarians study their collections, purchasing as much material on as many sides of an issue as their budgets will allow. They study their respective communities to determine needs in terms of voluntary education and information dealing with all aspects of living.
Nowhere is this effort better expended than in the areas of controversy both in fiction and nonfiction.
Librarians support organizations such as the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Association to keep abreast of encroaching censorship and to assist in finding solutions to the problem. They have, as individuals, faced loss of their positions in their defense of the public's right to read.
They have joined with other libraries in systems of libraries to provide a wide range of services such as reference and inter-library loans to enhance local collections subject to stringent book budgets.
Nor have they neglected their own need for continuing education.
The White House Conference on Library and Information Services, held in October of 1979, with its emphasis on delegates from the lay sector indicates that public libraries are still viable. But the enthusiasm that was engendered at that time is apt to erode as delegates return to face indifference owing to ignorance and lone struggles against established priorities.
Only a widespread public reaffirmation of the freedom to read and learn can assure the public library of its defense and protection.
For those interested in joining forces to ensure this survival, information on libraries is quickly and readily available.
The citizen can study his local library, discover its strengths and its weaknesses and the reasons for both. He can inquire about its book selection policy and other policies which affect his or another's use of the library. He can become acquainted with its services, especially those he would find useful in the course of his own daily life.
He can find out if there is a Friends of the Library group in his community and join it. If he has little time to participate, his membership alone would indicate support. Every state has a state library with a competent staff to inform him on legislation or to guide him in action if he wishes to become involved. Involved or otherwise, every taxpayer has the right to know why he supports a public agency. Armed with information he can evaluate his library, determine its effectiveness in the community, offer suggestions for improvement, and indicate his support or approval.
The 1980s are predicted to be the "Information Age." If the public library is to continue in its rightful place as a resource center, it will need the active support of an informed citizenry.