As we enter a week tainted by the impeachment trial of former President Trump, we need to consider how democracy is most aptly perpetuated. One abstract answer is: with due diligence, for, as Franklin noted, we have a Republic only “if we can keep it.”

One MAJOR concrete way we collectively “keep” our democracy, however, is the institution and support of libraries. How do we ask you to agree with such contention? By joining us as we step on the shoulders of giants.

Franklin, believing a collection of books lead to “an individual’s self-improvement and search for truth,” forged a path with the institution of the country’s first library, The Junto, hoping his establishment raised awareness as to the self-evident truths found in our Declaration of Independence, no doubt. By 1815, scholar Jesse Torrey, author of “The Intellectual Torch,” called for “the universal dissemination of knowledge and virtue by means of free public libraries.”  Other scholars chimed in and so “everywhere, civic-minded citizens created public libraries with private gifts of books…”

Francis Wayland of Massachusetts, ardent proponent of Torrey, and therefore free libraries, circa 1850 contended, “If the intention was to preserve our political democracy and to prevent our government from becoming a farce, the people as a whole must be intelligent and virtuous…the library is an important milestone toward reaching this goal.”

Francis Wayland (1796-1865), proponent of free public libraries. His donation to the Wayland, MA library in 1851 was the catalyst for legislation establishing public libraries.

Andrew Carnegie thought so highly of the library’s ability to cultivate civic-mindedness, that, from 1870 to 1919, he donated $40 million to the construction of 1,670 public library buildings in 1,412 American communities!  Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, adopted the library “fever” as well, stating, “Librarians must become active, not passive, agents of the democratic process.”

Perhaps the most strident library advocate in our nation’s history, nonetheless, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who understood open and free minds kept Fascism at bay.  He told conference attendees at the ALA’s 64th annual meeting:  “Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides our world, and for two reasons; first, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society; second, because the contemporary conflict touches the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the mind, and even the survival of culture, and libraries are the great tools of scholarship, the great repositories of culture, and the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.

During Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and his domestic emphasis on a ‘Great Society,’ the Library Services and Construction Act provided grants for the building of libraries in rural areas, for Johnson believed, “our need for the storehouse of knowledge grows greater.”  Lady Bird herself knew: “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library.  The only entrance requirement is interest.”

During the Reagan and Nixon administrations, a shift in paradigm occurred, which proved detrimental to the role of libraries in developing civic-minded Americans.  This diminishment in purpose, as carefully instituted by the aforementioned “giants” of thought, is, nevertheless, by necessity making a come-back.  In 1998, the American Association of School Librarians published the treatise Information Power, which defined the information literate student as one who “understands that access to information is basic to the functioning of a democracy.  That student seeks out information from a diversity of viewpoints, scholarly traditions, and cultural perspectives in an attempt to arrive at a reasoned and informed understanding of issues.  The student realizes that equitable access to information from a range of sources and in all formats is a fundamental right in democracy.”  And, Nancy Kranich, ALA President as the century turned, noted, “The challenge for libraries…is to extend their reach well beyond educating and informing into a realm where they increase social capital, rekindle civil society, and expand public participation in democracy.”

The return to civil society is indeed required at present, Ms. Kranich.  Thus, let us all support, encourage, fund and elevate our nation’s libraries – school, public, academic and special – to enhance each American’s civic literacy capabilities.  For, as Jefferson noted, “Where everyman is an participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day…he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”